The war is over

Why should nature be limited only to the able-bodied? The Eifel region in Germany, once a military training ground during the World War II, makes a strong case for inclusivity of the differently abled.

Written by Malavika Bhattacharya | Published:September 4, 2016 1:00 am
The Vogelsang area across the Urftsee, or the Urft Lake, from the bird watching station The Vogelsang area across the Urftsee, or the Urft Lake, from the bird watching station

Tall and grey on the Dreiborn Plateau in Western Germany’s Eifel region, looms one of the three former Nazi education camps. The imposing Ordensburg Vogelsang complex was built between 1934-36 as a place to groom and educate future leaders of the Nazi party. Then came World War II; the army took over and used the space for various military purposes, including as barracks, until it came under the control of the Allied forces in 1945. Today, the grim complex occupies 100 hectares within the Eifel National Park, situated on a vantage point overlooking wooded hills of spruce, beech, willow, and the winding Urftsee (Urft Lake).

I see it first from a bird-watching station along a trail in the national park. Vogelsang, interestingly, means “birdsong”. The Urftsee, created by the construction of a dam on the River Urft, is in the foreground. Binoculars are trained on the foliage flanking its edges, through which I spy a great crested grebe, cormorants and grey herons. To my left, the 124-metre long Victor Neels steel suspension bridge stretches across the water. Behind me, the black slate rock face is riddled with bullet holes.

Years of shelling and cannonade in the region have left a pockmarked rock face and large craters in the ground. After World War II, the Vogelsang area was used as a military training ground, first by the British from 1946 to 1950, and then by the Belgian army until 2005. In 2006, 60 years since the area had remained out of bounds to the German public, the region was opened as a 110-sq km national park. Michael Lammertz, communications manager, Eifel Park, says, “I used to live in the area as a boy, but we could never enter it. I would hear sounds of shelling all day.”

Geographically, the park is situated in the south-west part of the state of north Rhine-Westphalia. Quiet towns sit on its fringes — picturesque spots in the lap of nature, perfect to stay, sample seasonal local cuisine and explore the region. Five entry gates lead into the park from different directions. I’m staying in the town of Schleiden, close to the Gemünd gate, from where I enter the rich and varied landscape of the national park.

Vast tract of coniferous and deciduous forests extend over the mountain and plateau. The indigenous beech is gradually reclaiming its territory here, but foreign tree species such as spruce and Douglas fir still remain. Gnarled oak and willow trees add to the canopy. The weathered rock and black slate rises in crumpled, fantastical formations, indicating that 370 million years ago, this was the bottom of the ocean. Two rivers, the Urft and the Rur, wind their way through the region, feeding into the Urftsee and Rursee lakes created by constructions of dams. In the midst of the park is the Dreiborn plateau, now occupied by the Vogelsang complex. Crisscrossing the area are 240 kilometres of hiking trails and 104 km of cycling paths.

I cycle down the Urftstaumauer trail that follows the snaking Urft up to the dam. Past wild cherry trees heavy with white blooms and the weathered rock of the Kermeter mountain range, under canopies of ancient trees, I pedal with the wind blowing through my hair.

A hiking trail through beech trees in the Wild Kermeter A hiking trail through beech trees in the Wild Kermeter

Near the dam, I notice a bus stop from where a shuttle service operates to the Wild Kermeter region of the national park. Low-floor buses pull up, and the bus stop has a ramp for wheel-chair access and a handrail to guide the visually impaired. I’m intrigued by the design, but I later realise that this is only an introduction to the all-accessible approach the national park has adopted.

The Wild Kermeter region is a primeval area on the slopes of the Kermeter hills, between the Urftsee and Rursee lakes, networked by 4.7 km of trails that wind through forest and offer panoramic views of lakes and mountains. The most interesting feature? The area is barrier-free and designed to be accessible for the differently abled. At the Hirschley viewpoint, a tactile bronze relief of the park and the dam allows the visually impaired to feel the landscape that surrounds them. For guidance, the paths have paved tactile strips, braille signboards, and audio guides in different languages.

Ranger-led tours depart from designated spots, marked by ranger hats atop stone pillars. Guided tours are conducted in different languages, including sign language for the hearing impaired. The park runs a special training programme for volunteers who want to be involved with the national park. On my hike, I meet two locals who are now certified to run specialised tours — one focuses on the park’s geological aspects, and the other leads children’s groups.

I walk along a wooden platform with 10 interactive stations, an introduction to the flora, fauna and ecosystems of the forest. Push panels depict the effect of different kinds of storms on trees; at another station, we study tree hollows as habitats. Throughout, there’s a handrail to aid access for the wheelchair-bound and visually impaired. Every 250 yards or so, there are benches within the forest to rest at, some in the form of tree trunk stubs, arranged in a circle. My favourite find, though, are the recliners. In a clearing within the forest sit two wooden reclined beds, where we take a rest stop, lying comfortably in the lap of nature, staring up into the neon green canopy.

The forest is a habitat for 7,800 species of flora and fauna, including 1,800 endangered species, a large population of wild cats, the Eurasian eagle owl, beavers, red deer, and seven varieties of the woodpecker. I hike past clumps of white clover on mossy trails carpeted with fallen beech leaves. Alongside, there are gravel paths built on gradual slopes, but the ecosystem seems undisturbed, with the sounds of the forest ringing loud. If coexistence with nature and development can go hand in hand, then we have to ask: why should nature be limited only to the able-bodied?

The writer is a freelance journalist who writes about travel, culture, food, the arts, and the outdoors.