02 May 2012

A Walk in the Forest


Meanwhile, back in Germany spring has sprung. Crossing continents and seasons, we get a chance to wander from autumn in the South African Karoo, with its freezing starry nights and clear still days, to the fresh green of suburban German parks, tame and organised for the enjoyment of dog walkers and weekend cyclists.

I take a walk through the strips of forest and fields bordering Recklinghausen, a medieval town turned mining centre in the industrial heartland of the Ruhrgebiet. Here slag heaps and steels mills rub up against horse paddocks and wheat fields, the old heavy industry threaded through with recovering wilderness and neat parks.

Mark, my walking companion, has lived here all his life, jogging, dog walking and mountain biking from Düsseldorf to Dortmund. When I ask how he knows where the nice walking is and how he doesn't end up in the grotty industrial estate by accident, he explains that there are regional hiking organisations ensuring the quality of the walking paths all across the country. A 'Wegwart' (path orderly) regularly hikes all the routes to check the signage, looks for fallen trees after rains or storms, controls the cleanliness of the path, marks unruly plant growth. This person is responsible for renewing the complex routing signs, which distinguishes between loops, A to B routes and long-distance tracks. They also record any maintenance work and damage for the local council to rectify.

Mark tells me that to become a Wegwart one as to attend seminars where one learns the correct way to attach a route sign to a lamp post, the appropriate paint to use for marking potholes, the minimum requirements for safe passage to avoid lawsuits from injured hikers. An up and coming Wegwart has to pass an exam or two to show their competence. It they conduct themselves properly they are eventually given expanded route networks and may even be allowed to train other wannabe Wegwarts. It strikes me that the German hiking groups have managed to turn a mildly enjoyable hobby - going for a walk - into an unpleasant chore, complete with studying for exams and the stress of having to work at what was once relaxation. How very German.


Since it's Mayday I have discovered another strange German tradition: troops of friends (mostly youngsters) drag a wheeled trolley around with them while drinking beer and listening to the loud music blaring from the stereo on the trolley. Apparently it's entertaining to walk around the neighbourhood and parks all day while drinking.

And last but not least we shop at the local farm store for freshly cut asparagus and new potatoes for our dinner. Asparagus season is taken very seriously here, with recipes traded as treasures, asparagus festivals and wines that match the most popular recipe of asparagus, new potatoes, slices of ham and Hollandaise sauce. A perfect combination, I think. And asparagus season is over far too soon, so we stuff ourselves at dinner time.