The Greening of Beijing

For the past two weeks I have walked well over 100 kilometres – in Beijing.

Until now I have regarded my little corner of the city as an oasis, outside of which is the massive maze of one of the largest cities in the history of human civilization. To be sure, I am accustomed to taking the world’s most extensive metro system to all corners of the city. But this practice makes no difference to the sense of living in a maze. One speeds along underground, emerging at one’s destination in another part of town.

Walking is completely different.

Initially, I simply set out to find a bicycle shop for local supplies for my new Brompton foldup bicycle. Before I knew it, I had checked my Baidu map (much better and more reliable than Google maps) to locate another bicycle shop. By the time I found it and returned home, I had walked in a south-westerly loop of about 10 kilometres.

I was hooked in a way that I had not expected. The next day I walked north to a church and bookshop, ambling back via another route. Soon enough I was off again, walking north again to find the old Summer Palace grounds, known in these parts as Yuanmingyuan. Having been inside before and knowing the ruins (a result of one of the European colonial rampages in the nineteenth century), I preferred to walk there and find another way home.

Now it was time for a serious hike. To the west of where I live begin the mountains that encircle Beijing. A favourite is Xiangshan, Fragrant Mountain, which I have climbed in the past. But now I decided I would walk to Xiangshan, a distance of some 14 kilometres. On the way I found the Beijing Green Belt, a carefully designed strip that runs along the western reaches of town. Soon enough I was striding along, absorbing the trees and the first blossoms of spring. Few were enjoying them at the time, for people were flocking to Xiangshan and its fabled spring blossoms. By the time I reached the village itself, at the foot of the mountain and outside the city, I was done, so I took the new metro back home.

More walks followed, to the massive Yuyuantan Park, south of where I live and full of people seeking spring flowers. But I was most thrilled by Xizhuyuan Park, or Black Bamboo Park. It had been a chance discovery on another walk, a green space that set a whole new standard for such spaces.

Originally it had been a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) minor palace area, but it had been closed for many a long year. What had they been doing in the meantime? It turns out that the Beijing City government had been working on a new plan for the greening of the city. Black Bamboo Park would be one of the model green spaces. It had opened only recently.

Inside I was amazed. The old buildings had been restored, but more importantly trees and birds and plants were everywhere.  As I walked along the lake, a ranger with much excitement pointed to the water. There was a turtle – an amphibian that is most sensitive to environmental conditions since it moves between water, land and air – enjoying the clean water of the lake.

After my first visit to this particular park, I was able to map out an ideal walk. Initially I would head west along Wanquanzhuang Road, deep in the outer regions of Beijing where few foreigners tread and where locals do their thing. Then I would pick up the western Green Belt, along the Nanchang River, which was yet another new development. The river itself had been cleaned up and its environs were full of trees, blossoms and recreational spaces. It led me to the Black Bamboo Park, where I once again relished the breakthroughs in green planning and implementation. For the final leg, I walked along some four kilometres of the major Zhongguancun Road, but I did so by walking through one green space after another.

By now I had walked in all directions of the compass, east, north, west and south. I had hiked into the centre of the city, to its outskirts and the mountains, to historic sites of colonial humiliation, and along the ever greater number of green spaces.

Above all, I was most struck by the greening of Beijing. Not so long ago Beijing was a leitmotiv of the worst of city living. Row upon row of high-rise building, with an air quality that had become proverbial. Indeed, some foreigners and Chinese people from other parts assume that Beijing is still like that.

Not any more: the city government has been fully aware that residents would no longer put up with such conditions, so it had set about for many a long year to clean up the city. Some of the strictest environmental laws in the world are enforced ever more strongly, but this is only a beginning. Whole new standards have been set for a greening of the city. The air quality would be tackled through many a policy that has seen it gradually improve year upon year. Green spaces would abound, with designer planning and implementation, as only the Chinese know how. And water quality would be at a level where sensitive animals would feel at home, whether turtles or the fabled ducks – not the type of Beijing Duck that you eat at a restaurant.

How is all this possible, especially in a city that had become a parable for environmental degradation?

Long-term planning is the answer. A stable government that is able to implement five-year plans. This is of course a communist local government that is committed to a green Beijing. Forget the ‘Greens’ of bourgeois democracies, with their liberal policies as a political football. Only a communist government committed to ‘ecological civilisation’ can achieve what I experience here in Beijing.


Paxton Pub, or, Great North Walking

Not the most inviting place on first impressions.

Outside, a handful of wrinkled men sat hunched over their beers, cigarettes hanging out of the corners of their mouths. Any stranger was sized up. A gruff word of welcome came from one pair of lips. But then they would accept you as you are.

Inside was warmer, the beers cheap, the memorabilia of years hanging on the walls. The publican too loved a smoke, but he also loved pulling beers in his Hawaiian shirt.

I have been to the Paxton pub twice, once on my own at the end of a long day hiking a section of the Great North Walk, and once with my partner at the beginning of a hike. The first time I arrived in a winter dusk, with a flu-induced delirium, the second time we were on the way to rediscovering one another after too long in different parts of the world.

During the short days of a local winter, I had been longing to complete a quiet section of the Great North Walk, on my own from Pokolbin to Newcastle. It would take me through my beloved Watagan mountains, with a mixture of camping and pub stays. Five days in all, after some rain so the creeks would have water to drink.

Perhaps I should have seen the warning signs, but I told myself that the wicked flu was passing, that I was feeling fine and could manage the hike. A bus and taxi eventually found the starting point, a bare sign in the midst of the Hunter Valley vineyards. The sun shone on a cool day, my new leather boots felt fine and I strode along absorbed by the pleasure of the hike.

By the first climb, I felt a twinge in my right foot and a flush in my head. The boot came off to reveal a raw blister, which I duly bandaged. I’ll tighten the boots, I thought, and it will be fine. Soon enough multiple points began to blister, burst and ooze. Multiple bandages tried to soften the continual pain.

In the midst of the mountains, the flu-daze was upon me. What should have been perhaps ten kilometres became one hundred. The last two felt like two hundred. All I could manage was one painful foot in front of the other.

In this state, I met the Hare Krishna hippie, or at least believe I met him. He was waiting at a bus stop with a young boy and seized upon me to pass on the news of warning. Apparently, the world was coming to an end, with the mark of the beast (666) everywhere to be found. I had enough wherewithal to wonder how the Book of Revelation might fit in with Hare Krishna teaching, but refrained from asking for clarification. He and his son lived on the local commune, and with his dreadlocks and bright clothes, his mission in life was to post small stickers in innocuous places to warn us all of our impending doom. I strode on, leaving him to his important task. Mine was to get to the pub.

By dusk the pub finally appeared. In my state, I could not imagine a more welcoming sight. Yes, my room was available, since I was the only one staying amidst the 30 rooms, the grandeur of which was still evident despite the years of neglect. Yes, I could wash, in the women’s bathroom in a shower-bath that bore a sign ‘out of order’. Yes, I could eat, for the publican’s partner had come in to cook her one dish, a meat platter. And yes, the beers were cold and cheap.

Such was my delusion, that I still planned to continue the next day in the mountains, camping for a few nights. A little more bandaging on my feet, a cold-and-flue tablet and I would be fine. At 3am I woke and realised it was not on. It would be the utmost foolishness to be lost in such a state in the bush.

Reluctantly, I returned home via buses and trains, longing to tackle it again.

After my feet had recovered and my partner and I were equally recovering our life together, we agreed to the hike to celebrate her birthday. Both of us were keen, as is our wont, to get away from the world for a little while.

We began at the pub, after the buses and trains. A balcony room, but again we were the only visitors. The few regulars tried to be friendly, the bistro was now closed for good, the pokies were long retired, and the beer garden out the back was overgrown. But the publican, festooned in his Hawaiian shirt, struck up a conversation.

We talked of the troubles of country pubs, how locals no longer came to the pub regularly, how the bowling club was closing down, how the last three years had been the most difficult in his life as he tried to make the pub work. I commented on the bikies rolling past on weekends, on the appeal of Wollombi up the road, of all manner of possibilities for attracting passers-by to drop in, for it is a beautiful part of the countryside.

After my partner ducked off to photograph the last light through the windows, the publican asked us directly: ‘are you interested in buying the place?’ Of course, we were strangers visiting (me a second time), asking all manner of questions about running a country pub, so he was interpreting it all as inquiries from prospective buyers. It would be one of the last things we would want to do in our increasingly unencumbered and simplified lives.

The next day, cooler after the rains, was glorious. Some twenty kilometres of mountains, bush, stunning views, stops to eat and talk, chocolate and muesli bars to share, water to find, and the deep weariness of bodies working all day as we reached our goal – it was a hike for the ages. We climbed and we dropped and climbed again. We ducked through overhanging bushes and branches on a track seldom used. We savoured the fresh water at an old vineyard. And we rolled over the last few kilometres through the flat countryside of the vineyards.

As we did so, we recalled our earlier hikes in eastern Germany, Scotland and Denmark, a mutual love of being out and relying on ourselves. She is a tough one, able to tackle such tasks in a way few are able. I can usually keep up with her, with the stamina of experience.

Above all, I relished being out together rather than on my own.

Travelling the Soviet Union

Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov was one of the many anti-communists writers who came to live outside the Soviet Union and direct many of their energies to undermining the Soviet project. Arrested while still a teenager for counter-revolutionary activities (probably in the White Armies, but he does not say), he was given a commuted death sentence in one of the labour camps. After ten years (1926 to 1935), he was rehabilitated – as many were from the camps – and then spent a happy number of years working various parts of the Soviet Union before Hitler invaded in 1941. Voluntarily enlisting in the Red Army, he was captured by the Germans and chose to stay in West Germany after the war. What intrigues me about his memoirs, Bitter Waters, is that he found himself drawn into the socialist offensive, the amazing, chaotic and productive years of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s. Despite his best efforts, he cannot conceal the ingenuity and enthusiasm that characterised most people during that time.

However, I am most drawn to his depictions of travel after he was rehabilitated, one a brief account of living in a small village after his release and of walking, the other a longer account of an early motorcar journey.

Living in the Village and Walking the Steppes

The house had a typical provincial yard, spacious and thickly covered with a shaggy grass – called ‘broomstraw’ by the locals – lilac bushes, and dozens of fruit trees. In the back yard the widow kept a goat and five or six chickens. The animals, the fruit trees, her hand-knitting, and my rent were her livelihood. Constantly busy with her domestic chores, the fussy old woman inaudibly and unhurriedly moved about the house, accompanied by a lazy old cat whom fate also smiled upon. Evenings I went out into the yard, lay down in the grass, and for hours idly gazed upward at the magnificent sky, the brilliant, starry abyss. Alone with the rustling grass, the lilac bushes, and the dark foliage of the trees in the quiet reverie of the southern night.

As a teenager I had been a great wanderer and loved to spend the whole day out in the steppes. Traveling around the district, my former passion was rekindled. Sometimes I would walk ten or fifteen kilometres just to feel again the thrilling closeness to nature that I have fully experienced only in the steppes: the road, weaving in and out among the hills and foothills; the endless hum of wires buzzing overhead; a dung beetle suddenly appearing out of nowhere, droning resonantly; the song of an invisible bird filling the endless sky. Vast expanses, and in my chest the exact same expansiveness, happiness, and light, peaceful calmness. No one is visible for tens of kilometres around. I walked alone, with nothing but the eternal quiet and calm of the steppe surrounding me – no past, no future. Walks like these are like a bath. You are absorbed in them, cleansed; and afterward, you breathe more easily.

The Motorcar Journey

Once I was getting ready to go to Moscow on business. Neposedov, who had no travel plans, suddenly announced that he was going, too. He proposed traveling by car via Rybinsk and Yaroslavl, I was surprised: ‘For pity’s sake, Grigory Petrovich, that’s more than six hundred kilometres away! What do you think we are, champion auto racers? Six hundred kilometres on our roads! We would devour so much gas that it would cost us a fortune. And your tyres couldn’t take it’.

‘That is exactly why I am going – because they cannot take any more’, winked Neposedov. ‘We can swing by Volga Construction in Rybinsk and buy tyres from the chauffeurs there at a good price. Get my drift? The gas is a trifle, and the road from Rybinsk isn’t bad; we can somehow manage up to Rybinsk as well. How about it? I don’t want to go alone’.

It would be easier, of course, to go by train and be in Moscow in three hours. Neposedov’s route would take a minimum of twenty-four. But the weather was marvellous and the thought of more travel to new places was tempting. I agreed.

It was mid-morning, about ten o’clock, when we left. We drove hastily through town, scattering chickens in the dusty streets on the outskirts, then set off down a soft country road. A cool breeze wafted through the open windows. The road wound along a meadow with yellowing birches, set like a picture in the quiet drowsiness of Indian summer.

Twilight was rapidly approaching. The farther we went, the worse the road got. The car tossed about mercilessly on bulges in the pavement, pushed up by tree roots. ‘Let’s hope we don’t wreck the shocks’, worried Neposedov, letting up on the gas.

‘Shouldn’t we stop for the night in the next village?’ I suggested. ‘The road is lousy, and our tyres are no better; if we rip them up, we’ll be stuck’.

‘I’d rather not’, Neposedov said, twisting around in displeasure, ‘but since there’s no hurry, I suppose we can stay over one night’. (61)

The high cottage with four windows also looked uninviting. The walls had been darkened by time, and paint was peeling from the intricately carved window frames, which were rotting in places. The sharp peak of the roof leaned forward, as if the house were frowning morosely. Yet the thick log walls revealed that in its day the house had been built wonderfully well, to last many years.

We rapped on a small, sturdy gate, which also had weathered many a year, but received no answer. We went into the yard – not a soul in sight. There were no carts, sleighs, or harrows leaning against the barn, either. The doors of the wide barn had been thrown open, and one surmised that it was also empty in the darkness behind them. Beyond the barn, a few sheds and coops huddled together. Farther on, behind a picket fence, there appeared to be a kitchen garden. The yard, too, had been converted into a garden. The only footpaths were right next to the house and farther back, near the coops. Cultivated beds, either bare or with the withered remnants of potato plants, occupied the remaining space. There was no movement or sign of life anywhere, A broom leaned against the door on the high porch—evidence that the master of the house was away.

We sat on the little porch for half an hour, awaiting the owner. It was already dark when a tall, spare, sinewy old man of about sixty appeared from the back yard. He greeted us without apparent surprise. We informed him why we were sitting in his yard.

‘You can spend the night, we’ll make room for you’, the owner responded unenthusiastically, stepping up onto the porch. ‘Come on in’.

In the house he lit a little kerosene lamp and we looked around. The room was orderly and clean: a table; a wide bench along the outside wall; several Viennese chairs; a little fireplace; darkening lithographs on the walls. The place looked shabby, but it was evident that at one time its inhabitants had lived well. Neposedov inquired whether we could get some milk, eggs, something to eat.

‘Of course you can, but do you know what they’re charging for milk and eggs these days?’ asked the owner in a dry, unfriendly tone, ‘They really sting you’.

When Neposedov responded that we would pay city prices, the owner softened a little. ‘My wife will be home soon and give us a bite to eat. Till then, why don’t you have a seat?’

We sat down. Our host puttered around the house morosely. Conversing with him was going to be a hopeless task. His wife turned out to be the exact opposite. About ten years younger than her husband, friendly in appearance and efficient in movement, she greeted us cheerfully: ‘Welcome! Be our guests’. She brought us an earthenware jug of fragrant milk, some bread, and a bit of butter. Supper for herself and her husband was bread, milk, and boiled potatoes. ‘Take some potatoes, too; so tasty with milk! And even more so with butter; they will jump right into your mouth!’ the loquacious woman rattled on in a pleasant Yaroslavl accent. Neposedov, who always felt very much at home with simple people, began to joke. By the end of supper the host had also thawed, and he did his part to keep up the conversation.

After supper we sat and rested, offered cigarettes to our host, and chatted about life. The old man had come out of his shell completely and now talked readily.

It had rained a little in the night, and the sun gleamed brightly in the puddles as we drove on. The dust had been dampened down by the rain, the air was intoxicatingly clear, and we cheerfully rolled along the soft country road.

There wasn’t even a whisper of trouble in the air, and we were in a great mood. The weather was perfect, the car was running well, the road was smooth, we had lots of gas – what more could we want? Forgetting that good fortune always goes hand in hand with bad, we would pay dearly for our complacency.

We had gone about ten kilometres when the ear began to weave strangely, as if it were lame on one foot. Neposedov’s face fell. He stopped the car and threw himself out of it as though it were on fire. Following after, I found him already squatting next to the right, rear wheel, sombrely examining the tyre casing.

‘Well, here we are’, growled Neposedov in response to my inquiring look.

The casing had come apart – lengthwise, no less. Not only the rubber, but the inner cloth layer had been abraded, leaving only a swatch about a foot long, riddled with holes, through which the reddish rubber of the tender inner tube shone pitifully. Give it a little more pressure and it would completely disintegrate. We could go no farther; we were finished.

‘Well, here we are’, Neposedov repeated thoughtfully. ‘What should we do?’

What could we do in such a situation, stuck without a spare tyre in a dense forest about fifty kilometres from Rybinsk, on a country road travelled only by a Volga Construction gasoline or other truck once or twice in twenty four hours? There was no way out of this situation.

‘If only we had something to hold the casing together’, remarked Neposedov. ‘Perhaps we could somehow hold out until Rybinsk. But what could we tie it with? We have nothing’.

We dug around in the trunk, in the tool box – sure enough, nothing there.

We looked around: a wide clearing, with forests on both sides. No sign of anything we could use to secure the casing.

Suddenly I detected an amused glimmer in Neposedov’s eyes. Smiling, he flung open his coat and took off his belt.

‘Uncinch yourself!’ proposed Neposedov, laughing. ‘Your trousers won’t fall down, and if they do, you can hold them up with your teeth! We won’t be sitting in the middle of the road, but getting out little by little’.

With absolutely no other way out, I also removed my belt. Fortunately, my trousers stayed up without it. We bound the casing tightly with the two belts and proceeded cautiously. But no matter how soft the road, the belts did not hold very long; they were worn out after a few kilometres. However, we had gotten closer to civilization. A field appeared on the right, surrounded by wire fencing. In it we found good pieces of telephone wire for binding up the casing.

‘Just hope it doesn’t cut the inner tube’, worried Neposedov. So we crept along at the speed of a horse, checking the casing frequently. A farm village came into sight. There Neposedov bought dozens of rawhide thongs – long, thin belts. We substituted the thongs for the wire and crawled along farther at the same pace. The stops, the unwinding and rewinding of the casing took up a lot of time. The hands of the clock passed twelve. It was more than a little wearing on the nerves. At first it was funny; then dealing with the casing became tedious; finally, we were fed up.

After a couple more hours we came to a large village. In its centre stood a rural cooperative retail store. We went in and greedily eyed the shelves. Wouldn’t something be suitable for our casing? Learning what we sought, the saleswoman led us to the harness department. It was a treasure trove of saddle straps and small belts of all kinds. We were dazzled. We picked over strap after strap, testing its durability and elasticity, and stumbled on some thick, soft rawhide strips, as wide as the palm of one’s hand, which could not have been more appropriate for our purpose.

‘What are these things for?’ queried Neposedov.

‘I do not know, myself’, responded the saleswoman phlegmatically. ‘On the invoice they appear as lassoes, but nobody knows what they are for. They are not in demand in our locale, so they have been lying here since they arrived. No one has bought any. Almost all the goods here are defective: either too short, too narrow, or too wide’, the saleswoman explained with the same indifference.

‘Well, we will relieve you of some of your defective items’, remarked Neposedov. ‘Give us five of those lassoes’.

Not to be embarrassed in front of anyone, we drove out of the village and stopped in a field for capital repairs. We wrapped the torn casing so well and firmly with a lasso that all of the holes were covered. We also wrapped another casing that looked to be in danger.

Finishing our work, we stepped back, entranced: The vivid, bright yellow belts looked splendid against the black background of the automobile.

‘They turned out fine’, Neposedov shook his head. ‘We’ll be just like a circus, entertaining the public. Since everyone who sets eyes on us will be amused, we can collect money for providing a diversion’.

At first we drove slowly, frequently checking the patches. The straps held. We quickened the pace – the straps held. Our spirits rose. Perhaps we would get to Rybinsk? We arrived in Rybinsk – the straps were holding and nothing had happened to them.

We could find no tyres either in Rybinsk or in Yaroslavl, so we travelled on the lassoes all the way to Moscow, which we reached only toward evening of the third day. Neposedov had driven the car from Yaroslavl to Moscow at a good clip, because by then we had a strong faith in the durability of the lassoes.

Ideals in the Mountains: Hiking with Mao and his Friends

In September of 1917, the young Mao Zedong went for a few days hiking in the mountains of Hunan with two friends, Peng Zehou and Zhang Kundi (who writes of the hike). They met at the Fishing Bay Market Place in Changsha and initially hiked southward along the Changjiang (Yangze) River. After some 26 li, or roughly 13 kilometres, they stopped for a massive lunch – five bowls of rice and five of pickled vegetables. Since the day was hot, they swam in the deep, clear waters of the river to cool down. Later that afternoon, they reached a mountain called Zhaoshan (near Xiangtan, Mao’s home town).

Young Mao 03

Now they climbed upwards, following a narrow path until they reached Zhaoshan Temple, which had three or four monks. Initially, the monks would not let them sleep in the temple, so they contemplated sleeping in the open. Later, the monks relented, so they ate dinner and went down again to the river for a swim. Zhang Kundi writes:

Following our swim we sat on the beach and talked. A cool breeze dispelled the heat and the rippling waves of the water accompanied our talk like music coming from an unknown source … Under the bright starlight, the trees were a deep green and seemed full of vitality.

Upon returning to the temple in the dark, the monks showed them a massive bed and gave them one small cotton quilt under which to sleep. But the three young friends found a small pavilion, where they sat and talked and laughed long into the night.

‘The Westerners’, Mao said, ‘have a highly advanced material civilisation, but it is limited to clothing, food, and housing, and it provides only for the development of fleshly desires. If human life is just having enough of these three things, clothes, food, and housing, then human life has no value. We must figure out the easiest way to solve the economic problem. Only then can we realise our ideal of cosmopolitanism. If man’s physical and mental powers are concentrated on one task, no task will be difficult to accomplish’.

Peng Zehou said: ‘I have a long-cherished desire to become a monk. When I am a monk, I will invite you all to come and study on a famous mountain’.

‘I too have such a desire’, said Mao.

‘And so do I’, said Zhang Kundi. ‘But your desire is much stronger than mine’.

Kundi writes that he was very moved at the time, and the words of a poem came to him:

Wind blowing in the trees, music of the heavens

Desires and rewards cannot be perceived, and shed their forms

The following afternoon, they went swimming again, and then climbed another mountain, where their friend Cai Hesen lived. The discussion among the young people turned to revolution. They advocated – idealistically – a family revolution and revolution of students and teaches – without force of arms. All that was needed was a replacing of the old with the new. Chinese people, they agreed were slavish in character and narrow-minded. They acted like masters at home and like slaves to the rest of the world.

Mao in the mountains 01

On the last day of their hike, they rose very early and climbed the nearby Mount Yuelu. While descending, a cold mountain wind came up and the air was clean and crisp. Bathed by the air and the wind, their minds were lucid and the worries of the ordinary world seemed far away. But by lunch time, that world returned and the hike and its talk and dreams seemed far away.

(Based on a story by Zhang Kundi, September 1917)

Before Creation: Hiking the Great North Walk

The light was gone. I had a stark choice: camp here in the dense bush, with half a bottle of water to last the night and morning; or push on with a sliver of torchlight.

The torch it was, to help me avoid twisted tree roots, clamber over tumbling boulders, and negotiate wet and slippery footsteps beneath seeping rock-faces.

After that decision, I had little time to ponder anything – apart from the identifying the next twist in the track, or indeed finding the track itself. Often it all but disappeared in the gloom. The moon may have been out above the trees. But here, in the dense foliage, the only light was my slender torch.

On this bone-chilling evening in the middle of winter, I was forced to take it easy, treading carefully, a marked change from my rush to beat the light not long before. Now my mind began to work again, pondering the simplicity of light and dark. I felt I was returning to basics, to the mythical first moment of creation when light is separated from primal darkness.

Darkness and Light


‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day’.

This simple but all-pervasive awareness of light and dark was one of the two experiences that etched themselves most deeply into my consciousness. By this stage of a long day, I had already hiked almost 25 kilometres – about the limit for my ageing legs as they bore a pack full of camping gear, clothes and food. That day was part of a larger whole, for it was the second last day of a two week hike: the Great North Walk from Newcastle to Sydney. For years I have felt the invitation to do the hike, beckoned by a sign near my home in Newcastle. It reads: ‘Great North Walk. Sydney Cove – 250 km’. I have dreamed of it over the years. And since I have covered the distance in nearly every other way – train, bus, car, bicycle – why not walk? Yet it is far tougher than those other means, winding through the bush, up and down every mountain in sight, over every slippery rock, and through the densest forest you can possibly find. Precipitously rugged – the words can barely catch the bodily feel of the hike. Walk that distance?

I had decided to undertake the hike in winter, with its long nights and short days. Nights on the mountain tops required a winter sleeping bag inside my small tent, along with multiple layers of wool on my body. I like to sleep warm, toasty even, for then my mind and body close down for a lengthy sleep. But the darkness began almost too soon, usually within half an hour of finding a campsite. Just enough time to decide on the optimum place for my tent, to let the sweat dry so that I could don my warm night-gear. As the last of light went – before 17.00 – I lit a fire to cook up a magnificent repast of dried peas, tuna and mashed potato.

Soon enough I learnt to avoid the well-used camping spots in the damp clefts of valleys and ridges. Leeches and a dripping tent in the morning made for less than pleasant overnight stays. Instead, I preferred the dry and less frequented ridge-tops and their hard ground. Here was space for perhaps two or three tents and a small campfire. Here was a more open bush and here I could lie beneath the vast canopy of stars. The mornings with their cool winds would leave the tent dry and ready to pack. Of course, no water is to be found in such places, which both keeps them under-utilised and more attractive. So I had to make sure my water bottles had been filled at a stream before arrival.

But what does one do on a long night of fourteen hours? We have become so accustomed to trying to defeating the darkness, to banish it with all-pervasive lighting. But our efforts are feeble, creating little pockets of light in the surrounding gloom. Only a creator God can make a permanent change to the surrounding darkness. Even in this case the blackness of night is primary, the state of the cosmos before light is created. So I found myself enjoying the darkness, and my body responded. A simple meal, a bush wash (a corner of a cloth dipped in water), and brushing of teeth take up only so much time. I would check the map by torchlight for the next day and sit for a while watching the embers of the fire die down. But with such an early sunset, I was snuggled in my sleeping bag by 19.00 and asleep five minutes later. Occasionally I would wake very early, perhaps after nine hours sleep and well before any glimmer of light. For I moment I would ponder a pre-dawn start on the day, but as soon as I pulled the sleeping bag tighter around me, I would fall asleep for another three hours. With sleep like that, it takes little time for the body to become attuned to first light and the sound of birds trying to warm their chilled bodies.

The best light is God’s light. I was up quickly, keeping on the warm clothes of the night while I break camp and have a quiet breakfast – of dried fruit and nuts. In fact, the chill remained well into the morning, so that only much later did I strip down, pull off my woollen long johns, and don my hiking shirt, now well dried from the sweat of the previous day. Yet in winter the sun gave me no more than ten hours of hiking. More than enough, it seemed in the early morning as I strode along refreshed and eager. But the sun had a strange habit of staying low and racing towards the horizon, especially in its last few hours. At times I paced myself well. With plenty of distance covered in the morning, I could ease up in the afternoon and know that the sun would not beat me to the camping spot. But at other times, I aimed a little too far. Then I found myself racing the sun’s light, sprinting up mountains and stumbling down them to ensure I arrived before its light faded. And on that second last night, it well and truly beat me, leaving me with an hour or more of deep darkness before my destination for the night.

Empty Mind

An empty mind may well be a second key feature of the moment of creation, a return to the primeval state before thought is formed. I first noticed – if I can put it that way – my empty mind on the third day of the hike. It was an afternoon, when I would typically tire of the steep climbs and sharp drops, when I began to sense that my feet had had enough, when I automatically put one foot in front of the other with little thought for what is to come. All of a sudden, I had a thought. I do not recall the thought, but at the time I was struck by the fact that it was actually a thought. Or rather, I became aware that this was the first thought that had come to my mind in more than two hours.

Until that moment, my mind had been completely empty of any thought whatsoever. Normally, my mind is full to overflowing. A crucial part of hiking, day after day, is that my mind may run freely. Thrillingly pleasant and completely unpleasant thoughts run across one another without hindrance. I revisit old arguments and win them. I recall journeys once made, places where I stopped and camped, even retracing in detail the trails once followed. I talk to trees, thanking one for giving me some dropped wood for a fire or another tree for taking care of my pack as I lean it up against the trunk. As I become older, I have ever richer memory tracks, conjuring up moments I thought forever forgotten.

But I have rarely had an empty mind. Once that solitary thought had come and gone on the third day of hiking, my mind became empty once again. Half a day it continued – blank. The next day was the same, and the next. In the mornings, I went through the routine of packing the tent and sleeping gear without any thought for what I was doing. The evenings were the same, with pitching camp, lighting a fire and cooking a meal.

The day after I had finished my mountain hiking, some thoughts began to return. Above all, I wondered about – indeed, I marvelled at – my experience of an empty mind. Was it exhaustion, when all my energy was devoted to finding water, to determining how much food remained, to making it to the next camping spot? Not really, since I was not that exhausted. Normally, tiredness brings out old annoyances and arguments, even people with whom I no longer have any contact (in fact, I see little point in maintaining any contact whatsoever with such people). Out on a trail, I clear those annoyances from my system, leaving them beside the trail as I hike on. By contrast, the empty mind was akin to the effects of meditation. My body’s repetitive acts, of walking for hours on end, brought my mind to a state of complete calm. Not an easy achievement in a time of information overload and endless stimulus, of massive diaries and appointments to keep. But it is one I wish to achieve again.


I must confess to a third primal experience: solitude. I may have passed by the tent of a weirdo who liked to pitch it in the midst of the track and stay for days. But we did not speak to one another. I may have met a beautiful woman with a sad face, but we uttered barely a word for we both sought solitude for our own reasons. Mine was sheer pleasure and release. Away from other human beings, words become minimal, the needs of life basic, the issues fundamental. So accustomed do I become to my own company that I find it difficult to communicate with others when I emerge. The prattle of company becomes unnecessary and trivial.

I mean of course solitude in relation to other human beings, for I had plenty of other company: the wallaby, initially startled at our encounter but then intrigued enough to stop for a longer look; the wombat taking a dump on a flat stone (as is their wont), who quietly finished what he had to do as I strolled by; the curious lyrebird in a remote corner, who had obviously not read the textbook that says lyrebirds are immensely shy of human beings; the towering trees in the temperate rainforest, whom I slapped affectionately and with whom I shared a story concerning light and dark, an empty mind and solitude.


In the Spirit of Lenin the Hiker: The Great North Walk

They say this is a hard walk. I had assumed they had 80-year olds with walking sticks in mind, or perhaps puffy coach-potatoes. ‘Hard?’ Yeah sure, it will be a cinch. Or so I think before setting out. My arrogant confidence in my physical prowess is soon to be reduced to more modest assessments.

The Great North Walk opts for the bush way between Sydney and Newcastle. Apart from some considerable stretches through relatively remote parts, that also means it climbs whatever mountain range one can find. Why skirt around one when you can climb it? The route covers 250 km, from Newcastle Harbour to Sydney Cove. It heads west from Newcastle and into the mountains, eventually turning south and twisting its way through mostly wilderness areas to Sydney. For a normal person, that means about two weeks walking. For those crazy track runners, it can be done – non-stop – in 56 hours. Or rather, two super-fit women did precisely that not so long ago. Not for me; I prefer the slow way, about 20 km per day.

GNW 01

At least I am well enough equipped, the result of long years of acquiring lightweight gear from bicycle touring. One change of clothes (only for emergencies), a billy, a tent, highly efficient sleeping bag, and backpack as tough and as waterproof as they get. Half my 20 kg weight is water and food, making the pack a solid one.

Day 1: Newcastle to Teralba (30 km)

The first day – a long undulating walk of 30 km – is one of adjustments. Backpack off; backpack on; and again and again; waistband a little higher, so it sits on the hips to carry most of the load; tighten a strap here; loosen one there; make sure the heaviest items are snug on my back and not hanging wide out, where they cause the dreaded pack swing. So also with my boots: laces pulled, tucked, readjusted. With shoes as sensitive to the shape of my feet as these, I need them firm but not tight, for otherwise nasty blisters form with the constant rubbing. I learn again that feet change over the day. Initially, they thin out, as the fluids that gather from sitting are sent elsewhere in the body. Later, my feet thicken once again as muscles and joints become tired, for until today they haven’t been used half as much as they should be. I also have plenty of time to ponder the fact that I have one pair of decent walking socks with me. I wonder how they will smell by the end.

2013 April 195 (GNW)a

It may be a longish walk for the first day, but the gradient is gentle, the walking easy. It runs south along the great beaches of Newcastle for quite a distance, then a turn right into Glenrock Lagoon and up the incline to Charlestown. It is the route that the local inhabitants, the Awabakal, used to take between Mooloobinbah (Newcastle) and Lake Awaba. From the rise in Charlestown, I drop slowly to the massive Lake Macquarie and walk its edge. Here the track is through urban bushland, with its expected scruffiness and weeds. Back streets too, skirting by golf courses, on popular lakeside paths. I have yet to get into the bush.

A wise person would travel light for the first 15 km, stocking up with food and water along the way. I manage to be reasonably wise regarding the water, but wonder why I have packed four days of food before departure. Ah yes, it means I can get used to the pack from the beginning. At the end of the day I realise it would be easy to ‘stealth camp’ somewhere in Teralba – a mining village on the edge of the lake – should I wish to do so. Tent up at dusk, down at dawn, no traces. But it’s hot, I sweat profusely all day. So I opt for a shower and the carefully mown grass of Teralba Lakeside Caravan Village.

In the tent as I drift off to a long sleep I think I am a champion, having walked a great distance on the first day. But the real hiking in the real bush is yet to begin.

Day 2: Teralba to Hunter Lookout … almost (24 km)

I wake a different, albeit stiff and tender man. The first day is always the toughest, shocking your body into working all day – which by rights it should be doing all the time. The second day is the most important. The urge to rest, coming from our overwhelmingly sedentary lives, is the worst option. Always best to get going as soon as possible, to get muscles working again. That way they recover an ancient, genetic memory, the pleasure of actually being used.

Used they certainly are, for I soon realise that yesterday was a gentle stroll. Today involves three mountain ranges, three tough climbs as I make my way into my beloved Watagan Mountains. And today I learn six lessons as the serious hiking begins.

1. Keep your rucksack snug on your back (and don’t loosen it for supposed comfort), for otherwise it throws you off balance and sends you careening down precipices.

2. Avoid precipitous descents and climbs along barely discernible tracks, with tree roots, massive fallen trees, mud, leeches … when the sun is setting! Foolishly, I attempt precisely that for the last part of today’s hiking, crashing, staggering, falling my way along.

3. Set yourself reasonable targets with a laden rucksack, full of food, water, camping gear and whatnot for a few days. Otherwise, you enter a liminal zone and arrive at your stop in a bewildered state.

4. Speaking of leeches, be generous: give blood for a good cause. They need it. So refrain from using salt, insect repellent or burning cigarette ends on those innocent creatures.

5. Carry enough water. You never know if you will need to pitch camp – yes, a tent is the only way to sleep – in a dry location.

6. Washing? That’s part of conspiracy by manufacturers of soap, shampoo and detergent. Since the vast majority of human beings throughout our history have had two washes in their lives, at birth and death, let the natural colonies of bacteria flourish. Take socks, for instance: you can switch feet and then turn them inside out on each consecutive day. That evens the wear, for at least four days or more. And the seriously powerful aroma of days-old socks is a wonder to behold. The same applies to undies.

Today, I can claim to have adhered to only the last three. I clamber over a track though the mountains with a devil-may-care attitude to the niceties of gentle inclines and declines. A leisurely amble – like yesterday – is for wimps. Straight up and down is the way to go.

For this leg, the roadways and fire trails up on the long climb to the Sugarloaf Range require persistence and some stamina. I meet mountain-bikers on a tandem, a couple of track runners who are looking a little spent, trail-bikers and walkers. Over the morning, there are some glorious moments: the dappled sun on a leaf-covered track; sun filtering through grass trees; the burst of energy when lunch and a litre of milk kick in. Just before lunch the serious climbing begins: a sharp climb over an unexpected mountain brings me to Heaton pass, where I stop for a lunch of bananas, nuts and raisins, and a long slug of milk (from the roadside shop). I am feeling the two climbs I have already done – feet a little sore, body aching.

But the toughest is yet to come. Immediately after lunch I take on the winding, impossibly steep slope into the Watagan Range. The 1.2 km needs an hour of small steps, heavy breathing, near slips and tumbles. At the top, by Heaton Lookout, I ponder stopping for the night. 20 km are up by 15.30 and I have two hours and eight km to go. In a moment of overconfidence, I think I know where the track will go from here on. It will be a gentle walk, won’t it, following a fire trail to my stop for the night?

2013 April 202 (GNW)a

But no, the track veers off and plunges into the dense bush. Now begin rocky slides into gullies, with tree roots and vines to trip over, massive fallen timber (over which I have to haul my pack) and slippery heart-busting climbs. I am in another zone, popping chocolates, thundering and cursing along. There will be many more such sections on the walk, and I eventually become used to them, taking time and soaking in what are really quiet corners of wonderful bush. I guess the planners of the route wanted to give walkers like me the feel of some decent hard work.

In the last moments of rapidly fading light, I come into a clearing, a quiet, leafy corner with a view over the valley. I am shattered, but short of my imagined stop for the night. Even though I have managed the last four kilometres in a couple of hours (it should take three), I still have another four to go. In my bewildered state I ponder for a moment tackling the last part by torch-light, but I wake up to myself and pitch camp.

Dinner is a can of cold baked beans, stale bread and squashed banana. A small fire and a cup of tea are all that is needed before burrowing into my sleeping bag for 11 hours.

2013 April 214 (GNW)a

Day 3: Hunter Lookout to Barraba (18 km)

After a breakfast of muesli bars and some dried fruit and nuts, I ponder what to do. Yesterday I had wanted to get to my beloved spot: Hunter Lookout. Now I need water, for I know of tank there. So I break camp and am off, opting to stick to the track rather than take the easy forest roads. Like yesterday, there are more gullies, slippery drops and leg-twisting climbs.

Unlike yesterday, this time I love it! I take my time, enjoy the mountain streams, refill water bottles, and pause long by a pool and its mossy rocks, fed by a creek that plunges over the cliff face. A couple of hours later, I am at Hunter Lookout, with a huge smile. I stay for a few hours. The fire boils a billy, the little known water tank enables me to refill once again, and I sit and soak in the view over the Hunter Valley, my valley.

2013 May 004 (GNW)a

Since my last time here, a couple of goannas have made this their home. They have figured out that visitors have a knack of leaving leftovers, so they saunter in whenever someone is about, snuffling around for a tasty morsel or two.

Soon enough the time is up and I know I have some walking to do before the early nightfall of May. Now the walk slips into the national park and I notice the difference from the state forest immediately. Without trail bikes, four-wheel drives and logging trucks, the peace is palpable. And the animals know it. A pademelon skips out on the track and off again; a wallaby calmly watches me as I pass. The wombats may prefer the nights, but their multitudinous presence is marked by the many droppings. They like a clean slate to do their thing, preferably a smooth rock in a clearing. At times every single rock on my path is covered with their greenish, fibrous turds. The lyrebirds – yes, lyrebirds – have obviously not read the textbook that says they are supposed to be shy. I have never met one before in my life. In the next two hours I meet four! One does not bother to scamper off at all. Instead, it turns, stands and looks in my direction, wondering what this strange animal is doing in these parts.

The track undulates, with no climb too tough. I encounter a stile or two, passing through private nature reserves that abut the national park. I manage the last hill to the camping spot – Barraba – as the light is fading. It one of those entrancing spots, high up and in amongst ancient grass trees, with soft ground for a tent, and a fire place around which one can sit into the evening pondering the universe as the coals glow at the base of the fire.

2013 May 009 (GNW)a

Day 4: Barraba to Watagan Creek (23 km)

After a stunningly good sleep, I wake at 6.30, notice the hot ashes on the fire and put some leaves and twigs on them. By the time I have packed a dew-heavy tent, the fire is flaring. The ensuing cup of tea means I leave a little later. Soon I pass by an old logger’s hut – all corrugated iron and rough beams – and meet a couple up on the ridge, escaping to their own hut on the mountain. They envy me my walk and the chance to enjoy the last of the good weather.

Eventually I drop out of the Watagans and down to the Congewai Valley, a drop that is glorious in the early rays of the sun. Here I walk through more of those private nature reserves, bought as private land but legally locked in as reserves for perpetuity. Walkers welcome, but not those who tear up the land and vegetation, scaring off the animals. Here too is a water tank that walkers are welcome to use, by a hut in the peace of the bush.

2013 May 012 (GNW)a

I might have one pace on those impossibly steep climbs, with their slippery leaves and soil, with massive rocks around which one must edge. I have another speed entirely when given a flat stretch. So it is along Congewai Valley: five and half kilometres in an hour, and that with a wary cow and its calf out on the road. At first they run ahead, until they reach their fellow bovines in the field. While the mother hides her vast bulk behind a bush, her comrades draw near to give moral support. The calf puts its head against the mother’s flank, leaving the rest of its body in full view. It obviously feels that if it can’t see me, I can’t see it. I walk past, while the mother nervously stands guard. Obviously, the experience with human beings is not usually a pleasant one. A little further down the road, a creeping white sports car stops. Its occupant, a 20-year old bedecked in a singlet and smartphone, asks if I can get reception here. I shake my head as he tells he is looking for a mate, who is staying with a friend hereabouts.

The route as a whole counts at least one serious climb each day. This one is no exception, for I have to climb Mount Congewai: a gruelling 2.4 kilometre climb, with the last 900 metres particularly so. Finally up on the ridge, I follow a forestry road for four kilometres or so to Flat Rock Lookout, thinking to camp close by. But the spot is ordinary, to say the least – with room for one tent, it is right by the side of a dirt road that will have logging trucks rumbling by at first light.

As I pause to assess my weary legs, heavy pack, the remaining light (about half an hour) and water supply, a grizzled forester stops to chat. And talk he does – about the timber, trucks, tents, a walker he met entirely lost for two days and without water. His parents had been waiting for him in Cooranbong, but he was headed west, in the opposite direction. A call to his parents and a lift ensued. The forester claims that he too has been walking all day, so he is keen to get home.

My decision to walk on to Watagan Creek pays off, for not only does a heavy pack love a decent, but the spot is one of those that come by unexpectedly. I stop to fill my depleted supply of water in the creek, and then strip down for a quick wash. As I do so, a 4wd stops up on the bank. I dress smartly, as an ancient local comes down. He makes a passing show of checking the electric fence and then asks where I am headed.

‘The camping area on the other side of the road’, I say.

‘There’s nothing there’, he says. ‘No water, nothing. How long are you stopping?’

‘One night’, I say.

‘You can stop here,’ he says.

I look around at the creek, its grassed banks, the grand trees overhead. ‘Thank you,’ I say.

As they are about to drive off, I remember – a fire!

I race up the bank and ask his wife. ‘Yeah, no worries’, she says. ‘It’s not fire season. Just be careful’.

With the tent pitched, I light a fire of driftwood and sit by it until I feel the stiffness of my muscles. Bed at 8.00 pm is one of the great pleasures of life.

2013 May 030 (GNW)a

Day 5: Watagan Creek to The Basin (13 km)

Today is the toughest day I have ever walked, let alone with a backpack: 13 kilometres in 6 hours!

In the morning, I dwell long by the fire for breakfast and over a cup of tea. At a deep level, my body seems to anticipate what is in store. Eventually I set off, briefly across a farmer’s field and a road and then up the first climb – Mt. Warrawolong. It is over a kilometre of steep, slippery track, corroded by trail bikers. Often I need to use my hands as well as feet for stability. I meet a biker on his way down. We chat briefly, he wondering how I do not get lost.


The second climb: steeper but shorter, now over rock, loose pebbles and some twisting vegetation that holds it all together. At the top I pause at a wonderful camp spot, or rather, a clearing with a simple fire place and a great view. Next time I may use this place for my tent – but I will need water.

To get to the third climb, I need to drop steeply down to Wollombi Brook. In the midst of an autumn dry spell, the brook is empty, so refilling the water bottles has to wait. That climb is the steepest of all, requiring in places stone stairs, or rather, some pieces of rock roughly arranged between crevices. Moss covered it all is, since now I am in one of those gullies with temperate rainforest. Mottled light peers through the canopy, creepers and vines hang low, leeches wave from every leaf on the ground.

No more climbs today, but the last 2.5 kilometres – after an equally precipitous descent to the Washpool – is along a narrow track half way up a cliff face. To my right is a bone-breaking fall. To the left is the cliff face. In between is the narrowest of tracks, at times merely a footfall at a time. Add to that fallen trees, slimy edges, rock overhangs – one slip from a weary hiker would mean an enforced rest until help comes.

A real hike and I am buggered.

The question is: what do I think about, on my own during those long hours walking, climbing up and scrabbling down slopes?


Water: will the next creek be dry? Do I need to ration it out over the next couple of days? Will there be a tank or a stream at the next camping spot? I think of my writing, my legs, where to stop next for the night, women …

When tired, I begin to argue with those who have annoyed me, or perhaps me them. It used to be my father, but now he is dead. It used to be women of former, bad relationships, but now they are gone. It may be my employer, with different expectations from my own desire to be on the margins, off the radar and undisturbed so I can write.

But then, with a campsite, a fire, a meal and a billy of tea, that soon passes.

Day 6: The Basin to Yarramalong (20 km)

The last day (for now) is one for meeting people, which feels a little strange after the solitude. But then more than half of the walk is along roads leading into Yarramalong.

After giving the tent some time to dry on a dewy morning, the first task of the day is … yes, a climb. Unlike yesterday, it is none too daunting, with the early part of the climb a little steep but the rest gradually and relentlessly heads upwards. Most of it is along fire trails, as is the slow decline for the rest of the morning. But now the trail is hardly used, so leaves and branches and stones make it their home. I love this part of the morning. After a long sleep and then finding the rhythm of the day in the first hour or two, I stride along taking in all that is about me – the trees, rocks, plants, occasional animals, a view from a height, the cool of a gully.


Along the trail I pass by a glorious camping place: a grassy circle surrounded by trees, a jumble of rocks for a fireplace, no one passing by. Here I have one of my regular feeds, preferring to down some nuts and raisins every hour or two rather than have a large lunch.

At last – and reluctantly – I need to come out of the mountains. The drop is an enthralling section of track that passes through three mossy gullies en route to Cedar Brush. I take them slowly, pausing often to suck in the cool air. From Cedar Bruch the trail follows the paved road to Yarramalong. I cover the 11 kilometres in two hours! By now, I have become used to my usual rapid pace along a flat track, even with a pack – a damned good pack too.

But the road also brings people. I meet a dozen middle-aged and identically clad trail bikers roaring up the road. A few wave as they pass. An odd old couple stop for a chat as I am trying to find a semi-hidden spot for a piss. She is far more interesting; he is a pain, full of yellow-toothed stories about Ginger Meggs, of all things. At Yarramalong a forty-something artisan, Decorah Buckley, chats as I sit on the step of her shop in the late sun. Too much makeup, but very friendly …

But as I roll along the road, past the farms and houses, I think of Friedrich Engels in his weeks-long walk from Paris to Berne. He was a young man, fit and vigorous, sought after by the Paris police for his activism, and without much money. So he decided to walk to Switzerland, through the French countryside. He stops in villages to take part in festivals, to sit on grassy hillsides and smoke tobacco, drink wine, and chat up the local women. In the mountains I may recall Lenin the climber, but on the flats it seems to be Engels.

Yarramalong: a village in the fold of the valley, is the end of this leg of the Great North Walk for now. It marks roughly the half-way point to Sydney, and getting here I have covered 120 kilometres in 6 days, with 8 stiff climbs. The other half, from Yarramalong to Sydney, is yet to come.

2013 May 022 (GNW)a

Wolfsberg Walking: In the Forests of Oberlausitz

Can one find a part of Europe where land is plenty and people are few? This is not the usual image of that western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass. Then go eastward, to regions few think of when ‘Europe’ is mentioned, to Eastern Europe. There you will encounter endless forests, marshland and mountains. To be sure, it is still relative, for farmland always has the next village within eyeshot, and you can be sure that someone, at some time over the last few centuries, has been before you in this spot in the quiet forest. Yet, at a particular moment, you can be entirely alone, not a human being within range. So it is one year in a late winter, in the easternmost parts of Germany. The snow keeps falling and the ice lingers and people hope for spring. Indoors they stay, restless and fidgety, but I am out hiking through snowdrifts and snowstorms, relishing the crisp air, the walde and burge all to myself.

Day One: The Silence of the Forest (March 2013)

2013 March 151 (Herrnhut)a

A couple of days ago the snow returned, reminding us that spring isn’t quite here. Until then, we had begun to feel the warmer touches to the air; the bushes had thought about a bud and some birds began gathering twigs. Too soon, it seems. Recently thawed ground once again lies under a thick cover; pines that had shed their heavy loads are once again blanketed; snow clearing equipment put away until next season is hauled out again.

I am keen to walk – in the forest. My route takes me eastward from my lodgings in Herrnhut, down the hill along a well-known path – Galloping Tuberculosis (the alternative to Langsamer Tod, the Slow Death) – which is the age-old track for villagers between Ruppersdorf and Herrnhut. Along the Petersbach brook it trails through the forest to Oily Crotch (Eulchratsham), before turning northwest and up again through the forest. The last stretch is through open fields, over the Hutberg and to the village of Strahwalde.

For much of the trek, my footsteps are first in the snow. Drifting up to half a metre, it is deep enough so my foot sinks in past my ankle, shallow enough so it is not my whole leg. With temperatures no more than minus 10, it is perfect weather and quite mild. Progress is slow, occasionally slippery, but steady. Beneath the layer of snow lie icy ridges, strange angles, holes – all ready to catch an unwary ankle, to test and tone muscles used to slack walking on the flats. A thorough workout for gluts, thighs, calves and the multiple muscles of my feet and ankles.

In the midst of it all, I am thoroughly absorbed with three things:

First, the silence of the forest. I have experienced the quiet after a snow storm in the city, in Montreal where it was wonderful to be out after a storm with the noise absorber of a white blanket everywhere. But here in the forest, the usual sounds of animals, wind, trees, have disappeared; or rather they are absorbed by the interlocked flakes.

Second, the animal tracks are everywhere. They may be small, dainty steps, perhaps of a bird prancing about on the snow; they may be slightly longer hops, perhaps a squirrel; they may be the pointed toes and sweep of a tail that I guess is a fox; they may be what appear to be rabbit prints, two at a time in neat pairs; or dog tracks, out with an ‘owner’, following their own olfactory path rather than the visual one humans follow. But the triple prints in a triangle are a puzzle, until some deer bound across the track, startled, and I note their tracks. Many other tracks contribute to the intricate tracery, made by animals I cannot not even guess. It may be easy to hide in a snowy landscape at some level, if one knows how (I see very few animals), but well-nigh impossible to cover one’s tracks unless you follow exactly in the footsteps that have gone before – if there are any like one’s own.

Third, the extraordinary effect of snow on trees. On bare branches, a line of snow renders a stark outline, throwing into relief the line of the branch itself. By contrast, conifers seem to set themselves to catch snow on their webs of needles. Whole trees seem to compete with one another to see who can collect the most snow.

Eventually, the forest and its silence, with laden trees and animal tracery in the snow, come to an end. My path takes me out of the forest and over the open fields past the Hutberg. Now I trail someone’s cross-country skis – of which there are many tracks this late winter. I stride up the hill and skid lightly down, a solitary figure in the expanse of white. The sun appears and glistens on the snow; villages and their houses huddle beneath heavy white brows, puffing smoke. Then a magical moment: a brief snow storm, with myriad large fluffy flakes swirling down and cutting down visibility. A low sun peaks beneath the clouds and I am captured – again.

Yet I am also captured by the lowness of the sun, or rather, almost trapped. I am so absorbed by the storm and its light that dusk comes to an end before I know it. Visibility runs down quickly and I am still far from my lodgings. Fortunately even the smallest amount of light is enhanced by the snow. I make for the glow of warm yellow lights in the village windows.


Day Two: Bone-Chiller (March 2013)

Some winds brandish their wind-chill with bitter glee, anticipating the gasps and shivers as they hit yet more warm-blooded creatures. So it is today as I set out on the trails. As soon as I come out from behind the shelter of the wall, the wind hits. Turning to face it, with eyes watering and nostril hairs frozen, I realise I am looking directly towards Siberia. Later I am to discover that this was the coldest spring morning Germany has ever had.

The forest beckons, promising to block the bone-chiller. And so it does. The conifers may whistle higher up, snow may come tumbling down from a waving tree branch, but down below, among the roots and trunks, I am comparatively warm. Underfoot, the snow is compacted to some extent along the trail, so the going is easier than I experienced earlier.

It takes little time for me to feel as though I have been on the road for ages. The kilometres may roll past more slowly underfoot, but pass they do. Well-tried walking boots, comfortable clothes, muscles working smoothly and generating their own warmth, a small pack – nothing more is needed.

Now it is the mountain, the Hengstberg (Horses Hill), where fresh teams of horses used to haul heavy carts up the slope. The trench where the old road ran is still to be found here. I clamber up the slope, beginning to sweat, removing caps and gloves for a brief period. And then it is a slide down the other side, on my bum due to the steepness, and I find once again the childhood glee of pleasure in the snow.

Now I eschew the protective forest and set out over open fields. Here the snow drifts in the Siberian wind, and ice forms on roads and paths, eager to send an unwary foot skidding. Extremities begin to freeze as my body seeks to protect its core. In the village of Batromjecy-Berthelsdorf I pause out of the wind and still I shiver – I find out later that it is minus 20 degrees with the wind chill. I seek out the church. The spirit may have moved here in 1723, sending a handful of Moravian Brethren out to Africa, Greenland, North America, and Asia, but the spirit is not going to warm me today. I seek the spirit in a coffee at the local Gastäte, but it is closed, despite the exuberant sign proclaiming that it is open. Now my body core itself begins to cool, so I turn and march to my lodgings – up the long hill and exposed to the wind. Climbs like this are supposed to get circulation going, but only the coffees and strudel in the cosiness of the Hutbergkellar can achieve that.

2013 March 187 (Herrnhut)a

Day Three: Wolfsberg Wald (March 2013)

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.


I 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. I 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, I walk some 15 kilometres from Herrnhut to Kemnitz and then Bernstadt. I 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.


Day Four: Lost in the Village (March 2013)

Most often on a longer hike, you stride through villages, perhaps stopping for a little to eat and a piss. Apart from a couple of houses strung out along the ever-present stream, there’s nothing much to them. Or is there? For some reason or other I end up in the back streets of the village of Strahwalde, perhaps due to a ‘wrong’ turn. It is hard to know what a ‘wrong’ turn is, since the streets twist and bend in that medieval way.

Before I know it, I have crossed the stream, which is variously dammed for washing clothes in times past, runs through a small mill, or has a diversion for a reason long forgotten. I sidle past a house with an ageing mural on its side, the work of an artist perhaps, who decided long ago to relocate here. Up a twisting path and I am in the midst of run-down stables before striding past the front door of the old schloß, or manor house of the lord. Built in the seventeenth century, it was part of the ‘refeudalisation’ of eastern Europe that was underway. Less a return to feudalism per se, it was a manifestation of early capitalism, but in an area where land was plentiful and labour scarce. So peasants were legally tied to the land of their lord, or perhaps one of his early factories, in a way that seemed as though the old order was returning. But it actually enabled the transition to more fully fledged capitalism. These days the schloß is cracked and worn, windows broken and doors boarded up. I wish that for all the ruling class.


I drop down from the hill – for rulers ‘need’ to have the best views – and come across a man rummaging in his garage. Snow may still be on the ground, ice may still be forming in the creek, but it is March and it is supposed to be spring. So he is sorting out his gardening tools, ready to dig and plant, hoe and rake the moment the thaw arrives. But the garage takes my fancy, for it is a simple rectangular construction, with a light sloping roof to the wooden double door at the front. It is exactly the same design as countless others I have encountered, with cement-rendered finish over large bricks. Simple, functional, cheap – a product of the DDR when one still made such things. This one has a few extra touches: some paint on the timber door, a large thermometer out the front, a weather-cock on its corner. For his sake and for mine, I hope spring comes soon.

A bicycle passes by, upon which is the same man I have seen on a number of occasions. A slightly vacant stare, with one eye to the side; perhaps his family has been in the village a little too long. At the next turn, a woman leans out of her kitchen window and talks to a neighbour on the street. The neighbour’s only errand may well be to meet and chat a little like this. A dog scampers on its way somewhere, and a child follows on a bicycle, trying to keep up with the dog.

Now I twist around the corners of the small farmer’s houses, some with the local braces-and-shingle style. On the lower floor, heavy timber forms arches that look much like braces to hold up one’s pants, should one be of that vintage. Two such braces are at one short end of the house, while three run to the front door. From the door to the other end the braces stop and angled timber and brick takes their place – the kitchen and perhaps (if retrofitted) a small toilet and bathroom inside. Upstairs is for sleeping, and here are shingles aplenty. They cascade down from the roof, past windows and to the intersection between the two floors. And each village has its own distinct pattern. Here the shingles are predominantly black, with white spot patterns in between. Tight and warm in winter; unbearably close in summer.

The spatial relationship between this house and its neighbours seems to have no clear plan, except perhaps to be close to the creek. Or rather, they reveal a very different production of space that dictates such arrangements. With corners jutting out, with designs at all angles apart from 90 degrees, each place is set obliquely to the other. It looks as though a giant child has been playing with them, only to toss them aside and then walk away to seek some other amusement. Here, at the core of a twelfth century village is a living reminder of almost impossible to imagine senses of lived space. Yet, at least one item of spatial production is clear to me: no matter which path you take, with its many twists and unaccountable bends, it always seems to wind its way to the church. Once, long ago, it may have been Roman Catholic and then Lutheran, but now it bears the lamb and banner of the Moravian Brethren over its doors.

I look at my watch: three hours have passed! Is not a village supposed to be tiny, a few houses strung out on a stream?


Day Five: Crossroad (March 2013)

Clearly, everyone and everything wants spring to arrive. The birds have had to put away their sticks and string and straw for the time being. The deer had been hoping for fresh shoots of grass to nibble, but instead find they need to scratch about in the snow for old, frozen leaves. The squirrels’ winter supplies have well and truly run out, but the new stock is by no means ready. Even the first flowers of spring, the yellow winter aconites and white snowdrops, have pushed up in the odd corner only to be frozen stiff.

But spring refuses to arrive. Or rather, winter is undertaking an excellent rear-guard action to keep spring at bay. My winter rhythms continue, baby-steps over slippery ice remain the norm, coats-hats-gloves are still firmly in place. I set off out the back of Berthesdorf, keen to try new paths, through scatterings of houses that collectively call themselves the villages of  Kränke, Neuberthelsdorf, Heuscheune … Even though I know that each house has a dog, even though I am occasionally apprehensive, the German dogs are well-behaved indeed. Perhaps it is the mundane reality of walkers and cyclists that makes such prey unexciting. Perhaps it is the German way, that all must be ordered and controlled. But a barking dog is a rare experience.

I stride over hills and cross creeks, each with a village huddled along it. I hike across fields still white with snow. I plunge into forests full of the animals that are perplexed by the absence of spring. I come to a crossroad – a temptation, a choice, a compromise. Is that not always the way with crossroads? Turn that way and I follow an unknown path; turn this way and it takes me home. Homeward I must turn – not without a longing look towards the other path – for the light is fading and hunger calls me. As do warm lodgings.

2013 April 005 (Herrnhut)a