Pics Marty Schmidt
An epic trek following ancient wolf migration routes across Europe
Geoff Dalglish, former petroldhead and motoring journalist turned conservationist, and now an Earth Pilgrim.
Length of expedition 2,500km
Duration of expedition 123 days
Risk of death by misadventure Fairly high. The amount of time spent on treacherous terrain invited mountaineering mishap.
Highlights Utterly unforgettable is the moment I glimpsed movement, had a nano-second of disbelief, and then realised that I was seeing my first wolf in the wild - triumphing against all obstacles to roam wild and free!
Sponsors K-Way, Nissan South African, WILD Foundation
There are few places on Earth as filled with history as Europe. It is as if someone grabbed the Smithsonian, and shook it over the little continent until all its architectural treasures had sprinkled out. Although logically they must exist, one doesn’t instinctively think of vast wildernesses when one thinks of Europe. Rather, one tends to picture cobbled streets with a castle or cathedral hiding at every intersection. As it turns out, however, a determined man could potentially walk 2,500 km through Europe, discovering wilderness areas capable of sustaining both wolves and bears. As a matter of fact, he could do so in 5 months, following the old migration routes of the wolves, and raising awareness for the importance of Rewilding Europe. This is exactly what Geoff Dalglish did.
Geoff is a petrolhead turned conservationist, who recently turned in his motoring journalist’s pen and became an Earth Pilgrim. This means that he gave up the majority of his possessions, and has spent the past three years walking the face of the earth, using any opportunity he can get to spread awareness about preserving the natural spaces that we have left and restoring what we can, spreading a message of ‘treading lightly and lovingly’. The transition was not an easy one, especially with his timing placing him on foot, in England, during the wettest weather they’d had in a century. To save weight, he didn’t carry a tent, and he ‘fondly’ recalls one night sleeping in mud in a farmer’s field, awakening with a fright each time a slug crawled onto his face! While his body was acclimatising, he suffered his first asthma attacks since childhood, and due to the need to carry minimal weight, he has spent a lot of time wet and cold. However, he finds great satisfaction in living sustainably, and to date has covered more than 15,000 km across 10 countries. Geoff has vowed to eventually walk an equivalent distance to the circumference of the Earth (about 40,000 km).
His latest journey took him from the shores of Lake Geneva in June to Salamanca, Spain for the start of the 10th World Wilderness Congress, or WILD10 (the first World Wilderness Conference, convened in South Africa in 1977, grew from an idea shared between Ian Player and his mentor, Magqubu Ntombela.) Currently, from conservationists’ perspectives, Europe is in a powerful phase where the gravitation of the population towards urban centres, as well as the abandonment of marginal farming land for more profitable enterprises, has led to a resurgence of wilderness areas across some 35,000,000 hectares of land. A key focus of Rewilding Europe is to support this momentum, and to find sustainable ways for affected communities to benefit from the rewilding of their areas, so that the area remains so.
Much has been written recently about how transfrontier parks in southern Africa have a more profound impact than simply protecting their square metreage. Many animals depend on being able to change their ranges on a regular basis to sustain healthy populations, and therein lay the importance of Geoff’s route, which traced ancient migration routes of wolves through Europe. From Lake Geneva, Geoff headed through the Alps, across the south of France, along the Pyrenees and through the Cantabrian Mountain corridors, before ending in Salamanca, Spain. The pockets of true wilderness that Geoff encountered highlighted how tantalizingly close we could be to restoring lost ecosystems to their former glory, if the rewilding momentum were to be sustained. Wolves are incredibly resourceful, and even if the entire route is not reverted to wilderness, with sufficient access to their old migration corridors they would find a way to move lightly through populated areas, much like our leopards do. Areas that follow riverbeds are particularly valuable.
As for the journey itself, Geoff speaks in awe of the tranquillity and beauty of the serene expanses of nature that he experienced, dotted with sparse remnants of a time when people lived more in tune with the world around them. The fact that the journey was full of scenic splendour does not, however, imply that it was devoid of hardship. The first test was remembering how to use a map and compass, as Geoff says he had been far too spoilt by the GPS navigation in his phone in more urban settings. However, he soon regained his bearings.
Another battle was with stubbornness. Geoff felt that, given the nature of his journey, he should sleep outside as often as possible, but soon regretted ignoring a nearby hut as the wind and rain kept him awake all night with the crescendo that it played on his bivvy bag. Early on in the Alps, Geoff also took a dramatic tumble on a slippery path, but all was not woe. He had already begun to discover a wealth of creatures unknown to South Africa, such as the ibex and the marmot, and more familiar ones such as vultures and eagles. He longed for a sighting of a bear or a wolf, but these were understandably scarce.
That was not his last bad night’s sleep, as he got caught in a few more storms in the months to follow, nor was it his last scary tumble. However, his perseverance was ultimately rewarded. After months of seeing nothing but the occasional wolf spoor, he caught his first glimpse of a wolf in the distance. A sudden movement caught his eye at night, and he watched as graceful shadows glided across the landscape, hardly picked up by the moonlight. It was only when he heard the iconic howl, and all the hairs on the back of his neck did their primeval thing, that he knew for sure. Although hunted to extinction in France a century ago, there are now thought to be as many as 250 wild wolves surviving in their wilderness regions. The cherry on top? In the Somiedo Natural Park in Spain, with the help of an expert from the Brown Bear Foundation, Geoff saw a female brown bear foraging at sunrise.
Part of Geoff’s mission was to highlight the interconnectedness of humanity and wildlife in these regions, and he did encounter many of the former as well. He was consistently surprised and delighted by the kindness he received, both as a stranger and once they were aware of his mission, from offers to shelter and food through to happy hitchhiking experiences. As part of the WILD10 awareness program, Geoff linked up with various local hikers along the way, and these all brought their own special something to the journey, the highlight of which must have been when his hiking partner from the Catalunya-LaPedrera Foundation took him paragliding with Griffon vultures!
This stage of Geoff’s epic mission came to an end at the WILD10 congress in Salamanca where we proudly feel that his input contributed to the further cementing of Rewilding Europe. But his journey as WILD ambassador is by no means over...
Geoff wrote extensively about his experiences en route - read more here: