The past few days have been a kaleidoscope of new faces, inspiring visions and breathtaking landscapes as I've begun walking the Trail to Salamanca, or El Camino Salvaje, as it's known in Spanish. So many amazing people from around the world have joined forces to 'Make the World a Wilder Place' and I felt awed and humbled by their love and commitment to this beautiful Earth we share with such a diversity of creatures. Seeing their passion convinced me that we can partner with nature to achieve the goals of WILD10, the 10th World Wilderness Congress, which is being held in Salamanca, Spain, between October 4 and 10. And Hollywood couldn't have scripted a more picture-perfect start to the Trail, warm sunshine creating a carnival atmosphere as around 20 of us set off from a magnificent science museum on the shores of Lake Geneva, a group of children adding their special youthful exuberance and idealism.
As 14-year-old Moa Sylven stressed: her generation intend to make a difference. Within minutes of setting off we paused to appreciate a nature sanctuary that holds workshops for youngsters and contrasts a little wildness alongside the immaculately manicured lawns fronting the lake. By letting an area grow wild, a greater diversity of plants and creatures is catered for. In ways big and small we can all "Make the World a Wilder Place.'
It was with a tinge of sadness that I eventually bid farewell to my newfound young friends, walking a few kilometres further with adults until they too had to head their separate ways, leaving Magnus Sylven and I to stroll on together, discussing the aspirations for WILD10 and the Trail to Salamanca.
Magnus, the co-chairman of WILD10 and a conservation advisor to Rewilding Europe, insists that the choice of Spain as a backdrop for the Congress made sense as it is a biodiversity hotspot that's enjoying a spectacular return of wildlife and wildness to many areas and especially rural land abandoned by farmers joining a migration to the cities. There are many encouraging success stories.
Walking at the time-honoured pace of pilgrims, we pass a beautiful landscape just 50km from Geneva, that is visited by thousands of city-based nature lovers in search of the wild presence of ibex, chamois and marmots. Lammergeiers soar on thermals high above and I'm reminded that these bearded vultures were almost extinct in South Africa during my childhood, and are among the species enjoying a healthy comeback. We're enjoying a visual demonstration of how humans can successfully partner with nature to the mutual benefits of both. Magnus tells me: "One of the most exciting comebacks has been that of the Alpine ibex (a kind of wild goat) which has become a symbol of the Alps. "Due to unregulated hunting in the whole Alpine area 200 to 300 years ago it was wiped out everywhere, except in the vicinity of the 4,062-metre Gran Paradiso mountain, which was established as a royal hunting ground by the Italian King Victor Emmanuel in 1856. "Only about 60 animals were left 150 years ago, but due to successful conservation, the Gran Paradiso National Park (the first Italian national park established in 1922) is home to 2,500 animals with the global ibex population consisting of more than 30,000 animals – a huge conservation success!"
As much as anything, it was a conversation with Miquel Rafa of the Barcelona-based Catalunya-La Pedrera foundation, that convinced me to walk this trail. He described the Great Mountain Corridor linking four major European mountain ranges – the Alps, Grand Massif, Pyrenees and Cantabrians – and proposed the Trail to Salamanca as an exploration and celebration of the return of wildlife. It is also a tribute to the amazing resilience of iconic species like wolves that have returned from the brink, surviving and even thriving in areas of land abandonment. Imagine the immense challenge they face in traversing vast areas, mostly unseen, where their ancestors were hunted to extinction!
Already I've seen landscapes as breathtakingly beautiful as I've encountered anywhere else, an amazing cablecar ride introducing me to the majesty of Mont Blanc, at 4,810m the highest peak in the Alps and the European Union. And with parts of my route made impassable to traffic because of unseasonably heavy snowfalls, I've hiked the legendary Petit Saint Bernard Pass from Italy to France between towering snowbanks without a vehicle in sight, my progress watched by curious marmots. Now I'm beginning to appreciate that even a densely populated continent like Europe has much wildness to offer, and the potential to heal the nature-deficit disorder so many of us suffer, bestowing the gifts of peace, happiness and clarity that come from communing with the natural world.
So what could this wilder Europe look like? The vision is of a wild nature that is recognised as an indispensable part of Europe's natural and cultural heritage and a necessary building block for a modern, prosperous and healthy society. It's return could also create fresh opportunities for humans to benefit from Earth-friendly businesses like Eco-tourism.
Imagine mountain cliffs alive with ibex and chamois, with vultures, eagles and other raptors soaring in the thermal uplifts; mystical old-growth forests with woodpeckers, mosses, lichens and mushrooms; open forests where bison, deer and wild horses exist alongside wolves, lynx and bears; and seas inhabited by seals and more than 25 species of whales and dolphins. The spectacular landscapes and seascapes are already there, awaiting the return of more of the wild creatures that belong. It's possible within our lifetime: the choice is ours.