Big round eyes, fluffy fur, a gentle, curious nature. No wonder that alpacas are in demand as laid-back hiking companions. This is also the case in the Bavarian Forest. We had to try it out. Text: Christian Haas, Fotos: Frank Heuer
Alpaca Hiking in a Self-Experiment
"Do they spit?" is almost always the first question Elke Haase-Sporrer is asked by children. But the owner of the 16 Arberland alpacas quickly gives the all-clear. "Don't worry, if they do, it's usually only among themselves. Humans are rarely on the receiving end." With this answer she usually reassures adult companions who secretly wonder the same thing.
Alpaca walks have been growing in popularity for years. There are over three dozen providers in Bavaria, and the trend is rising. For a few years now, Elke has been one of them, with an attractive mix of forest and meadows at the foot of the 1,452-metre-high Großer Rachel, a particularly beautiful hiking area on the doorstep of the enclosure.
Fluffy Friends, Also For Men
"Do two men even fit into the guest pattern?", I want to know in advance on the phone. Elke vehemently contradicts the assumption that the walks with the humpless mini-camels would only be something for families with small children, animal-loving female influencers or baby-mooners with excess hormones: "It doesn't matter whether it's children, teenagers, women, men, young or old, different age and target groups are ecstatic, even seasoned men who seem rather reserved at first." Ok, we're coming!
Children, women and men. Everyone goes into raptures
Speaking of reservations. In view of the increased demand during the pandemic, this is not a bad idea. "With all the requests, I could offer a hike every day," says the married mother of three. She has a completely different, time-consuming main job. Elke manages a bicycle and motor technology shop in Zwiesel, eight kilometres away.
"The alpaca thing was only meant to be a hobby at first," says Elke, "with a focus on breeding and, at best, occasional guest tours." But as is often the case, things turn out differently. Now she is out and about with alpacas and guests up to three times a week. Even, or better, especially in winter.
Fluffy, Googly and a Little Reserved
We are standing in front of her door in idyllic Oberfrauenau under a blanket of snow and a cloudless sky. Eight alpacas in all colours are standing in the fresh snow next to the lonely house: white, black, brown, grey, mixed. What the animals, weighing up to 80 kilos, have in common, their fluffy fur, their dark round eyes and their friendly nature, which combines curiosity and caution.
When we enter the spacious outdoor enclosure, they all turn their heads towards us, prick up their ears and remain at a covid-compliant distance of about one and a half metres. When we tentatively try to stroke the alpacas' heads, they back away. "They don't like to be touched on the head, they are sensitive there. It's more on the neck and back," Elke explains. "It takes some patience and time for them to build up trust."
Alpaca Hiking Is Relaxing
Perhaps that is even part of the secret of success. Because you have to earn their affection first, the relationship slowly grows over the course of the hike which "usually is about one and a half to two hours, sometimes it goes here, sometimes there, the destination is actually secondary". "Especially with lively children, I often experience an unexpected change. At the beginning, they get excited, but over time they become calmer and get closer to the animals."
In the case of Elke and alpacas, one can't consider it a slow approach, but rather of a sudden infatuation. The crucial first contact came in 2014 during a bicycle tour in Upper Bavaria, when her husband and she saw alpacas standing in a meadow. "It's not said for nothing that anyone who looks too deeply into the eyes of an alpaca is immediately in love. That was exactly the case with me."
The Mini Camels Are into Tranquillity
However, she did not want to make the mistake of quick, uninformed animal ownership and therefore attended several husbandry and breeding courses with an experienced alpaca breeder and veterinarian. One thing is clear: animal welfare was Elke's top priority from the very beginning. This is also noticeable as a hiking guest. There are portraits of the alpacas in the lovingly decorated stable, and the boss is never loud when dealing with them. Elke always radiates calm and pays attention to who is fit enough to walk.
The choice today is Diego, Caruso and Marcello. When we lure them with hay, they quickly come very close, let us put the halter on them and lead them out with the rope. Admittedly, when we turn into the nearby tree-lined avenue, I initially help, with gentle pulling, but above all with coaxing. Diego's answer is a pleasant humming sound that he makes again and again over the next two hours.
There is something meditative about this soundtrack. Even more so when we "get into the flow". Diego on the left, me on the right, both almost at eye level, definitely at the same walking height. Autopilot on. There is time to watch the magical snow sparkle on the white meadow and in the sugar-covered beech trees.
Diego is probably also pleased that Caruso and Marcello are walking directly behind us. Elke explains: "Alpacas are very social. The worst thing you can do is keep them alone." Also not a good idea is cross-gender housing. That causes stress, especially among the males, who are not called machos for nothing. Cue ranking fights, during which spit flies or sharp teeth lead to injuries. So it's good that the eight ladies and their offspring are housed on a property in Zwiesel.
So we can walk with the undistracted macho males along snowy paths, sometimes through the bushes, sometimes past a frozen pond and then over to the other houses of Oberfrauenau, including the rustic-chic restaurant "Re(h)serviert". In light of the fantastic view of nearby Frauenau and across the wide valley to the Großer Arber, it is not surprising that the Poschinger family is building a new house in this prominent location.
The name Poschinger is constantly mentioned. As far as the eye can see, the forest, some 2,300 hectares around Frauenau and as far as Sankt Oswald, belongs to the "glass baron". As the only one of the historical glass lord families, they are still active in the glass trade to the present day.
During our hike we start talking, first about the alpacas, then about the Arberland, the people and the history. The fact that history is sometimes painful is demonstrated by the closure of the Poschingers' glassworks in late autumn 2021, a sad low blow for the region's glass industry, which is so rich in tradition. The modern glass museum in Frauenau shows how brilliant the times once were.
The family castle, built in the magnificent neo-Renaissance style and nicknamed the "Neuschwanstein of Lower Bavaria", no longer exists. After being damaged in the Second World War, it was demolished at the end of the 1950s. All that remains is the somewhat remote house of the castle administrator, where Elke's family now lives, a family crypt and the castle chapel on the edge of the forest. It's good that Elke tells us all this. The audio system on the wall of the chapel doesn't make a sound.
Multifaceted Love of Wool
Diego and his friends are quite different. Their buzzing is a constant companion. Even when we leave the cleared forest paths and dash across a virgin snow slope. That's fun. Would one do that without animals, we ask ourselves. In any case, we feel like snow barons. And we don't feel the least bit guilty that the animals might not like it. They definitely aren't cold since the comfort zone of the animals, which originally come from the Andes, is known to be between zero and five degrees. Not surprising, given the wool!
Alpacas definitely do not freeze
It is also very popular with humans, as it scratches much less than sheep's wool, is naturally dirt-repellent and, thanks to hollow fibres, particularly light and thus very comfortable to wear in the form of hats, socks, gloves and much more. Elke has put together an assortment in two rooms in her house, which we will get to know later, partly with the wool of her own alpacas, which is used, for example, in very cosy bedspreads, and partly with third-party products.
For Whom Are Alpaca Walks Ideal?
They are ideal for all those who find "normal walking" too boring. With the cute alpacas there is always something to see and laugh about. And they are ideal for those who don't need a day-long hike or an adrenaline-pumping dog sled ride (which is offered a few kilometres away) to feel winter happiness.
Winter alpaca tours have another advantage: the animals don't stand still all the time. "In summer it can be really exhausting, then they always want to eat," Elke laughs. Today the food is waiting in the stable. You can tell that the trio of men is stepping on the gas the closer we get to home base. Stable urge! And when I give Diego what he wants "at home", he gets really cuddly again. He nudges me, lets me stroke his neck and back, and looks deep into my eyes as we say goodbye. It leaves me speechless ...
Elke Haase-Sporrer usually offers alpaca walks every Thursday at 2 pm, Friday at 1 pm and Saturday at 2 pm (except in very bad weather).