Out and about in Bavaria’s Allgäu mountains with skin painter, tattoo artist and hunter, Daniel Bensmann. A tour with plenty of ups and downs to two magnificent peaks and a visit to a rustic hut – as well as a journey through personal highs and lows.
A Mountain Tour to Hirschberg and Spieser near Bad Hindelang
The secret pool basins at Hirschbachtobel are among the places where Daniel Bensmann feels completely at home. In his heart, and his homeland. This is where he comes to rest, lying on the flat rocks. And this is where he listens to the roar of the water that cascades down steep rocky slopes and that, every winter in the ice and snow, sweeps down branches and twigs, old trunks and even entire trees.
“Every spring, when I’m back here for the first time, the scenery looks different,” the 33-year-old tells us. “Every year is unique. Every year is different.”
Just as his pictures are. When he paints with pen and ink on parchment, people, animals, impressions. Here on the mountain, the wild landscape is his canvas. Untamed nature, a powerful painting. Some of the wood, says Bensmann, would definitely have been lying around for 20 years, maybe even 30 or more. All his life.
Brushes and a Sheet of Paper Were All it Took to Feel Fulfilled
A summer day with Daniel Bensmann in the mountains of Bad Hindelang. We arranged to meet the skin painter and tattoo artist for a tour of his territory. There, where Daniel is at one with hunting, and where his heart and soul find peace.
After just a couple of minutes, on the first few metres of ascent up the Hirschberg, it becomes clear: the pace will be quite fast. Daniel wastes no time in getting his companions up to speed, with quick steps on the way up, as well as with the stories from his life’s journey and the emotions that have come with it.
The path winds steeply up Hindelang’s local mountain while Daniel talks about his childhood. He talks about how he discovered a love of art at an early age, how he never needed a football, model cars or game consoles. A pencil, a brush and a sheet of paper were enough for happiness and fulfilment. “And yet I was searching for my place in the world for a long time,” he says at the top of the Hirschberg which, at 1,500 metres, is the first of the day’s two peaks. The cross located on the Hirschberg stands 21 metres below the summit, because, otherwise, it would not be visible from Bad Hindelang.
Los Angeles, New York, Moscow, Bad Hindelang
In his late teens, when he learned to tattoo, Daniel was drawn out into the big wide world. If it was too cramped for him in the Allgäu, he worked in tattoo studios in Los Angeles, Barcelona, New York, Moscow or Edinburgh.
“It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I realised I belonged here after all.”
“It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I realised that I belonged here after all, that this is where I feel most at home,” he says, looking over Bad Hindelang towards Ostrachtal and across to the mountains of the Allgäu High Alps.
Daniel knows them all by name, the “Rotspitze”, the “Breitenberg”, the “Mittagsspitze”. And the “Hochvogel”, too, of course. He hands over the binoculars and points into the distance. While Nebelhorn mountain station shimmers through the lenses behind us, he explains that he found his way back here again after years of searching. “To my home port, so to speak.” That’s where he dropped anchor.
A Sense of Strangeness with the Homeland
At the beginning, he had a hard time “arriving” home. Daniel went into a crisis of purpose, he tells us, as we leave the summit and first descend into a small hollow. That he had problems integrating in his homeland, because at first they regarded him with suspicion and scepticism, because he didn’t fit in here with his tattoos all over his body, on his legs, arms, on his bald head. Nor with his tattoo studio, which he then went on to open.
“If I had gone to Berlin and opened my tattoo studio in Prenzlauer Berg, I would have had a much easier time,” he says. But stony and uncomfortable paths often transpire to be the more interesting ones to tread; that’s life, just like mountaineering.
Exoticism as a Bensmann Family Tradition
He felt a little like his parents. They opened the very first organic shop in the region in the early 1980s. They were considered exotic by the locals, and even as weirdos. It was predicted that they’d be closing their doors again after a few weeks.
But just as organic shops now serve as showpieces for local sustainability concepts with regional and seasonal food, Daniel Bensmann has also asserted himself against all odds.
In recent years, he has increasingly become Hindelang’s advertising ambassador, a figurehead that people like to be seen with. The “Hütmôlar”, as they also like to call him here, the skin painter, has also been a Bavarian ambassador for a year.
Daniel also found his place in the hunting cooperative after some initial difficulties, he says, as we cross the small rivulet of the Hirschbach before arriving at the ascent to “Spieser”, the second peak, in his hunting district.
They soon realised that it wasn’t someone who had just taken out a hunting licence in order to be able to shoot up the neighbourhood, but someone who took the tradition, the meaning and the values of hunting very seriously.
Sounds Paradoxical You Might Say: Hunters with Scruples about Killing
Daniel was 20 when he went hunting with his uncle for the first time. It took him a long time before he decided to get his hunting licence. When he shot his first animal, a deer, it took him a week before he was at peace with himself. Killing an animal, that occupied him. But he stayed with hunting because he saw the need to regulate the game population in the mountains, so that the resulting damage they cause would not get out of hand, and because it is also a cornerstone of regional culture.
Of course, he understands the criticism surrounding hunting that emanates from animal rights activists, and he also knows about the black sheep who, as irresponsible trophy collectors, pursue an expensive hobby to satisfy their blood lust. And you don’t have to like hunting per se. But it is possible to accept Daniel’s view of it.
Hunting, he says as we sit on the 1,641-metre Spieser, the highlight of the tour, reinforces his connection to the area’s unique nature. It serves as inspiration for his work, which he immortalises on parchment.
We stay at the summit for half an hour, then the intense conversations gradually merge into a long silence: we simply take in the phenomenal view from the hazy “Zugspitze” in the east to the “Hohen Ifen” with its striking mountain ridge in the southwest.
“Hirschalpe”: “Kaiserschmarrn” and alpine pasture gossip
After a period of inner contemplation, it’s time for some culinary delight: on the descent, we head for one of Daniel’s favourite huts, the “Hirschalpe”. Once here, a hearty snack comprising home-made sausage and wheat beer, cheese bread and “Kaiserschmarrn” (pancake) is all in store for us. As we eat, Johann, the host, sits down with us. He took over the hut six years ago with his wife, and became a good acquaintance of Daniel’s during that time.
They chat for a long time in their very own Allgäu idiom, which sounds something akin to a foreign language to holidaymakers from more northern German states. They talk about the chamois population, about the two hard years of Coronavirus and they exchange nice anecdotes about day trippers from the big city.
Johann laughs a hearty laugh as he tells the story of the driver from Munich who imagined a fortnight ago that he could plough up the non-public forest road from Oberjoch to the “Hirschalpe”. He was only stopped by the closed barrier, which Johann steadfastly kept down even after a long discussion. Which is why the guest had to drive back, cursing, swearing and sweating – in reverse on the narrow driveway with no turning option.
Everything in Flux
Johann has work waiting for him again when half a dozen young lads arrive. For the mighty and muscular soldiers of the British Army stationed in the Oberallgäu, the “Hirschalpe” has already become a kind of regular retreat on the mountain tours with instructor Keith. A pub in the Bavarian Highlands!
It’s time to set off for the last stage: a descent through the “Hirschbachtobel”, a wedge-shaped, wooded and enchanted valley with wonderful bathing spots at the foot of the waterfall. Time also to reflect on what is yet to come, and what will be.
Daniel wants to let life take its course, he says, maybe he’ll be drawn away again. “But I can’t imagine that at the moment.” The idea that he will weigh anchor again, in his home port. But everything evolves, and always looks new and different in Daniel’s life and at the pools in the ravine. Everything in flux. Flowing like a stream.