I took one of my trekking boots (the right one) to a Dutch shoe repairer before Anya and I left for Austria. The sole looked like it was coming loose at the back.
I’d visited this shoe-repairer before. He was a nice old guy. He’d replaced the zip in my tent, cut various sets of keys, fixed a few pairs of sandals and more recently, replaced the soles on my Eco shoes. So I assumed that fixing the sole on my trekking boot would be pretty straight forward for this man.
He took the boot, studied it (I’d cleaned it beforehand) looked at the sole, and then told me:
‘I’m sorry, I can’t fix this. You’ll have to buy a new pair of boots.’
‘You can’t fix it?’
‘Not this kind of boot.’
‘But you fixed my Eco’s.’
He went into a bit of an explanation about the difference between my trekking boots and my Eco’s. I didn’t really hear him. I’m not what you call a technical kind of person.
I left his shop feeling a bit shell-shocked.
Buy a new pair of boots?
Easier said than done.
The money had nothing to do with it.
The thing was, my boots and I went back a long way – like about 18 years.
I bought them in 1996. They were German-made, from a company called Lowa. At the time they were quite expensive – 140 Guilders (this was 4 years before the Euro was introduced). It was Anya’s idea to buy the Lowa boots. They were quite different to the boots we had used for many years: traditional leather boots with synthetic soles. Every two to three years, they had to be replaced. Trekking in the Himalaya was hard on boots – fording glacial streams, clambering over vast sides of rocks and treading through snow, for example. A single season in the Himalaya – two to three months – really took its toll on boots.
By 1996, I estimate that we would have been through at least 5 pairs of boots.
Then the Lowa boots appeared on the scene. Then everything changed. Trekking boot technology had changed radically over the years. Set in our ways, we had been oblivious to those changes. It can be a hard thing knowing when to keep ‘up to date’ and when to stick to what you know. No doubt about it: the Lowa boots represented a leap forward in technology alright. At first they were a bit hard to get used to; the sole and the boot – made of gortex – were one unit. They were higher and gave more protection to your ankles.
But they were unbelievably tough.
When it comes to trekking boots, thank God for the Germans!
In the course of the following 18 years, our Lowa boots got a lot of use: two trips of 3 months each in the Indian Himalaya; several long treks in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary; a trip along the south-west coast of Turkey; the 1200 kilometre Heysen Trail in South Australia following the Flinders Ranges; two more trips in the Czech republic and another one in the south of Belgium.
In 1996, my Lowa boots represented a complete break with the past; by 2014, they were the past. That was the problem – they had so much past hanging on to them, that it made it impossible for me to throw them out. They were like old friends. Those boots had brought me one hell of a long way and across many, gruelling, terrains: rivers, creeks, snow, glaciers, and deserts; long sides of rubble, boulders and deep mud. Those boots had never had it easy. Consigning them to the bin….I couldn’t do it. They’d served me well for many years and I was sure that they had another trip left in them.
A month’s trekking in Austria in comparison with what they had already been through was small time.
Let it be said however, that I took all eventualities into account.
Before we left I bought a really big tube of contact glue.
Two days after arriving in Austria, half of the sole of my right boot came off.
This happened whilst we were walking down a street on our way to our hotel.
I wasn’t particularly worried about it. I had enough glue to stick together ten pairs of boots let alone one.
This idea of gluing the soles back on to the boot was something which belonged to the pre-Lowa past. In the old days, when we were using leather trekking boots, I was regularly having to glue the soles back on to the boots. It was a simple procedure though. The synthetic sole and the bottom of the boot formed two hard surfaces. I applied glue to each surface, waited until it was touch- dry and then pressed the two surfaces together. A tube of contact glue was always an essential part of my equipment (mind you, you could keep gluing the soles back on but sooner or later the boot was worn out.)
When I went to glue the sole back on to my old Lowa, I discovered something: between the sole and the boot there was a mass of black, foam-like stuff, powdery, which didn’t lend itself to being glued. I suddenly realised what the Dutch shoe repairer had tried to tell me – and which I hadn’t heard because I wasn’t a technical kind of person.
What I did was: pumped in almost half a tube of contact glue over the powdery stuff – I drenched it – and let it dry. Then I pressed sole and boot together for a good while.
The day after I glued the sole onto my Lowa boot, we walked up through a forest, across steep, grassy fields and then up to a snow-clad summit, where we got caught in a storm.
It was then that the sole of my boot came off again: so much for my attempt to glue the sole back on with a flood of contact glue.
What to do?
Up in the mountains, cold rain mixed with snow whistling around us, visibility down to 100 metres; how were we going to get back?
Anya had an idea: take an elastic hair band and pull it around the boot and the sole.
We tried it and it worked – well, for a while, until it wore out and had to be replaced. Fortunately Anya had a few of them in her day pack.
It was a long, slow, trip.
On the way, at the lower, warmer altitudes, Anya proceeded to offer an explanation as to why my boot had begun falling apart and not hers’ – it was how I walked, she said: like an elephant. She gave me a demonstration of what I was doing wrong, thumping her boots down on the ground with a loud thud! She then gave a demonstration of how a ‘normal person’ (i.e., herself) walked. No wonder my boot had given up the ghost, she offered.
Privately, I suspected she may have had a point. I was a heavy walker alright. I kept this thought to myself and instead, by way of rejoinder said:
‘Maybe my boots wore out quicker than yours because in the past, my rucksack was at least 5 kilos heavier than yours, especially during the really tough journeys in the Himalaya and Australia.’
‘Of course your rucksack was heavier; you eat 10 times more than me.’
Besides such interesting discussions, we tried to work out what to do in the longer term. We had come away for a month specifically to go walking in the mountains.
I had to buy a new pair of boots. But the logistics of buying a new pair of boots were daunting.
One thing was for sure, we wouldn’t find them in the village where we staying. It was too small; it had a baker, a butcher, and a small supermarket.
To get a new pair of boots, we would have to go to a big town. But there were no big towns nearby and none anywhere in the course of our trip. We would have to break our journey somewhere. All our hotels were booked up in advance, and every one of them was in a small, remote place. Normally we never liked booking ahead, but in the case of Austria, especially if you are looking for cheap accommodation (Austria is an expensive country), you have to book ahead.
Somewhere along the line, we would have to deviate from our agenda and make a special trip to a big town in order to an outdoor shop which sold trekking boots. This was going to be a gigantic, as well as expensive, hassle: the transport connections in the smaller places in Austria were often sporadic; so too, public transport in Austria was one of the most expensive in Europe.
Why hadn’t I listened to the Dutch shoe repairer?
Why did I walk like an elephant?
Arriving back in the village after a long and testing journey from snow bound heights, we headed to the local supermarket. It was a kind of everything-in- one shop: there were clothes and sunglasses and hats as well as a small range of food items. I was hoping to find a supply of elastic hair bands.
On the way, we saw a shoe shop in a side street. We hadn’t seen it before. It seemed incredible that it could exist in a village as small as this.
Ah, I had an idea!
I could buy a pair of shoes – or even better, a pair of runners, say Nikes: this would be better than a boot with a flapping sole bound up with an elastic hair band.
We walked in to the shop.
The owner, a middle-aged man, spoke no English. Anya switched to German (her German was extremely useful in Austria – outside of the big cities, many Austrians spoke little or no English).
So Anya and the shoe shop owner began talking in a language I couldn’t follow. Knowing Dutch however allowed me to pick up a few words now and then – and the general gist of the conversation didn’t please me a great deal.
Anya pointed at my right boot with its flapping sole and its elastic hair band – and the two of them laughed as if it was the funniest thing in the world.
The owner, almost in tears, called his wife and son over.
Anya said to me in Dutch: ‘hold your boot up Peter so they can have a good look.’
But Peter didn’t want hold his boot up. He saw no reason why he should voluntarily turn himself into the Great Joke of the village.
Hey, how about some Nikes?
Anya said ‘thanks for reminding me, I’d forgotten about that.’
Yeah, of course she had, she was having way too much fun with the shop owner and his family.
The laughing ebbed.
Then I heard Anya’s voice rise in excitement.
Something was happening here.
The owner led us down to the back of his shop – and there, on a wooden plank, was a line of new trekking boots.
Made by Lowa.
It was like something out of a dream.
This small village was about the last place in the universe where one would expect to find firstly, a shoe shop and secondly, one with trekking boots.
Minutes before the shop owner had annoyed me intensely, now he was the greatest man alive.
Things moved smoothly.
In the old Lowas, the boot size was stamped into the inside of the boot above the ankle. You have to hand it to these Germans. They think of everything. Had the boot size been marked in any other part of the inside boot, it would have worn off in the course of 18 years of strenuous use.
Ten minutes later I was walking around in a brand new pair of Lowas.
They cost 180 Euros – around 250 Aussie dollars – about as twice as much as the boots we bought in ’96.
But they were fantastic.
German boot technology had progressed a lot in the last 17 years. You didn’t have to walk these boots in: they were perfect from the word ‘go’.
In trekking terms, I felt like I was behind the wheel of a new Mercedes.
Back in our room, I grabbed the tube of glue and consigned it to the bin.
A weird thought occurred to me: I would be pushing 70 by the time this pair of Lowas were due to be replaced.
By that time I’d need replacing.
With wings on my feet I was now able to really appreciate my surroundings.
Austria is a very beautiful country.
It is a beautiful in a different way than the mountainous areas where we have visited in Eastern Europe.
There are heavily forested hills and snow-clad mountains. The hills are steep and the pastures are strips of intense green between the forests. The villages are clusters of traditional houses, often made from pine, with slate roofs. The whole landscape looks as if it has been manicured. It is incredibly neat, clean, finely arranged. The houses, buildings and churches look as it not one speck of paint is out-of-place. On our first day in Austria, on a bus going through a succession of big towns, I was amazed at how clean everything was. There was not a single scrap of paper or plastic to be seen on any of the streets. There was no graffiti. It was cleanest country I’d ever seen and I liked it.
Yes, Life was looking up.
A great pair of boots on my feet, fine sunny days, trekking in an extraordinarily beautiful landscape – until one afternoon, following a trail through a forest my better half asked:
‘Have you still got that….tube of glue?’
For more about Austria, see Serious Travel Images:
For other blogs about trekking, try:
‘Cold Turkey’ (category: Spain)