Howdy Pilgrim

Trip Start Feb 02, 2010
Trip End Feb 02, 2011

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Flag of Austria  , Styria,
Friday, October 8, 2010

Since arriving back in Sankt Marein from Vienna, nothing too exciting was happening and there was nothing very exciting planned for a while until I came up with the idea to walk a 900km pilgrimage route in Spain. Felix pointed out how far away Spain really is from us and that most of the journey would actually be in getting to Spain and back on Nina, - let alone actually doing the 900km walk itself. He encouraged me to look a bit closer to where we already are. I got right into the research and quickly found the one hundred and fifty kilometre pilgrimage hike to Austria’s most visited tourist destination, Mariazell. I thought we would need to put a lot of planning into such a long hike, but as soon as I suggested we do this walk, Felix said “Right, lets go tomorrow then.” it went against everything I have ever learnt to just head off an such a long walk without a single days planning but then I realised this hike was a very, very different kind of hiking to anything I had ever done before
 After a little looking over the map I realised it was going to be a walk along some small roads, through a couple of major towns, past guesthouses - never really into the wilderness for more than two days even if we dawdled along. Every other hike I have ever done before had always been out in the bush, far, far away from any major road or town, hence the need for detailed planning of meals and many hours studying a route. This trip we would come across shops every few days and be following well marked, well travelled paths, so putting a lot of time into planning meals and a route were not really necessary. We would also come across guesthouses every day so should we feel like a dry bed, a days rest, a big Austrian meal - all we had to do was check ourselves into a guesthouse.
 Realising Felix was right, we planned to head off Tuesday afternoon - barely twenty four hours after I had come up with the idea and suggested it to him. But before I move on to us leaving on Tuesday I must mention Monday. On Monday we took Nina for a ride into Graz. First we went out for a five o’clock lunch/dinner at a Mongolian BBQ and sushi buffet, adding another Asian buffet to our long collection. We then went to a big shopping centre to get a few things for the walk and I went to buy a pair of tracksuit pants - leaving Felix alone in Conrad, which is a massive, massive store in which you can find almost anything you could possibly need for anything electronics related. Maybe this was a mistake because when I came back to find him he was struggling to contain with his arms the mountain of stuff he was planning to buy. Felix was planning to walk in his runners but we looked into a shoe shop and three minutes later came out with a pair of hiking boots, the fastest I have ever seen anyone buy shoes in my entire life.
 So Tuesday morning (well actually afternoon by the time we walked out the door) we headed off, our packs considerably light and a very low fog hanging around keeping us slightly damp. We left right from the front door walking, something I have never done before, every other hike I have ever done has started with a car drive out to the trail head. It was strange to head off like that. We spent the whole day walking along the main road from Sankt Marein, mostly on the hard road surface which was horribly hard on my feet and meant we were sharing the way with cars, not the most idyllic place to start a hike but it was still good to be doing something. 
 By the time it was starting to get dark we were totally exhausted and couldn’t have walked a step further by the time we found a patch of forest with a flat area to sleep in. It was a shock how amazingly unfit we have become sitting on that motorbike everyday. We set up our tarps following Felix’s excellent shelter building plan and I cooked us some potatoes. It was so nice and cosy sitting under that shelter eating by candle light with the rain now steadily tapping on the tarps above us.
 All night the rain fell steadily but thankfully by morning it had stopped, the sky was still heavy with a low mist and the rain looked like it wasn’t going to stay away. But we packed up, crunched a muesli bar for breakfast and headed off again. A kilometre or so down the road, we came across some kind of pear tree with many of it’s fruits fallen on the ground. We found a handful each that were freshly fallen and walked along eating delicious pears as an extra to our muesli bar breakfast. At Mariatrost we joined the official Route 06 to Mariazell and stopped for lunch at a guesthouse. Here we discovered for the first time and definitely not the last, how badly and confusingly marked the trail can be sometimes. We spent an hour almost on the side of the road looking over maps and trying to figure where the sign exactly was pointing. 
 We eventually took a guess and headed in the right direction but then almost walked right past the next turn. The funny thing about these trails is, they are marked with yellow signs at big intersections with the name and number of the route (there a many, many different trails all over Austria, the 06 is just one of many routes) and along the track there are red and white stripes, much like an Austrian flag painted onto trees, rocks, road signs, houses, fences... When you are walking along a track with nowhere to go other than straight down the track, there is a little red and white mark every hundred metres or so. Then when you get to a major road or intersection, quite often the red marks have disappeared or the yellow sign points in a totally useless direction. Thankfully we always managed to choose the right way and never got too angry or frustrated by this vague marking system. 
 On our second night we camped on the side of the mountain Schökl. Again, most of the day we had been walking on asphalt so my feet were killing me. Felix was also having a lot of pain in his leg and ankle, maybe in relation to sciatica, he was experiencing a lot of pain in his Achilles Heel, some kind of over-stretching or over-use injury. So as we set up camp in the dark and rain, we were in good spirits but feeling very, very sore, tired, unfit and worn out. 
 The next morning we woke and packed up at first light because we were camped very close to the trail, well right between two actually, in some kind of meditation walk. Not wanting to upset any early morning dog walkers or people out on a meditation mission, by the time the sun was rising in a stunning golden sunrise on the autumn trees we were just having a rest and making a nice warm soup for breakfast. 
 After finishing our soup we started to make our way up the steep mountain. It took us three hours to reach the summit. It was such a steep climb and we trudged and trudged upward and upward sweating and groaning and as we did we were overtaken several times by elderly men charging up the hill with their Nordic walking poles. When we reached the top we had a moment of spectacular views before a massive cloud bank rolled in and surrounded us in a thick, cold fog it was about 5 degrees Celcius. We had a huge lunch, a few sturms and a lovely apfel strudel with cream and berries for dessert in the guesthouse on the mountain and then began making our way down. Once again the trail markings were rather unclear but two very local and friendly men helped when they saw us looking confused, and as as they were going the same way we were invited to walk with them down the hill. Peter and Donny walk up and then back down the Schökl three times a week come rain, hail or shine - and even snow. As we carefully stepped down the incredibly steep path with them, they gave us many useful directional hints as well and plenty of friendly conversation.
 For the next few hours we walked steadily along, the road gently rolling up and down through a nature reserve spilling with rashes of Autumn colour sometimes like wildfire when the leaves caught the sparkling Sun. The air had cleared and it was crisp and clean, the roadside dotted with the many beautiful Autumn flowers that strangely are mostly a dark blue or pinky purple. The cyclamens are in full bloom at the moment and in places there tender flowers and leaves - with curious patterns like a maze on them - carpet the forest floor. We had a rest in the sun on one of the hundreds of benches along the trail for weary pilgrims to rest, then started on another very steep downhill section. Going steeply down doesn't get you heart going like a steep uphill but it certainly works your legs out just as hard, keeping my knees from popping inside is heavy work on those steep hills, slippery with autumn leaves and damp moss.
 One time as we rested by a small small place for prayer that are common across Europe - a painted concrete and brick affair with a crucified plaster Jesus in a small alcove, a man driving by pulled over, speaking a barely understandable strong dialect we finally realised (I hope correctly) that he wanted to sell us religious trinkets and garden sculptures including little wooden windmills and the like which littered the back of his car. Amazing how hard some salesmen work, even stopping to sell their wares to roaming hikers who clearly have no place for these things. We politely declined and then spotted his car zipping through the little villages in the distance many times throughout the rest of the day, presumably leaving a trail of little windmills and trinkets.
 Our aim for the day was to make it to the town of Passail but as we were resting on yet another bench kindly supplied by the local god loving folk of the local village I thought I saw Hans, the partner of Michi’s mother drive past. I only recognised him because he was in the business car which had the name of the business written rather largely down the side. We were quite close to their house so it was possible it had been him, but he hadn’t shown any signs of recognising us. We discussed the possibility a little longer then decided to walk a little further. 
 We only made it about five hundred meters down the road before Felix was in too much pain and had to rest again, my feet were killing me also. Felix’s new shoes were taking taking their toll as his feet adjusted to them and they adjusted to his feet. Having thought we had seen Hans had given us an idea. They had been inviting us to come and stay with then all year so maybe this was the perfect time to take up the offer and have a little visit and a rest. Sure we were only two and a half days into out trip but we were fast discovering we were clearly not fit enough to tackle this walk at our current pace. 
 We were both a little unhappy about the idea of pulling the pin so early on in the trip but Felix’s leg and ankle wasn’t going to get any better if we kept pushing it. I was worried that if we did he would then seriously injure it and not be able to use it at all for maybe even months. Or worse, that it might give way at a critical moment such as climbing up or down a very steep and narrow path and he would then fall down a possibly fatal distance. The fact that I was feeling very smelly and dirty as well as extremely sore and tired myself did make the idea of a little break ver appealing. So while Felix charged the phone with one of his new battery packs from Conrad enough to make a call, we debated the pros and cons of continuing or having a little break.
 In the end we called Hans who even before we said where we were and could ask if we could come and visit, he invited us anyway. So fifteen minutes later he picked us up in the mini bus and brought us back to the house in Leska. We said hello and talked with Burgi (Michi’s mother and Hans’ partner) before going with Hans about one kilometre down the road to the little farm where their animals live. This is where we were going to be staying, in the super cosy and cute hutter surrounded by corn fields and friendly animals. We took our bags up into the warm attic and then helped feed the animals before going back to collect Burgi and then going out to Weiz for dinner.
 And so that brings me to today. We woke early again and helped feed the animals then went over to the house for breakfast. At exactly seven AM we had the experience of ringing the Leska bell. The village of Leska is very unique in the way it still has a bell that is rung every day of the year at seven AM. Each farmer or family in the village must take the responsibility for making sure the bell is rung every morning for one year each. Burgi and Hans have the responsibility for this year and assured us it is a very important thing to some farmers in the village. 
 After a long and very friendly breakfast in the warm sunny kitchen we went back to the farm where we have just been relaxing. We are planning to spend a few days here and then decide if we will continue on our ‘Pilgrimage’ to Mariazell.
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