I grew up just a few miles outside Ohlstadt. On a visit home, I see an article in the local paper about a competition they’re announcing as the ‘Forestry Triathlon’. Never heard of it. Finger-wrestling and whip-cracking I know about, of course, and I’ve even seen ox-racing and fisherman’s jousting. But a forestry triathlon?
The event is taking place the evening before Gaujugendtag – a traditional celebration for local young people – begins, functioning as a kind of warm-up for a whole week of festivities in Ohlstadt, complete with beer tents, carousels, stalls and church services.
I have got to go!
I borrow a dirndl from my mother, which she had sewn with the money from her first apprentice’s fee. It’s five years older than I am and it fits like a glove, as does the apron.
Blue-and-white flags are hanging from the ceiling of the marquee in Ohlstadt. The musicians, members of the Näbeloch Boys band, are joking with each other on the stage, setting up their music stands and cheerfully accepting the tankards full of beer that the trumpeter brings them. Outside, where the swing boat, shooting gallery and stand with the roasted almonds are set up, the temperature – at around six in the evening – is still twenty-seven degrees. More and more visitors are streaming into the tent. It looks like the whole village is turning up to the jamboree. They’re all wearing traditional dress.
On the stage are tree trunks of varying thicknesses, all very neatly numbered. Some are secured with lashing straps.
To the left hangs a Bavarian flag, to the right an electronic board used for timekeeping.
Beneath the stage, sitting sternly at a desk with a laptop, are the judges, all former winners of the competition. The three-man team keeps a watchful eye out, making sure the rules are not infringed. The men taking part, their biceps and triceps bulging, check their axes, hatchets and saws, occasionally spraying a bit of oil on their tools. These magnificent objects are their owners’ pride and joy.
Fascinated, I gaze at the array of tools, which in another context might require a weapons permit. There’s an atmosphere of cheerful suspense in the air.
The host takes to the microphone to explain what’s about to happen: ten two-man teams will approach the stage to test their strength. First they will use a kind of hook to move an unevenly shaped tree trunk from one end of the stage to the other, then they will chop through the trunk of a spruce tree eighteen centimetres in diameter, and finally they will use a ‘wiagsog’ – similar to a large bucksaw – to cut off a cross-section (or ‘radl’ – the Bavarian word for a wheel or slice) of spruce. Up on the stage, the announcer explains the rules.
The gamsbart on his hat – a traditional decoration that looks like a large tuft of hair – trembles resolutely.
I wonder whether the tradition of the Forestry Triathlon dates back to the Neolithic Era, and whether these rules underlie a centuries-old heritage.
It’s hardly more than the blink of an eye in terms of Bavarian history. Getting down to brass tacks, there are two main reasons for this competition: the young guys want to test their strength, just as they do all over the world; and the village wants a party. Here romantic liaisons blossom, elderly people wax lyrical about the past, beer flows in rivers, and by the time dawn rolls around, there might even be a good old-fashioned punch-up.
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