Photo by Alexander Andrews

Disappearing dreamlands

Is Europe losing its interesting edges as temperatures climb year by year?

Artillery Row Books

Early in Outlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes, the travel writer Nick Hunt quotes the early twentieth-century “Welsh mythic” Arthur Machen: “He who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in places by the Gray’s Inn Road will never find those secrets elsewhere, not in the heart of Africa, not in the fabled hidden cities of Tibet.”

Hunt decides to venture a little further afield than the Borough of Camden — taking Europe as the subject of his offbeat adventures to come — but it is in the spirit of Machen in which he travels. Inspired by a visit to the “weirdness” of the shingle beach of Dungeness, where he stays for a week in the shadow of the Dungeness A and B nuclear power stations and where he feels transported into a “North American wasteland”, he seeks other such outlandish locations that might act as similar imaginative “portals”.

Outlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes by Nick Hunt (John Murray).

Dungeness is sometimes jokingly referred to as England’s only desert. “Why go to the Sahara when you can visit Kent?” Hunt quips, although he has a serious point to make: flying to the corners of the globe pumping emissions into the stratosphere is doing great harm, and seeing what is closer to home with fresh eyes may be the way forward (as so many of us have been discovering during lockdowns).

These thoughts permeate Outlandish, acting as a backdrop to Hunt’s quest that continues in the “Arctic” of Scotland’s highlands, moves on into the primeval forest of Bialowieza on the border of Poland and Belarus (which he dubs “Poland’s jungle”), before dropping south to Europe’s only real desert, Desierto de Tabernas in the south of Spain, and finishing in “Hungary’s steppe”, to the east of Budapest and otherwise known as the Great Hungarian Plain. These journeys are related in four main chapters.

The idea is to champion down-to-earth exploration closer to home — Hunt takes many a clattering train and hits the trails in his destinations, sometimes sleeping in the open in a bivvy bag — and the author, who has in previous travel books followed in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor across Europe and chased the wind patterns of Europe, has plenty of wanderlust in his veins. His great uncle was John Hunt, leader of the first successful Everest expedition in 1953, when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary planted the Union Jack on the highest point on Earth.

“His tallness was what I remember most — he seemed halfway up the mountain already,” writes Hunt, who suggests his uncle would have been unimpressed both by the mass tourism on Everest that was to come and surprised by warming temperatures that threaten the stability of its icy peaks.

The impulse to escape well-trampled spots takes Hunt to remote bothies in Scotland on the second leg of his “outlandish” travels. Setting off from Aviemore, he is soon catching sight of reindeer (introduced from Sweden in the 1950s), and examining patches of summer snow, their diminishing size regarded as an indicator of global warming.

He exchanges stories with fellow hikers, hearing of a climber who once slipped off the edge of a snowy slope yelling “Geronimo!” as he hurtled to what would appear to be a certain death, although the man — much battered by the experience — survived. He munches on frozen oatcakes and cheese. He retells the Gaelic myth of a Big Grey Man living in the Scottish mountains (probably the result of atmospheric illusions). And he casts his eyes across the empty landscape dreamily imagining he is in an Arctic tundra.

Myths of the landscape reveal themselves in Poland too, where the story of “Woody, a humanoid, hairy, sometimes horned” woodland god emerges among the ancient oaks of Bialowieza Forest. This woodland grew after the passing of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago spreading across the northeastern Europe. Over the centuries though, farming and logging have left a mere 1,200 square miles untouched, and Hunt compares the forest’s outcome with the current plight of the Amazon, where “satellite pictures depict the forest’s unravelling year by year, a threadbare green carpet nibbled on all sides by moths”.

He eats raw onions for breakfast

Hence “Poland’s jungle”, although Hunt crosses to Belarus, slipping his notebook away whenever soldiers connected to the less-than-journalist-friendly regime of the dictator Alexander Lukashenko pass by in jeeps. His description of his stay at a guest house overrun by cats and chickens here is delightful as is his telling of his search for wolves and bison (800 of which are said to remain in the wild) in the company of local Polish activists — referred to as “pseudo-ecologists” by hostile logging locals forced to curtail activities in 2018 under a threat of heavy fines by the European Court of Justice.

One night, Hunt sleeps rough near a circle of stones that is believed by some to be a source of mystical positive powers, asking himself: “Is it my imagination or does my skin feel slightly charged? Is there a creaminess to my limbs, like the onset of a high? Or is it just an after-effect of walking, walking, walking?”

In the Desierto de Tabernas, Hunt hooks up with a local travel writer named Kevin Borman, who takes him across the Mar de Plastico of greenhouses on the edge of the town of Almeria, on the Mediterranean coast, to his home in a hamlet on the edge of the desert. From this base surrounded by whooping bee-eaters, olive trees and succulents, Hunt tramps into the desert proper — 110 square miles of land — wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a backpack full of water bottles.

He spends his time dripping sweat during the 2019 heatwave (40C plus), camping in ghostly gullies. Mountains by the coast prevent moisture reaching Tabernas, resulting in the arid landscape, where “heat bounces off the road” as he explores the territory that was favoured by Sergio Leone for his spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood. Hunt attends a tacky-but-fun show at one of the old sets.

An ibex shifts a stone that narrowly misses him. He eats raw onions (when short of food) for breakfast: “God, I must stink.” He encounters a ragged man who appears to live in one of the gullies but disappears rapidly on seeing him. He begins talking to himself. He tells the tale of Brujo, a mythical sorcerer symbol of Almeria with an elongated head and ibex horns. He contemplates the steady shift of arid conditions northwards across Europe, land turning yellow as world temperatures rise.

We are all walking backwards now

By the time Hunt reaches the Great Hungarian Plain, known to Hungarians as the Puszta, the westernmost extension of the Eurasian Steppe, he is well attuned to appreciation of the outlandish: “The light has a certain quality — a clarity, a lucent glow — that produces a feeling that I can only describe as ‘bigness’. Beneath that sky, glimpsed details stand out with urgency: a crane landing in a field, as white and sharp as a paper plane; a flock of sparrow-like birds rising up above a roof; the spume of dust drawn behind a distant truck.”

He is in his element, and while he concedes “it may not be Outer Mongolia” — the Puszta is 300 square miles — he enjoys tramping about, eating spicy goulash soup, imagining old Slovak bandits and attempting to ride a horse in the manner of a csikos, the traditional cattlemen of these parts. If temperatures were to increase, as expected, this semi-arid land might turn truly arid, he suggests, like Tabernas way down south — climate change yet again coming to the fore. “We are all walking backwards now, unable to see where we are going, into the spring that is coming with the melting of the ice,” he writes. 

Hunt himself regards Outlandish as “a book of fantasy”, but it is more than that. It is also a wave of a warning flag, elegantly told with plenty of proper travel and entertaining encounters — plus a fair few dreams — along the way.

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