I spent a week in Estonian forest. This is what I learned
Recently, my wife and I spent a week camping in Estonia, walking the trails and living in nature. We each had 14 kgs of luggage to carry. We walked 15km a day on an average and had our phones switched off for 95% of the journey.
Reminiscing about the journey feels sweet and I am compelled to give a form to my memories through words and pictures. So here it is!
Day 1 was the hardest
We had packed inefficiently to begin with, which was the root cause of all misery. It was a dry hot patch of walking. We stopped a number of times and eventually completed a measly 9km stretch — dead tired. We were the only people at the campsite.
We chose a place to camp after a lot of deliberations on what is the most ideal way to spend our first night on the trail. Do we sleep on the ground looking at the stars like we always dreamed of or do we take the wooden cabin? Ultimately the rain decided that we pitch our tent and get into it as quickly as possible.
It rained like crazy that night. The tent became uncomfortable, it was wet everywhere and when we woke up in the morning, we were greeted by a battalion of mosquitoes that just wouldn’t give up!
Day 2, we were better prepared
We had to cover 18 km on day 2, so we decided to make some changes. We started with the bags. We threw out things we didn’t need, packed the bags in a way that the needed stuff are just an arm’s reach away.
We had our breakfast, our first in so many months! We started from the camp by 7 AM.
Day 2 was way easier than the previous, even though the distance was twice as much. A day in the forest and our survival skills kicked in. We started taking actions, we took control of things that we can control — wake up time, hiking duration, eating time, sleeping time, camping location, etc. Each choice made a huge difference to our day. We started our vacation with a goal of 117 km in 7 days (from Altija to Aravate). Day 1 made us reconsider this. We decided to take it one day at a time. I realised that reality catches up real fast when comforts are lesser!
The trail was interesting and beautiful, starting with the greenery but slowly going through small towns and villages. This is when I realised why I take hikes, what I am seeking in these travels. More than just nature, human experiences and culture excite me. I value encounters with people more than just the wild. The more the trail went through farmlands and small towns, the more interesting it was to me.
Our conversations were also a lot different from the previous day. We started talking and laughing about random stuff until a swarm of mosquitoes found us. This became a trend throughout the trail.
Small things made a huge difference - a mosquito net hat was way more useful than my branded coolers (which I eventually lost to a river on the same day!). A paper map was more important than any other digital device we had. When it comes to survival, I realised that I don’t need a better user experience; I just need things that work and are robust. There is a reason why camping gear is all rugged and requires lesser maintenance compared to the things made for city living. A house gives comfort and extra time, space and energy to do other things. In a forest, in the lack of such comforts, my mind did not crave for Instagram or Facebook. When we tried watching “Friends” on day 1, after a few minutes we realised that we did not enjoy it at all!
We came across a small town, a food store — which we took for granted and realised too late that it is the only one on the entire trail for another 60 km. We enjoyed the morning walk and quickly decided not to walk between 1 pm to 3 pm to avoid the heat. We stopped near a small village, made some hotdogs on the side of the road and rested our feet for some time. We met a lady, who was from Helsinki and was visiting family near by. She was kind enough to offer us some water.
Our second camp — Nommeveski was along a river. The last 15 minutes stretch to the campsite was the most demanding. I found that the last stretch — when you know the destination is near, is always the most tiring. It is interesting how expectations can change the perception of good and bad!
We dropped our bags, absorbed the splendid scenery through our eyes, ears and noses and jumped into the water.
It was amazing. All our pain and tiredness was washed away in a moment. We decided to stay one more day at the camp.
Being a long weekend, there were other people at the camp and most of them had come in their cars. The first thing I noticed was the disregard that people with comforts have towards natural resources. Because the car carries all the stuff, people take excess food which they eventually wasted. The dustbins in the camp had enough food to feed at least ten people for a day. And this was something I observed in other campsites that we stayed at.
For some reason wasting food is not considered as much of a shameful behaviour as peeing in public for example.
While on walking hikes, you need to carry the exact right amount of food. Too much, you break your back. Too less, you’ll starve. So you become efficient in choosing your food, how much you eat. You are constantly aware of how your energy level is. The last thing you want is to get sick in a distant forest in a foreign country. That thought makes you efficient and sensible.
Some people at the camp were drinking like crazy, grilling huge amounts of meat. But for some weird reason, I didn’t miss any of that. Yes, a beer would have been nice, but that thought left with the speed with which it occurred.
We were so tired that we quickly prepared our food, ate and slept all by 7.30 pm. This was one major difference in our hikes — we needed to make our food, set some fire and make our sleeping place before it becomes dark, before the evening mosquitoes get cranky. Even though we did have a lot of time to enjoy nature, go for a dip and whatnot, we didn’t have time to laze around. There was always this next hike, next meal, next sleep, next dip, next route to figure out.
Catching up with rest
Day 3 was way more relaxed.
We decided to stay back at the camp, considering how beautiful the place was. We both got up, went for an early morning dip, had our breakfast and then went around the camp and talked.
We each had one book (I had carried The Hippie). We read for some time — sitting along the river, listening to the birds, the wind and the forest. By then it was noon, we went and broke some logs for the evening fire, made our next meal, took the next dip.
Around evening, we met a hiking pair from Estonia and invited them to join our bonfire (it was getting too cold for comfort). We had a nice little chat. It always feels great to have random conversations with people from different cultures, without any expectations, without too many formalities. I found people to be more open in the forests, trails, buses, trains, and hostels than in cities when we have our own place. Maybe, the comforts of own country, city, and house take away the incentive human mind needs to be open to others.
To walk or not to walk!
Day 4 was supposed to be a lighter hike at 11 km. Just that it turned out to be 13 km and we still had to hike for 4 km more to go to the nearest store for some food.
We were hiking to Kalmeoja — the place where Estonian bogs start. Our food planning was not great to start with. And we were getting tired of all the processed food . We were considering ending the hike on day 4!
Hiking trail to the camp was beautiful, but we had to immediately drop our bags and start walking towards Kolga, a small town that was 4 km from the campsite, where the nearest grocery store was. We were not sure if the store will be open, the day being a Sunday on a long weekend. Luckily, it was.
We decided we will not hike anymore, we will just camp at Kalmeoja for one more day (there was a small pond near our camping site) and then take a bus back to Tallinn. We got a few beers, meat, water, hot dogs and some chocolates. We grabbed some ice creams and were melting into them when a stranger offered us a ride back to our campsite. He lived very close, came to get some beers and decided to help us nomads. That was the sweetest ten minute car ride I have had in my entire life. I was also wondering all along — we walked all this distance on foot?!
We got back to our campsite, went to the pond for a quick dip, chopped logs for the fire and started drinking and grilling side by side. After a few days of processed food and long hikes, this was a return to the sanity for us city birds.
We met two german hikers who camped beside us. They had just finished a 30 km hike that day and were planning to finish 60 more in the next three days.
The food, the chocolates and this conversation made us re-consider our decision. We decided to go further till Aegviidu where we could get a train back to Tallinn. It would be a total of 83 Km hike from where we started. Not bad for our first hike, we thought.
The most beautiful morning, ever
Day 5 was beautiful.
We started our day with the Viru bog.
The bogs have their own history of human exploitation, but it was great to see that the Estonian government is trying to re-conserve them. The early morning boardwalk on Viru bog was one of the beautiful mornings I had in a long time.
After crossing the bogs, we had to take a 5km detour. There was a new route, and we had no clue. We met the Germans again on the road when we were trying to figure out this new route.
Hiking and camping sites in Estonia are managed by an agency called RMK. They have marked walking and cycling trails proficiently so that you don’t get lost. They also maintain the campsites, take out the garbage, store the logs, etc. But this new route didn’t have enough signs and we had to call the RMK rep, the first time we used our phones on the trail. She guided us patiently and we eventually came back to the trail and reached our next camping place, which was around a big lake.
Being the last day of a long weekend, people were leaving the lake as we arrived to set up our tent. One of the campers gave us fresh mushroom soup, fire grilled potatoes, and pineapples. We both were extremely famished. We accepted her offer and gulped the food down in minutes.
I realised that as human beings we have always respected nomads and travellers — even in medieval times. Whether we agree with their lifestyle or not, we do respect them. And throughout the hike, I found that people treated us with respect and courtesy, which was interesting.
While we camped along the lake, took our ritualistic dip in a water body on arrival and set our tent, we both realised that we had become extremely efficient — in packing, re-packing, un-packing, collecting wood, cooking, making fire, reading the map, how not to get lost etc. I then realised I hadn’t checked the news or called anyone (apart from the RMK person) in 5 days. No, there was no more craving to watch videos or to listen to music. I then realised that nature kept us engaged, all the time. We were always aware, even if the environment looked friendly. We kept listening to the sounds of birds and animals and lakes around. The mind was constantly looking for anything unusual. We were very aware of our own needs — food, sleep, shit. City comfort, I realised, takes this awareness away. At home, I could afford to sleep late or not sleep at all, if I wanted. I could afford to laze around the whole day. Out in nature, these habits could make my life really difficult and I knew it internally. I now believe that my “unending” digital life just means that I am not engaged. I am simply bored and have too many comforts. And when that happens — the basics go for a toss. I don’t sleep enough, eat good food or get enough physical activity. More and more, I started feeling that cities are not a natural way to live, it is not what I am made for.
Our social lives have evolved farther than our bodies and brains have. And this contradiction might be a reason for many conflicts that many people feel every day. Look at how carefully we have created stuff to forget our connection with nature. For example, beds seem to be the best way to get good sleep. No one, who was born and brought up in a city will think of sleeping without a bed, not if she can afford it. Five out of six nights in a tent, I had a great sleep (I had taken a small mat) than I did on beds.
We don’t have to worry about our survival or food or stay, we have that time to spend on world affairs, sports, politics, facebook, and youtube videos. When I had to focus on basics like food and place to sleep, it felt more natural than worrying about the future.
Day 6 was beautiful, it was a shorter hike. The hiking trail had a lot of small lakes. We ended up camping at a site that looked wild. It was in the middle of the forest and had a lake that reminded me of a few wild amazon movies.
It looked like it will rain and Day 7 stretch was 18 km, so we quickly took a dip, made fire, cooked food, ate and slept early. The 18 km stretch was uneventful and took 5 hours. It drizzled for the first time on the trail but luckily for us, it did not rain heavily and we hiked through the forest the whole morning to finish the final stretch.
(Difficult) journey back to civilisation
First few days on the way back to Tallinn, and to Helsinki was a mixed bag. We started catching up with the world Which movies go released, which team is winning in cricket, what was good, what was bad, what people thought about all these.
Suddenly I realised how much of the content I watched and read was about people’s views about experiences and things. Our minds are predominantly made of three concerns — what’s going on with our body(our physical identity), what’s going with ourselves (our psychological identity) and what others think about things that affect us (our social identity). The more I thought about it the more I realised that the priorities we give to each of these three parts define us as individuals.
We had our fine share of racism and bias in Tallinn and Helsinki, on our way back. The first one was difficult to shrug off, the later one made me rebellious. I had an overwhelming craving to go back to the forest, away from it all. Sometimes we could be so brutal to others — more than nature can ever be to us. Or so it felt.
As I set into my ‘normal’ life, I felt the presence of new intelligence, a new awareness of what’s going on around me.
A (little) rant
Humans need comforts — yes. But there is a threshold. Beyond that, we go inside ourselves. We reject the world. We go deeper into our own cozy devices and imagination.
I now strongly believe that the human mind needs incentives to be social, to be nice and friendly. It seems to me that modern processes, systems, and technologies are removing such incentives.
Modern comforts and technologies make us more and more self-obsessed. The relationship between us and nature, us and others become transactional when we have too much comforts. Digital worlds just amplify this life. We do not see people in an instagram picture or a youtube video as individuals with real lives anymore. We see them as a part of our own imagination.
“I write what I can’t tell people. And when I don’t write, I can’t tell anyone anything, whatsoever”