Heathland Cargo Club
After nine months apart due to the pandemic, a group of friends reunited for a weekend trip along Germany’s Heidschnucken Trail this spring—and they did so in style, loading all the luxuries into a cargo bike with a trailer attached. Read on for their story of making the most of their time away together, despite heavy mud and mechanicals…
We hadn’t seen each other in more than nine months, and we were really looking forward to finally taking another bikepacking trip together in May of 2021 after a long and snowy winter in Germany. On past trips, we’d worked out that things tend to come together more smoothly when just a couple in our group decide on the route and accommodations, so a pair of us did the planning and we all agreed to meet for a bikepacking trip through the Heide, or heathland, from Celle to Hamburg.
A couple of weeks prior to the departure, we started to look at the weather forecast and current COVID-19 restrictions around the area we’d be traveling through. At about the same time, we received a cancelation notice from our hotel because hosting guests from outside the region was still prohibited. The weather forecast seemed to change each time we looked at it, and always for the worse. The lack of accommodation and grim weather predictions were factored into our discussion of whether we should go through with the trip or not. We discussed camping, going non-stop overnight, traveling to another region, or canceling the trip altogether. We decided rather quickly that we weren’t going to cancel, and since our two friends had invested so much time carefully planning the route, we packed up our camping gear and waterproof equipment and got together in Celle on a grey but dry Thursday afternoon.
Even though Germany is densely populated, it can feel empty very quickly, especially on small forest tracks through nature preserves that surround huge military training grounds, such as the one we were riding. Just outside the city, we got our first taste of the sandy trails that—in a stroke of luck—were mostly hard-packed due to all the rain from the days and weeks before. At times, there were rows of trees as far as the eye could see, and around the turn in the road, endless rows of more trees in the distance. The surroundings stayed pretty much the same throughout those two days, and we all started to appreciate the monotone landscape and long straight gravel roads.
We stayed at a friend’s farm house just north of Celle on our first night, where Itzi, the last member of our group, joined us with his cargo bike. Naturally, everyone was excited to see this beast in action. That night, we enjoyed spending time together over a hearty barbecue built around wild hog meat and sausages. After catching up on all the latest news and developments in our lives, we went to bed feeling hopeful for dry conditions the next morning as we started the remaining 200-kilometer stretch to Hamburg, riding the Heidschnucken Trail.
Waking up the next morning, we started to come to terms with what was likely going to be a wet and cold trip for the next two days. We decided to start with a big breakfast and a bottle of Prosecco to see if they sparked some motivation to hit the trail. At about 2 p.m., the rain slowly receded and we were finally ready to depart with the remaining beer, prosecco, and grilled potatoes all loaded onto the cargo bike. After the first couple of turns and kilometers, the mood quickly lifted, and we started to get excited about the following day and a half on our bikes on the trail.
Built as a long-distance hiking trail, the Heidschnucken Trail goes all the way from Celle, close to Hannover, to the shores of the Elbe River, just south of Hamburg, on Germany’s north coast. In addition to the trail itself, which is marked by a white “H,” there’s a vast network of connecting trails that connect surrounding villages to the trail. They’re marked with a yellow “H” and arrows in the direction of the main trail. I make this distinction because we didn’t learn what the difference in color meant until about halfway into the first day, after we’d already deviated from the official trail because we followed a yellow “H” instead of our GPS. We later realized that this shortened our journey, which wasn’t exactly a bad thing on the first day.
The trail switched from paved backroads to gravel forest roads, then to purpose-built cycling lanes next to sandy tracks, and back to cobblestone streets in some villages. Contrary to some cycling routes that follow roads for easier riding and faster speeds, the Heidschnucken Trail tries to avoid roads as much as possible in order to be more appealing to hikers. This fact made for some interesting route choices that had us feeling like we were going around in circles from time to time. Besides the monotonous landscape of woods, fields, heathland, and some cattle grazing grounds, all the region’s major sights are connected via the trail. We followed narrow singletracks around calm, dark lakes and onto low but still prominent hills. The distance between Celle and Hamburg is easily doubled due to the design of the trail, but compared to the direct route on the roads, it makes for a very peaceful ride.
At some point on Friday afternoon, the sun finally came out and we could fully enjoy being close to nature and rather far from other humans. The pandemic moved to a more distant place in our minds, since we were spending quality time together not having to worry about distancing or masks because we didn’t enter any public indoor spaces. Only when sunset drew closer did we start to calculate how far we should or could still ride that day, and whether or not we would find something to eat. At about the same time, we realized that a late departure and the wet conditions of the trail made for a low average speed, which added up to relatively few kilometers completed on this first leg of the journey.
Robin and Sebastian had already ridden the trail in the opposite direction and knew of a nice pizzeria in Soltau that wasn’t too far away. We just barely made it for dinnertime, and the owner allowed us to sit outside, even though they were officially only doing takeaway pizzas at the time. Being the first meal after our breakfast-turned-brunch, we devoured our pizzas and took off again before getting too cold in the chilly evening air.
We had about an hour and a half of daylight left to find a suitable camping spot which wasn’t easy between Soltau and Bispingen since the boundary of the Nature Reserve has quite an eroded shape there. Due to travel restrictions, we had to bivy, but we were lucky to find a flat spot right next to the track that felt good to stay and respect nature at the same time. We decided to pitch the tents since the weather forecast promised some drizzle during the night. The last light faded just as we finished setting up, and we lit a small fire in our portable camping stove. At some point, our discussion led us to look up the size of the local wolf population, and we went on to chat about life’s bigger questions while staring into the crackling flames that illuminated the darkness and fog around us.
Feeling happy and tired and immediately getting cold after the fire was put out, we snuggled into our sleeping bags after coming to a group consensus that one indeed doesn’t need much to be happy—except time and places for outings like this one, and of course some expensive high-tech outdoor equipment.
Due to the weather forecast, we hadn’t planned to have breakfast out in nature and only snacked cereal bars in the morning while taking down our tents and packing up for the second full day of pedaling through the Heide. We still had a lot of kilometers to ride and started to wonder if we were going to make it into Hamburg before nightfall, considering the low average speeds from the day before. We rode some 10 or 15 kilometers until Bispingen, where we found a bakery with good coffee and Franzbrötchen (a very light croissant-type specialty from northern Germany packed with butter, sugar, caramel, and some cinnamon) for breakfast.
Just outside Bispingen, we entered the northern part of Naturpark Lüneburger Heide, which starts to get a little more hilly and is almost as large as the southern part. Riding along a flat and straight stretch of gravel road over a vast plain, we thought we saw some movement between the trees on the hillside that closed off the plain to one side. Before long, more and more Heidschnucken sheep emerged from the trees and moved down onto the stretch of flat land between the hillside and the gravel track, all the while grazing on the scarce grass and small flowers the Heide has to offer.
We stopped to keep a distance because we were convinced that the sheep—after whom the Heidschnucken Trail is named—would be shy and start to run away if we got too close. We soon learned otherwise when we were almost completely surrounded by sheep, with a shepherd and his dogs a little further away and the herd covering not only the grasslands but also the road ahead.
We got onto our bikes again and rode through the herd, amazed and happy that we had seen these beautiful animals up close. In order to put some more kilometers behind us and because we felt less keen to taste sheep sausage after our encounter with the Heidschnucken sheep, we didn’t stop at any of the restaurants that were strategically placed along the Heidschnucken Trail in every other village we passed.
Instead, we used the strong tailwind that had built up due to some thunderstorm clouds to boost our average speed and hopefully avoid the looming storm and rain in the process. We felt some raindrops from time to time but managed to go around the heaviest rain, feeling lucky that we didn’t get soaked on our second day either.
The indicated distance to the endpoint of the trail in Fischbeck on the southern shore of the Elbe river grew smaller and smaller and we were already beginning to dream of food and make plans for dinner at some delicious restaurant in Hamburg. Contrary to our expectations, the landscape didn’t flatten out towards the north but instead got hillier and hillier. The track’s design had us almost turning in circles, and the distance remaining to Fischbeck seemed to stay the same from one signpost to the next while the daylight started to slip between our fingers.
The past two days of mud and sand had taken a toll on our bikes, especially the brake pads, which were making an almost constant grinding sound by then, and our chains had stopped turning quietly long ago. The squeaky bikes, steep ups and downs over the bumps of Harburger Rosengarten, and our seeming inability to reduce the distance between us and the end of the trail in the deep mud of the past rainy weeks challenged our spirits and motivation on that final stretch.
Just as the evening sun came out again, bathing the damp forest in golden light, our friend had to jump off his cargo bike on one of the descents to avoid getting pinned underneath it as it tipped over and emptied its cargo into the mud. The brakes pads on the front wheel were completely used up and the remaining metal had blocked the wheel from spinning, making for a dramatic crash. Given the difficulty of some sections of the trail, we realized it was a little miracle that it happened so close to the finish.
With all those factors in mind, we decided to end our journey in Fischbeck and not ride into Hamburg anymore for that final celebratory meal. Instead, following some quick makeshift repairs to the cargo bike’s front brake, we rode the remaining couple of kilometers through the Fischbecker Heide on a flat gravel track. Once in Fischbeck, we hopped on the train to Hamburg and said our goodbyes after a take-out Indian meal and some beers on the street.
It wasn’t exactly the ending we had in mind, but after two long days, we were all happy to have accomplished the Heidschnucken Trail by bike, despite the weather forecast, COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, and heavy toll the mud and sand had taken on our bodies and bikes.
Overall, this trip lines up rather nicely with our prior experiences together, which always seem to include some mechanical problems, less than perfect weather, and stages that sometimes seemed extraordinarily difficult to finish. The most important aspect was, as usual, the time spent with friends, doing what we love, being outside, and not thinking about the worrying aspects of life too much.
There will be more of these trips together, for sure, and we’re already excited to see which bike Itzi is going to show up with next…
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