The long Nordic summer day slowly closes its curtains and we enjoy a sip of red wine from a cardboard cup, and a perfect sunset on the beach of Krapi – a lively duel between shades of orange and purple across the entire width of the sky, ending in the Gulf of Riga. An hour earlier, we trudged several hectometres into the water to enjoy an evening swim among colonies of swans.
Time for a campfire. Confession: it takes usually at least half an hour for me to get the flames going. I am fortunate to have distant ancestors who were more comfortable with making fire, or this evolutionary line might never have made it into the 21st century. But this time one match suffices to spread a wonderful sauna scent of burning pine needles.
It is the perfect picture, I think, the ultimate happiness: self-made fire on the left, the last remnants of the sunset on the horizon and on the right our tent, set up with a view of the sea, flying away.
Goes to show that perfection does not exist, but that you sometimes get a false idea that it does. And that is enough.
The wind picks up and makes the entire pine forest rustle. Or maybe those sounds are the hooves of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Anyone who has ever re-pitched a blown-away tent in the midst of what appears to be the end of the world certainly knows: that’s not an easy task. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. We listen to the wind all night – it seems as if we have pitched our tent on the roof of a speeding train. We pray to all the gods that no pine tree will fall on our tent and turn us into minced meat.
Only the next day do we discover that there was a fire ban in the entire area. That explains why our neighbours, a wolf pack of Kalevipoegs who were already busy with an axe in the early evening, did not make a fire. And I was thinking that I was somehow more man than them. We had almost set fire to an Estonian nature reserve and wouldn’t have even noticed it.
A day earlier, we leave from Kabli for what should be our final push to Latvia. Historically, these coasts attracted holidaying Russians. You have to forgive those poor people, they themselves hardly have beaches worthy of the name. Nowadays, Russians fly to Mallorca to stock up on vitamin D. In the 19th century, they had to content themselves with Häädemeeste, Kabli and Ikla.
And with Jaagupi. Blink your eyes twice as you walk through and you have missed the village, but Soviet cosmonauts were happy to stay here during their vacations. Even Valentina Tereshkova came to Jaagupi to work on her tan. The first woman in space has such status in Russia that Vladimir Putin sometimes invites her to his private residence to celebrate her birthday. By the way: that tan was not meant as a joke. According to Soviet researchers, Jaagupi was the sunniest place on the entire west coast of the USSR. But you shouldn’t trust a weatherman, we already said that.
Nowadays, the Kosmonautika holiday centre is for sale. It rains when we walk past it. Mallorca is probably a safer bet.
That does not mean that this region is no longer a popular holiday destination. We first walk through a bungalow park by the sea, after which we stroll along the beach (public space everywhere in Estonia), past villas, and arrive at the first of two gigantic RMK camping pitches, Lemme. Still feeling fresh, we continue to the next camping place, Krapi, and pitch our tent with a view of the sea, although, as recounted in the first paragraphs, we will not wake up with that same view.
RMK is the Estonian State Forest Management Centre, a government service that, among other things, maintains camping spots and cabins. Everyone can stay for free. RMK ensures safe campfire pits and, at least at its smaller spots, lays firewood in a hut or under a shelter, so that nobody has to feel compelled to start chopping down trees. There is usually also a compost toilet. Of course, you should not expect great luxury, but let’s face it: those who need electricity and WiFi on a camping trip are not really camping.
Nature belongs to the people in Estonia. If you want to camp in our regions, you are obliged to cough up large amounts of money for luxury that you might not even need. Or to pitch your tent in all illegality at dusk, and break up camp again at dawn, like a thief in the night. And yes, since 2010, there are a few dozen bivouac zones in Belgium that work according to the Estonian principle. But for me, that is still far too little. Don’t get me started on our lakes. In Belgium, you have to pay to swim in them. It is malicious that natural beauty is hidden behind a paywall.
There is, of course, a difference in population. Estonia only houses 1.3 million people. Roughly half of them live in Tallinn. That leaves a lot of room for nature and few people to trample it for recreational purposes. There is indeed a big difference in nature conservation if you don’t have to fear that your lakes and rivers turn into water parks every time the sun shines.
The next afternoon, the wind stops when we enter Treimani. That is a good thing, because we were unable to make coffee that morning, deadly afraid to set fire to the Estonian coastal forest, and the coffee monster in Anete wakes up and asks for fuel. The lady in the neighbourhood shop is the type who is determined to personally maintain the cliché of Baltic hospitality. She mechanically pushes buttons on the coffee machine. She offers neither smile nor palun; as if she’s decided that life is too short to be friendly.
What was the case of these good men from Häädemeeste, who received every shipwreck with open arms? It must be that this lady is not from the region; otherwise, she would certainly have some Häädemeeste in her blood. The women of Häädemeeste were once very much needed to repopulate Treimani.
The Great Northern War of 1700-1721 and an outbreak of the plague had destroyed this village. According to the legend, only three men remained – Ansi, Liiva and Peedi. They went to Häädemeeste in a quest for women. Hence the name: Treimani, from Dreimannsdorf or the village of three men. Judging by the grouchy face in the store, the three in Häädemeeste were given the leftovers, the women that were good for nothing.
What is freedom to roam?
Estonia is proud of its status as one of the greenest countries in Europe. In part, that is a case of personal praise, a truth with an added “but”. Estonia, for example, emits far more CO2 than you would expect from such a tiny country, and the Estonians cut down their forests at rapid rates, under the treacherous guise that there is “more than enough”. And yet, as far as I am concerned, we can learn much from the way in which Estonia treats its nature.
Take the everyman’s right. This allows everyone to walk in nature, to go wild camping, to swim, to fish or to pick berries, mushrooms and flowers, even on private property. In English, it is called “freedom to roam”. If that’s not the best expression of the idea, then certainly the most beautiful.
In Estonia, everyone likes to go out into nature. If only to sit around a campfire for a few hours, drink a few beers and grill a sausage or two. Even a marketing manager from a hip startup in Kalamaja cannot call his summer a success if he didn’t crawl through the pine forest in search of blueberries at least once.
Somehow that love makes sense. Because the summer is so short, and you have to take advantage of it as often as possible. The winters here are long and exhausting, so it is recommended to charge the batteries sufficiently during the summer. Even when the weather is so-so, Anete insists on swimming. “Because we don’t have that many opportunities.”
The freedom to roam stops us – again – from reaching Latvia. This time it’s our pee pauses that kill us. Before your mind starts to wander into crazy territories: it is not that they take so long. But we still walk on the old highway between Riga and Tallinn* and so we answer every call of nature by jumping into the forest.
*Don’t overestimate the word highway. Even the Via Baltica is not comparable to the highways in Western Europe. It is a two-lane track between the pine forests, where cars drive 90 and our bus once hit a young moose. The old highway is rather a macadam road where only local traffic and cars taking a short cut to Latvia terrorize walkers and cyclists.
The problem – well – is that those pee breaks always turn into something more. When I dive into the forest, I return with wild strawberries. If it is Anete’s turn, she finds blueberries. Wild strawberries often grow close to the edge of the forest because they need sun. Blueberries often grow further in the forest, on the shady ground under pine trees.
A pee break is, therefore, often how a berry picking session starts. However, one should be careful. It is treacherous to go further and further into the woods, to follow the trail of fruit deeper and deeper until you have no idea how to get back on the road. The forests here are generally somewhat more extensive than the ones in Belgium. Every year, Estonians get lost while exercising their freedom to roam, while picking blueberries or mushrooms. They return to civilization with stories about how they survived by licking dew from leaves. Estonians are tough; weeds do not perish.
By the way: richer Finland uses Thai guest workers to pick berries in the summer. What a mindfuck that must be — you go for a walk in a pine forest and suddenly you come across a mob of Thai. You would start drinking for less. I have no idea how many Thai corpses are lying in the Finnish forests, lost during work.
I have never gotten lost myself while using my freedom to roam, but picking berries and strawberries has taught me one thing: patience. Because those things are small. Even if you reach a ratio of 20 berries per minute, for which you already need trained arms, it takes a long time before you have a basketful. But it is nice to shuffle through the forest on hands and knees and to put every tenth piece of nature’s candy in your mouth. The freedom to roam has something meditating.
In the meantime, it is wonderful to see how I internalize Estonian nature. I no longer look with the eyes of an outsider, with wonder, but rather with a familiarity that feels like attachment. This nature is now also mine; I recognize plants and animals and I know the growing seasons. The freedom to roam has awarded me with a connection that goes deeper than that of the fleeting visit, the short impression.
We take the bus back to Pärnu just before the border with Latvia, in Ikla. The adventure is not over yet. Thanks to the freedom to roam.