If you go down in the woods today, you’re in for a BIG surprise…
Sitting in the sun, overlooking tranquil waters, I wondered why I felt so out of sorts.
Our plans are constantly up in the air. Usually, that’s a fun part of our nomad lifestyle; when it’s pursuing a recommendation here or a must-see there. Unfortunately, it’s been more about infection spikes here and quarantine imposed there. Sadly, travelling in a pandemic, keeping abreast of the news has become a necessary evil.
Yesterday, we’d chased across almost the full width of Poland, from Lublin to Poznań, because we felt the need to get closer to home, just in case the borders closed. We had been looking forward to some windsurfing in Brittany, to make up for missing out on Poland’s north coast, but with coronavirus case numbers rising in France, that was not a given. In coronavirus times, uncertainty is the new certainty.
However, there is a positive side to being forced to watch the news. Had we not, we would have missed the cheeringly insane video of a middle-aged Berlin naturist giving chase to a wild boar, which had snatched his laptop.
Our new home was City Camp Süd, in the Dreilinden woodland a few miles from Potsdam. We pitched right on the banks of the Teltow Canal, with a restful outlook towards the trees on the far bank. The utilitarian concrete buildings that housed the reception area and the presence of a three-storey watchtower in the centre of the campsite gave an immediate hint that the place had a past, but we could not have guessed at the extraordinary secret history we would stumble upon during our stay.
Following Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945, the victorious Allied powers took over the country’s governance. The Potsdam Agreement between the US, UK and USSR divided the country into four administrative zones. The Western areas came under the capitalist auspices of the US, British and French, while the Eastern zone was ceded to the communist Soviet Union. The city of Berlin, Germany’s former capital, was 110 km inside the Soviet bloc. It too was split into the same four administrative sectors, leaving West Berlin as an Allied outpost surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany.
We knew that the Teltow Canal, which ran between West Berlin and Potsdam in the former GDR (German Democratic Republic), marked the boundary between East and West Berlin. Only three decades before, our mere presence in this restricted location would have made us GDR border troops, staring across the water from East to West Berlin. Our HQ building now housed the camp’s hotel and reception.
Abandoned infrastructure is always spooky. We thought nothing of it when we paddled our SUPs (Stand Up Paddleboards) from the campsite past the graffiti-covered footings of an old bridge, long since demolished.
On our first walk with our four pooches, a sentry box confronted us on the path a few hundred yards from the campsite. It was near a garden gate, so however strange, we assumed it was decorative – in the same way some Brits make a statement with a red telephone box on their driveway. Further on, we came upon an incongruously huge bridge across the Teltowkanal.
This was no quaint stone arch that you’d find on the Leeds Liverpool canal. It was the width of Heathrow’s number one runway. Its tarmac was crumbling and overgrown. We searched for other clues and found three flag poles; something that resembled a central reservation; and a rusting field telephone. It was clearly a place of some importance, but we had no idea what.
I made a beeline for an information board nearby, but it gave no hints about the bridge. Instead, it revealed that from 1961 when the Soviets built the Berlin Wall to seal East Berlin from the West, and 1989 when it fell, 136 people lost their lives in attempts to flee from East to West Germany.
During a global pandemic, we have learned the hard way that behind every impersonal death statistic lies a deeply human story. The sign shed light on just one of these. On June 15th 1965, West German businessman Herman Döbler and 21-year-old Elke Märtens had taken to the water for pleasure, as we had that afternoon. June 15th was another carefree summer’s day. Aboard Herman’s motorboat, they set out from Wannsee and turned into the Teltowkanal at Kohlhasen Bridge. The East/West border was not clearly marked, although a full-width barrier blocked the waterway near the derelict bridge we’d just discovered. Unknown to Elke and Herman, however, the actual border was 100 metres before the barrier.
Two border guards watched the boat stray into East German territory. One opened fire. Although Elke immediately turned the vessel, four carefully-aimed bullets connected with Herman’s head and torso. He was dead before the boat reached the West Berlin bank. A bullet grazed Elke’s head. Although badly injured, she survived.
Twenty-eight years later, in 1993, the guard who fired the fatal shots was brought to trial. He testified that Elke and Herman ‘provoked’ him and that, ‘I decided to use my weapon to annihilate the border violators.’ The court convicted him of pre-meditated murder.
The information board had an old map which showed the route they had taken along the canal. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I studied it and shared my chilling conclusion with Mark,
“They must have been shot from the watchtower on the campsite.”
A wide grassy ride swept through the forest directly away from the bridge, much wider than a firebreak.
“I think this must have been a road – look at the raised banks on either side,” I said to Mark.
A little further on, another large bridge, covered in colourful graffiti, spanned the ride.
“That’s a motorway bridge!” I exclaimed. It seemed so out of place, abandoned in the middle of dense forest.
The graffiti made me think it could be part of the Berlin Wall infrastructure. A few blocks of painted masonry had fallen down. Mark picked one up.
“Why are you going to do with that?” I asked.
“Don’t you think it will be cool to have a piece of Berlin Wall as a caravan levelling block?!”
“Wow,” I said. “YES!”
It took conversations with friends, fellow campers and some dedicated internet research to piece together the dark history of the place.
The best known border crossing between East and West Berlin was Checkpoint C, more famously called Checkpoint Charlie if you pronounce the C using the NATO phonetic alphabet.
But if you think about it, where there’s a Charlie, there must also be an Alpha and Bravo. The derelict Reichsautobahnbrücke canal bridge we stumbled upon is the original location of the Allied Checkpoint Bravo. In the American Sector at Dreilinden, Checkpoint Bravo accessed one of only three prescribed transit routes that crossed GDR territory from West Germany into West Berlin. Although less well known, it was possibly more important than Checkpoint Charlie, since it was the main motorway route. A journalist friend also told me,
“I may be wrong, but there’s a bridge over that canal where they did all spy swaps. The one I saw in films was like a small version of the Tyne bridge.”
Old photos suggested that might have been the demolished bridge we’d paddled past that afternoon, although the Glienicke Bridge which crosses the Haval River in Potsdam is the famous ‘Bridge of Spies’ featured in the Steven Spielberg film.
The ride we’d followed was the route of the old AVUS motorway (Automobil-Verkehrs-und Übungsstraße – Automobile Traffic and Training Road), which connected Checkpoint Bravo in West Berlin’s Dreilinden to the Drewitz crossing into East Germany, a few miles further along. To Germans, the crossing was called Grenzübergangsstelle Drewitz-Dreilinden. The guards timed traffic as it passed between the Dreilinen and Drewitz checkpoints. There were severe penalties for hesitation or deviation; almost exactly the same rules as BBC Radio 4‘s comedy game show Just A Minute. I’m not sure about repetition, I said, I’m not sure about repetition (See what I did there?!) but unlike Just A Minute’s host, Nicholas Parsons, GDR border guards were not renowned for their sense of humour.
Until 1998, the AVUS also had form as a motor racing circuit. When not in use for motorsports, it provided the most direct Autobahn route between West Berlin and West Germany, but because it was built prior to WWII and partition, it crisscrossed in and out of GDR territory. To enhance security, the authorities re-routed it in 1969 and moved the checkpoint.
What remains of its successor, Checkpoint Bravo II – The Sequel, is now mostly lost beneath the Europarc Dreilinden industrial estate, through which we passed on our way to the campsite. It covered a vast area, although much of it was car parking to accommodate vehicles awaiting cumbersome border checks and paperwork. A bit like the M20 in Kent post Brexit. The surviving part of Bravo II looks like a bright red motorway service station and is still visible from the Autobahn A115 – we saw it later on our way into Berlin. In one of its nearby watchtowers, there is a small Checkpoint Bravo museum, but it was an unfortunate victim of covid closure.
Although the receptionist denied any knowledge of City Camp Süd’s history, she did give us a key to look inside the GÜSt (Grenzübergangsstelle – border crossing point) watchtower on the campsite. It contained a few signs, jackboots and relics, along with the smell of old Bakelite and a palpably sobering atmosphere.
Our neighbours, puppy parents of Mocha, had confirmed that the fatal shots fired at Herman did indeed come from the campground.
Unknown to us, our doggie walk had joined a section of the Berliner Mauerweg – a 160 km commemorative trail that follows the outline of the Berlin Wall. The placard we’d seen about Elke and Herman was one of twenty-nine along the way, placed to commemorate the dead.
In 2012, the city auctioned off the 3.7-acre plot that comprised the original Checkpoint Bravo. A mystery buyer secured it with a single bid of the minimum asking price, €45,000. The anonymous owner is prohibited from building commercial or rental properties there, but what the future holds for this haunting historic site is unknown.
Yet, can you believe that uncovering an enormous chunk of A-Class Cold War history is not the big surprise I promised you down in the woods?
To appease my photo-phobic husband, I had not taken my camera on our earlier walk. Obviously, this meant I had to drag him around the circuit again to bag all the photographs I’d missed. Close to the graffiti-covered motorway bridge, we heard a kerfuffle in the forest. The Terrible Two, Rosie and Lani, shot into the trees, clearly on the scent of a bird or something. Moments later, they shot back out at the sort of velocity you’d associate with being fired from a cannon. Yelping and yipping, they both had their tails straight up in the air. In keeping with the day’s spirit of discovery, I reflected silently,
“Ah. Now I understand the origin of the term ‘high tailing it!’”
The midsection of four sturdy brown legs materialised in the scrubby space beneath the forest proper. That sparked off an alternative train of thought,
“Is that a Rottweiler? You’d think such a big dog would have someone with it, but I can’t see a soul!”
Later, Mark revealed his parallel ponderings, “The shape in the trees attached to the legs suddenly became clear, like when you stare at one of those magic eye pictures. That was when I yelled,
‘It’s a f****** wild boar!’”
If you ever think a day at work is tough, think of the Dorobo people in Kenya. They ‘hunt’ by psyching out lions to steal part of their kill. Their technique is to stroll slowly and deliberately towards a pride of apex predators consumed by a feeding frenzy. The Dorobo’s only defence is to make themselves seem bigger by walking side by side. I can’t vouch for the boar’s thought process, but as the human-boar staring contest unfolded (our pack of throat-tearing guard dogs were nowhere to be seen) it thankfully reconsidered its charge. Confronted by the terrifying vision of Mark and I gawping, I mean chanelling our Jedi mind tricks, it remained on the treeline and opted not to break cover.
The advice in How To Survive A Boar Attack comes straight from the GÜSt Border Guard Manual; ‘Shoot it, preferably in the head’. Not much help if you’re unarmed and in the open. Running is not an option. Your average boar can out-sprint and out-hurdle Jesse Owens, especially over rough ground. A three-foot fence is no barrier to a boar, and they can clamber out of a six-foot pit. Yet despite their suiform superpowers, cloven hooves do have disadvantages. In the absence of ‘a car or boulder at least five feet high’ upon which to seek refuge, apparently our best bet would have been to shin up a conifer. The top tip offered up if you’re ever gored by a charging Wildschwein is to play dead. Don’t move a muscle or you risk a second assault.
We’re ‘glass half full’ people, even though the base of our receptacle is generally awash with naval mines, box jellyfish and baby piranhas. Pigs can’t fly, but wild boar can swim, so it would come as no surprise if we found a few porcine triathletes in there as well, hiding behind the ice cubes.
But what goes around comes around, and in the spirit of irony, we gave The Fab Four wild boar dog food for dinner.
But even on the way back to the caravan, Mark and I had already put a positive spin on our wildlife encounter,
“Well. At least we weren’t naked and it hadn’t stolen our laptop.”
Stuck for some last minute Father’s Day Gift Ideas? Check out 12 Father’s Day Gifts for the Caravan / Motorhome Owner In Your Life and find out how to get FREE rapid delivery!
To catch up with our travels to date, they are listed in order on our Coronavirus Road Trip page.