Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The forest is crying

Stage 5, day 2 (Friday, 3 June 2011)
Železná Ruda to Strážný (78 km)

The mournful title track of “The Forest is Crying” (an LP of Bulgarian vocal music I bought back in the 1980s) starts to play in my head as I emerge on the plateau of the Šumava National Park and take in the sheer scale of the devastation up here. Much of the former dense forest has been reduced to stumps. Logs litter the ground, ghostly pale after having been stripped of their bark. The silence is broken by the rasp of chainsaws as foresters fight to control a barely visible enemy: the bark beetle. It is a pest that is turning these “Green Lungs of Europe” brown. The forest is indeed crying.


I was woken at two in the morning by the sound of a couple copulating con brio in the room next to mine. They followed this up with a full-blown post-coital row and a further round of rumbustious rutting. This went on till 6 a.m., whereupon they packed their bags and left, not bothering to lower their voices as they did so. It was the worst night’s sleep of my trip, a bad case of somnus interruptus.

Church of Panna Maria Pomocná z Hvězdy in Železná Ruda

Later that morning I headed south out of Železná Ruda and then swung to the east up a mountain road leading into the forest. I was now entering Šumava proper. About halfway up the climb the contact lens popped out of my right eye and dropped to the ground before I could catch it. It hadn’t gone in properly that morning, probably on account of my sleep deprived eyes. I stopped and put in a new one, but it didn’t settle well either. I persevered up the hill, blurry eyed and blinking but still able to admire the views opening up to my right across the border into Germany.

Welcome to Šumava National Park

On either side of the trail forestry workers were busy felling trees. It’s a deeply controversial strategy for dealing with the beetle infestation. The park authorities say it’s the only way to save the forest from being wiped out. Some environmental groups, however, believe the authorities are exaggerating the problem and that nature should be left to its own devices.

Scenes of deforestation

According to my map, the trail I wanted to follow through one of the remotest parts of the park was closed until July, but I stuck to my original route in the blind hope that the map was wrong. At the beautiful black waters of Lake Laka I stopped to rest and take some pictures. From there, however, my path was blocked by two park rangers, who looked in no mood to let anyone through. So, I retraced my tracks back to Hůrka (German name: Hurkenthal), a former mirror-making village whose ethnic German populace was expelled from the country after the Second World War.

Lake Laka

Remains of the church at Hůrka

During the Cold War this area was strictly off-limits to the general public and was used for military exercises. Further down the road I came across signs warning of unexploded munitions in the meadows on either side of the road.

Danger UXB!

In the village of Prášily I stopped for lunch at a pub full of cyclists and forestry workers. I successfully replaced my troublesome contact lens in the pub toilet, but my eye problems continued after I set off again. I’d unwittingly left my sunglasses sitting on the rear rack of my bike, and of course they fell off as soon as I round the first corner. Fortunately I heard them hit the road behind me, and even more fortunately I found them unscathed when I returned to pick them up.

Prášilské jezero (Lake Prášily)

I’d covered a depressingly small distance that morning, and ahead of me this afternoon was one of the biggest climbs of my entire circuit ride. A group of German road cyclists whizzed past me as I turned off the highway and onto the wide dirt trail leading to the summit of Poledník. At Liščí díry (“Foxholes”) I ventured off the main route to visit Prášily Lake, which fills the base of a glacial cirque on the side of the mountain. I had to abandon the bike and walk the last 200 yards up the rocky path. By the lake is a small monument to Ottakar Kareis, a student who drowned here in 1927.

Looking down the steepest part of the climb to Poledník...

I’d have liked to tarry at this beautiful spot longer, but time was getting on so I clambered back down to my bike and rejoined the main trail. On the steepest part of the climb it took all my strength to keep pedalling rather than get off and walk. Fortunately the last section was less brutal, and before long I arrived - tired but elated - at the highest point of my entire journey along the Czech border: Poledník, 1,315 metres above sea level.

...the highest point of my circuit ride

At the summit is an odd-looking viewing tower which served as an air defence station during the Cold War. In the now well-established tradition of Circuit Rider CZ, I climbed up the steep steps to the top to take in the view. The damage wreaked by the beetle (and also by Hurricane Kyrill in 2007) was even more plain to see from this lofty location.

Scene from the top of the tower

From Poledník I descended on surfaces of steadily improving quality to the Roklanský potok, a mountain stream that meanders across the marshy plateau. I followed the flow down to the village of Modrava, where I stopped to stock up on snack food and water. From there I headed up another gorgeous stream - the Modravský potok - along a newly laid road reserved exclusively for cyclists and walkers. Šumava truly is a cycling paradise - if you don’t mind hills, that is.

The Roklanský stream...

...and the Modravský stream

Late in the afternoon, with not a soul in sight, I reached the top of another big hill - Černá hora (Black Mountain) - and dropped rapidly to the next point of interest on my map: the source of the Vltava (the river that flows through Prague). A strange stillness descended as I rounded the bend and re-entered the forest at the top of the valley. The true source of the river lies in inaccessible terrain higher up the mountainside; the pool pictured below is really just a tourist attraction. I sat there for while speculating  how long it would take the water to reach Prague from here.

The source of the Vltava

From the source of the Vltava I backtracked a couple of hundred yards and commenced the last climb of the day to Pod Stráží. It was very rough and very steep, but fortunately not all that long. I took my mind off the pain in my legs by slaloming around the fat-bottomed ants crossing the path below me. A sign at the top told me I still had 18 kilometres to go to Strážný, my destination for the day, but it was all downhill from here.

View back down the last climb of the day

Before long a gentle rain began to fall, but on the long, straight descent I managed to keep just ahead of the ominous cloud gathering from the north. The first sign of civilization was a grubby brothel right on the edge of town. Strážný itself had the usual cluster of Vietnamese market stalls selling tat to cross-border shoppers, but the hotel was respectable enough and the welcome warm by Czech standards. I was the only guest staying there that night. I dined on bean soup and schnitzel and reflected on one of the most thought-provoking day’s cycling of my trip. The waitress quizzed me about where I was from, saying she was unfamiliar with my “dialect”. As an Englishman who has spent many years trying to get to grips with Czech, I took this as a compliment.

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