Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity …
Walking the last kilometre through the beautiful medieval city of Salamanca all pain was forgotten, the crippling weight of my backpack miraculously evaporating as the realisation sank in that I'd done it: I'd completed the epic 124-day trail to Salamanca through six countries and four of Europe's major mountain ranges. All around me were happy smiling faces as I took the final steps, accompanied by local government delegate Emilio Arroita Garcia, my friends John and Amala, and a jubilant team of young ambassadors for the Earth. The 'young leaders' had walked more than 100km through heavy rain to WILD10, the 10th World Wilderness Congress that is committed to making the world a wilder place.
I grinned in amusement as journalists fired an avalanche of questions and photographers jostled for positions. Paparazzi for pilgrims? The welcome was more fitting for rock stars or celebrities. Striding into the main square, Salamanca's famous Plaza Mayor, the youthful and charismatic mayor Alfonso Fernandez Manueco beamed his welcome and shook my hand warmly. The speeches would come later in the mayoral chambers above – and we'd have a chance to impersonate royalty and stand on the balcony and acknowledge the well-wishers below.
More than anything I was struck by the wonderful collective energy of the young environmental pilgrims from all over Europe who radiated love, joy and passion. They know that they have the power to change the world and dismantle systems that aren't working and they intend to do just that.
My Trail to Salamanca had reached its destination, although I suspect that it is just beginning as this 2,500km celebration of the return of wildlife is put under the microscope. Already there is a suggestion that it could become a recognised international hiking route, perhaps called El Camino Salvaje or The Way of the Wild.
Walking the Great Mountain Corridor has underlined just how heavy the human footprint is almost everywhere. And yet, along with breathtaking mountain scenery, I managed to glimpse brown bears in the wilds, also witnessing a wolf roaming wild and free. More than once I saw Lammergeiers soaring above. These magnificent bearded vultures are edging back from the brink of extinction to enjoy iconic status in Europe's high mountains.
As farmers and villagers have vacated rural land and joined a mass migration to the cities during the past half century, wildlife has returned, although many species are missing and the numbers are perilously low. "Sometimes I feel like I'm going to a great theatre where there are no actors," Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe laments. "We need the wildlife comeback!" He and countless others are committed to making this happen. "We have set ourselves an ambitious vision, clear goals and concrete milestones. Our focus is to create at least one million hectares of new wild lands across Europe by 2020," he says.
And what is wild? My earliest definition was shaped by the pioneering work of Dr Ian Player, the legendary South African conservationist with whom I had the privilege of participating in a crocodile rescue operation in what is now iSimangaliso, a world heritage site that celebrates biodiversity and the commitment of humans to safeguarding their natural environment.
Throughout my walk I've pondered the meaning of wilderness and wildness, the words of American conservationist and author Renee Askins echoing in my mind. "Wilderness is a place, wildness a quality. Wilderness is the violin, wildness the music. Wilderness without wildness is like a Stradivarius lying on a museum shelf … inert, lifeless."
When I saw my first wolf in the wild it was through a telescope while standing on a minor dirt road with a railway line between me and this magnificent keystone predator. I watched as it flowed effortlessly across a landscape of abandoned farmland, marveling at its easy long-legged grace. How amazing is it that a hunting reserve in the Sierra de la Culebra area of north-western Spain is now a wolf stronghold where sightings are almost guaranteed!
It is a tribute to the wolf, and many other species, that their intelligence, resilience and highly developed survival instincts are enabling them to overcome massive obstacles and return to many parts of Europe where they were once hunted to extinction. It is evident too that we need to create and encourage wildlife corridors that allow the creatures to move safely between those surviving pockets of wildness and sanctuary. Humans also desperately need to reconnect with the natural world around them, many suffering a disconnection from nature that is harmful to their health. It has even been give a name – Nature Deficit Disorder being linked with stress, anxiety, depression and emotional overload.
Stopping over in towns and cities along the Trail I've often been kept awake by loud voices and drunkenness, those plaintive sounds of hopelessness and despair seeming like a call for help. I know all too well that when the pressures of city life feel suffocating, all I need to do is walk in nature and enjoy its healing embrace.
I did that again yesterday, wandering paths along the river that are just minutes on foot from the medieval heart of Salamanca. There are well-defined pedestrian and cycle paths and when I explored further I found a floating wooden platform where I lay on my back with my eyes closed. The sun and breeze were a gentle caress on my skin and I could hear the river lapping against the banks, the plopping of fish, the breeze ruffling the branches above me and the unrelenting joy of the birds. Within minutes all that had weighed heavily upon my mind seemed insignificant. Nature had worked it's magic.
Later that night I returned to the Plaza Mayor where I'd first met the mayor and awaited the signal that would trigger a 'flash mob' happening. At 8.30pm when the square was populated with people, one of the 'young leaders' began howling like a wolf. Instantly the call was taken up by dozens of others, many wearing hand-drawn notices with the simple message: "Hug me!" We formed a tight knot of wolves all hugging and howling or hooting with laughter – it was fun and added to the already exuberant atmosphere of the square. Among those on the perimeter I noticed many leading conservationists who probably spend more time campaigning in boardrooms than exploring the wilds they love so much, their visions sparking new initiatives at WILD10.
Lisa Klimek, a 20-year-old Austrian who walked for five months with her dog Jala to be in Salamanca, was almost breathless with excitement as she told me of her plan to create cross-border cultural events for young people. When we hugged I felt I was embracing the possibility of a more sustainable future for all the world and its creatures.