Today is a designated rest day, and the first time in nearly a week that we’ve stayed in the same city for two nights running. But with an opportunity to visit the Hambacher Forest calling, it’s back on the bikes (for some of us at least). About half of us decide to cycle the 30, or was it 40, km out to the forest, while the other half jump on a local train instead. I’m in the riding group, obvs.
The ride out of Cologne is dreary, at least for the first 10km or so. One very long, very straight street, divided into blocks of about 200m, which means a lot of stopping and starting at the crossings, because we’re not riding on the road. It takes forever, and once you’ve seen one German suburb you’ve pretty much seen them all.
Very gradually, the city subsides and gives way to the standard mix of agriculture and industry that we’ve become accustomed to. Eventually, we close in on our destination, via a weird, abandoned village called Sindorf – one of two in this area that are likely to be consumed by the growing mining operations. Shutters are down on the houses and nature is already making a comeback, with weeds in the cracks in the pavement.
We meet the train crew in an area called The Meadow, which is populated by self-built homes, caravans, and even a library. We sit on some palettes and eat lunch (thanks sandwich makers!), before walking into the Hambacher Forst.
This place is incredible. High up in the trees are dozens of tree-houses, many two or three stories high and only accessible by rope. There are banners with slogans like “Respect existence or expect resistance”, and structures on the ground too. There have been activists – forest defenders – living here for over 5 years.
It’s inspiring to see, but there’s also a sense of pessimism here. The defenders fully expect a forthcoming court case to rule that the ancient woodland – the last remaining in this area that hasn’t been subsumed by the mine – can be felled to allow further coal to be dug up.
We climb up into one of the structures and have a look round. There’s a kitchen/living room on the ‘ground’ floor (some 30 ft up in the tree), with sleeping quarters above. It looks cosy, but it must surely be bitterly cold in the German winter, which is when the cutters are most likely to move in – fully expecting the number of defenders to be at its lowest.
A guy gives us a guided tour of the area, and takes us out to the perimeter of the mine. We can’t see it in full as it’s hidden by a layer of scrubland, but it’s clear just how huge it is. As dusk falls, we thank him for his time, make a donation to their kitty, and head back (on the train) to Cologne.
Visiting the forest, and talking to the people who call it home, was massively enlightening. These guys are the real climate heros, living on the frontline, in tough conditions, and at constant risk of eviction and violence from the police and security firms. And for Germany to be talking themselves up at COP23, while planning to give mining company RWE permission to expand, really does highlight the hypocrisy. Or bullshit, as one of the activists labels the Conference of Polluters.
Today, we cycle to Bonn. Although it’s not far, we still somehow manage to make a meal of the journey! For the first time, I lead a group and navigate a ‘scenic route’ along the Rhine, which is an extra 10km compared to the more direct route, but worth doing as it’s a lovely ride, for the first part at least. We hug the Rhine and cycle through autumnal woodland, on a flat, well-maintained cycle path (of course).
Eventually, heavy industry forces us inland, and from here onwards it’s less scenic and more like the industrial heartlands that the Rhineland is known for. We rejoin the Rhine a few km out of Bonn, where we bump into another group of cyclists – an advance party from Climate Express (riding from Brussels), who are putting down route markers for the 300 or so riders who are about 10km behind. If only we’d thought of that!
As we arrive into Bonn, we meet up with the other TTC group, and we congregate on some grass outside the Opera House, for an impromptu celebratory dance to ‘Praise You’ by Fatboy Slim, a run through some hoops, and a huge group hug with two unsuspecting locals caught in the middle of it all!
From here, it’s on to the Big Top on the other side of the river, to hear more about the actions planned for Ende Gelande on Sunday (today is Friday), meet other activists, get food and generally get clued up.
In all the excitement, we accidentally miss our time slot for getting to our planned accommodation for the night and are then told that we’ll have to find somewhere else to sleep. Potentially a big problem until one of the Ende Gelande organisers steps in and saves our
bacon porridge by finding us space at a local (very warm) sports hall. Thank you!
It’s Saturday in Bonn, and there’s heaps going on. As well as what is being billed as Germany’s biggest ever march for climate justice, there’s also a Critical Mass bike ride from Cologne to Bonn, and action training for Sunday’s trip into the mine.
But first, we have to move accommodation. We’re woken at about 7.30am by a gaggle of Danish students who’ve just got off a coach – and we’re in their sleeping quarters. Hurriedly we pack up (I seize the chance to have a shower before we’re turfed out) and vacate the building. As we leave, the young women are jostling to bagsy the comfy mattress thing I and a few others were sleeping on.
We have breakfast on a ping-pong table out the front, as you do (we’re in a school playground) and then I lead an ‘advance’ group to the new accommodation. My map-reading skills take us the scenic route again, and the others arrive 10 minutes before us…
The new place is a building attached to a church, about 5km SW of the centre of Bonn, in a quiet suburb. It’s lovely and spacious, with plenty of room to sleep, a nice kitchen, this sofa, and even a breakfast bar (but sadly no showers).
Once everyone’s sorted themselves out, I volunteer to lead a ride to go and look for the Critical Mass lot. There’s no way any of us fancies cycling all the way to Cologne to join a ride back to Bonn, so instead we decide to try and intercept it a few miles out of Bonn and join them for the last bit.
After lots of emails, texts and tweets from a very helpful guy called Ulrich, and with the help of a cool little app called Critical Maps (other Critical Mass riders turn it on for rides, which helps people locate it), we find the Mass. It works a treat, although the helicopter hovering overhead is also a bit of a give away that they’re approaching.
And wow, is it big! And red! There are literally thousands of people taking part, including lots of kids, which is great to see. The vibe is good natured and relaxed. So quite why the cops decide to try and break it up and stop its progress as we enter Bonn is beyond me. There’s a stand off and then the mass breaks up and cycles past the first blockade. Then there’s another, and this time the police are getting a bit lairy, grabbing at the odd bike as it passes. Why?!?
Our group of six all get through fine and we continue to ride into Bonn, where we fortuitously join up with the huge climate demo, making for a sea of red, bike bells, sound-systems and cheers from people as we cycle past, our bright red ‘Clean Air Now’ and ‘Clean Energy Now’ flags fluttering behind us.
From here, some people choose to hang back and mill around, join the demo, or just do their own thing. I decide to cycle over the bridge and back to the Big Top for some of the Action Training. Unfortunately, the lure of food sidetracks me and I lose the others. From here, I can’t find any Action Training in English (turns out they moved into a nearby field), so I watch some of the German session, including a mock ‘run’ at police lines, which is pretty funny to watch. It’s unlikely to be as funny tomorrow, when the police will have pepper spray and batons.
At a loose end, I decide to cycle back into town to see where the demo has got to. It’s not hard to find – I just follow the weary looking people with placards walking in the opposite direction. The final resting place is a street on the edge of town, where there’s a live music stage, lots of NGO stalls, and a carnival atmosphere as the sun goes down.
It’s then back to the Big Top, for a final meeting of ‘the fingers’ (these are the different teams that will make their way into the mine tomorrow). I listen to the plans for Orange, while Rob listens to Green. We learn hand signals, and some of what to expect, but beyond that it’s basically, “stay together, stay peaceful, and follow our lead”.
Back at base, we eat and then have our pre-action meeting. Shit’s getting serious. We form into three affinity groups: i. Those who won’t actively go into the mine ii. Those who will go into the mine but may not cross police lines and iii. Those who will go into the mine and cross police lines. I join group ii.
In hindsight, I perhaps wish I’d gone into group iii. I’m unlikely to ever again take part in an illegal action that’s so well organised, so well supported, I’m so well prepared for, and alongside so many others (and therefore, safety in numbers). But I know none of this at the time.
We affinibuddy-up (I’m with Jacinta) and discuss how we’re feeling. It seems we’re in the same ball-park with what we’re prepared to do.
There’s a good feeling as we go to sleep – emergency phone numbers scrawled on our arms – although some trepidation too. Lights don’t go out until midnight – and we need to be up at 5.15am for the big day tomorrow…
Day nine – Ende Gelande
We wearily, blearily wake and grab breakfast in the half-light. There’s a nervous excitement in the air. But before we get to the mine, we have to get to the mine. We dash for a local bus, waiting at the bus stop in the dark and rain, and, as it turns out, on the wrong side of the road. It’s scarily punctual, and we all have to dash across to jump on. It’s a minor miracle we all make it in time – faff has reduced by about 80% this morning!
Next obstacle – the train. We’re at the station for a 6.45am train, but it’s mysteriously cancelled, leaving us and hundreds of others milling about on the platform. Is it a conspiracy between RWE and the train company, which must be a major energy consumer, to stop us from even getting close to the mine? Apparently not, as eventually a train does arrive that’s heading in the right direction.
By about 9am we’re back at Buir, the station we were at a few days ago for our visit to the forest. It’s good to know the lie of the land and to have seen first hand the ancient forest which this action is hoping to defend. There are hundreds, thousands of people assembling here. And then, at about 10.30am, we’re finally on the move.
It’s slow to start with, thanks to another police check, where they’re stopping people with strawbale bags or other forms of ‘soft protection’ from coming through, making sure no-one has their face covered (and no doubt filming everyone as they pass through the bottle-neck). Pointless, since about a mile into the walk a van drives through the fields, flings its doors open and a couple of people start throwing straw-bale bags towards us, before they’re eventually stopped by the cops.
After a long wee stop in a field, we kind of lose the Green finger we were walking with, as they’ve peeled off. Rob makes a quick decision to try and catch them up, rather than stay where we are, with Orange. Just for a moment we (a group of 6) are isolated, and there are police apparently closing in on us. We run. It’s slightly exhausting but we eventually catch up with the rest of the group, the police seemingly happy not to “pick us off” just yet.
And then it’s “over the top” and into the mine. The sight of hundreds of people dressed in white boiler suits piling over the sandy banks is almost surreal, and one that will stay with me – especially since, with my phone and all identification documents left at home, I am viewing everything vividly and first-hand, not through a screen. And I’m not just viewing, I’m sliding down scree slopes, sand in shoes, wet feet, a sense of jubilation all around that we’ve got this far.
Having been on the march for a couple of hours, a few groups start eating their packed lunches, and pretty soon everyone is. Again, completely surreal. But is it a planned tactic to lull the police into a false sense of complacency? Since at about this moment, a finger, Orange, suddenly goes for it – making a run across the sand, down and up through a moat which has been dug, over the crest of a sandbank, and then they’re running through a thin police line which is hopelessly out-numbered. One or two get sprayed but the vast majority make it through, and that’s the cue for everyone else to follow – hundreds of people. It’s incredible to witness.
But our group won’t be joining them. As agreed last night, we’ve reached our limit, and at least two of us aren’t keen on going any further. Also as planned, the other TTC group has gone for it. Instead, we distract / act as decoys / help people out of the trench, but that’s about it.
With everyone else now making their way towards the mine machinery, we instead walk up to a sort of viewing platform, and then observe what’s going on down below, in front of the huge mechanical excavator. More police arrive, then horses, but the activists are standing united, holding hands in a huge circle, while another finger has somehow marched off towards another piece of machinery. It’s crazy to watch.
Eventually, a huge rain shower passes over and we decide to head back to the station, a 45 minute walk away, glad that we can and feeling desperately for our friends and everyone else below who are now effectively kettled.
Regrets? Yes. But also no. We stuck with what we agreed, and no-one did anything they were uncomfortable with, which is something to be proud of. My regret is purely personal – that I wasn’t more brave or bold in putting myself in the “Will cross police lines” affinity group. I think the scare stories got to me. But there is always a next time, and it’s been fantastic to bear witness, and to learn from the experience.
Wet and cold, we head back to Cologne for a beer and then on to our base in Bonn, to await news of the other group. Eventually, a call comes in and it’s good news – everyone is safe and well, and all were released without having to give ID or being charged.
They finally arrive back at base about 10pm, to a bit of a hero’s welcome. We drink celebratory beers, order in some pizza, and finally kick back a little. We did what we came here to do. We had a lot of fun along the way, made new friends and have a shared experience that will stay with us.
We bloody well did it!
PS. Watch out for this man…