Being labelled a “tramp” is not something the average person would be overly thrilled about. Unless, that is, they happened to be Czech. In the beer-drenched hub of central Europe, the word equates neither to homelessness nor harlotry, but to a nature-loving soul who “tramps” jovially through the countryside with his mates. I know this because I recently became one. I am now officially a tramp.
The notion of tramping – or “wandering” as some prefer to call it – may just sound like a regular hiking or camping trip. But I can assure you, it’s not. A romanticised hybrid of both pursuits, it is a far quirkier beast, with folk singing, and a generous helping of rum thrown in. The tradition dates back to the early 20th century, and is influenced by the Scout movement and the free-roaming cowboy novels of Bret Harte and Jack London. Stifled by the pomposity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, many young Czechs idolised liberal America – and saw the wild west as its free-range embodiment. As such, working-class youths – keen to slip away from their conventional parents – would head into the wild to explore, sing songs, then collapse wearily under the stars. More than a century later, the tradition lives on, and not just amongst men, but with women and kids too.
I have my induction to tramping in the highland forests of Brdy, a glorious tramp-filled haven, 60km south-west of Prague. I have been roped in by my mate Ondřej, and when I meet him and his entourage – brother Milan and two friends, Jiři and Honza – at Prague’s main station, they form a khaki cloud of beards and backpacks with an old guitar dangling on a piece of string. Almost instantly, I get what being a tramp is about.
We take a train to the village of Zadní Třebaň, then change to a local one to get to our starting point in smaller Nesvačily. Now that the requirement to wear masks on all public transport has been dropped, travel within the Czech Republic is without restrictions. No sooner have we stepped off it, than the group are careering towards the forest, giddily chorusing their way through a repertoire of tramp folk. It is a somewhat surreal way of walking, but I find it impossible not to be swept up in the fun. We have a map but no fixed route, hoping to stumble upon a number of hard-to-find tramp dens dotted in the thickets.
After an hour of roaming south, we find the first. Called White River – many of the dens have English names – it’s a wooden hut-and-bench construction stocked with ketchup and a copy of “western bestseller” Belinda’s Ranch. Sitting down to swig from a communal bottle of Tuzemák, Czech rum, Jiři tells me about the magic of tramping. “When I was 10, my older friends would go into the forest and sleep under the stars. For me, it represented friendship, freedom and fun all in one.”
It’s a sentiment shared by the whole group, and certainly evident at our next tramp post, Golden Bottom (Zlaté dno), a few hundred metres away. The legendary 1929-built camp, decorated with totem poles, was actually bulldozed a few years back – but the outraged tramp community defiantly rebuilt it within a month. It’s home to the symbolic grave of camp founder General Jerry Packard (Jaroslav Krsek), who died of hypothermia in Auschwitz after the Nazis doused him with cold water. It is a moving memorial and fittingly encapsulates the tramp spirit.
At 6pm, we set up camp in a cosy spot called Samotář (Solitaire), and after grilling some delicious špekáčky (fat sausages cross-sliced at both ends), the night is given away to beer-drinking and the singing of raucous tramping songs. Most, I note, are harmless ditties about rivers or pretty girls with freckles, but some, by the likes of dissident Karel Kryl, have a distinctly subversive feel – this was a key factor of tramping’s popularity during the communist era.
“Tramps often disliked the regime and were harassed by the police and state security,” Jan Pohunek, co-editor of Czech tramping magazine, Puchejř, tells me later. “Although the movement itself was not forbidden, tramps were often beaten, their equipment confiscated. Then, after the Prague Spring of 1968, tramp magazines were made illegal.”
We go to sleep around midnight, three of us under a shelter, the other two lying more whimsically on just a camping mat under the trees. It’s a brisk night for sure, but in the morning we are warmed by the campfire and a bowl of delicious homemade cabbage and potato soup.
On the last few kilometres of our ramble, the guitar comes out again and when we finally get to the Stříbrná Lhota bus stop to head back to Prague, we find we have half an hour to spare. Luckily, there’s a pub, Brdská Kozlovna, right there, so we pop in for a pint. In the humble living room of the owner’s house is an unexpected tramp wonderland. The walls are cluttered with wild-west memorabilia – rifles, Stetson hats, rodeo pictures – and in the middle is a large table of cheerful old folks in tramping gear.
Taking some photos, I explain to them that this is my first tramping trip. Their faces ripple with enthusiasm and one of them reaches into his pocket to hand me a tiny pin-badge as a gift, explaining that it’s the emblem of their tramp platoon. On it are the words “Brdy Liberation Army”.
As we sup up before catching the bus, I try to find out what that means. Liberation from what? Communists? Or maybe capitalism?
“No,” chuckles the tramp with a big grin. “It just means liberation from work. We are now all pensioners!”