IC 513: Train cancelled. The bright-red announcement immediately strikes my eye. Fadi and I have just rushed into my hometown’s train station, all geared up for a night in the forest. “Now what?” I grumble, when the wise words of Gilbert Keith Chesterton come to mind: “an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” If that is the case, we must be on the brink of a grand one.
When the next train also disappears from the board, it is time for plan B. We stroll back to the house and declare the backyard our new campsite. Fending off my self-proclaimed tiger – a ginger tabby whose eyes are firmly fixed on the tent's fragile mesh walls – promises to be our main challenge tonight.
It is still dark when our alarms go off at 7 am. We wriggle out of our newly purchased sleeping bags – our main reason for camping – and make our way to the station for our second attempt. Luckily, the train gods are with us today. An hour later, we find ourselves in the German-speaking part of Belgium, meandering through the town of Eupen in search of the GR 573.
The trail leads us straight into the Parc Naturel Hautes Fagnes-Eifel, where an impressive collection of mushrooms is on display. We spot red ones with polka dots, brown and orange ones, white ones hiding between the moss and pancake-shaped ones with only the maple syrup missing. A pictogram tells us we are allowed to fill a 10-litre bucket each, but our lack foraging skills holds us back.
Instead, we follow the river upstream and keep ascending gently through the forest. The trees in the valley flaunt their fall foliage and when the sunlight hits the brown, yellow and orange ferns, I imagine this is the kind of place we are told about in fairytales.
"Do I have mud on my face?"
A little bridge leads us out of the forest and into the raised bogs, where small trails alternate with narrow boardwalks. “Attention! Boardwalk in bad state!” a sign reads and soon enough, the perfectly good boardwalks turn into post-apocalyptic versions of themselves. Staying upright is a matter of remaining dry or getting wet, a balancing game I quickly lose.
I suddenly find myself taking a mud bath, when one false step lands me knee-deep in dirt. The true depth of a puddle remains a mystery to the naked eye here. As I wipe some soil off my chin, I conclude that even accidental mud baths can be quite rejuvenating.
Our soggy boots pick up the pace when we reach the plateau, grateful to be on more solid ground. As the sky turns black, we rush to the Signal de Botrange: the country's highest point. We Belgians are known for our modesty, so luckily our highest point does not give us much to brag about. With its mere 694 metres, it is hardly postcard material. We quickly climb the small staircase that indicates its exact location and enjoy the panorama for a split second. And then the storm erupts.