Monday, January 2, 2017

Israel National Trail: Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel National Trail Part 2

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


Israel National Trail Part 1

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



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

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

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

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


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


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


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

Friday, November 11, 2016

Hiking in Hungary: Tipps and recommendations

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Kektura: Conclusion

Did I like this hike? Yes, indeed! I liked it tremendously. This has been an incredibly pleasant and relaxing hike. Although it has not been very spectacular it has been very enjoyable - and Hungary has surpassed my expectations be far! Why? I had expected a rather flat country and was positively surprised to find the Kektura landscape to be relatively hilly in parts - especially in the Eastern part. So I had plenty of really beautiful views. Plus the forest was extremely pittoresque in Indian Summer. Would I recommend this hike to a friend! Yes, absolutely and I would go even further: Kektura is a real insiders' tip for outdoor novices. Why do I recommend it especially for beginners? There are several reasons:


Wild camping is legal and easy: Most beginners are worried about wild camping which is illegal in most of Europe. Therefore they tend to go Scandinavia or Scotland where wild camping is legal under the "every man's right". But what hardly anybody knows: Wild camping is legally allowed in Hungary - except in National Parks. I was so surprised about that that I double checked it various times but all my sources agreed: German guidebooks, the English Kektura website, my Hungarian friends and even a forester I met on the way. And it is dead easy as well: on the Kektura you walk through forest most of the time. And as the landscape is rather flat or hilly at best it is usually very easy to find a flat spot for your tent! So no need to go to Scandinavia or Scotland especially out of reason number two:

Hungary has a high margin of error: Let me explain what I mean with this. Beginners tend to commit more mistakes than experienced hikers. And if things go wrong you somehow have to get out of the situation. In Scandinavia this can be tricky: The weather is usually adverse, in the North there is not much shelter from forest and if you have to bail out it will cost you a fortune due to the high price level in Scandinavia. Hungary is so much more "forgiving": The weather is moderate, there is not much altitude or exosed areas and you are mostly walking in forest where you are sort of sheltered from the elements. Plus the waymarking is so good that is is diffcult to get lost. But if you have to bail out it will be cheap: Hungary has a great and very cheap public transportation system that serves literally every little settlement. The infrastructure is great with little shops in almost every village. Water is not an issue due to an abundance of public water fountains in every settlement. But most important: Accommadation is plentyful and cheap: I usually paid between 15 and 25 EUR for one person. So if the weather turns bad or you are simply too tired you can just treat yourself with sleeping in a bed under a roof!

High fun factor: Due to the relatively low price level you can easily treat yourself once in a while - with sleeping in a cosy bed or eating in a restaurant. I loved the food which was always really good quality at cheap or moderate prices. As you can see I especially liked the desserts. And I should not forget to mention that a glass of wine will set you back less than 1 EUR!. Plus Hungary is full of thermal baths and it is so relaxing to soak in hot water after a long day of hiking. A visit to a thermal bath will set you back something between 5 to 10 EUR - just bring a swim suit. 

Honestly, I don't understand at all why Hungary is not more popular as a hiking destination. Ok, it lacks alpine scenery, but it offers an abundance of beautiful decidouos forest where you will probably not see a single soul in days but plenty of wildlife. In no other country I have seen so many deer, wild pigs and mufflons. Hungary is very sparsely populated and you will definitely see a lot less people on the Kektura than on the Kungsleden in Sweden. Plus it is so cheap and easy to get there. Both low cost airlines Ryanair and Easyjet fly from Germany to Budapest.

So if you look for a interesting new hiking destination go to Hungary - you won't regret it!

Kektura: Eger to Sarospatak

Eger in Hungary is not to be confused with Eger in the Czech Republic. Eger is the Hungarian name of the town which in German used to be called Erlau. And the "winos" might know "Erlauer Stierblut" or "Bull's blood from Erlau", a usually rather mediocre wine. And as you might deduct from that: I was in wine country here which led to a another meal in a restaurant accompanied with two glasses of wine. Eger' main attraction is this minaret still dating back to the Ottoman reign in Hungary. The Turks had occupied parts of Hungary for 150 years - from 1541 to 1699. So this minaret is the Northernmost minaret of the former Ottoman Empire! You can even walk up to the top. Eger also boasts Hungary's second largest cathedral. My favourite attraction though were the thermal baths again. It is just absolutely wonderful to soak in 36 degree hot water after a long hike! Going to the thermal baths is a very social activity here in Hungary: Most people come in groups of friends and hang out for hours in the hot pools. Some even sleep in the water or play chess on swimming chess boards.

It was now getting close to November 1st - All Saints Day which is a national holiday in Hungary and apparantly a very serious business. Wherever I went cemeteries were lit be hundreds of candles and decorated with white and yellow Dahlia. And most Hungarians took advantage of the holiday to travel on a long weekend. Usually I did not see anyone in the forests but now again loads of people were on a hike - but no one was camping! I was now hiking in the Bükk mountains -another small and beautful mountain range in Northern Hungary offering great views. Who can say now that Hungary is flat?

Next was Aggtelek National park which is famous for its huge caves. The cave system is 26 km long and stretches from Hungary into Slovakia. The main caves can be visited by guided tour only but there are several smaller caves that can be explored on your own. I took a one hour tour and was amazed. Although I have seen several quite spectacular caves the Aggtelek stalactite cave really impressed me. One spectacular cave after the other - each one bigger and bigger. One cave is even used as a concert hall although due to the "dripping" environment the chairs are made out of plastic. And you better dress up warmly for the concert as the temperature in the cave is only 10 C year round. During the tour pompous Hungarian rock music is played while the different stalactite groups are colorfully illuminated. Quite a tacky experience but I still liked it. Although the village of Aggtelek is a very touristy place full of hotels and holiday apartments there was not a single restaurant open at night. I had to eat noodle soup Hungarian style on my gas stove....


After Aggtelek you hike through Gypsy country. There are Roma people all over Hungary but many are concentrated in this region. The poverty they live in is shocking. You realized at once when you were in the "Roma" section of a village: Garbage everywhere, stray dogs and run down houses that would be classified as ruins in Germany with laundry hung up for drying. And lots and lots of little children on the roads. Most villages here are "mixed", but in some villages only Roma people were left. 

After Aggtelek National Park the landscape got flatter again and more agricultural but still offered some great views. Although the weather was still very sunny during the day temperatures dropped well below freezing every night. Combined with very little daylight and long hours in the tent this made camping very uncomfortable. Therefore I spent the last week on the trail mostly in accommodation and really enjoyed it. Each place was nice and special and my Hungarian hosts offered great hospitality. One time I was greated with a little bottle of Schnaps, another time I was offered a bowl of Gulasch soup. Many places were heated with wood stoves - and it is just great to relax next to such a stove after a long day of hiking. 


My hike ended just in time - the day after I finished brought a torrential rain..... I decided to finish in Sarospatak instead of Satoraljaujhely. The two towns are just something like 10 km apart, but Sarospatak offered a thermal bath and Satoraljaujhely didn't. And then when I had arrived in Sarospatak after a last day of 30 km hiking I was too tired to go to the baths.... I guess it had really been time to finish my hike!

Kektura: Danube to Eger

Then the mud started... Although it had not rained for several days many trails were still a muddy desaster. Every Hungarian farmer seemed to be in the forest to harvest wood and the heavy vehicles had destroyed the trails. Sometimes grazing cattle had helped them....  I was more slipping and sliding than walking and was carrying an extra kilogram of weight on each shoe. On steep slopes the mud was downright dangerous. I don't want to describe how I and my clothes looked these days....

But there were creatures who definitely enjoy this kind of terrain. When I first saw these pigs I did not trust my eyes: Wooly pigs??? But Wikipedia taught me that I had not had an epiphany. These wooly pigs are called Mangalica and they are a Hungarian pig breed that is supposedly a delicacy of white meat with very little cholestorol. I cannot tell you more because I never had chance to try it. These robust beasts can live outside year round. I still wonder what you do with the wool....


These two gentlemen were a surprise encounter one foggy morning. One turned out to be a German hunter who comes to Hungary for many years to hunt deer, wild pigs and mufflons. I was not surprised: Every day I had seen wild life: dozens of deer including a very rare white Albino deer and several mufflons which look strangely out of place here..... Next to him is the Hungarian forester who confirmed what my guide book and Balazs had already told me: Wild camping is legal in Hungary - a fact that made my hiking life in Hungary really easy!

 Hiking was very beautiful now: the weather was sunny most days and I experienced an Indian summer. Almost all forest here is decidouos forest and the therefore the changing of the leaves was a colourful spectacle that reminded me a lot of the AT. I passed through the old village of Hollokö which is classified as UNESCO world heritage. Unfortunately, I did not see much of it because it was already dark when I arrived and still dark when I left in the morning. I had rented another holiday apartment there and the check in and check out process tells you much about Hungary. The owner called me to inquire when I would arrive. Because he would have left then already he left the apartment open and the key in the door. When he heard that I would have left in the morning before he could arrive for cleaning he told me to just leave the money on the table. We both did as promised... 

 I was now traversing the Matra mountains a very scenic little mountain range where Hungary's highest mountain is located: Kekes with 1014 m. I ascended on a long ski slope and was a bit disappointed with the rather unassuming summit. But there was a very touching little monument on top: This memorial for deceased motor cyclist who had died in motor bike accidents. Photos of smiling young men where everywhere - and several motorcycle helmets. Even when I was taking this picture of this sad place a couple on a motor bike approached to pay its last respects to the deceased.


I continued on and made the mistake to not set up camp in time. I ended up contouring around very steep mountain slopes in complete darkness - no flat spot for my tent whatsoever. Eventually I came to a view point where there was just enough flat space for my little tent. Very much relieved I set up camp and was rewarded with a gorgeous view and sunrise in the morning!


I continued in beautiful fall weather to my next rest day in Eger.