Spanish Fly

I’m about to throw myself off a mountain. 

It’s at times like this you question your life choices. It’s a beautiful day, and I’ve got everything to live for. Why would I do this?

Leonardo da Vinci knew. “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” Astonishingly ahead of his time as always, he wrote that 300 years before man actually “tasted flight”. As for me personally, it was as recently as three months ago in a tandem flight in the alps of Bavaria, and so for my November challenge I have signed up for an Elementary Pilot paragliding course. 

There’s eight of us on the course: four firemen from Wales, two ex-army Englishmen, a somewhat elderly Scottish academic and myself under the tutelage of two laid-back but incredibly professional para-bums: Ross and Jack from FlySpain

We’re ferried from Malaga to a quaint mountain-side village in Andalusia. This is archetypical Spanish countryside: weatherworn men and women in black knitwear in front of whitewashed houses, rolling fields, olive groves and oak trees under which Ferdinand the bull and his friends still graze. Algodonales looks much the same as it probably has since the time of the Moors (the neighbouring village of Zahara still lies beneath the ruins of a Moorish castle), but the main draw here is the hilly landscape, clear blue skies and warm sun, which provides paragliders with ideal flying conditions.

Ross and Jack have us starting off learning to handle our equipment on a dried-out lake, as flat as can be, and then we move on to a little hill (60 metres or so) in the middle of plowed fields, where we progress to mini-flights, practicing take-off and landing under relatively safe conditions. 

​​I say relatively, because before you get the hang of it, the wing is an unruly thing, and almost every one of us fails to take off at some point, with either canopies collapsing on top of their pilots, or people being dragged off across the field by the force of the breeze, or tumbling over when landing. (I’m lucky in that all my take-offs and landings are successful, but on the other hand I tear a muscle in my butt during one launch, which just about incapacitated me…!) We make really good progress though, working as a team, so the basic course is finished after a mere two and a half days*.

Which brings us to this moment. 

We’ve driven up the mountain for the better part of an hour, and now I’m stood here, at the edge of a launch site a good 700 metres above Algodonales, looking down at a ravine full of craggy rocks and thorny shrubs. Time to nut up or shut up. Get the take-off wrong here and you’re in a world of pain, or worse. 

Ross lays the canopy out behind me, and I try to focus on the various stances: Gay Crucified Jesus (hands out to your sides in a relaxed manner, allowing you to hold the brakes and the A-lines, letting the latter slide out as you move on to) Funky Chicken (long strides forward doubled over with your arms straight back to allow the canopy to rise above you in order to achieve lift-off, when you can happily move to) French Shrug (hands up by your ears, holding the reigns lightly, ready to steer your wing.).

Radio check. “You’ll only hear me say ‘runrunrun’ or ‘stopstopstop'”, Ross says. Hardly reassuring. Legs shaking with adrenaline. Stomach a tight knot of fear and excitement. Last equipment check, glance at the wind sock, and I’m off! I go from starting position to striding forward as best I can with my tenderised rump, only to find my left hand entangled in the lines. Fuck! I pull it out and continue – too far gone now to stop. 

I’m up in the air before I know it, sitting back in the harness as the ground falls away underneath me. The village is far, far below, the air and the sun in my face, the landscape never ending.  I round the mountain, check my bearings and fly, fly, fly. 

It feels like an eternity, but it only lasts ten minutes before the radio crackles and Jack, who has already landed, comes over the airwaves to guide me. I descend, landing neatly next to a dilapidated farm house, but in my mind I’m still up there. The adrenaline wears off, but the endorphins remain. I have tasted flight. 

We do a couple of more flights like that, gaining confidence with each one (in spite of zero wind on the very last flight, which sees me botching my perfect track record with a treetop-mowing start and ignominiously toppled landing) and then the week is over. As we return to Algodonales for the last time, a solo paraglider is riding a thermal high in the sky above the village, circling it together with a lone vulture, both of them rising effortlessly through the air. The next level beckons. 


* It’s hard work. We’re on a conveyor belt system, so once you’ve landed and bunched up your shute, you have to trundle back up the hill on foot, slipping in the furrows, making it back on top in time only for a quick drink before it’s time to suit up again. The heat, physical excercise and adrenaline all take their toll, so I’m stumbling to bed before ten most nights, after a quick trip to the local tapas bar. 

 Södermanland revisited

I came to Sweden this week hoping to continue braving Bergslagsleden, a trail I began hiking earlier this year with my brother. Alas, it wasn’t to be. His back was giving him trouble, and sleeping out in tents when temperatures drop to -4C at night was unlikely to make him better. So we decided to postpone that adventure and go hiking in Sodermanland instead. 

We poured over detailed maps, setting a route. There were a couple of restraints. We’d only do day trips, and we wouldn’t go too far from mom’s place, as we were dependent on her to get us to our starting points. 

The first day we decide to hike around Långhalsen, a lake in the vicinity that is famous for having manors and stately homes all along its shores. The reason for this is simple: the lake forms part of a chain of interconnected waterways that can take you all the way to Stockholm, and in medieval times that route was much easier to traverse than any roads on land, so naturally noble families – landed gentry – established themselves along such waters. Today, their descendants still live there, like Count Falkenberg of Lagmansö, whose ancestors have held this seat for hundreds of years. 

We set out in gloriously crisp autumnal weather – the air so clear it feels as if you could reach out across the lake and pick an apple from the count’s orchards, and the low November sun lending an aura of cold warmth to every leaf it touches. Not a single indigenous tree here has any red foliage (so I can’t fuel my autumnal addiction) but the copper and silver and gold on oak and ash and birch more than make up for it. 

The landscape is varied agricultural land, rolling hills and the lake ever on our left, as we walk into the rising sun. It’s eerily still, the water a perfect mirror image of the opposite shore. It’s also utterly devoid of people. If it weren’t for the occasional krrp of a raven or the fleeting movement of a disappearing roe deer it would be like walking inside a water colour. 

We pass several great houses, one of them an exact copy of a manor as it would have been constructed in the early 18th century, another one – Ekenäs – the former home of one of our own ancestors, before he went and willed it to the state, the silly bugger. 

There is a Viking grave field right at the opposite end of the lake that would have been nice to stay and inspect a little closer, but by this time we have realised that we have misread the map – instead of a 16 kilometre round-trip it will likely be something like double that – so we press on, well aware that sunlight is a rare commodity here. 

We make it back 45 minutes after sundown. I had forgotten just how pitch-black it gets in Sweden at this time of the year! The pale moonlight is enough to show us the outline of the road when we’re in the open, but once in the enclosing folds of spruce and fir there is nothing you can do but trust your instincts. It’s a special experience, and the fact that we are 30+ kilometres into this first day does nothing to take away from it all – quite the contrary, especially when met by hot food and a warm shower. Or at least that’s how I feel. 

Unfortunately, my brother’s back and feet aren’t improved by this shock treatment. The next day he has to stop after an hour, as he’s limping badly. I continue on my own, but it seems everything that was good yesterday has turned bad today: the weather is a drizzly gray, and the landscape seems drained of colour. 

Worse, the area I’m hiking used to be an old mining community, and even though almost every trace of it is gone, the crofts and tenant farms I pass all look like they are inhabited by the kind of white trash you’d imagine would linger on in a ghost town – every farmyard is strewn with rusting pieces of machinery, every torp has a half-finished porch, whirlpool or similarly incongruous feature bolted on to it, old cars and broken toys litter their yards – it’s a sad sight. 

Closer to home is prettier, so next day I set out on foot from my parents’ place. As I’m on my own, I ditch the backpack and run instead. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but never really did: just run down whichever path I happen to chose, discovering the land as I go. It’s lovely. I end up following a horse trail – Ridled Sormland – that we’ve touched upon on our walks, and it takes me on beautiful back roads, through forests, past lakes and a reconstructed Stone Age village (and even a small nature reserve that I never knew was right at my parents’ front door!). I go for nearly 20k before finding myself back for a late lunch. Not a bad way to go exploring!

After lunch my brother – despondent over his ordeal – decides to head back home, so all hope of continued hiking together is lost. I go with him to Stockholm and spend a couple of jolly nice days meeting friends, and go on another long run – this time around a very pretty Djurgården, which used to be royal hunting grounds, marvelling at the romantic 19th century wooden houses that dot the island, so rural in the middle of the capital – but it’s not quite the same. 

Maybe spring will be the season when we finally do the rest of the hike. Time will tell. Now all I want to do is go home be with the kids, and prepare for my last adventure this year, which won’t entail much hiking at all: learning to paraglide in Andalusia

52 places to go

So there’s this job… travel writer for the New York Times. I don’t think I can imagine a cooler assignment than travelling the globe for a year and writing about the places and people I encounter. 

But first you have to get selected, right? And with 2,500 or so applications in the first 24 hours, it won’t be easy. The brief is to write 500 words each on “What themes would you like to explore during your travels?” and “What’s the most interesting place you’ve been and why?”. I figured it was an interesting challenge in itself to answer those questions comprehensively and clearly, and since they are both themes in keeping with this blog anyway, here are my attempts – do let me know what you think!

What themes would you like to explore during your travels?

I started writing about my journeys as a way of leaving a legacy for my children – this is my small contribution to making the world a better place. And so the themes I would like to explore during my year of travels are the ones I habitually look for on my own journeys: pristine nature, exotic culture, physical challenges and unlikely encounters. 

I am a nature lover by nature. In fact I believe we all are. Nothing mankind has created can compete with the breath-taking grandiosity of the Himalayas, the intricate beauty of a coral reef, or the sheer complexity of an ordinary autumn leaf. I’m not a religious person, but natural wonders bring a sense of awe to me that naught else can. 

That’s not to say that humanity’s endeavours do not mesmerise me; expressions of human ingenuity regularly have me humbled and baffled, particularly examples dating back thousands of years. The Stone Age temples on Gozo, the Incan grass bridges, and the hand-hewn Guoliang tunnel are all astonishing feats of fearless engineering carried out in an age we tend to think of as unsophisticated – to encounter such proof of our species coming together for the greater good never fails to inspire me. 

Pushing my body to its limits is for me a way of feeling even more alive. I train to be fit, in order to live long and healthily, but in doing so I have found a new way of exploring my world: whether it be by running the length of Hadrian’s Wall in a day or travelling by dog sled across the frozen wastes of Lapland, whether kayaking in the mangrove swamps of the Dominican Republic, climbing the Alps or hiking the Appalachian Trail, I have found that overcoming your own perceived limitations not only brings a sense of achievement and a heightened awareness of our surroundings, it is also a fantastic way of meeting people. 

That last piece in the puzzle is the most elusive one: you obviously cannot plan chance encounters, but you can put yourself in situations where they are more likely to occur. And so I favour travelling alone and to places outside of the more well-trodden paths, as I find people to be more willing to interact with strangers that way. Outside of our comfort zones we are sometimes, paradoxically, more open to others than we would otherwise be. Would I have met a telenovela actress in her native Argentina, or a Latvian porn star in Tallinn? Unlikely. But on a tropical island off the coast of Africa, and in a beer hall in Bavaria those meetings happened effortlessly. I learnt that the former wanted to be a psychiatrist and the latter an author of children’s books. That, too, is the wonder of discovery.

They say travelling broadens the mind. Not all people can have that experience first hand, unfortunately, but I want to take my readers on a trip every time I put pen to paper. 
What’s the most interesting place you’ve been and why?

My latest trip was to Amsterdam last weekend to run the marathon. It didn’t require a passport. Pemba did. To me it was the perfect trip, embodying everything I want when travelling: pristine nature, exotic culture, physical challenges and unlikely encounters.

Unlike its famous neighbour Zanzibar, Pemba is devoid of tourism; its obscurity one of the reasons why it’s home to the best diving in the world. 

As you descend into the blue, you arrive in a different universe. There are fire corals, like glowing lava, cream-coloured porcelain corals, orange staghorn corals, corals shaped like trees and pink fans and black chimneys and yellow bubble baths and sponges and a hundred other different shapes and sizes and hues, nearly every one of them favoured by different species of fish. Never have I dived in such perfect waters, in such a rich flora and fauna. I surface with an enormous grin on my face. 

In the mornings we go diving, after lunch we go exploring. We traverse the jungle and see silk monkeys and crested hornbills (think Rowan Atkinson in The Lion King) and flying foxes, we paddle along the coast and in mangrove forests – the trees look like giant spiders, and the volcanic rock walls are alive with hundreds of crabs, clambering along the razor-edged volcanic overhangs.

When I go running I have a continuous chorus of children calling me. They shout “bye bye” by way of greeting, and laugh and stare, obviously thinking me a very strange sight. Once we pass a group of serious-looking young girls in beautiful scarves and dresses, and I blew them a kiss. The fact that child marriage and polygamy are allowed is difficult to comprehend for a westerner, and for a moment I was worried that I might have committed a serious faux-pas, but it resulted in an explosion of giggles. Even the adults seemed pleased, much like I expect they would have if a monkey had performed a particularly good trick. It’s a strange feeling to find yourself part of a tiny minority, and quite the eye-opener.

We spend one last day on Zanzibar, in Stonetown, a place that will forever live in infamy as the biggest slave market in the world.

Having been taken across the sound to Zanzibar the traders would cull their stock, throwing the weak ones off the ships to drown rather than having to pay duties for them. The cargo would then be incarcerated in tiny, overcrowded cellars underground for a couple of days to weed out all but the strongest, who would finally be taken to the market to be inspected, bought and sold like so much cattle that their new masters could then take to all the corners of the world, for – lest we forget – this was a global commercial endeavour. It beggars belief. 

And with that sobering reentry into civilisation, plus a parting gift of torrential rain and ditto diarrhoea, Zanzibar speeds us on our long way home. 

I have a dream…

I never thought I would find my dream job, and then this morning it found me. In a newsletter from the New York Times. 

They are looking for a “Writer At Large”, and boy, would this job live up to the title! The newspaper has a feature called “52 places to go“, and the job would mean exactly that: for an entire year, the person picked would pack up and go to a new place every week, and report back on the experience in writing and on social media. Sound like someone you know?

The ideal candidate should have a well-worn passport (✔️), having traveled to several destinations (✔️), have documented travels in writing, social media or elsewhere (✔️), have prior experience at a media organisation (✔️), and be able to commit to a whole year (…might be a stumbling block, but what the hell!).

So now the task is this: write 500 words on the most interesting place I’ve been and why that is, and 500 words on the themes I’d like to explore during my travels. Send it off together with samples of my social media writing (that would be this blog) and other credentials, adding crossed digits and allow to simmer at low heat. Easy as pie, right?!

Eh… maybe not, but it would be a genuine once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I’m gonna do it anyway. I’ll keep you posted. 

Amsterdamned marathon!

So far this year, I’ve been smashing personal bests (PBs) running. I am training hard, and it shows. One kilometre, five, ten, half marathon, all those distances have been crushed. But the Big One remained. The marathon. And so I signed up for Amsterdam marathon, knowing that it was flat and that I’d have a good chance of improving my PB of 3:46 from Barcelona

42k is a long distance tho. Anything can happen that will throw a spanner in the works. And it seemed everything that could, would. 

The railway decided this weekend would be a good time to do maintenance, meaning I wasn’t even sure I’d get to Amsterdam. In the end I managed to puzzle together a route that is best called scenic, as it took in most of the Low Lands, criss-crossing this corner of Europe the way Moses “led” his people through the desert – it shouldn’t be possible to take so long to cover such a short distance, but six hours later I finally stepped off a train in A’dam. 

As for lodgings, the Airbnb host I had picked out cancelled with less than a week to go, leaving me homeless. I had a couple of panicky days – even considering online dating to find a place to stay – but in the end a colleague came through for me; he had a friend who lives in A’dam who was likely going to run the marathon as well, and if I were willing to sleep on a mattress I’d probably be more than welcome. Yay!

I wrote the guy, Tobias, and he offered to take me on. It turns out we have another friend in common, namely my sister’s running coach, the reigning 100k world champion runner. This made me pause, and after a little digging it turns out my host-to-be was fresh back from having run his third spartathlon (that’s 268k under the Greek sun), so he “wasn’t expecting to win the Amsterdam marathon this year either”. Yeah, you and me both, brother…!

So when we finally met up for dinner the night before, it was a great dollop of humble pie for me with a side dish of sushi, but he was just as pleasant as can be, and we got on fine, with me trying to (politely) pick his brain on how on earth he manages to do those races. Another mate of Tobias was visiting from Spain, and it turned out Johan and I had a more similar level of ambition; I figured anything between 3:30 and 3:45 is possible, and he wanted to beat his wife, who had done 3:37, so we decided to go together. 

The race day starts out well enough: we bike through the deserted streets to the Olympic stadium, where the start and finish will be. A nice surprise is that Tobias works for TCS, the company sponsoring the marathon, so we get into the VIP tent in the middle of the stadium rather than having to stand in line for toilets and clothes storage with the hoi polloi. The weather is beautiful, too. Crisp autumnal air, not a cloud in sight, perfect temperature. 3:30 here I come! Or so I thought. 

And so at 0930 we set off, with me leading through the outskirts of the city centre, sticking to between 04:50 and 05:05 per k – easy as anything. Right? Wrong. It worked well enough for the first 26 kilometres, running along the canals and then out along the Amstel river and back for a tour of the affluent countryside, with barges being used as floating DJ booths, and hoverboarders cheering us on from on high above the water. I even knocked a minute off my PB on the half marathon distance. But by then it’s getting warm, and the decision not to bring any water doesn’t seem so great any more. 

Best made plans of mice, men and marathoners… Before long, calves and quads are protesting, and threatening to cramp up. By thirty k I can no longer keep my 5min/k speed up. Johan has long since disappeared. Around me, more and more people stop and grimace as muscles seize up. The only thing preventing me from suffering the same fate is the little baggie of salt my ultra marathon-running sister has taught me to bring along on longer runs. Dipping a finger tip in the bag and licking it off is all that’s required, and it works fine, but it’s not a miracle cure – it can’t do anything to prevent armpits and nipples and even more private parts from being rubbed raw against sodden, sweat-drenched clothes.

And so I trudge on. I try to do maths in my head, to see what it will take to get me to the finish in this or that time, but it’s no good. The kilometres take longer and longer, and it’s only bloody mindedness and sullen determination that enable me to continue. The crowds are good, quite supportive and enthusiastic, or at least I think they are; I hardly notice them beyond one point where the smell of ganja is particularly heavy in the air. 

It’s funny, though. When the stadium finally comes into view. I straighten up and find untapped resources, enough to overtake quite a few runners and finish strong. That’s how long it lasts though. I hobble into the VIP tent and get a massage – the only thing standing between me and a full body cramp – or so it feels. 

Tobias ran the marathon in 2:58 – two weeks after Spartathlon! – Johan fell prey to the heat (in spite of living in southern Spain!) and couldn’t beat his wife, and I, well, I didn’t get anywhere near 3:30, but I still improved upon my old PB with five minutes. It certainly felt good after the DNF at the X-trail! And of course, once reunited, we immediately said we’d do it all again next year. I’ll be Amsterdamned!


Autumn in Paris

I seem to have reached an age where my friends are turning fifty. This is why I found myself in Paris this weekend, to celebrate this momentous occasion in the life of my very good friend L

There’s no denying it is a milepost. A person is no longer young at fifty, the potential of the younger self has been squandered or put to good use, and the resulting life has evolved accordingly. One must face mortality, and consider how best to spend the remainder of this all-too-brief existence before all is irrevocably lost to death and decay. 

Perhaps fittingly then, we spend the first day in Paris visiting the dead. First the untold millions of mortal remains of millennia of Parisians bundled together in the catacombs: 

The medevial municipal graveyards were literally overflowing at the end of the 18th century. At the same time the limestone quarries that had once been well outside of city boundaries were being subjected to urbanisation, which resulted in several spectacular collapses; houses and entire streets were swallowed up by sinkholes as the poorly shored-up, long-forgotten mine shafts caved in under the weight of the expanding city. Such an exciting time to be a Parisian – your house might spontaneously drop thirty metres into the ground, or your basement might get flooded with partly decomposed bodies! 

Ingeniously, the authorities decided to solve both problems in one go: the mines were mapped and their walls reinforced, part of the many miles of underground corridors were consecrated, the churchyards dug up and their dead deposited in the mine shafts-turned-catacombs, instead. Anything between two and six million skeletons were transferred to the catacombs, and today they make for a gruesome reminder of our brief toil on this mortal coil: the narrow corridors are filled floor to ceiling with row upon row of skulls – nothing for the faint of heart. 

The Pantheon is a different proposition altogether: a Greek-Roman temple constructed “to house the great men of the Fatherland” (feminists might have a thing or two to say about that), it is the final resting place for the bodies of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Marie Curie – maybe she was granted a dispensation? – and others worthy of veneration. 

The building is famous for housing Foucault’s pendulum, which proves that the Earth moves – and I think we can agree THAT’s a relief to know! – but more importantly it moves the human spirit, because it is one of the most impressive buildings you will ever see, and the views from the roof of its dome is nothing short of spectacular.

Sticking with the theme of mortality, there is an adage that says that a person should plant a tree, sire an heir and write a book. All that speaks of a desire to leave behind something more lasting, and so the second day was devoted to visiting monuments:

The Louvre, the world’s greatest museum, filled to the brim with painting and sculptures, all wishing to immortalise their subjects and/or the artists behind them. It’s interesting to see, but also sobering to realise how little we know of even the most famous ones: Mona Lisa’s identity is uncertain, there is no proof Venus from Milo depicts Venus (or more accurately Aphrodite), and no one knows what Victory from Samotrace looked like. 

Another good example of the phallacy of immortality is the Arc du Triomph: ordered by Napoleon as a lasting monument over his soldiers’ bravery (and, one suspects, his own greatness), it wasn’t completed until long after the Emperor had been forced to abdicate and end his days on a forsaken island far, far away. It still makes for a good outlook point, however.

A better, living monument, still thriving in the age of e-publishing, situated right across from Notre Dame, is the wonderful bookshop Shakespeare & C:o. Today’s proprietor is the daughter of the founder, who ran it for fifty years, and it’s a wonderful shop, just the way bookstores should be but rarely are: books spill out of every nook and cranny (of which there are legion), and cover every available surface from floor to ceiling, so that you think you have alighted upon an Escher painting made up of books. If books have the ability to transport you through time and space, this bookstore is a wormhole of black star proportions, and I hope it will outlast all other monuments in Paris. 

So, death being inevitable and immortality (even by monumental works) being near impossible, what remains? Eating, drinking and making merry. And so we stroll the streets of Paris, taking in its many wonders – the galettes and cider from Normandy, the macaroons at Ladurée on Champs Elysée (where a Saudi prince and his wife are subjected to the worst service of their lives), the opulent pleasures of brasserie Chez Julien (where Edit Piaf would still feel at home), cheese platters straight from the fromagerie, gateaux from thriving patisseries and incredible breakfasts courtesy of Jozseph and Frédéric, who run the best bed and breakfast in the world. The champagne and absinthe flow, there is laughter and silliness, but a moment of poignant silence marks the end of the weekend, as we happen upon a mass in the monastery church of St Pierre, literally in the shadow of Sacrecoeur on Montmartre.

 There, before a congregation of believers, and in a moment of divine light, the Lord’s Prayer is read, and for the first time it strikes me: underneath the religion and ceremony lies a very simple message. Accept that you can’t control anything much, accept the finite nature of things, be accepting of others’ struggles and treat them kindly regardless, and be grateful for the little things. It’s not a bad credo. 


Bogged down by Belgium 

Home from the hills. Après les alps, le deluge. Or so it feels. Coming-home blues is a real thing, as hard a come-down as anything ever sung of in the Mississippi river delta. 

To alleviate my ills, I turn to friend Florian, a man so well-travelled he makes Magellan look like a kid playing with his toy boat in a tub. His journeys are so many and far-reaching it’s as if Marco Polo popped out for a quart of milk at the corner shop by comparison. He suggests the Haute Fagne, or High Moor, as a best place in Belgium for a day trip, and who am to disagree?

Located in the easternmost part of Belgium, straddling the border to Germany, it’s a peculiar highland, more akin to the Scottish peat bogs than anything else. A big bog to take my mind off things? Well, I’ll give it a try. Maybe seeking out the antithesis to what you miss is the way to go? And so off I, well, go. I don’t pack hiking gear, figuring I can run the 30k trail F suggests. Famous last words…

When I get there, looking out across the moor, the landscape looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic dystopia: nothing but a few stunted shrubs and dead trees. The nuclear heat of the day does nothing to detract from this illusion. Once out there, running along the duckboards, it’s a different matter. The marshland is home to hundreds of plants, mainly grasses and flowers, and it’s quite pretty in a low key way. 

There isn’t much time to look out across the landscape, however. The duckboards prove to be quite difficult to run on, in spite of being perfectly dry. The bog swallows everything eventually, but since it isn’t happening equally fast everywhere, this means one part may be perfectly stable, and the next one might tip to the side as you step on it, bounce, or simply break. It makes for a rollercoaster run. 

 This feature of the bog landscape is of course the main reason it has been a borderland for as long as can be remembered. The oldest border markers found here date back to the 7th century, and several imposing stone markers still show where the borderline between Prussia and Belgium once ran. Much like marshlands elsewhere, they were simply too difficult to traverse, and of too little economic interest for countries to fight for. 

Unfortunately, Belgian budgetary authorities share this view. Many paths through the moors are being abandoned, and only a few kept open – the others are allowed to sink into the boggy ground and disappear. I run along the main route towards Germany, and after only four kilometres I am suddenly off the beaten path. No longer able to run, I walk along a brook. It’s hard going, but very pretty, reminiscent of Swedish forests, with ferns and firs growing high, and not a living soul around. Pieces of abandoned duckboards appear intermittently, but it’s clear that not many people come here any more. 

Like a Zorn painting. Only one thing missing…

I have long since left Florian’s suggested route behind, and decide to turn around before I walk back into Germany, and there, suddenly, I’m no longer alone. A photographer and his two nude models are hard at work under a tree! 

It’s difficult to know what to do in certain situations. Do you say “hi”? Stop and admire an artist’s work? I briefly consider asking if they need another model, but I figure this blog has seen enough of me in a state of undress recently, and besides, the couple are twenty years and twenty kilos each past attractive. I get back to running instead.

I run back through ferns and grasses and dead trees, the ground muddy and slippery and mostly hidden by the undergrowth. It’s a hard slog, the ground either sucking at my shoes or sliding away and a couple of times I come close to wiping out. After a painful misstep and a near face plant, I slow down to a walk again, but once back on the duckboards I force myself to run once more – mainly to get out of the sun. 

After two hours I’m back where I started, at the one inn on the one road leading across the moors. The Baraque Michel (or the Obama Inn, as I like to think of it) has been a beacon to weary wanderers for well over two hundred years, and it’s easy to see why the family-run establishment is doing brisk business: my feet are wet and hurt, my shins and calves will require at least two showers to just be dirty again, my clothes are soaked through with sweat – I can’t bring myself to leave. 

I’ve done about half the suggested route, but I’m quite done. Properly bogged down by Belgium. 

Alpine Adrenaline II

The Bavarian Alps. The most German setting imaginable. Marvellous mountains, nestling green valleys with villages taken straight out of Grimm fairy tales. Birthplace of the grimmest of ideologies. 

I’ve come here for a week of peaceful hiking with my friends Florian and Iris. It doesn’t quite turn out that way. 

We come by train from Munich (where a local beer hall made our layover as enjoyable as can be), through pleasant rolling hills, and arrive in Oberstdorf (lit. “The highest village”) in sunny, warm weather. That’s a nice surprise in itself, since the forecast is promising thunderstorms and rain for most of the week. 

Florian suggests a “light” hike for the first day, climbing the nearest alp, Rubihorn. Coming in at 1,950m high, it’s no more than a 500-metre climb from the first lift station, but the sun is out in force, and by the time I reach the summit I’m wobbly-legged and woozy from the effort. That’s nothing compared to F and I, however. They arrive wheezing and gasping for air. But once heart rates have come down to something resembling normal we have a splendid 360 degree view for our efforts. We are at the edge of the alps, so to one side are the lowlands, and on the other there are hundreds of peaks as far as the eye can see.

What draws the eye more than anything, however, is the incredibly blue waters of the lake hidden right underneath us, shimmering in the heat like a Fata Morgana. Declining the kind offer of summit schnapps from a friendly local, we begin to make our way down a slippery slope towards it. When we finally reach its shores I’m so hot that the lure of the cristalline water takes over, and I join the friendly local and his buddies going in for the coldest dip of my life. 

Afterwards I will read up on it and learn that the lake is source-fed from below and therefore maintains a steady – low – temperature all year around (never glazing over in winter), but getting out of the water Iris sums up the experience rather succinctly: “I see it was this cold”, she says, grinning, showing a most unflattering distance between thumb and index finger. Suffice to say when the offer was made anew, I gratefully accepted the (plummet) schnapps this time around. 

Playa del Rubihorn

The next day we make for Fellhorngrad and a ridge walk that would have been ideal as a first day introduction to the area. Straddling the border between Germany and Austria, it’s a pleasant enough hike, but too crowded and pedestrianised for my taste. The best that can be said for it is that it offers splendid views into the Austrian valley where we will be exploring next day. 

The vale is effectively an Austrian enclave in Germany, because there is only one real road into the valley and it arrives there from Bavaria, which must have made everyday life for the inhabitants rather cumbersome back in the day of border controls. More importantly (to us) it’s also home to one of the more impressive gorges in Europe, the Breitachklamm. And so our third day sees us going to Austria.

Getting off the bus well above the Klamm (“pinch”) itself, we follow the Breitach downriver in glorious sunshine along a very pretty road that would have been a joy to run. I say as much to my hiking friends, forgetting the adage that you should be careful what you wish for. You see, after an hour or so of hiking Florian discovers that he has left his outrageously expensive camera hanging on a bench where we took a break. It’s a good kilometre back up the road, so I offer to run and get it before someone else does. 

Unfortunately someone else already has, and so I continue running back to the last lodge we passed, yet another kilometre upriver. When I finally arrive I’m drenched in sweat, but the camera is there, handed in by the finder (hikers are nice people!), and so all that remains is for me to race back to my friends. By the time I get back after this unexpected detour I’m once more so over-heated that I just tear my clothes off and let the river cool me down, with unexpectedly homoerotic / rubberducky results, as captured by my gleeful friends. 

When I post a pic of me on FB/when I’m tagged in one.

The Klamm itself is gorge-eous. The valley narrows, steep walls looming above us, waterfalls forcing their way ever deeper into the rock beneath us, as we clamber along walkways hewn into the cliff-face or precariously hanging on to the outside of the bare rock. Like a cut into the flesh of Mother Earth, the gorge is so deep that some of it hasn’t seen the sun for two million years. The debris left behind by winter floods bear witness to the brute force of the water: entire trees are lodged between the walls in places, and markers show the water levels sometimes reached, metres above our heads. It’s awe-inspiring.

Since Florian is leaving in the afternoon to visit a friend, Iris and I decide to try something both of us have been itching to do for a long time: tandem paragliding. We’ve signed up to do their longest flight, using the thermals to stay up in the air for up to forty minutes. Unfortunately, the flight school is incredibly badly organised, with numerous reschedulings and one pilot not showing up until an hour and a half too late, by which time it’s so late in the afternoon that the thermals are gone. This in turn means our flight is less than half the length promised, but for all that it’s an incredible experience!

We run off the top of the Nebelhorn and take flight as easy as anything, then go down the valley close to the forest-clad sides, gliding effortlessly and smoothly through the air. It’s such a high I’m just grinning and laughing the whole time. Iris, meanwhile, is screaming at the top of her lungs – something she has forewarned both me and her pilot is a sign of joy. She soon has cause to scream for other reasons, though, because then they start showing off their skills, making us swing around our axes, spinning around in half loops in the best roller-coaster tradition. It’s fantastically good fun, if quite disorienting. 

Iris earning her new nickname, with me in the background.

Before we land I’m given the reigns and told to steer towards the village church, which I do as best I can, before finally we come down soft as can be on a field, grinning from ear to ear from the adrenaline high, and me at least more convinced than ever that this is something so want to learn for myself! The rest of the evening is spent in a Biergarten, mulling over the minutest of details, riding the air waves over and over again.

Next day Florian is back, but the worse for wear from last night’s birthday do, so Iris and I ride the Bergbahn to the top of the Nebelhorn on our own. We set out along the ridge together before parting ways, with me attempting the Entchenkopf alone. 

It’s sits across from the Rubihorn, but is 300 metres higher, and significantly more difficult going, with several passages being senkrecht climbing. I had been wanting to try the via ferrata, the climbing paths that you traverse with guides and equipment, but nae more. This is worse by far. With no back-up or climbing gear, the ground slippery from last night’s rain, and drops of anything between ten and fifty metres onto sheer rock, any mistake would be my last. It’s no coincidence Todesangst is a German word, I think. 

What do we say to Death? Not today.

When I finally reach the summit, my legs are shaking from fear-induced adrenaline, and I don’t dare stand up for quite some time. But fear is good. Fear – if harnessed – makes you more alive, more focused. As I sit there, taking in the never-ending views, the air as clean as can be, I feel like a million bucks. 

And then the moment is over, and I slide down the other side of the mountain towards the Hütte where Iris awaits my return, and the best Kaiserschmarren pancakes known to man.

That was Iris’s last day, so next day Florian and I set out on our own to do the Sonnenköpfe, three lower peaks that form the continuation of the Entchenkopf. They looked more like rolling hills from the summit the day before, but as we hike them they turn out to be quite formidable, too, and it’s only the knowledge that there will be even more of the same Kaiserschmarren that spurs us on til the end. 

Next we want to try the stony Gottesacker plateau (lit. “God’s plowing field”), but when we get there the lift is under repair, and faced with the prospect of an additional 1,000 vertical metres in full sun – the weather forecast having turned out to be quite wrong yet again – we opt for an alternative route through a Naturschutzgebiet up to another lodge, seated on the Austrian-German border, and down the other side. It turns out to be Florian’s favourite walk of the entire week, but I can’t help feeling a bit wistful about having missed the plateau, especially since it looks just like a sleeping dragon from below…

Climb every mountain!

The very last day the weather forecast is finally correct, and the rain is pouring down. F can’t be bothered to leave the Gasthaus, but I go for a quick run and then a solo hike in the southernmost valley in all of Germany. It’s wet and misty and moist and slippery, but I don’t mind. The low-hanging mist lends the nature here a mystical aura of veiled beauty, and besides it’s reminiscent of the hikes of my youth, when – as I remember it – the alps were always clad in clouds. 

And so my travels with Sonnenkopf and Nebelhorn (lit. “Sunny head” and “Fog horn”) are at an end. The lovely Martin and Andrea, who run the Gasthaus Birkenhof where we have been staying, hug and kiss us goodbye and drive us to the railway station, and then all that remains is one more visit to a beer hall in Munich (with succulent Schweinshaxe and Augustiner beer), before finally flying home. 

The alps, however, are already calling me back. 


Geneva, Switzerland

I came to Geneva early one morning with the sole intention of leaving it as soon as possible, but a fatal error when booking my rental car (not changing 7 PM to 7 AM) combined with a healthy dose of inflexibility on the side of the car rental company left me unexpectedly with an entire day here.

Truth be told, I didn’t mind (much). I had only ever been once before when I was here to work for the UN (as you do), and hadn’t had the time to see any other part of this most quintessentially Swiss town. 

The first thing that struck me is how hushed it all was. Granted, as I had flown in on a red eye, the city was probably even quieter than normal as I made my way on foot towards the old town, but still… the famous water sprout on the lake seemed to be the only thing moving, sending cascades of water 140 metres in the air. It was already hot however, and being dressed top to toe in black didn’t help – it might make you look cool, but I was anything but.

And so I slunk through the alleys of the old town, lurching from shade to shade like Frankenstein’s monster, who was “born” here when Mary Shelley outdid her friends in a literary contest, Decameron-style.

Geneva is famously the birthplace of another monstrosity, too (in the eyes of the Catholic church, at least!). 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and having been at the centre of that revolution the city celebrates with numerous plaques and statues, none more impressive than the stalinesque monument at the foot of the old town, where the four founders stand in vigil, looking like a cross between dour dwarves from Tolkien and Usama Bin Ladin. Given that their ideas directly contributed to wars, civil wars, famine and the deaths of millions one has to wonder what great thinkers will be venerated five hundred years from now…

John Locke, Gimli, Grumpy, Usama

Back in the here and now, modern Geneva proves to be exactly as stereotypically Swiss as can be hoped for: banks line the streets (presumably with impressive vaults hidden underneath them), and luxury items are on sale everywhere – foremost amongst them watches, ranging in price from small car to McMansion – and the army’s favourite deterrent makes regular apparances. 

So far, so Swiss. Less famous is perhaps the fact that Swiss society is incredibly liberal – it’s here people can go to take their own lives in special death clinics, after all – and so it shouldn’t perhaps come as a surprise that there are stores selling cannabis and prostitutes plying their services quite openly, as if it were nothing more special than, say, cheese fondue (I’m not saying cheese fondue can’t play a part, too, but you would probably have to pay extra…).

I have my sights on a different Swiss speciality, however, of a most particular kind: CERN.

The European Centre for Nuclear Research is arguably the most successful example of humankind coming together for the greater good and advancement of the race. It’s here, or rather one hundred metres below the ground, that the Large Hadron Collider is – well, at this point I admit defeat; there is no way I can explain how the particle accelerator is used. They crash particles into each other at near the speed of light and sift through the debris to infer the existence of various infinitesimally small building blocks of the universe. That’s the best I can do. 

But it’s here, all 27 kilometres of it, running circles around everything else in terms of coolness (quite literally, as the magnets used to speed the particles on their way are cooled to just a couple of degrees above absolute zero in order to create superconductivity), and I spend a couple of very happy hours taking in the exhibitions and enhancing my ignorance.  

And so it was that I left Switzerland with an even better impression than I had before. It’s easy to see how the combination of the lake and the surrounding mountains lures people here – unfortunately that is also why the market has seen fit to ensure that it that it’s out of reach of most mortals. As I left I tested this using the Big Mac index: roughly twice the price of all other European nations. Wanna live in Geneva? Win the lottery, or – at least – bring a packed lunch. 

Man vs. Mountain

So today I participated in Courchevel X-trail, a particularly cunning name for an extreme trail run in the Courchevel region (of the French alps). An orgie of gruelling ascents and descents – 54km, to be exact, and nary a flat surface in sight. 

It started at four in the morning, so in fairness there was no way to see the wall-like mountain towering immediately in front us either, but as soon as we were off you could tell just how murderously steep and long it was from the headlamps of runners ahead and behind you, like a string of pearls in the night. 

It took me two hours to reach the first aid station, 10k into the race. Normally I would have covered more than twice that distance in that time, so it wasn’t running so much as climbing. By this time the sun had climbed into the sky as well, and revealed that this first mountain wasn’t anywhere near done with us yet: we were only halfway up it, in fact.

And so on we climbed. The sun stayed resolutely hidden behind clouds and mist, but even so I was pouring with sweat, in spite of it being only six or so in the morning. When I finally crested the first mountain, realisation dawned: descending is almost as bad as ascending! The first descent of the day was relatively doable, but as the day wore on, gravel and treacherous stones in combination with deadened legs meant it was just a different kind if torture.

If I had seen a contour map of the route I dont think I would’ve ever signed up: the second mountain was even higher than the first, 600 metres straight up in the air (over something like four kilometres) to the second aid station, along its ridge for another handful of kilometres (where the fog thankfully hid the abysses we were tightroping along!) and then down impossibly steep roads into a rather wonderful valley. Here a number of fast flowing rivers with water the colour of blue clay, conspired with stone chalets and grazing cows straight out of a Milka commercial to make a rather enchanted place, the enclosing mountain ridges adding to the feeling of a lost paradise.

Unfortunately that paradise was quickly lost again, as a third ascent began at the valley’s end, this one leading up across alp meadows with incredible numbers of flowers and then into a seemingly never-ending field of boulders, where one false move would have meant instant reenactment of the pivotal scene from “128 hours”.

By this time I had given up running apart from a slow jog on the downhill sections, but the boulders provided the straw that broke the camel’s back. There was no way I could walk fast enough to make the next rope time, and running across them (either up- or downhill) wasn’t an option, so after seven hours and 30k I had to resign myself to the fact that today would earn me my first ever DNF (Did Not Finish). 

It’s obviously not an accolade I was hoping for, but at the same time I can’t be unhappy. A number of factors combined to make today a bad day: I slept atrociously bad the night before the race – two days of stressful travelling to get here plus sleeping in a tent after a day of 34 degrees heat and no shower saw to that – and I’m obviously not good enough at running in this kind of terrain (hardly surprising as I’ve never done it!). 

So my spirit wasn’t in it, and I stepped off while still feeling ok physically, rather than push myself to the absolute limit, knowing that this way I’d  be able to come back to enjoy the alps in a week’s time – this time for less strenuous hiking, hopefully – and that’s a choice I’m happy with. 


A final note on race organisation: while overall it was a very smooth operation, there are some points that might be of interest to potential runners. First of all, Courchevel isn’t one place. There are at least three villages called Courchevel, and having had more information about the actual location of the point of departure would have saved me an hour or so of admittedly scenic but very stressful driving as the closing time for registration drew ever neigher. 

The goodie bag deserves a special mention: apart from the usual array of vouchers and marketing material for other races it contained a plastic gobelet (useful?), a local beer (very drinkable, I’m happy to report), and a condom! That’s a first. Whether it was there to serve as a sort of talisman, to keep and preserve you in the mountains (condom in French is “preservatif”, after all), or whether its presence had anything to do with the imminent proximity of Pussy (a French hamlet nearby) I don’t know. 

There were no medals and t-shirts on offer for finishers. Instead you got a mug and a pin – full marks for novelty here as well, but I’m not sure I would have been very happy with that offering upon completion. 

Finally a word on safety. The race organisers had done what they could: the trail was well blazoned throughout, and there were even a handful of volounteers scattered about the mountains in the iffier spots, but there’s no denying that rescue operations would have been very difficult. In the darkness and the fog there was no way a helicopter could have got to the site of an accident, even if there was someone to report where it happened (and the potential for accidents was unlimited). In the same vein, I was incredulous to discover that the only way of getting down from the aid station where my race came to an end was to hike twelve kilometres unsupported “mostly downhill”. It was only luck that saw me being able to hitch a ride with a ranger, otherwise I’d still be out there now…