Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Chasing the Kingfisher: down the Tauber and Altmuhl with Felix,September 2011


"Federalüntergerauntenflederhafenschaften" is how the sign read, I think. Forgive my poor memory, and worse German. Felix laughed when he saw it, as it meant "Federally Approved Place of Relaxation". This being Germany, it obviously meant that we wouldn't be able to relax anywhere else, so we were obliged to ride through southern Germany in a state of heightened tension. Damn those Germans and their rules!

I'd met Felix earlier that day, when I was riding out of Frankfurt while suffering from the kind of hangover you get when you spend the night drinking with a gang of young Americans on their way to Oktoberfest in Munich. It was too bright and I was going very slowly. He overtook me when I stopped to remove something from my wheel, then I leapfrogged him when he stopped to check his map. He addressed me in German, then again in English when he registered my incomprehension, and when he told me about his plan to ride along the Tauber river, it sounded far more interesting than my planned route. The Tauber Valley is known as "Lieberlisch Taubertal" on the publicity brochures and maps, it is home to many wild birds and animals and possesses natural beauty which was only enhanced by the first blush of autumn in the trees and the sunshine of the Indian Summer which I was enjoying through Europe, though the Germans have a different phrase for it: Altweibersommer, oldladysummer. The towns along the Tauber all show signs of its rich history. They each had a medieval Altstadt, most notably Rothenburg, where Japanese tourists pointed their cameras at Felix and I cycling up the cobbles rather than the glockenspiel display in the town square. There were other signs of the Tauber's history, such as the beautiful stone bridges which had been built with church money and were adorned with statues of the local saints or bishops holding crosses in attitudes supposedly of religious contemplation, but they mostly reminded me of axe-wielding rock stars.


For at least the second time since I'd left the UK I had chucked away my plans and went a completely different route. One of the delights of cycle touring is the flexibility and freedom which you don't have when you travel by plane or train and have to keep to timetables not of your own making.

Chance companions are another: Felix bristled with information about the natural history of the region, its geology and wildlife and plantlife. He told me that of all the wild creatures that dwelt along the Tauber, the one he most wanted to see was the kingfisher. It's a small, elusive bird with brilliant blue plumage, and it lives by rivers such as the Tauber, perching on a branch at the river's edge, watching the water flow beneath and waiting for the moment to dive into the stream and re-emerge with a silvery fish clutched in its beak.

As we rode along, then, Felix and I would pause at the bridges and other places where the kingfisher was likely to be found, hoping to see it.

We did see kites, kestrels, magpies and pied wagtails, oystercatchers, hares and foxes, yellowhammers twittering in the trees, huge pike lazily turning under the bridges we crossed, and buzzards whose cries came down through the trees at our camping site in the abandoned orchard. At least, it should have been abandoned - Felix assured me that the apple trees above us were too old to be commercial crops... Which was true, as the farmer told us herself when she came past on her horse to check the new orchards in the top field. She was so flabbergasted to see campers that she could only say to her horse, "look at that, look at that". Felix proved to be a bit of a jinx when it came to choosing campsites; the next night, we camped by a quiet pond, on a dirt track which was quieter than quiet, apart from the yahoos who used it is a shortcut between their village and the local drinking hole. The next night, in deepest Mittelfranken, we went along an empty track and through a stand of trees to camp at the forest fringe, but even there, just as we were cooking our supper, we could hear the putter-putter of an approaching engine.

We tensed as the tractor approached, but the driver refused even to look at us as he passed, so we relaxed (despite not being in a federally approved place of relaxation), and just as we were opening our Bavarian beers, we heard the putter-putter returning, with reinforcements. I felt as though we'd wandered onto the main road when I saw the tractor and two other cars turn the corner, and both Felix and I thought we were due to be chased off the land, if not threatened with guns.

However, they were delighted to see us there. I'm told that wild camping was legal in Germany until the 1960s, and people seemed to remember that and enjoy seeing us carrying on the tradition, or perhaps they were entertained by the sight of a pair of mad cyclists camping in a field. The farmer pulled his Mercedes over and showed us off to his young son in the passenger seat, and insisted on giving us a pumpkin. When they'd gone, and the tractor had putter-puttered back the way it came, Felix and I turned to each other and burst out laughing.

The pumpkin made a good supper. Food is food, and when it's free it's twice as good. Autumn is a fabulous time to be on the road, when the trees and hedgerows are filled with fruits and berries ripe to be picked. I've probably never eaten as healthily as I did during that month in Europe.

Pike on the Tauber

We even found a plum tree by the Tauber; I used my flag to knock them from the branches down to Felix beneath, who caught as many as he could. We stopped on the next bridge to eat them and to watch a huge heron which was waiting on a rock in the stream as if it was about to launch itself into the air. I leaned against the handrail, popped a plum into my mouth, then tried to shout "kingfisher!" around it. Felix turned in time to see the kingfisher fly underneath the bridge in a flash of blue and then away downstream. That glimpse was the most we saw of a kingfisher, but that glimpse was enough. We didn't follow it downstream but continued upstream, to the south and the Altmuhl, chasing the summer.

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