Winter seems as though it may be defeated through sheer willpower. Today with the mercury pushing above zero, living creatures have decided to wait no longer. The birds emerge from whatever shelter they had found from the bitter winds and are out, seeking nesting materials and food, squealing, squawking, chirping. Deer seem to leap out every time I look ahead on the still snowy forest track. Dogs are frisky, barking, eager to be out and sniffing anyone and everything. Human beings burrow in garages looking for the implements of spring – gardening tools, bicycles, old chairs in which to sit and enjoy the sun to come … Or they festoon bushes beside their front doors with eggs for Easter. Or they are out walking.
We seek out the wald to the north. This is no patch of trees on a hilltop, for it is huge enough to swallow you and get you seriously lost. It is also vast enough to provide sanctuary for wolves, for they like to avoid human beings. I am told this is not merely due to old fears of hunters, but because human beings stink to high heaven in a wolf’s nostrils. We have actually seen wolf tracks in this forest, so I like to call it after one of its mountains, the Wolfsberg Wald.
On this trek, we walk some 15 kilometres from Herrnhut to Kemnitz and then Bernstadt. We pass through jumbled village cores first established about a millennium ago, along snow-covered trails deep in the forests, along muddy paths across fields, and then finally alongside the main road into Bernstadt. On the way I learn three more lessons about walking through German forests.
First, Germans like to organise their ‘wildernesses’. Of course, there are the sign-posted tracks, marked with routes for walking, horse riding and cycling. And yes, they have hunter/wildlife observer platforms throughout. But when it comes to numbering the bird boxes, it goes to a whole new level. At a scratch I can understand how such boxes help threatened species. But to number them consecutively … ‘There’s a new batch of chicks in number 96 on Berthelsdorfer Strasse’.
That brings me to the second lesson. Tracks through forests are not logging tracks or fire tracks – the sort to which I have become accustomed back home. They are ‘streets’. In fact, they are named according to the village at the other end. So in Berthelsdorf, Kemnitzer Strasse takes you to Kemnitz. And the same track in Kemnitz is called Berthesldorfer Strasse and takes you to, yes, Berthelsdorf. Hold on: they are forest tracks! I can understand a paved road with such names. But forest tracks? Of course, if I cast my mind back a few centuries, when only the rich had horses and carriages and the majority walked, then such a track was the best way between villages. No one would think twice about a 10 km walk from one to the other. It is simply what you did to get around.
Lesson three: German beer tastes much better after a day out walking, even with snow still thick on the ground. Your legs and feet appreciate it more, especially when they have passed from well-oiled pistons to stiff and tender limbs urgently in need of rest and resuscitation. Your carbohydrate deprived body is thankful, since beer provides a concentrated replenishment that is far better than those oddly coloured, fancily bottled and highly sugared ‘sports drinks’. And your throat is eternally thankful.