It’s August 2016 and Team ‘Ellie and the Twirl Bites’ have just completed their Gold DofE canoeing expedition, when Marlon comments in an off-hand manner that we’d be a good team for an Explorer Belt expedition. The Explorer Belt is a 10-day hiking expedition in a foreign country, where you meet new people and experience new cultures. We immediately latch onto the idea, giving way to a flood of speculation about places we could go and things we could do. Unfortunately it turns out Dearbhla isn’t free next summer, so the team is confirmed as Carina, Zuza and Ellie, and the planning begins…
– ONE YEAR LATER –
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in Muswell Hill, and three intrepid Explorers were preparing to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. The only problem – their car had a flat tyre. After some quick DIY from Leader Steve, we were on our way to Dover, to begin a journey that would end 12 days later in Berlin. Our plan was simple: walk along the German Iron Curtain Trail, a long distance cycle path that follows the course of the former East-West German Border, and then get a train to Berlin to finish the expedition in style.
MONDAY – DAY 1
After a 14 hour drive, we finally arrived at our campsite in Lübeck, where we snoozed for half an hour until the reception opened (turns out driving through the night means you arrive pretty early). Once our tent was up and our massive bags safely inside, we headed into Lübeck, where we discovered that it was also too early for any coffee shops to be open, much to the Leaders’ dismay. After killing time by planning the rest of our day, we said goodbye to our in-country support team of Marlon and Steve, and set out to explore the town.
We admired the various marzipans on sale in the Niederegger shop, visited the Holstentor, and ate pretzels from the local market, making sure to fulfill all the necessary touristy requirements. We also completed one of our minor projects (which had been set by various Explorers and Leaders); ‘use the German word for unicorn in conversation with a local’ by Carina asking for the price of a unicorn toy in a shop. Having exhausted the possibilities for free activities (as you might have guessed, three 17 year olds have a very tight budget). We began the trek back to the campsite, something which had seemed a lot shorter in the car! After a quick stop off in the supermarket, we arrived back at our tent.
Left with a few hours before it could be considered a reasonable time to cook dinner, we set about creating our fabulous logbook – one of the Explorer Belt requirements. Naturally, this meant whipping out the coloured pens and tape, and employing all our combined artistic talent in designing an aesthetic format.
Soon it was time for dinner and we started our expedition with a camp classic: pasta and sauce, with frankfurters for some German authenticity. Once we’d eaten and washed up, we wriggled gratefully into our sleeping bags for the first night of our expedition!
TUESDAY – DAY 2
Full of energy on our first proper day of hiking, we awoke bright and early and packed up camp before setting off to walk to our next campsite. When we arrived there six hours later, we definitely weren’t so energetic; the 30°C heat and heavy rucksacks had taken their toll. Not to mention our map, which made the distances look deceptively shorter than in real life. Still, we arrived, set up camp, and got started on working our way through eight ice creams (it was hot, okay?).
Then it was time to get out the maps and plan the rest of our route, in an attempt to avoid any more 17km days. This was greatly helped by the fact that getting public transport is perfectly fine on an Explorer Belt expedition, as it allows you to see places you might otherwise not have a chance to. It was also at this point that we bought what soon became our most prized possession: a proper map, which actually showed all the paths (it was great). We also made another exciting discovery: the in-country Leaders had been stuck in a traffic jam all day, so we’d actually been travelling faster than they had!
That night we were treated to a ‘mad’ (- Ellie) thunderstorm after the day’s oppressive heat, which was equal parts exhilarating and slightly terrifying.
WEDNESDAY – DAY 3
The next day saw us change our plans slightly, as Ellie’s injured Achilles tendon meant she couldn’t walk as long distances as we’d originally intended. Thus, we decided it was high time we tried out German public transport, and took the bus south to Ratzeburg. On the way, we discussed several important topics; ‘If I were a slug, I’d much rather be squished by an expensive hiking boot than a Croc’ (- Carina), and how farmers would be the best equipped to survive a zombie apocalypse (I mean, have you seen a combine harvester?).
We arrived in Ratzeburg on the opposite side to the campsite, so hiked through the town. On the way, we did some work towards our major project – ‘To discover more about the history of the German-German border during the Cold War’. We visited an exhibition of artwork by A. Paul Weber, who made time critical prints, and looked round the local history museum, complete with authentic ,,Trabi” car. After also taking a look around the cathedral we continued on to the campsite.
This campsite turned out to be right on the banks of Ratzeburg Lake, so what else could we be expected to do other than go for a swim? This provided the chance to complete one of our minor projects, ‘catch a fish’.
THURSDAY – DAY 4
The next day we left all our kit on site, and set out with only our little bumbags (thanks, Osprey rucksacks!), with all the essentials. We headed off towards Schlagsdorf, where we visited a museum on the site of the former border, including its outdoor reconstructed border zone and watchtower. We all found it kind of crazy, yet really cool, to be standing where not that long ago people lost their lives trying to flee across the border. The presence of the border also provided an ideal excuse for Ellie’s battered knees, when in reality she’d just managed to trip over her own laces!
Having left the museum, we then continued on to the place where the village of Lankow once existed, prior to being destroyed to make way for the border control zone. Once we reached the memorial, we had a snack then turned round for the long walk back to the campsite.
Having arrived back, Zuza and Carina decided to take a swim again, since it was already raining anyway.
FRIDAY – DAY 5
Day 5 saw us hiking back into Ratzeburg to get the train and bus to Gudow. Gudow, it turns out, is a tiny place in the middle of nowhere which just happens to have a campsite. There was also a church – which was closed – and a supermarket – which was closed. Having checked into the campsite, we again took advantage of the nearby lake – well Carina went swimming and the others just paddled. This campsite had several other luxuries: free showers, an indoor cooking area, charging points – practically the Ritz!
SATURDAY – DAY 6
The next day we discovered that the bus we’d planned to get wasn’t running, so braced ourselves and set off on the 14km walk to Büchen. Three hours later we arrived, and attempted to visit an exhibition about the former border at the Priesterkate – which was closed.
Then we continued through the town to the local Scout hall, where we’d arranged to stay overnight. After dumping our stuff and exploring the hall, we headed out again to get ice cream and go shopping. This ice cream turned out to cost 70 cents a scoop, so we each had about five scoops over the course of the afternoon.
Once back at the hall, we began cooking dinner, with various hindrances including a very persistent cat and a downpour of rain. Eventually however, we were able to eat, and very much enjoyed having a roof over our heads for a night.
SUNDAY – DAY 7
Once again we got up early in the morning, to take the train to Lauenburg. We walked the 30 minutes to the station, very disappointed to see the ice cream shop was closed. We arrived with an hour to spare, giving us plenty of time to figure out the confusing ticket machine.Soon enough, the train arrived and we were on our way.
Lauenburg appeared completely deserted on arrival, even though it was after 10am. We attempted to find the local castle, but the signs directed us to the gardens at the top of a very long, steep series of steps. Having powered up them, we decided we were due a break, and quickly scoffed down an entire pack of biscuits (yes, that’s 32 biscuits, but they were small ones okay?). Eventually we found the castle and climbed to the top of the tower – something that proved to be very difficult with huge rucksacks on.
Next we headed back down to the Elbe, where we thoroughly confused the Tourist Office people and visited the Elbe Maritime Museum, which proved quite entertaining despite being all in German.
Having exhausted all Lauenburg’s cultural delights, we crossed a bridge over the Elbe and began making our way to the campsite. Our map showed two possible campsites so we first approached the nearest one. This turned out to be a group of random people in motor homes having a party, and we were told it was for private use only. Thus we were forced to carry on to the next campsite, all of us just wanting to get there by now.
Once we arrived an hour later, we collapsed on our little patch of grass. However, our rest was not to last as the heavens soon opened and it began to rain. As Ellie sat nursing her ankle, Carina and Zuza rushed to put up the tent before we all dived gratefully in. A nap later, and we were once again ready for action and got up to cook dinner.
MONDAY – DAY 8
Day 8 saw us walking once again all the way back to Lauenburg, where we hopped on the bus down the Elbe to Boizenburg. On the outskirts of the town we disembarked to visit the Elbe Flusslandschaft flood exhibit, and attempted to visit the Elbberg museum, which was – you guessed it – closed. (turns out nothing happens on Mondays in Germany). However there was a permanent outdoor display about the former border, which was interesting.
Then we headed in and explored the beautiful old town before walking further on to an old observation tower left over from the border. After heading back into the centre we visited the seriously creepy church and did some more shopping, until the bus arrived to take us back to Lauenburg – a journey that, 30 years earlier, would have taken you to a different country.
Once back in Lauenburg we visited another supermarket in our search for a vital item of sustenance: houmous. Having procured some, we walked 6km back to the campsite and embarked on a ‘houmous adventure’ (- Zuza). One of our minor projects was to create a new houmous flavour based on a local dish, so we mixed currywurst sauce with houmous to create an amazing spicy dip that was quickly gobbled down.
TUESDAY – DAY 9
The next day saw us rising at 6am to get an early bus – if we missed it, the next one was at 2pm. Having paid our fare we were off, taking the round the houses route to Lüneburg, a city that turned out to be the biggest place we’d visited so far, to the excitement of civilisation-deprived Ellie and Zuza. With such an early arrival, nowhere was open, so we had no choice but to spend two hours sitting in a bakery and eating pastries (it’s a hard life, I know). Once we felt we couldn’t stay there any longer, we began exploring the old town. Constrained by Carina’s strict budgeting, we were unable to actually pay to visit anything. This left us appreciating the exteriors and foyers of several churches, which was as far as you could get before you had to start paying. The search for camp blanket badges led us to many souvenir shops, until we made our way to a park for lunch.
Having eaten our fill, we set off again to our campsite for the night, stopping off at a supermarket on the way. The campsite turned out to be further than we’d expected (thanks, Ellie!), but eventually we arrived and checked in.
Carina quickly discovered the site’s private lake and promptly went for a swim, before we all made good use of the free showers. Zuza also had a traumatic experience with a slug that we had apparently transported from the previous campsite via the tent, which was amusing for everyone but her.
All hungry after a long day, we got round to making dinner, keeping it traditional with rösti and frankfurters. Soon it was time for bed on the last official night of our expedition!
WEDNESDAY – DAY 10
Day 10 saw us rising early again for the 6km walk to the train station in order to catch a train to Hamburg. Once in Hamburg, we spent an astonishingly long time in a queue to buy coach tickets to Berlin for the following day. Having completed this mission, we headed onto the streets, slightly overwhelmed by the sheer busyness and number of people in what was the biggest place we’d been in since London. Navigating the packed streets was certainly not made any easier by the huge rucksacks that had by now become a part of us.
The delicious smells wafting from a nearby currywurst food stall proved too tempting to resist, so we decided to screw the budget and indulge ourselves – which was definitely worth it!
We then continued on towards HafenCity, the old-docks-turned-upmarket-housing-and-tourist-attraction area. Ellie and Carina promptly got very excited about geography (deindustrialisation! regeneration!), while Zuza just shook her head in despair. Having rested there for a while (it was crazy hot) we carried on walking along the riverfront until we reached the ,,Alter Elbtunnel”, an old tunnel under the River Elbe whose attraction was the aesthetic interior, cool lift, and lack of entrance fee.
We walked the length of the tunnel, then thoroughly confused everyone by turning around and walking straight back the way we’d just come. After reemerging into the light, we began the walk back to the station, stopping off at a supermarket on the way.
We then got the train and bus to Barmbek, the area in Hamburg where we’d arranged a Scout Hall to stay in. Two Leaders from VCP Stamm Astrid Lindgren were there to meet us when we arrived, letting us into their hall and giving us each a badge!
Once they’d left, we explored the very nice hall and got overly excited by the presence of an oven – remember, we’d been cooking on a gas stove for 10 days – the possibilities offered by an oven seemed endless. Naturally we decided that pizza was the way to go. Unfortunately, working the oven proved harder than expected, but soon enough we were indulging in our long-awaited pizza.
We spent the rest of the evening chilling, listening to Carina’s awesome German playlist (not biased at all here), and adding to our logbook.
THURSDAY – DAY 11
For the 11th day of our expedition, we got the train back into central Hamburg, where we boarded the coach to Berlin with much anticipation. Three hours later we pulled up at Berlin Central Bus Station, which turned out not to be very central at all, so we had to get the S-Bahn train to our hostel.
When we arrived at the Heart of Gold Hostel (yes, it’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ themed), we were greeted by Leaders Steve and Bradford, our much-appreciated in-country support team. After checking in we headed to our room and got ready to set out to explore Berlin. This ended up taking longer than expected, as we waited for the other team to arrive as well, so we had only two hours to see all the sights.
We’d planned an all-inclusive circular route that would allow us to see all the main tourist spots, so we quickly headed out, conscious of our 7:30pm dinner reservation. As we approached the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate, it finally sank in that we were actually in Berlin and had completed our expedition after so many months of planning.
We ticked off all the mandatory tourist experiences: got lost in the Holocaust memorial, spent too much money on ice cream, and craned our necks looking up at the Fernsehturm. It proved to be a pretty whistle-stop tour, but we still found time to briefly look at the ‘Topography of Terrors’ exhibition about Berlin’s history in WWII and the Cold War, which was useful for our major project.
Once we returned to the hostel having practically sprinted the last few streets, we headed our again to a nearby restaurant, as Steve had offered to buy us all dinner (thank you!). We all enjoyed tucking in to some classic German dishes and trading expedition stories with the other team.
After eating our fill, we made our way back to the hostel and settled in for the night.
The next morning we all packed up our kit again – something made a million times easier by the fact we hadn’t had to take our sleeping kit out. We then made quick work of the buffet breakfast and chatted to some Spanish Scouts that also happened to be staying at the hostel. However it was soon time to be off again. We crammed in a few more sights – the Gedenkstätte Wall Memorial, the East Side Gallery, the Soviet war memorial – before hitting the road again in Steve’s car.
Several hours and some complicated satnav-ing later, we were pulling into DPSG Bundeszentrum Westernohe, a German national Scout campsite near Cologne, where we stayed overnight to break up the long drive back to London. Luckily the rain ended as we pulled up, giving us dry skies under which to pitch camp and cook dinner.
For our last night in Germany, we decided to end on our expedition classic of rösti and frankfurters, while the Leaders earned our disapproval by slapping together some bread and cheese and calling it a meal.
We could hear the sounds of raucous Scouts coming from elsewhere on site, so decided to go and investigate. This proved to be DPSG Stamm Arche-Iserlohn Nußberg, who invited us to join their evening game. Through a mixture of German, English, and interpretive hand gestures we also traded scarves and badges, before returning to our camp to sleep.
On Saturday morning we awoke with a mixture of anticipation for returning home and sadness at the end of an amazing trip. Now pros at it, we quickly took down the tent and packed our bags. While drinking our breakfast hot chocolate, we received a visit from our new German Scout friends, which was really nice.
Soon enough we were on the road again, slightly mind-blown at finally putting ‘Scout Park’ in the satnav after so long in Germany. As if on a mission to visit as many countries as possible, we drove through Germany, Holland, Belgium and France in quick succession, before arriving back at Calais for the ferry home. After finally getting through passport control we drove onto the ferry and walked up to the top deck to say goodbye to Europe and get in some last minute GoPro-ing.
Having crossed the Channel, we continued the drive back to Scout Park, where we pulled up with ‘Mr Blue Sky’ blaring and were greeted by Marlon and Annie. We agreed that as Scout Park is our communal home and no Scout trip ever really ends until you’re back there, it was necessary to take a group photo in front of the gates. This completed, our expedition was finally over.
We had an amazing time doing our Explorer Belt in Germany, and loved learning so much more about its history and culture. We are also hugely grateful to Steve, Marlon and Bradford for all their help in organising it, and for being our in-country support. It wouldn’t have been possible without them!
– Ellie & the Twirl Bites