Long Distance Hiking for Masochists – 101

We have hiked trails across the Netherlands, the Chilkoot Pass into Alaska, the Cape to Cape trail in Australia. We hiked the hills of Galilea and the Camino in Spain. However, I have decided that while I still enjoy walking, hiking Long Distance Trails were you have to carry a heavy pack is not for me:

Hiking long distance trails (LDT) is the ideal activity for masochists. As a sport it is rapidly gaining popularity worldwide as ever increasing networks of trails sprout up everywhere. However, even the most dedicated masochist needs to prepare before undertaking such an adventure. Here are some basic guidelines to help you on your way to a most painful experience you won’t want to miss.

Let’s start with a discussion on equipment. For maximum benefits you will need specialized clothing and other items as well as thorough preparations.

1. Equipment
Boots. The first thing you will need to buy is proper footwear. Boots. The heavier the better. Ensure that your boots are at least one, and preferably several, sizes too small. An effective style for long distance hiking is the prison style boot complete with ball and chain. This will add memorable moments to your hiking experience. Buying lightweight, waterproof boots is no fun. Socks will cost you about 20 dollars a pair. The label will tell you that these socks are ‘wicking’ – this means they circulate moisture. Buying wicked socks for 2.- per pair has the same desired result.
You will also need to select a jacket that allows moisture to be absorbed and retained both in and outside. Select shorts or capris that can be rolled up to expose as much flesh as possible. Blackflies, mosquitoes and brambles are all eagerly waiting for you. Don’t disappoint them by buying insect repelling clothing. People repelling clothing might be a better choice in some locations.
You will also need to select a suitable backpack. If you hike long distances you will need to decide on the size best suited for your particular trek. I recommended the largest size possible. You decide the proper size by filling the pack, with boulders, beyond capacity. If you cannot possibly lift it with both hands, it is just the right size to carry for the next several weeks.
Backpacks are measured in liters: 18, 30 or 40 liters are the most common sizes. This means you have a choice: you can either fill your backpack with stuff or with 40 liters of beer or wine. Based on experience I recommend the latter.
A backpack should have a waist strap. The purpose of the waist strap is to increase pressure on the bladder while hiking.
2. Food
If, however, you decide to take ‘stuff’, you might want to include food. You will likely not encounter a Starbucks or a bakery along the trail so keep this in mind as you select food and drink. Commonly recommended food is a freeze dried, lightweight, tasteless, processed blend of oats, barley and other indigestible dry flakes. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most popular being bars or pellets. The advantage of pellets is that, if you have any leftovers at the end of your journey, you can use them as cattle feed or in your woodstove.
Select the most desirable type of freeze dried bars by offering one to your dog. If he refuses, you have found the kind you want to take along on your long distance hike.
3. Map
Be sure to look for a proper map or trail guide. Generally a map is at least ten years outdated. This poses no problem since any trail system worthy of its existence, has an accompanying website. The website will give you any changes and updates to add to your book. Print off all 86 pages to carry along. Any pages you don’t need anymore can be used during sanitary stops. (you didn’t really expect toilet buildings and 4 ply out there, did you?).
If, at any point during your hike, you get bored I recommend holding the map upside down for a few kilometers. This adds greatly to the excitement.
Many LDT have, in addition to maps, an easy to follow system of markers. These consist of faint, barely visible paint stripes on trees or posts. For maximum enjoyment select a trail that runs near, and is often intersected by another trail system with similar signs: white and red stripes mixed with faint yellow and red stripes works great. The more often these trails cross, the better your changes of following the wrong trail for a while. The other thing that adds to the fun is when trees with signs on them have been cut down, allowing you to wander aimlessly for hours before spotting another faint white stripe on the trunk of an birch tree.
4. Accommodations
Unless you chose to sleep in a tent the size of a ziploc bag, you will have to book hostels along the way. A hostel offers an inexpensive place to sleep to the weary hiker. The inexpensive bed entails a creaking bunkbed, sometimes with sheet, blanket and lumpy pillow. I recommend a bottom bunk since the top bunk has no ladder and no sides. Save these top bunks for entertainment. Hikers who arrive after you will have to hoist themselves up there. If you are lucky you can observe them tumbling down in the dead of night. A string of swear words will follow.
Most hostels have beds for up to 40 people per room. This increases your changes of no sleep at all since at least 30% of your fellow hikers will snore loudly, have nightmares – no doubt of hiking LDT – and will happily leave their very smelly, sweaty prison style boots next to the head end of your bunkbed. As a rule

, 80% of any female fellow hikers will have to get up at least twice during the night to use the bathroom. These were the ones with 40 liters packs.

5. Terrain
When selecting the terrain for your your hike, be sure to pay attention to the type of vegetation and weather conditions. 40% chance of showers will likely mean a nonstop drizzle. This also increases your chance of mosquito encounters.
Knee high thistles and brambles are recommended. What else are you going to complain about afterwards?
6. Fellow trail users
At night, in the hostel, it is recommended that you make contact with fellow hikers. The purpose of these social encounters is to compare the size of mosquito bites, the numbers of times you were lost and wandered aimlessly and the spots along the trail where you waded knee deep in cow paddies or mud puddles. Do not, under any circumstances, discuss the appealing scenery, the solitude of the trail or the thrill of being in nature.
Do, however, pay close attention to any other trail LDT systems recommended by these experienced hikers. Take notes. This will ensure you many more years of suffering. Unless you took my advise on backpacks and filled yours with 40 liters of wine.

Australia: Cape to Cape Hiking

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

On Day 3 Kees stumbled in after an even tougher day in the trail. He really pushed himself to the limit but he did it. Another 22 KM.
We stayed in a lovely condo on Prevelly Beach, it even had a washer and dryer so I managed to do our laundry and some work on the computer. That night we had a fantastic dinner in the resort: steamed vegetables, perfect steak, roast potatoes. Dinner never tasted so good. I came to realize that we had not had the best “input” to get the right “output”. You are what you eat and, in Augusta, the motel provided us with some white bread, juice and jam. When we arrive there, at the end of a long hard day, everything in town had just closed. The first night we found greasy fried chicken and fries at a gas station store. The second night, a small cafe stayed open ‘late’ to make us a hamburger. Not good food to hike on. After our steak and veggies dinner I could really feel the energy coming back.

It is hard to imagine the utter isolation of this trail if you are only used to European or North American hiking. Here, there is NOTHING. Once you hit the trail, you are on your own. We might see one or two people in an entire day. There is NO village, no cafe (C2C = Cape to Cape, not Café to Café!), not one place to sit and have a drink. There is not even a bench. When we need a break, all we can do is plop down on the track in the dirt.  No tree trunk, just track and scrub. Generally there is no shade to sit in. We carry daypacks with lots and lots of water.

The way we’ve come…

There is dead silence except for birds.

Shells on the beach

Sometimes the track is so narrow that we scrape our legs and arms on the scrub. I try to stamp my feet in the hope that the snakes will feel us coming and disappear.
It is daunting to know that you are completely on your own. There is no way out other than forward. There is, mostly, no mobile phone reception. No place to walk to in an emergency. All I do is hope that we don’t need help for there is none. Just wild bush country and us.

Day 4 saw us hiking from Prevelly to Gilbarra homestead. We made it but with no energy to spare so we are both skipping day 5.
The homestead is a gorgeous acreage with a large house and outbuilding. Overhanging verandahs, roses, a pond. Our hosts made us a Thai dinner and we slept like a log. Feeling better now but glad to have a day of rest.  Tomorrow we will continue in our quest to reach Cape Naturaliste.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Day 6 had us wake up to a beautiful breakfast of muesli, fresh fruit salad and homemade bread. It’s a treat to get breakfast like that. Usually we are the ones serving it in our B & B. Gilgarra Retreat has its own grapefruit, lemon and orange trees. It rained a little bit last night, but this morning the sky was a brilliant blue. We almost wish for clouds when hiking because the sun gets just too hot.

Gilbarra Homestead

We hiked some 17 kilometers today. The trail started out as not too bad, although some sections were so narrow that we were scraping arms and legs on the bushes. Then we hit some steep boulder sections with no visible trail, just rocks to clamber down on along sheer cliffs with the ocean below.
Gorgeous views but very treacherous clambering, not exactly hiking.

The highlight for today came when we actually found… a bench! In the shade of a melaluca grove no less. We were just unwrapping a sandwich when, right in front of us and very close by, a huge whale breached! He came down with a thunderous roar. We watched whales on and off all day. Later on, several breached again but not so close. It was an awe inspiring moment.

With sore toes and stiff limbs we are now in a lovely old hotel. Tomorrow will be our last day on this trail and we plan on touching the corner stone of Cape Naturaliste lighthouse.

Friday, November 8, 2013

 …all our roads are new and strange,
And through our blood there runs
The vagabonding love of change
That drove us westward of the range
And westward of the suns.

(From The Old Australian Ways)Day 7, best day of hiking yet. We didn’t do any 🙂
We both had enough. The organization of the organized hike we booked was perfect. The accommodations and meals were mostly perfect. The fact that our luggage was transported was wonderful. The route descriptions and everything else, were great.
The problem is the trail itself. It seems that the entire idea of a Cape to Cape hike is fairly new and still in its infancy. They’ve managed to connect a path all the way. But the trail is still very rudimentary. In a few places it is a nice hiking path, but most of it is too rough to even be called a trail. The sections of soft beach sand and crumbling dunes to climb really did us in. The scrambling over rocks, tripping over branches and boulders, just made it plain unpleasant.
Combined with relentless sun, we are zapped of energy.

Today our luggage was to be moved to a 5 star resort. We looked at each other and said “Let’s go with the luggage!” It seemed a shame to have a room in a luxury resort and not be there to enjoy it. This is why we are now in the most gorgeous bungalow, in a quiet tropical forest. Five minutes from a glorious white sand beach with turquoise waters. Best of all: a heated infinity pool. Imagine just coming here to sleep. That would be such a waste.
We decided that it really doesn’t matter that we didn’t finish the last section to the lighthouse. We had a good time, enjoyed the views, the whales, the beaches and the experience. But we all recognize our limitations.
Tonight we’ll enjoy a fancy dinner. Tomorrow we’ll catch the bus back to Perth. And then, on Sunday, we start the next exciting chapter of our Aussie adventure: the Indian Pacific train across the Nullabor desert, to Adelaide and then on to Melbourne. Stay tuned for more on this. But not sure when we will next have internet again!

Friday, November 8, 2013: Green Camping

I am finding it very difficult to be a ‘green’ camper on this trip. At home I religiously recycle and reuse. Here recycling rules are different from state to state, perhaps even city to city in Australia. None of the many campgrounds we have seen so far, have recycle bins or offer ways to separate garbage. We asked in several stores about bottle returns and were told they don’t do that here. We spotted one recycle station in a National Park today so perhaps it will become more readily available.
Living close to nature, I realize how recycable we all are! Many birds circle a dead kangaroo on the side of the road. In no time at all, there’s nothing left. Hiking on a trail, I notice a dead bug. It is surrounded by thousands of ants and, in no time, there’s nothing left.

Often there are water restrictions in this dry land, so I take very short showers. We use reusable shopping bags and use any bags we gather as garbage bags. Any plastic bags or containers are put to new use. But still, we seem to produce more waste here than at home. And of course, all that wrapping material represents danger to many animals. Turtles and dolphins have been known to be killed by plastic bags, when they mistake them for jellyfish, and by plastic six-pack holders. Many beaches are very clean and towns often have ‘tidy city winner’ signs so they do take pride in being clean. Nevertheless we do see garbage in the bush and on the beach.

I just realized that none of the homes or hotels we’ve stayed at, have central heating. Our hotel rooms have a small portable heater. And every bed, so far, has an electric heating pad. But it seems that no heating is needed besides a fireplace.

Australia gets 4 stars for clean air. I haven’t been in a place for a long time that has such little air pollution. The sky is brilliant blue, it smells clean and it’s a joy not to see layers of brown smog in the distance. Of course that is because there are relatively few cities, traffic and industries. It’s a far cry from places like Shanghai! The starry night sky is amazing. Pitch black with millions of sparkling stars.

Hiking The Pieters Pad, Netherlands North to South, 500 KM

The Pieterspad runs from the northern part of The Netherlands all the way to the southern tip. It might be a small country, but this trail is some 500 KM. It is relatively flat, well maintained (by volunteers) with good signage. There is affordable accommodation along the way. Read on for our experience, complete with links to more details.

Day 1

The first day section went well. Got up at 7, had a great breakfast downstairs and got ready for the day trip. I took almost nothing because I was coming back to the same hotel that evening. The forecast was for some very light rain, so all I took was water and a raincoat, and the camera of course.
First to the train station and the train to Winsum. (Pieterburen has no train connection). In Winsum I found the bus to Pieterburen and got there around 11 am.
Found the start of the trail when I saw a direction sign that stated Pietersberg 464 km. (an old sign because the trail has been updated since and is 498 km) !

As soon as I left the village the wind hit me straight from the south but since the temperature was still in the 20’s it felt great. The first impression was the wide open spaces that the Groninger landscape offers. Rich dark clay soils have made these farmers rich over the centuries. Most of the farms are huge, several thousand acres and the most modern machinery was harvesting the potatoes and sugerbeets on every second field. Wherever there is no agriculture dairy cows crowded the fields by the hundreds. Well known Fries and Groninger cows which have been exported to around the world as breeding stock. I was euphoric, finally on my way, planned two years ago when my brother was still alive. We had planned to do this together after we finished the Camino the Santiago 13 years earlier. Unfortunately cancer did not allow him to to it and he passed away a year ago.

The first 3.5 km to Eenrum I soaked in the surroundings, typically Groningen. The first village was again typical northern Holland, small old houses around a large church.

For details and sections see: http://www.pieterpad.nl/etappe.htm

Day 2

Past Eenrum through Mensingeweer, again a small typical northern Holland village, most of the trail follows a narrow asphalt path through the countryside. Fortunately no major roads although occasionally I cross one. Most of the trail follows a canal or stream of some sort.
During the 3 hours it takes me to get to the final destination of the day: Winsum, I meet, maybe, 6 hikers going the same direction and 4 coming the other way (heading north, is it their last section of he entire trail, or just a day hike??).
It is quiet even though it is a Saturday. The directions through Winsum take me through backyards and around the church but I find the railway station without a problem.

Even though the skies have been threatening the entire hike, the moment I enter the railway station, to get back to Groningen, the skies open up and it pours buckets for a few minutes. Back in Groningen (15 minute train ride) it is dry.
My feet are not doing too bad although I can sure feel them, but I wonder how things will go when I put another 25 pounds on my back. My shoulders will handle it no problem, but what about the bottom of my feet? So far so good. I can surely feel my feet, but at least no blisters.
Tomorrow I’ll be taking the train back to Winsum to walk into Groningen and that is 15 km. I’ll definitely need to take some rests while walking. This first 10 km I never rested, (as I trained) which probably was not the smartest thing to do, tomorrow I will need to take my time.
More tomorrow. Now first a good dutch beer!

Day 3

Winsum – Groningen (in reverse)
The second day of my long distance hike started poorly. Woke up before 6 AM and it was pouring rain outside my window at the Martini Hotel in Groningen. By 7 AM I had breakfast and when I was ready to start walking at 8 AM it was actually DRY!
First I had to find the Pieterpad trail because the hotel is not located along the route itself. But at that time in the morning on a Sunday you can shoot off a canon down mainstreet and not hit a soul. I wound my way through town, through parks, littered with the left overs of late night parties, and finally found my way to the trail outside of town. Immediately I missed one of the signs and ended up walking an extra km before I had found the trail back.
Most of the trail is marked with small red/white signs, but some are faded and/or missing. It is not like the Camino de Santiago which you can hike without a guide because the markings are so well done. But once I got moving I made good progress through wide open fields. I had decided to walk this section of trail from south to north because the very detailed Dutch weather forecast (http://www.buienradar.nl/) showed me that it probably would dump less rain on me than if I had taken the train first back to where I left off yesterday (Winsum).

I hardy saw a soul on my way out of Groningen and during the first hour. The other advantage (to the promise of less rain) was that I now had the constant (strong) wind in the back instead of against me. This was the fist day I used hiking poles and it sure did make a difference. Now instead of blisters on my feet I had blisters on my hands (just kidding). The only problem is that one of the poles has a rubber cover missing at he base, so I sound like a pirate with a wooden leg. Everything went smoothly until it went swimmingly.

Dark clouds had been gathering but I thought those were moving away from me. How wrong I was. Suddenly it was pouring rain and not just rain, but HAIL!  Three days ago the Dutch weather had set high temperature records in the low 40’s. As soon as I went for a walk, it had to hail, not fair! Anyway I happened to find a car port and stayed under it for 10 minutes for the worst to pass. Onwards through green fields as far as the eye could see, cows were eying me suspiciously.
Since there was not a village or hamlet in sight I just kept walking and because everything was soaking wet I could not sit down anywhere to rest. The rain had stopped after a while, but once in a while I had to put my poncho on to more or less stay dry. Finally after 3 hours and probably 14 km I got to a village where I found a cafe and a coffee and a tosti to sustain me for the rest of the day. Another 5-6 km and I made it to Winsum where I missed the train by 5 minutes and had to wait 55 minutes for the next train back to Groningen. That gave me plenty of time to read about the next sections of the trail. Today ended up being about 20-22km. All in all not a bad day, thanks to the poles I had little or no trouble with my feet and I have confidence in the 21 km for tomorrow (with backpack). I have made overnight reservations in the next two villages and look forward to exchanging the wide open spaces (with the damn winds) to forests in Drenthe. (the second province of the five I will be hiking through).

The Road to Zuid Laren

Well, another day done of the Pieterspad! I am sitting in my B&B room in Zuid Laren, 20+ km from Groningen. Most of me hurts, my feet, my knees, my shoulders, but I made it.
The weather was great, could not have asked for a better hiking day, sunshine a little wind, but not too hot. After an early breakfast (7AM) I first mailed a pound of unneeded balast so I did not have to carry that. Then it took me close to an hour to hike out of the city and get into the countryside.
Lots of water everywhere, I walked along a canal for about an hour, past lakes and streams. Got to the next village: Haren and was looking forward to a nice cup of coffee there. BUT this is Holland and on Monday morning just about everything is closed. No coffee anywhere to be had. That was not too bad but what about lunch? I decided to make a detour through another village in hopes of finding a cafe or restaurant open for lunch. Big mistake, nothing was open, so except for an apple as a snack I had nothing to eat and had to find the trail back again.
Just when I did, I noticed a snackbar that was open and at least had something to eat and a badly needed rest because I probably had done 15 km by then. That was about the point where the landscape changed. For the first 2 and a half days I walked through green fields and wide open spaces with few trees (Groningen), now I crossed into the next province (Drenthe) and within a few kms it turned to forests, smaller fields, different agriculture and small (er) scale farming. Much prettier and friendlier to look at. I love Drenthe where I spent quite some time with Rob during our last trip together. Also last year Margriet and I managed to spent a day there biking through lovely heather fields and forests.
As a matter of fact when we were in Holland with the four of us about 20 years ago we biked through that same area (Dwingelo), watching a real  the sheep herd with a shepard. The next 4 days I’ll be walking through Drenthe and since the weather forecast is good I look forward to that very much.
Just before I reached the final destination there was a sign to ‘hunebedden’. Those are 5,000 year old graves of the first inhabitants of Holland, huge piles of huge rocks under which their dead were buried. A very short side trip took me there. I had seen those once before, 55 years ago when I toured Holland with my parents.
Got to the B&B, but first found a bar open and had my well deserved beer for the day.
My feet are fine, no blisters, but my neck is hurting from the pack. I need to adjust it because it does not seem to fit well.
Time for a shower!

And then I discovered that I had left my converter plug in the wall at the last B&B ! Of course that meant that my computer could not be recharged, nor my shaver. The last one was OK, but missing the computer was a bummer. So, here goes from memory and some notes in a booklet.

Day 4 the path went from Zuid Laren to Rolde. The day started out very frustrating because I went all over town (more like a village) to look for a new converter. Yes, lots of them for sale, but all from Dutch to whatever other system in the world, not the other way around. Then I tried to put some money on my phone card, but that did not work. Finally I discovered that the old phone had bitten the dust, so ended up having to buy a new phone. After all those troubles it was 11 AM before I managed to leave town and start out on the trail.
My mood soon improved when I saw what I was going to be hiking through. The environment / terrain for the next three days was going to be absolutely gorgeous. Day 4 was sunny and pretty soon I was crossing a heather field as far as the eye could see. Because of the rains from last Friday the path was a bit muddy in places, but not a real problem. I stopped for lunch at a pannekoeken restaurant. By 3 PM, after about 18 km, I ended up in Rolde, a small village in northern Drenthe where the beer tasted great. Nice small hotel where I managed to do some laundry.

Day 5: left Rolde early in the morning for Schoolo 19 km down the trail. Because the nights are starting to get a little colder the dew on the grass, trees and everywhere else looks like diamonds. Normally the Dutch are not eager to share their feelings with strangers, but within the first 2 km 2 people passing me by did not just say ‘goeie morgen’ but added ‘wat een prachtige dag he?” (what a beautiful day eh?) It sure was. I managed to capture the sunshine through the trees in a great picture.

I passed through the cemetery (the modern one) with a hunnebed (a 5,000 year old grave) next to it. Somewhere along the trail through a bog they had constructed 5 ‘overstapjes’ (wooden steps) to get over a fence that kept the cows in. Managed to miss one of the red/white markings and ended up walking an extra km., no problem when the weather is great and the surroundings peaceful. I passed a home for the severely mentally handicapped and noticed several of them acting rather strange along the trail. I ended up walking with a couple of lady hikers who were a little afraid of the patients.
The B&B was another km from the trail, no problem if you only need to hike a short day hike, but tomorrow is one of the longer stretches and to add a km just to get back to the trail is not great. However I had no choice because the village had 1 bar and 1 B&B so I managed to improve the economy of the village considerably that day in those two establishments.

From Van Coevoorden to Vancouver!

The footsteps of the ladies who started the trail.

Day 6
One of the longer day hikes: 24 km from Schoonlo to Sleen. The forecast was for rain, but it stayed dry all day and what a day it was. Beautiful forests, nice heather fields, lots of variety and few people.
I passed the memorial for the two ladies who, in the 70’s and 80’s, not only came up with the idea for the trail, but made it happen and described it for 90% of the route. Later a hiking/nature club took on the responsibility to maintain and promote the trail. The two ladies reminded me a lot of my mother and her friend Aunt Tine, who also hiked together for much of their lives.
A little further down the trail was a monument for a British bomber which crashed and burned during the second world war on its way back from a bombing run into Germany. Some teenage boys collected pieces of the plane and built the memorial after the war. Now it has been adopted by a school class nearby and is being maintained by the children.
I ended up in a gorgeous reconstructed bakery in Sleen for the night. Woke up in the middle of the night from rain pelting down on the roof!

B & B was beautiful, nice people, great breakfast: http://www.magischdrenthe.nl/nl/agenda2/bedrijven_overnachten/agenda_id,84 

Day 7  – Sleen – Coevorden (21 km)
The rain that fell hard during the night obviously was not enough for mother earth because when I stepped out the door the next day at 9:00 AM it was still pouring. I had a large poncho that even covered my pack, but since it is all plastic it does not breath, so within an hour I was soaking wet on the outside from the rain and on the inside from my own sweat. It turned into a bit of a miserable day because it rained off and on for much of the day. Yesterday the forecast was for rain and it stayed dry, today the forecast was for dry weather and it rained most of the day. I only know of 1 job where you can be wrong more than 50% of the time and still keep your job: weather forecaster.

Usually I love backcountry trails, either grassy areas or sandy, anything but pavement. Today was almost all pavement and since it was so wet, it was not too bad to be walking on pavement since the grassy and sandy paths would be turning to mud. Fortunately there was a place halfway where you are allowed into a shed or workshop and where you can make your own cup of coffee and just leave an euro. Often the trail goes through areas without a cafe or restaurant for 10 or more kms and they have arranged for someone to allow hikers into their shop. They have set it up so that you can heat water and make yourself a cup of coffee. Nice arrangement.
The last few kms that day were a killer. After getting soaked for most of the day, you just want to get to that B&B or hotel and get out of your wet clothes. I made it to Coevorden by 4 PM and into a shower (a warm shower in the hotel).


The next day (the 8th) I gave myself a rest day and stayed in Coevorden. It is an old city started back in the 12th century as the business center for the north eastern part of the Netherlands. An old castle has been totally renovated and now you can stay overnight in it. Beautiful old houses and cafes. A 17th century defensive wall surrounds the old part of the city and there is a Cafe Vancouver. I never knew this, but the forefathers  of Captain Vancouver (for whom Vancouver BC is named) were originally from Coevorden (van Coevorden). More Dutch connections than I ever knew about. That day I managed to do some laundry, tasted several local beers and hit the sack early.

Section 8

Etappe (Section) 8
Last section before I meet up with Margriet, who arrives from Canada a week after I did. 19 KM from Coevorden to Hardenberg.
Up and away early, fairly uninteresting agricultural areas, large farms with the farmers spreading manure on the fields so it stinks to high heaven most of the way. Whenever the huge tractors with manure trailers are racing by, you better make sure the ‘mud’ flying of their tires doesn’t hit you.
It was quiet as could be because not only is it Sunday, but this is a very fundamentalist christian area where people hiking or people doing anything but go to church are frowned upon. Nowhere a cup of coffee to be had except this time at a horse stable to make your own. I hightailed it to Hardenberg because the B&B owner had to be at church again by 2 that afternoon. So I almost ran the last 5 km and made it before the 2:00PM ‘curfew’. The only beer I could find in that town on Sunday was at a Chinees restaurant, but it was a beer. The B&B was a nice and quiet place until the next morning when at 6:00AM the workers started to repave the brick road below my window.
As a result of being awoken early I caught an early train to Dieren where I was meeting Margriet, but ended up sitting and waiting there for a while. We found each other at the train station and then the B&B she had reserved. Enjoyed sitting on a patio and eating in the centre of this very old village with cobblestone streets and churchbells.

From Sheep Shit to Castles

Kasteel Vorden. Our room is top left windows!

Our B&B in Dieren was an old ‘koetshuis’ (a carriage house). We had lots to talk about to catch up after a week and a half apart. The B&B owner loaned us a couple of bikes and we set off the next morning to Hoog Keppel to visit my mother’s grave.
First across the Oude IJssel river with a small, 2 car ferry. This ferry is attached to an anchor upstream and by maneuvering the boat under a certain angle he forced the ferry across the river without much mechanical help. We cycled across a dike lined with sheep. They did not move aside for us so we had to steer around them. The sheep shit was at least tire-deep in several places. But loved the views across green fields to steep church steeples of villages in the distance.
After about 5-6 kms we left the dike and entered the Achterhoek, the region of south eastern Gelderland. Through farm fields and forests we made our way to Hoog Keppel where we checked on Oma’s grave. Last year we had planted 4 small bunches of heather on her grave, but those had been replanted a few feet away and had grown into a huge heather bush. We left things as they were and said our goodbye’s again.
Back via the bike path along the main highway, but soon we got tired of that and found our way back to the dike with its sheep shit. Back on the ferry and to the B&B were we returned the bikes.

If you are interested in bicycling around The Netherlands, the possibilities are endless. You can buy arrangements that include bikes, hotels and meals. Or you can follow trails in any part of the country, with a great signage system and trails. Not sure if this site translates, but lots of cycling information here: http://www.lekkerfietsen.nl/nl/routes/)

By 2 PM we were at the railroad station with our packs, for the half hour train ride to Vorden, the next stop for the night. First we walked through the village of Vorden and had a few beers at the hotel my dad used to stay at when we worked on the old farmhouse my parents had bought back in the late 60’s and which they tried to renovate. It did not work out because my dad’s health deteriorated quickly and they had to sell it again. In 1971 he passed away.
When I went to pay the bill for our lunch and drinks, someone had paid it already for us. We never found out who did. Mysterious but funny!

Off to the castle. Margriet had made arrangements to stay overnight in a real castle. Kasteel Vorden was originally built in 1207, destroyed during the 80 year war with Spain (sometime in the 16th century) and rebuilt shortly after. Pictures are needed to describe the place. Anyway we slept in a canopy bed somewhere up in the castle and felt like royalty.
Wednesday (Sept 5th) Margriet joined me for the hike to the next place Zelhem. Breakfast at 8:30 and on the ‘road’ by 9. The ‘road’ this time was more beautiful forest trails and secondary roads through small farm areas. The forest trails were largely unpaved, sandy paths. Just like in Drenthe, the Achterhoek became very popular with retirees from the western part of Holland who bought up old uneconomic farms and renovated those beautifully. The outsides had to be kept original looking, but new roof, new double pane windows, new doors (all in the old style) and modern interiors made the old places into very livable homes for the rich. There are fewer and fewer of the old farms being operated as farms, most have become retirement homes for the rich and well to do.
It was a relatively short day with only 16 kms, but M’s pack was not easy to carry, so even though everything went well it was not the easiest hike for her that day. The B&B we got to was run by a very nice painter and her family (4 kids). After a rest and clean up we went into to town for some groceries and supper.

We splurched on our stay in a real medieval castle but wanted to experience it once. The room was nice but old (of course), bathroom fabulously modern, breakfast was OK but not amazing. Just a great experience: http://www.kasteelvorden.nl/overnachten.html

In Dieren we stayed in Koetshuis B&B, very nice people, OK room, great breakfast, nice location:

Don’t Get Lost!

Today I am walking from Zelhem to Braamt, supposedly about 18 kms – if I didn’t get lost..
The morning starts out great, a friend we hadn’t had seen or heard from for 40 years (!) came to join me this morning. He lives about 50 kms away from where we are now and a few weeks ago we had managed to reestablish contact. He showed up at the exact arranged time and we first had a cup of coffee before we took off. In spite of the constant talking we did for the next hour we managed to find the route OK.
Margriet came along in his car later on and drove him back to Zelhem where Margriet would stay another day and he returned to Borne because the next night he had to drive to Schiphol since his plane to eastern Africa left at 7 AM in the morning. He was off on a 25 day camping safari through Kenia and Tanzania! (he also just returned from bicycling to Vienna to celebrate retirement 🙂

I continued along the trail (alone again for the first time in 2 days). The path wound through forests and small farming areas. Suddenly, the forests ended and I entered the “land between the big rivers”. Three big rivers, the Rijn, Maas and Waal all come close together and run to the North Sea, but enter the Netherlands from the east and south and run relatively close together through a large low lying part of the Netherlands. The land is flat, open and houses large farms. Few trees, just grassland, corn fields and sugar beets.

The trail is relatively easy to find most of the time. The guidebook, parts 1 and 2, has a map (1:50,000) with lots of detail and shows the trail clearly. It even indicates which sections are paved and which are not. In addition there is a description of the trail location, one for travelling north-south and one for those who travel the trail from south to north.
(To order the guide: https://nivon.hexspoorwms.nl/webwinkel/0/0/1/5981)
Last but not least the red and white markings on trees and sign posts at every intersection sure help a lot. A red and white cross means ‘no go, wrong way’. A red and white block indicates the correct route and often a red and white arrow indicates the direction of the trail. Usually the markings plus the map are enough to keep you on the right track. Occasionally the trail is not very even and, of course, I had to learn the hard way that reading the map while walking is not the smartest way to make progress. After I had twisted my ankle twice I learned my lesson and stopped when I had to study the map or read directions.
After 18 kms or so I reached the end of the day’s trail, but the B&B at which I had a reservation was another 2 or 3 kms off the route. Unfortunately, the directions had not been very good and I wondered around for a while before I found the right place.
It sure did not help that the address was ‘Oud Doetichemse weg’, because there is also a ‘Doetichemse weg’ and to make matters worse there is the  ‘De oude Doetichemse weg’. Three very similar street names in one village is bad, but the same three names can be found not only in Kilder where I had to be, but also in Zeddam (a small village nearby), in Braamt (another small village nearby) and in the city of Doetichem a few kms down the road. It was a true miracle that I did find the right place eventually.

(Note from Margriet: he actually phoned me and I got on Google Maps to find out at which intersection he was standing and where the B&B was located so that I could tell him which direction to walk. When I asked why he didn’t just ask a passerby, he said “I did twice! But I can’t understand them!” People in each region here he such strong dialects that it sounds like a different language… 🙂

Who Said Holland is Flat?!

Time flies! Today was going to be a long day of 24 kms. It started out great. At 8:15 I was on the trail and moving, as a matter of fact moving up hill. That was a surprise !
I had traveled a fair amount throughout Holland when I was a consultant for the Dutch Camping Council back in the early 70’s, however I obviously had not been to Montferland, the area south of Doetinchem and east of Nijmegen, because I had no idea it was so hilly! I did not expect it but used it to work up a sweat by hoofing it through the area.
Gorgeous forests, narrow trails and nothing but trees and hills. I thought I was back in Channel Ridge on Salt Spring… However the surprise and fun was short lived when at a forest reclamation area they obviously had cut a tree with a trail marking on it. After 2 hours I knew I had missed a turn off and was horribly lost. It took me more than an hour to find my way out of the forest and ended up in Germany. The border between Germany ad the Netherlands in that area is quite vague and I never noticed that I had wandered across the border. When I finally emerged from the forested areas I noticed signs like ‘autobahn’ and ‘kaufen’ which are definitely not Dutch words. I asked a few folks for directions, neither of the 2 people I asked spoke German or Dutch but only English, go figure.

After an hour (and an extra 4-5 kms) I found the trail back and started making progress again. The terrain became rather boring, large farms, paved roads and now I was entering the ‘big rivers’ area again. I walked along dikes for hours and finally came to a ferry that took me across to Millingen on the Rhine, the city where I had made a reservation for the night. Today I finally met some other hikers on the trail who were traveling more than just a few days. One couple was on its way from Amsterdam to Rome. There is always a bigger fool to be found.If you are interested in reading another blog about hiking (including The Pieterspad) here’s a fun one:http://richardtulloch.wordpress.com/2009/12/26/the-pieterpad-500km-across-holland-by-foot-and-bike/ And if you want to keep hikinghttp://www.bootsnall.com/articles/11-10/8-of-the-most-unique-walking-paths-in-the-world.html

From Groesbeek to Gennep

Yesterday we had a “rest” day. Instead of hiking we bicycled to a large  Canadian war cemetery.  A total of 2,600 Canadian soldiers and airmen are buried there. Most of them so young, just teenagers in some cases. Very emotional to know that these guys came across an ocean to fight people they did not know and to liberate people they did not know.  No wonder the Dutch are maintaining there graves meticulously and hold a major celebration every May 5th (Liberation Day) and pay for thousands of veterans to come and join in the celebrations each year.

The owner of the cabin we have rented for a couple of nights, drops by. He wants to talk about Canada because he is applying for an immigration visa to the States and wants to know what we think of life on the other side of the ocean.  I have met quite a few Dutch who want to emigrate to Canada recently, but not to the States. Apparently it still sounds like the land of milk and honey to many in spite of the economic situation.

Monday morning we are off to Gennep.  Margriet is joining me.  First a friend gives us a ride to the beginning of the trail section we’ll be hiking today, otherwise it would have added another 5 kms to our hike.

We get dropped off at an operating Dutch windmill, looks great.  We dive into a forest after a few hundred meters and that is the landscape we will be hiking through for the first 7-8 kms. Wow, I’ll never say again that the Netherlands is flat everywhere. We are climbing hills which the Dutch call mountains (a major exaggeration) but which are still some 200 feet or more and fairly steep. We are walking through a German ‘walt’ (forest) and have a coffee break on the border.
Another couple of hours (and lunch) we get to Gennep. This city has been in the middle of the fighting during the last winter of WW II and hardly a building in the entire city survived the German shelling and allied bombing.  Fortunately the beautiful city hall from the 1600’s has survived as well as an old church, everything else is no older than 60-65 years. We climbed a church tower with an interpretive display. Hard to image tanks rolling through these very streets.

Since it was a relatively short day hike we spent much of the afternoon sitting on patios at the market, a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.   The weather forecast is not good for the next several days, but knowing the past track record of the Dutch weather forecasters I am not too worried. (famous last words!)

September 11 + 12

Sept 11 /12 (Gennep – Vierlingsbeek – Swolgen)
Last night I had no internet so I’ll report on the last two days.

Sept. 11: We stayed in a ‘garden shed’, nice but build for dwarfs and since I am 6’4” I bumped my head and other body parts numerous times.
We had breakfast with 4 ladies who had stayed in the same B&B and who were going to the ‘Floriade’, the largest horticulture exposition in Europe which is held every 10 years in Holland.
Most B & B’s are fairly inexpensive, around 20 to 30 euros p.p. per night.
We are also member of Vrienden op de Fiets (Friends on Bikes), a country wide organization offering accommodations in people’s home: a room and breakfast for 19 – 21 euros p.p. See: http://www.vriendenopdefiets.nl/index.php/en/

Before setting out, we waited for a bus to bring a friend who was going to join me for a day of hiking while Margriet would take a bus to Someren to spend 3 days at a house of friends who are on holidays. The friend, Lies, arrived on time, we said goodbye to Margriet and left town heading south. It would be a short day of 17 kms. However, the first hour the skies were threatening, the second hour it started to rain a little and the third and fourth hour it poured. It sure did put a damper on the day’s fun. But in spite of the rain we had a great time catching up on 40 years of memories. It also helped that we saw some of the most gorgeous landscape I had been going through until now. Beautiful hilly terrain with moors, forests, wild goats and not a soul around.  Lies was scared of the goats, so I had lots of fun teasing her about the (non-existing) dangers of goats, and she ran.
We got to Vierlingsbeek soaked to the bone. Found a café were she changed to dry clothes and we had something to eat. By early evening she caught a bus back to the railroad station and home in Rotterdam.

Sept 12:
Back on the road by 8:30 AM this morning. Now it was a 21 km hike. Again the skies threatened all day, but luckily not a drop all day. First several kms along secondary roads, and canals until I came to the ‘Boschhuizer Bergen”, not really mountains, just sand dunes, but absolutely some of the finest landscape Holland has to offer. The last 10 kms was again along more forest paths, secondary roads and cycling paths. Holland is absolutely the best country to go cycling, everywhere you’ll find the best possible routes for cycling. Plus signage, maps along the routes and a network of routes throughout the country.

By 3 PM I made it to the night’s stop: Swolgen. A small village I had never heard of. Found a great B & B in an old school building: http://www.bedandbreakfast.nl/bed-and-breakfast/swolgen/bb-schoolstraat-8-vof/4737Six more hiking days and I’ll have eaten the entire elephant.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Saturday (Sept 15), we had stayed with friends in Someren (40 kms from the trail). Had a great visit, and they were nice enough to drop us off back on the trail that morning.
As a matter of fact they did us a huge favor and dropped off our packs at the B&B where we would be staying that night. Made a big difference not to have to haul our luggage all that way!
We left Venlo and within an hour were back in the forest. I seemed the entire day was nothing but forests. Along the Dutch/German border through Germany itself, very well maintained forests and paths. At one point we stood on a burial hill from before the beginning of the first century (800 BC).
We walked along roads that had been developed many centuries ago. We also stood on the market place in villages where most, if not all, of the buildings around us used to be hundreds of years old, but had been destroyed in the fighting of WWII and now had been rebuild in the last 75 years. Most steeples of churches along the Maas had been blown up by the Germans in their retreat so the Allied forces could not use those as viewing towers. Everything had to be rebuild around here. Many cemeteries also remind you of the war of only a few decades ago.
After about 22-23 km we arrived in Swalmen, a small village where we were picked up by the owner of a B&B called the Pelgrims’ House and where we would be staying for 3 nights. Had a great supper and evening there.
Sunday morning the B&B owners dropped us back at the spot where we stopped the day before and continued to Montfoort, another 24 km. This time we skirted the city of Roermond, probably a nice city but not part of the route. For a few km we traveled on a 2,000 year old road build by the Romans, just imagine that you are walking on the same ground the Roman armies traveled over, mind boggling.
After today only 3 more day hikes to go. (about 60 kms). Margriet asked me if I had accomplished what I set out to do this hike. Well, when I do finish it I will have accomplished what I promised my brother before he died and that was that I would walk it for the two of us. I had a chance to think about a lot of things however the big question: when to retire? is still unanswered. I also met up with some good friends along the trail, Lies, Wim, Maurice, and the last day Frank will join me. I look forward to that.

Montfort to Sittard

Monday morning Margriet joined me for the 24 km hike between Montfort and Sittard.  Since the B&B was about a km off the trail it turned into one of the longest hikes for her of those days that she joined me.
The terrain started to become a little more hilly but still mainly forest, corn fields and dairy cows. It is amazing how much corn is being produced in the Netherlands since we left 35 years ago. It used to be that you saw grain fields everywhere. Almost all of those have been replaced with corn fields in the last few decades. Apparently the eastern European countries can grow grain cheaper and the Dutch have changed their agricultural production to corn for cattle feed.
Since it was Monday we did not expect to find anything open to get a coffee, but we lucked out when we noticed, around 11 AM, a café with an open door. A meeting was taking place and when we asked the owner if we could get a coffee she agreed even though she was officially closed.

This section of the trail took us into Germany and immediately the language and architecture was different from just a few km back.  We entered the city of Sittard (one of the largest cities in Limburg) via a nice creek valley and ended up on the market in the center of town almost without having to content with the outskirts of the city. The market place was surrounded by nice cafes with seating outside and we thoroughly enjoyed the beer and food that could be had there.
Later in the afternoon we were picked up by the owner of the B&B we stayed at that night and taken back to Montfort for the night.

The Longest Hike

Typical houses in the southern part of Limburg

This day was going to turn into the longest day trip of the entire hike because the next overnight was at a friend’s house several km beyond the end point for this day trip. So it turned into about a 27 km hike.
For that reason, Margriet decided to take all the luggage via public transportation to the next overnight place.
We both took the train back to Sittard, a 10 minute, 2 euro ride, and Margriet stayed on the train while I got off and started hiking again. Thanks to having only a day pack it was easy going. I put on my ipod music and marched to the tunes of Shania Twain and Abba up and down numerous hills.
For 10 minutes it rained, but in spite of the heavy overcast this was it for rain all day. The terrain got more and more hilly the further south I got into Limburg. Some section were really getting steep, but again, without a pack, it was quite doable and my training on the Channel Ridge hills sure paid off.
The scenery was absolutely breathtaking most of the way. After a couple of hours I got to a restaurant in a castle (it is for sale!!) where I had lunch and then kept going for several more hours without stopping.

I reflected on the difference in the content of backpacks between 45 years ago and today. We used to have clothes but also a heavy sleeping bag, an air mattress, a tent, cook stove, food etc. Nowadays the backpack is filled with a Macbook Air, Ipod, headphones, cell phone, electric shaver as well as all the chargers and different plug-ins required to keep the electronics going…

A km before I got to the house of the friends we would be staying with, Margriet met me at the top of the last hill. It was great to catch up that evening with friends we had not seen for a long time. And I can recommend Grimbergers beer!

(Note from Margriet: after the train to Sittard, I went to Valkenburg. But, thanks to the World Cup Cycling many roads were blocked, whole cities inaccessible and even bus routes changed. I couldn’t get to Terblijt where I had to take our two big backpacks. Tried different bus options but nothing worked. So, I walked into a fancy hotel and asked if I could leave the packs. No problem. Walked into the centre of town to do my banking, shopping, etc. Back to the hotel and asked for a taxi. The taxi turned out to be a limousine. Fancy and comfortable way to get my packs to Marianne’s house! Had a great dinner and visit that night.)

The Final Stretch!!!!

Margriet, Frank, Marianne, Kees – the last day!

Wednesday, the last day on the trail, only 12 kms left of the 425 I was going to do this hike.
Not only Margriet joined me for this last hurray, but the friend we were staying with as well as a good friend who drove more than 2 hours from his home early in the morning to join us for the last stretch.
Again beautiful scenery along narrow roads, old limestone farm houses, wineries, fields with cows. We love the history and to see dates like “1678” or “1711” on the facades of farm houses is thrilling. We also walked along the caves of southern Limburg, dug to mine stone for buildings.
Soon we walked into Maastricht, the capital of Limburg. A nice old city along the Maas river with century old city walls, churches and a famous market place: het Vrijthof. Just south of the city was the final destination: the Pietersberg. A bit of a climb and by noon we managed to get to the top of the ‘berg’ (hill). Of course we had to take some pictures, and stopped for pannekoek lunch a km back down the trail. There I also received an official certificate testifying that I had walked the whole trail.
 It had been threatening to rain much of the morning and as soon as we got on the bus back to town it poured but we stayed dry inside the bus. If I had the time I would not mind walking the same trail all the way back to Groningen where I started.  It has been a terrific experience.

All together I have been very lucky with the weather, only on 3 days it rained and not even all day on those days, perfect hiking weather all along. No blisters, no problems with the feet, sure, once and a while I was hurting, but that is part of such an undertaking from time to time. But to be able to do this at 65 years of age I am very thankful.

From the end of the Pieterpad it is possible to keep walking till you get to Rome or Santiago de Compastella in Spain. Only about 2,000 kms separate you from southern France.

Some day I hope to do that too and connect with the beginning of the Camino de Santiago where I started my pilgrimage 12 years ago.