He has made his hobby into his job: Manuel Andrack goes hiking and writes about it. Germany's best known hiking columnist has rejuvenated this recreational activity which was long regarded as a little stuffy.
Germans have always been known for their love of hiking - referred to here as "wandern". It is therefore not surprising that the German word "Wanderlust" has become an acceptable term in English - synonymous for a yearning for far-away places and the desire to travel. Manuel Andrack, born in 1965, first became known to tv audiences as the side kick to Harald Schmidt, Germany's answer to David Letterman, on his "Late Night Show". He became something of a German cult figure in his jeans jacket, sipping beer while making biting comments. Today he is first and foremost a hiker - who writes books, reports and blogs about it.
DW: You are regarded as "Germany's pope of hiking" – how do you feel about that?
Manuel Andrack: I would never call myself a "pope of hiking". I prefer "hiking expert" or even "hiking guru". Recently on a hike along the Rhine an eight-year-old made a great picture for me on which he wrote "hiking master Manuel Andrack" – so I don't mind being called a "master" either.
How often do you go hiking and with whom?
It is a full time job - going hiking, writing about hiking and reading about hiking. On average I go hiking twice a week. These aren't super challenging hikes, but rather 10 or 20 kilometer walks, which add up to 1,000 kilometers in a year - meaning that in the last ten years I've hiked some 10,000 kilometers.
Hiking has gained in popularity again over the past few years. Some 40 million people go hiking in Germany, which is every second person. What is it about hiking you like so much?
Banally it is the joy of moving about, of being out in nature in the fresh air. And lots of curiosity - how does the beer taste elsewhere, what does the landscape look like there and what are the people like? Hiking also works as an anti-depressive if you find yourself down in the dumps - get out on a hike and you see new paths open up, quite literally. You just feel so much better!
You became known in Germany on Harld Schmidt's tv show and your leap into becoming a professional hiker worked out well. Would you have been as successful without the tv show?
Probably not. That really was a great opportunity, a blessing, apart from the fact that for many years it was great fun.
Did you take anything from your tv days with you into your new life?
Hopefully a sense of humor! People keep telling me that the texts I write are not dry and boring - that actually people can have a laugh. Even if the subject matter is sensitive - like in my recent book. Where I describe how hiking was used by the Nazis in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp as a method of torture. As the old Latin adage says: prodesse et delectare, that is really my aim - to entertain and learn.
Your recent book "Step by step - hiking through world history", is, as you say, not really a hiking book but more a kind of mobile history book. What was that all about?
I was looking for paths that made history - be it in the Stone Age, in ancient Egypt, in the Roman Empire, in the French Revolution, or in both World Wars. This way I hiked through world history in 16 chapters. I went to Israel, Egypt and Greece. In the Hunsrück area of Germany I went on the Roman hike - as the Romans left behind a network of great roads throughout Europe - some of which are good for hiking. And nearly always I had fellow hikers who told me about the path we were sharing.
In the last chapter you go hiking with refugees - why?
I worked on this book for three years. Autumn last year, the streams of refugees made it clear that we were actually witnessing world history being written. For me that was the ideal final chapter. I begin the book with the Neanderthals. In the Stone Age when people had to hike to survive, to hunt and forage. And the same applies today, as an increasing number of people - as witnessed in the record number of refugees - are on the move again; predominantly on foot - in order to survive. So I joined a group and hiked with them for a while in Wegscheid, a small village on the German-Austrian border.
The Rheinsteig Trail: a first-class hiking experience, with more than 20 challenging trails
Returning to recreational hiking - Germany now boasts some 700 so-called premium hiking trails. What exactly turns a hiking path into a premium route?
It absolutely has to have clear markings and sign posting, which has to be fool-proof making it impossible for anyone to get lost - even people who have never held a compass in their hand and who are inclined to look at a map up-side-down. The signs have to clearly show the hikers which way to go. Then there are some other criteria - is the path broad, is it a nature route? Is it varied, do I pass any castles, or can I enjoy a lovely view from a bench? All of these are plus points.
Isn't that terribly German?
Yes, absolutely! But I think it's right. These criteria didn't just appear out of nowhere. Initially the German Hiking Institute asked hikers what they like and used that as a basis to create evaluation criteria. People want "out-doors" - but German quality, sign-posted "out-doors".
Internationally compared the network of German hiking trails is said to be fairly good – can you confirm that?
Yes, that's right. The idea of premium hiking trails is being picked up across Germany's borders. In the Vosges region of France there are some really good, well-marked hiking paths. Luxembourg has many premium hiking tracks and Holland is beginning to establish them too in the Limbourg area. But on the whole Germany is way ahead, living up to its hiking reputation and traditions. I would even go so far as to suggest that recreational hiking is a German invention. Since romantics like Eichendorff and Goethe there has been this desire to get out into nature and the desire to hike.
Which hiking trails in Germany would you recommend?
Well for international visitors the Rheinsteig is sensational. There you have landscapes that are quintessentially German – the Loreley, castles and spas. But apart from the easy routes there are some trails or stages that are really only suitable for more experienced hikers. Here I would recommend Saxon Switzerland, the sandstone landscape with its caves, overhangs and really good narrow hiking paths. Saxon Switzerland really is right up there, world class.
How would you describe yourself as a hiker?
As someone who hikes for pleasure. I started out as a competitive hiker, covering 30, 40 kilometers a day. Nowadays I think I'm equally happy to walk just ten or fifteen kilometers in a day. And after the hike I like to enjoy a rewarding glass of beer - preferably a cool pint of wheat beer!
Interview: Simone Lauenstein