Sunday, November 19, 2017

Jizera and Giant Mountains

When I briefly entered Germany again near Oybin bad weather struck for the first time during that hike. Luckily I was in village when a torrential downpour came down and I sought shelter together with a German guy on a big motor bike. After one hour the rain stopped and we both continued. Further West in Germany this turned out to be the most destructive thunderstorm of the year but even here at the border of Germany, Czech Republic and Poland the rain continued later in the evening. This was when I discovered that my brand new tent that I had bought seamsealed was not entirely waterproof ...

But I knew that I would soon reach Liberec and my first resupply stop where I would hopefully be able to fix the problem. Liberec turned out to be a wonderful trail town. Although the city was almost completely booked I ended up in a brand new hotel in the outskirts of town with an excellent restaurant nearby. I seamsealed the tent in my hotel room and never had a problem again with it on this trip. Liberec did not only have a nice historical town centre, but also two interesting museums. The art gallery had once been a swim hall dedicated to the Austrian emporer Franz Joseph and showed some surprisingly good art work

Now came one small mountain range after another and I keep forgetting their names. Most were crossed in one day! First were the Jizera Mountains were cyclists rule. This meant that almost half of the otherwise scenic trail was on pavement or concrete slabs and you see more cyclists than hikers. I even ran into a mountain bike race for kids where one father was accompanying his son on foot ... I don't think they broke any speed records but everyone seemed to have fun.

The Giant Mountains were not really that giant and full of tourists. I was having a hard time finding a discreet camping spot! Early in the morning I ran into two older German gentleman who asked me to take their picture and told me a sad story in return. They were on a memorial hike for an old friend who had recently died of cancer. For decades the three of them had been hiking in the Giant Mountains and their friend had always brought a special cake for them. Now they came back every year with this cake and ate it in his memory. Even I was offered a piece! Sniezka (1600 metres), the highest mountain of the Sudetes, was teeming with tourists as was the source of the river Elbe, a river that I still want to paddle one day.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

From Zinnwald to Bohemian Switzerland

German-Czech bordercrossing at Zinnwald
I started my hike on June 18th at the German-Czech border crossing at Zinnwald. Five years ago I had also started here but now I was hiking east instead of west. Back then it was freezing cold but now the sun was shining. But like five years ago I had problems with my camera. You should really test it before you set off on a big hike ....

Still it was a memorable moment and I thought about all the things that have happened in these five years ... Shortly after the border crossing I encountered a nudist beach at a small lake. I was pondering whether to take a swim there or not and decided to hike on thinking I would come across more lakes later. I was very wrong! This was the one and only swimmable lake on my entire hike and I often thought longingly back to it!

After two days I reached the border town of Decin and had my first resupply stop that took so long that I ended up hiking till 10 pm and 40 km to escape the road noise in the Elbe valley. Along the main border road there are dozens of stalls selling everything from underwear and leatherbags to these statues. At Decin I had also reached the European long distance trail E3 which I would now be following all the way to the Black Sea!

First landscape highlight of this trip was the Bohemian Switzerland with its bizarre sandstone formations. Of course this national park draws a lot of tourists and during the day I was hardly ever hiking without sight of other tourists. I personally found another attraction far more interesting. From 1933 to 1938 Czechoslowakia built a fortification line along the border to Germany consisting of almost 10,000 bunkers! And most of these concrete building do still exist somewhere in the forest although mostly overgrown. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

A hike through Eastern Europa


Last year around the same time I had already announced a hike through Eastern Europe - but then things turned out very differently. Instead of starting my hike at the German-Czech border I ended up in the emergency room of a hospital. And this unplanned hospital stay cut last year's hiking short.

But now I will give it another try and hopefully complete my West-East European traverse. So this is the plan:

I will start at Zinnwald where I have already started in 2012 when I hiked westwards to Santiago de Compostella. Now I will head eastward towards the Black Sea Coast in Bulgaria. Due to political reasons I have given up the idea of heading towards Istanbul.

Basically I will follow the European long-distance trail E3. Through Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia the E3 coincides with the International Mountain Trail of Friendship from Eisenach to Budapest. But once I hit the Hungarian border I will continue on the E3 trough Eastern Hungary on the Aföldi Kektura. Then I will be one of the first hikers ever to hike the new route of the E3 through Romania! For decades the E 3 has been interupted between Hungary and Bulgaria but luckily now the Siebenbürgischer Karpatenverein, a Romanian hiking organisation has planned a new route and provided me with the relevant tracks and Information. Although the route is not yet marked on the ground I hope to be able to follow it.

I have not been that lucky in Serbia. Although I have heard that the Serbian hiking association is working on a connecting trail as well my emails and calls were never answered. In the end I have created my own route now through Serbia which is mainly roadwalking.

In Bulgaria the E3 coincides with the KomEmine trail, one of Europe's longest, uninterrupted mountain trails.

Altogether my planned route is about 3,000 kilometers long. I am awfully out of shape and I want to do a lot of sightseeing on tour - and therefore I am thinking that it will take me around 4 months to hike.




The first part of this year has been rather turbulent for me and I have worked hard on my second book. Therefore I am really looking forward to be outside and hiking again. I just do hope that this time no health issues will turn up ...





Monday, January 2, 2017

Israel National Trail: Conclusion

I only hiked the INT in the Negev. And even there I cherry picked and skipped some not so interesting sections. Hiking the rest of the INT is very, very low on my bucket list after reading Buck 30's trip reports of the entire INT. He disliked the Northern part of INT and loved the Southern part. All my conclusions and recommendations refer to the Negev section of the INT only!

Did I like this trip? Yes, tremendously! In fact, this is one of my Top ten hikes ever! I have hiked ten thousands of kilometers and I have hardly ever been on a trail where there are so many highlights every single day. When it comes to spectacular landscape this is one of or even the best hike in my entire career. The Negev is simply breathtaking!
 

But would I recommend this hike to a friend? It really depends on the friend. This is not a hike for everyone and despite all its beauty I can see how this trail can also turn into a nightmare! Why?

First of all this is also most technically difficult trail that I have hiked. You really have to climb at many places and these are not easy climbs. I was very happy to have a hiking partner this time to help me lower and lift our packs and have back up in case of an emergency. You don't have to be an athlete though - even teenage school kids manage to hike the trail. But they are in a group, have no backpack and can help each other. If you want to hike the INT in the Negev alone you should be sure footed, have no fear of heights and be fit. Very few diffult sections are equipped with ladders or cables to help you! Definitely bring trekking poles and try to keep your backpack weight as low as possible. At least navigation is not an issue. The trail is very well marked. You don't need a GPS. A smartphone is enough as a backup for navigation.

But there is the water problem. We have hiked in winter with very low temperatures but also very little daylight. In December 3 to 4 litres per day were more than enough but hike earlier or later and you will be in trouble. Hiking the INT without expensive water caches is more than doable though. Just have a look at Buck 30's excellent water report that tells you all that you need to know. The only English guidebook of the INT by Jacob Saar is a total failure in this respect: It hardly describes where the water sources or even misses them! The guidebook is only good for its detailed maps - forget about the trail descriptions or good planning advice.

Then there is also the "night camp" issue. Officially you are only allowed to sleep in the official night camps. You are not even allowed anywhere else in the Negev at night. And there are rangers who are controlling it - and fining offenders. These night camps can be totally deserted - or full of more than 100 screaming schook kids. Most of the nights camps we passed were full of school kids...  Like Buck 30 we mostly stealth camped using LNT principles. Decide for yourself what you want to do!

Also keep in mind that Israel is not a cheap country. In fact I found only two things to be cheap: bus travel and mobile communication. Buses run everywhere (except on Shabbat!) and you have cell phone coverage even in the desert. But everything else is expensive. You will not to be able to splurge or treat yourself very often. Bring hiking food from your home country if possible. There are a lot of trail angels along the INT though.

The Negev is one of the most impressive and fascinating places I have ever been. Just make sure it is not more than you can take.

Israel National Trail Part 2

We had to camp close to Sapir - a gated Kibbutz in the desert. It rained all night and the dry soil turned into a quagmire in the morning. But even in the drizzle the desert looked incredibly beautiful and we were more delighted when we found extra water bottles and two cans of tuna in the next night camp along the way: sort of an unexpected Christmas present!


Actually this day turned out to be my most favourite day on the INT because it rewarded us with the best view: From the top of this plateau you look down into a wide wadi and you can see so clearly how time has shaped this canyon. And this is also the predominant feeling I had on the INT: How endless time is and how short your own life time! This great day ended with a great camp site just at the bottom of the plateau.


The INT's next surprise was the "Ramon crater" which has nothing to do with volcanic activity. The crater is caused by erosion of the soft soil and it took the wind and the rain 25 million years to create this brilliant view. Ramon is an expression for the Romans who used to cross the desert here in ancient times when Palestine belonged to the Roman Empire.


We were both tired now from strenous hiking and decided to have some sort of a "nearo" day. Therefore we hitched into the town of Mitzpe Ramon and did our resupply in the local super market where several people offered us help in decipering Hebrew cooking instructions on packaged food. We took the bus to Advat, an ancient town that was a famous stop on the "Incense Road" from Petra in Jordan to Gaza at the Mediterranean Coast and continued on by bus to Ben Gurion, the burial place of the politician of the same name.

Next day was not under a lucky star: First my hiking partner spilled two litres of water and had to go back to the last night camp to refill his water supplies from a huge school group that had plenty of water in their school bus. Then one of my Platypus bottles broke and we had to repair it with tape which did not work very well. Then it started to rain ... just as we arrived at the foot of the Karbolet mountains, supposedly the best view on the entire INT. Unfortunately I never saw it. The climb up the mountain is so technical and so steep that I gave up. The rain had made the rock so slippery that my feet would not find grip. After trying to scramble up an almost vertical cliff for an hour I was so scared and near hypothermic that I decided that it was not safe enough for me to go on especially since there is a dirt road route around it. We camped at the foot of the mountain and took the easy detour in the morning.


Our next water stop was Oron quarry where there is a night camp with a water tap right next to the quarry entrance. Several school buses were parked there. This was Hanuka holidays and everybody and their mother was out hiking this day. From Oron the INT takes you up the Karbolet mountains a very last time and half of Israel seemed to be here to enjoy this view:


As beautiful as this view is I almost hated that day: People were everywhere screaming and clogging up the steep and difficult ascents and descents. It took us two hours to hike 3 km and again we were way behind schedule. Although the climbing was not really that technical it all was too much for me that day: You constantly had to watch every single step - and you were watched by dozens of seveneen year old teenagers. Although we camped without another soul in an canyon that night the "hunt" continued in the morning when one school class was chasing us until we ran into another teenager group.

Still, our last day of hiking ended with a fantastic view of the "Small crater". And once we had passed the last school group around noon we had the entire crater to ourselves and even camped in a completely deserted night camp on our own:


Now we only had to make it back to the highway before Shabbat started and the buses stopped running ... A steep ascent made us run late again but when we finally arrived at the highway we only had to what half an hour before a bus brought us back to Jerusalem. We spent our last two nights in Israel in a Christian guest house in Jerusalem. New Year's eve is not celebrated in Israel on December 31st so therefore no fireworks for me this year. Instead we had a delicious seafood meal in an Arab restaurant before we flew back to Berlin on January 1st.


Israel National Trail Part 1

I usually don't post about trips that are shorter than one months but for this recent trip I want to make an exception: It has just been too awesome! So what has happened?



I dislike Christmas and New Year's holidays and try to escape them whenever possible. When I was looking for a suitable "refuge" I was surprised to find very cheap flights from Berlin to Tel Aviv - and as the Israel National Trail has always been on my bucket list quickly decided to go there together with a friend for the last two weeks in December. The Israel National Trail (INT) traverses the whole length of Israel in around 1000 km. Two weeks is not enough time to do that so I had to choose a suitable section. I was immediately intrigued by the desert part of the INT but was afraid of water issues in the desert. But coincidence helped me out: My old hiking and paddling friend Buck 30 announced that he was going to hike the INT just a couple of weeks before me and he let me profit tremendously from his experiences. He assured me that water was not as much of an issue on the INT than on the American trails and therefore I decided to tackle the Negev part of the INT which turned out a good decision!

First view from the INT with Jordan and the Red Sea in the background
After flying into Tel Aviv with several hours delay we spent the first day in Israel in Jerusalem in order to acclimatize and to run errands. But then we were off to Eilat on the Red Sea Coast by bus where we immediately started the INT at 2 pm. The half day showed at once all the beauty - and the difficulties of the trail.

It was a steep climb up the first mountain with a breathtaking view onto the Red Sea. But of course everything took way too long and we ended up with a hair raising descent into the first wadi or canyon just when the sun set. I pitched my tent on the first flat after the descent only to wake up at 2 am with my tent being blown down by the fierce wind ... The first wadi took my breath away again - I felt like in Utah with all the beautifully colored sand stone.

Day two was even more beautiful than the first day - and even more complicated. The wadis are dry but still have "water falls", dry water falls which are basically a pain to climb. I had always thought that the AT is technically difficult but it is nothing compared with the INT. I was very happy to not hike alone this time as it was a great help to have a partner for lifting backups up and down. Especially the climb down the Ein Netafim ("Ein" means "spring"), one of the few reliable natural water sources along the trail was so narrow that I wonder how anyone could master it with a backpack on! We still made it to an official "night camp" where we were greeted by another INT specific: several school classes had settled down there for the night and the noise was unbearable even from half a kilometer away. We decided to camp in a nearby canyon ...


Next day we reached Timna Park just as the sun set - and four buses with about 100 screaming school kids appeared. And so it was wild camping for us again ... After crossing Timna Park, a National Park where already the ancient Egyptians had mined for copper we were up for another steep climb up the Eilat mountains - and some more breath taking views before we camped in a side canyon full of ammonites.


On Friday we had the "Shabbat" problem: Basically all Israel shuts down for Shabbat - no shops are open, no buses are running. Shabbat is Saturday but it already starts on Friday shortly before sunset. And we were out of food... After some internet research we found a huge gas station close to the trail which was open every day: Yotvata! We detoured from the INT on a very windy and rainy day and still had the most wonderful views - and one of the most expensive resupplies ever ... We ended up buying pita bread and hummus from the cafeteria because most of the stuff in the convenience store of the gas station was totally unsuitable for hikers! 


But we were very lucky in another respect: From Yotvata we wanted to skip a long boring section of the INT that follows the highway. We had given up all hope to catch a bus on a Friday afternoon and were not looking forward to hitchhike in the rain when a shop assistant told us that there would be one last bus! We stuffed our backpacks with food, ran outside and really caught the bus that deposited us safe and dry in Sapir.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Hiking in Hungary: Tipps and recommendations

Sources of information: There is an excellent website about the entire Kektura in English! I used in preparation of this trip and after completing it I must say that I find all the information on it correct and valid. This website contains not only general information about hiking in Hungary, but even detailed trail descriptions in Englisch and even most of the maps! You will find all you need for a Kektura thruhike there.

Maps, guidebooks and navigation: There is a Hungarian map/guidebook in two volumes for the Kektura. If you buy it here in Germany it will cost you more than 50 EUR! I bought it, carried it on the trail - and never used it. If you still decide you want it (although all the text is in Hungarian - you can only use the maps and get an overall impression from the pictures), then buy it directly in Hungary where one book will only cost you 10 EUR. There are two German guidebooks without maps for the Eastern half of the Kektura: Budapest - Putnok and Putnok to the Slovak border. I used them, too and although I found them quite useful in times they are already a bit outdated - and you don't really need them. Why? Because first of all the waymarking of the trail is fantastic - if you don't see a blue blaze for 5 minutes you know you are off track. Secondly, OSM based maps are really all you need for navigation. I had the OSM map of Hungary on my GPS and the openandroid map for Oruxmaps on my smartphone as a back up. The latter is especially useful as it also shows the water sources in the villages.

Village services: Water, mail and telephone
Water sources: There are several springs along the trail but most of the time I got my water from the blue public water taps in town. They are leftovers from the times when houses were not connected to the public water system. Nowadays most of them don't work any more but in most villages there are still some functioning ones left. And there are also the good old cemeteries that all have water taps as well. On my winter hike I carried a maximum of 2 litres. You come across a water source at least once or twice per day - usually even more!

Shops: Most villages still have some sort of litte shop where you can buy basic supplies. Bigger towns have European chain discount stores like Aldi, Lidl, Tesco, Auchan. Stores open extremely early in Hungary: Village stores usually at 6 am, and even Aldi and Lidl open at 7 am. This means stores also close very early. Don't count on finding an open village store after 4 pm - and most already close at noon! Bigger shops are even open on Sundays! I hardly carried more than two days worth of food!

Food: In every shop you will find bread which is dirt cheap. Then there is usually some sort of sausage or salami and some basic cheese - also relatively cheap for Western European standards. Surprisingly Milka chocolote is ubiquitous in Hungary -and costs the same as in Germany! There are also some good packaged cookies - but the nuts section is usually not very well stocked. Dehydrated food is hard to find: Hungarian type "top ramen noodle soup" is available in most village stores but it tastes as bad as the American original and I only used it for emergencies. Town shops though stock a lot of  "Knorr" packages mostly imported from Germany. The photo shows a Hungarian specialty: Turos rud - a curd filled chocolate snack that you will find in the refrigerated section of even small village stores.


Gulyas
Restaurants: are very rare in the countryside, but if in town treat yourself to a nice meal. A glass of wine costs only around 0.80 € and a full meal 5-10 €. I especially loved the desserts! Wherever I ate out the food had really good quality. Keep in mind that "gulyas" in Hungarian means goulash soup only. Restaurants close very early here - especially in the countryside.

Accommodation: is cheap and plentyful in Hungary! Even in most small villages you will find a holiday apartment or private rooms. Unfortunately, most hosts speak Hungarian only which makes reservations by phone difficult for foreigners. The main website for private accommodation in Hungary is szallas.hu, but is in Hungarian only. They cooperate with Revngo.com which looks like a fraud website because their horrible translations - but I have booked several rooms through them and it always worked. Booking.com is another option for Hungary. Most cheap accommodation is holiday apartments or even cottages. This is usually much cheaper than a hotel room! Don't be surprised to find out that you can choose between four beds in your room! Expect to pay between 15 - 25 € for single occupancy and up to 35 € for double occupancy. Every single room I have stayed in sparling clean but don't expect modern furniture. Always carry a smart phone in Hungary. Most landlords don't live at the rental place, so you will have to send an email or a text message with your arrival date.

Dogs: When you walk through any village you will be greeted by a dog concert. Everybody in the countryside seems to have a dog. The good news though is that all these dogs are well fenced in - I encountered very few stray dogs. Although plentiful and loud, dogs are not a danger for hikers in Hungary.


Dangers and annoyances: Although hiking through Hungary is a very pleasant and relaxing experience I found two things that were a problem for me. The first one my only be a perceived but no real problem: the gypsies or Roma people! In Eastern Hungary you walk through a lot of Roma villages. I was shocked by the poverty and felt like walking through a ghetto. I must say that I was scared at some places although nothing happened - and I have not heard of any single incident involving hikers. There is a very good article about the topic on the English Kektura website! The second (and more real) problem was the mud: If it rains a lot most forest roads turn into mud slides - especially when they are harvesting trees.

Stamps: Most Hungarian hikers collect stamps along the the Kektura. You can buy a specific booklet for that and you will find the stamping places all along the trail. I didn't do it but other hikers told me that it is great fun.

Seasons: I thruhiked Kektura in October and early November because I was told that this is the best season. I had bad luck because it rained a lot and got cold very early which is unusual. I would still recommend hiking here in either spring or fall. Winter can be very cold here and summer is too hot in Hungary.

Transportation: Buses and trains get you anywhere in Hungary - and they are very cheap. I would recommend flying to Budapest and then take public transport to the place where you want to hike. Hungary is not that big and you should get to any major point along the trail in less than 5 hours.