Date: Tuesday, January 12th, 2021
Path: Own route + GR56 variant
Distance: 24,1 km
No crowds in the High Fens on this rainy Tuesday. The TEC bus that brings me from the train station of Eupen to Elsenborn only carries a handful of courageous hikers who, despite the bad weather conditions, still dare to go. Even with the bus it's a beautiful hike right through the High Fens, going past Belgium's highest point, the Signal de Botrange (694m).
At a quarter to 10, I am dropped off at the church in Elsenborn. The snow is estimated to be 15 to 20 centimetres high, which makes hiking physically very hard. I accidentally follow some hiking junctions through the forests of the Nidrumer and Weywertzer Heck. Then it goes in a straight line to the old train station of Sourbrodt. The village used to be situated along the Vennbahn, the old railway line that a bit further still forms the border between Belgium and Germany. The railway was given to us after the First World War, together with the East Cantons, as part of a reparation payment and has remained Belgian ever since (apart from the period of the Second World War). It also makes for a crazy situation with five German areas cut off from Germany by what was once the Vennbahn. Now the station of Sourbrodt looks peaceful and deserted. Only a few wagons and the signalling suggest that trains once ran here.
Along an icy road and a duckboard path I arrive in the actual High Fens. I cross the Rur (Rour) and then follow the course of the Scheidbach in a beautiful snow-covered landscape. You have to be very careful where you put your feet, because one misstep and you might be in the ice-cold peat water hidden under the snow. After 500 metres, I turn left towards Camp des Russes. Here, in the middle of the marshlands, Russian prisoners of war were put to work during WWII. There is an information board with photos and more explanation about what happened here. A few dozen metres further, a Russian cross and a memorial stone stand where the camp was. Via a fairly easy and well trodden path I pass by the memorial for allied pilots that were killed in the High Fens during the war. A propeller reminds us of a British Halifax bomber that was shot down here in July 1943. Two crew members were killed.
At the Belgium Peak Beer brewery I cross the N676 and then follow the GR56 variant down the Ghâster. In summer this is a rather calm flowing peat river. But in autumn it turns into a raging torrent and with the rains and the melting water the situation has not improved at all. Here and there, the path is flooded and, as an alternative, you have to climb up the often soggy, snow-covered valley slopes. Sometimes, the few rocks and pathways are frozen and this requires the utmost concentration. My walking sticks come in handy here to keep my balance. From the confluence with the Bayehon, it becomes much easier. Then it's off to the Bayehon waterfall. In the summer, this is also a quiet waterfall and you often see children playing in the basin in front of it. Now, however, this is a rough, dangerous waterfall and - also because of the cold temperatures - swimming is definitely not recommended. At the upper reaches of the Bayehon, the path is easily passable due to the large number of hikers who have made a trail through the snow over the past few days.
At the wide road at Vieux Chêne, I follow the path that is part of a cycle path network. In the distance, I see a roe deer lying on the road. On approaching, the animal appears to be wounded. I try to look for the contact details of the right authority to take care of the animal, but as I do so, the animal jumps away on three legs. Calling for help seems to be in vain, because before any help can show up, this animal will have long disappeared into the woods.
On I go, up through the woods along the Fagne Tirifaye. The snow is very thick here and I can feel it in my legs. It is rather difficult, but then I come to a wider road where the snow is completely flattened. I cross the N68 towards the Polleur stream. From its confluence with the ruisseau de la Baraque - about a kilometre to the west - the Polleur gets a slightly better known name: the Hoëgne. I follow the Polleur upstream, following the GR56 variant. At first I thought I would follow the path along the brook, but in order not to lose too much time and still be able to catch the bus I choose for the GR. It runs a bit higher and offers a nice view on the Polleur and La Poulète moors. Just before arriving at the Fagne de Polleur, the path comes next to a brook and I have to search for the right way in the deep snow. The GR markings are not always visible and moreover fallen trees sometimes block the path, forcing me to swerve into the deep snow in which a lot of puddles are hidden. Fortunately, a little further on I come to the junction of the duckboard paths. This is where I originally thought to go west, to Baraque Michel, but I opt for the slightly shorter, but just as beautiful version to Mont Rigi to be sure to catch the bus. I try to speed up on the snow-covered path, but my legs can't go any faster after a whole day of slogging. Fortunately, I can still catch the bus in the last light of day.
ATTENTION: The stretch along the Ghâster is difficult to traverse from autumn to spring due to flooding. With snow and freezing temperatures, it is even more of a challenge. A good physical condition and balance are then required, both along the Ghâster and the rest of the route. You can skip the Ghâster by following a wider forest path that runs parallel to the stream and takes you almost directly to the waterfall. If you are not an experienced hiker, for safety reasons it is best to go in pairs. An emergency blanket and a headlamp are no superfluous luxury during the winter.
Would you like to try this beautiful walk? Download the GPX of this walk here:
By public transport: By train to Eupen, then bus 394 (direction Büllingen-Sankt Vith), get off in Elsenborn. On the way back from Mont Rigi, take bus 390 to Verviers, or bus 394 to Eupen. These buses only run sporadically, so check the timetable on https://www.letec.be .