The Sheeps will be at Three

On a recent cycle through the Südheide, the lesser-known and seldom-visited southern part of Lüneburger Heide, I was struck by the peacefullness and emptiness of the area.  Mid-way between three large cities, Hamburg, Braunschweig and Hannover, the area contains sweeps of forest and mile upon mile of empty tracks and cyclepaths.  In comparison to the more famous park to the northwest with its throngs of visitors, it is shockingly devoid of any tourist infrastructure.  Some stretches of my trip, such as from Eschede to Oberohe, I didn’t see another human soul for two or three hours at a time (travelling by bike, remember!)…  quite hard to believe from one of Europe’s most crowded regions, at the peak of summer.  Another stretch from Faßberg, through the military testing range of Große Heide and past the nature conservation area of Kiehnmoor, was equally desolate, until I arrived at the charming village of Eimke.

Eimke, while not the most picturesque of Heide villages, has somehow retained a part of its heritage, perhaps due to its location on the busy B71 road which dissects the area.  There is a local market, and a couple of Gasthofs.  The decline of the German Gasthof is something that is truly lamentable.  Only the day before, I had been in Eldingen, on the southern end of the region, where I learned that in 1995 five Gasthofs still operated…  today, none.  Equally-sized towns like Unterlüß and Weyhausen had no overnight accommodation to be had at all (asides from overpiced “Ferienwohnungen,” being self-catering holiday homes), and I was forced to pedal on to Celle to find any impromptu place to stay.  But in Eimke there were small indicators that the interest in Heide heritage was more from new settlers, refugees from the city, with signs of organic farming and evidence of a multi-national population.  Checking my GPS, I decided to visit the nearby Ellerndorfer Wacholderheide, a preserved part of the northern extent of the Große Heide, not unlike the restricted areas I had just passed through, but with facilities.

Near the entrance was a café and gift shop where I was greeted by an overly-enthusiastic lady who began, unprompted, pointing out the amenities, highlights and history.  I asked a little about the local wildlife, and wanting to show off her English she informed me that “the sheeps will be at three.”  The Rheinmetall weapons-makers, who periodically use the Große Heide as a test-fire range (often closing the B71), realized that the heathland was growing out of control, and were pressured into hiring a professional sheep-herder to hustle said animals through the moors to keep the shoots in check and allow the heather to grow.  This, unfortunately, only on this northern extent.  Said sheep were to be brought through at three.

I’m no stranger to sheep, or sheep-herders, having hiked across almost every Irish and English county, but somehow interest got the better of me, and I decided to walk a bit around the carefully manicured heath for a couple of hours before the sheep arrived.  It was nice to park the bike for a while and stretch my limbs, and the heath was empty…  a nice time for reflection in the middle of my tour.  I am often on long bike rides through Niedersachsen , Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Schleswig-Holstein, and I truly enjoy the freedom of being on a bike in such open countryside, in the sense that I can cover long distances on the incredible bike-path network but as easily find routes into the fields and forests to picnic, swim in lakes, or simply chew bits of straw and watch the clouds.  I find this part of northern Europe perfect for me in that, from where I live in Hamburg, there are dozens of options for flat and friendly landscapes, the dykes and sea to the north, forests and lakelands to the east, heathlands to the south, orchards to the west, each within a hour or less by regular public transport on which I can bring my bike.  It’s a big reason why I moved here.  I’ve come to have an appreciation of the history and the people, and there is a warmness here.  Sure, it’s northern Germany and the people can be a little stiff, but they do take an interest in you if you show them an interest and respect for their culture.

Sitting on top of a small hill in the Wacholderheide that afternoon, waiting for the sheep to arrive at three, I thought, as I often do, about my life in Germany.  It’s not the rough and rugged Ireland of my youth, the hostile Mexico or Arizona of my bold explorations, or the quaint and comforting Cotswolds and Devon of my English years…  it was something in between, where I found a balance of what I could handle at my age and in my situation.  Pondering such things, I felt I should be smoking a pipe and grumbling at an impatient dog by my feet.  But no sheep yet on the horizon.  It was two-thirty, and the heide was beginning to fill ominously with people with unsure footing and large cameras.  The sheep would be here at three.

In the few minutes coming up to three o’clock, small groups began to form around various vantage points on the high ridge of the heath.  I had my camera at the ready, but somehow did not feel like using it anymore.  I noticed that of the forty or fifty people I could see from my spot, where only minutes before I saw none, all of them were pensioners.  Maybe a bus arrived, sure.  But still, in my three days of cycling I did not encounter any people my own age or younger (I’m 38, not old, by the way).  I thought about this.  Sure, it’s probably cheaper to fly to Mallorca or Ibiza.  Maybe everyone my age was simply too wrapped up in their careers to be looking in their back garden…  But I can’t judge the pursuits of others of my generation too harshly when I’m sitting here in nature checking my emails every fifteen minutes.  I’m not a hipocrite, I’m only trying to come to grasps as to why the countryside is so scorned by my generation.  This is obviously why the Gasthofs all died.

As I became lost in thought, I realized it was five minutes after three.  No sheep.  The small groups on the ridge began to intermingle impatiently, checking their fact-sheets, their watches.  Some looked disgruntled.  There might be a written complaint.  We were told the sheeps would be here at three, and the sheeps are not here.  The scene, the impatience, the outrage, of the pensioners, put me off and I set off in the opposite direction from them, and to make a wide circle around the heath back to my bike.  Fifteen minutes later, alone again on the edge of the forest, I looked beside me to see the herd of sheep clustered under some bushes against the drizzle.  I didn’t feel like taking photos of the poor, tardy, creatures, but just waved them on to their audience, and ducked out of the picture myself.