There was a whisper that, lying somewhere in the woods, or deep in one of the gorges and caves created in this rift in the landscape somewhere in the south of Sweden, was a sleeping dragon. It was, they said, very old. As old as the Söderåsen itself. This ridge was created some 150 years ago, rising out above the rolling countryside of Skåne. We had a few days. Maybe we could go in search of a really, really old dragon?
Sometimes you choose a place because you’ve heard a story. Or because you’ve seen a pretty picture on the television or Instagram. Maybe you’ve heard of a particular river or trail, or there is a childhood story lingering somewhere in the recesses of your mind that means a place has long been marked with a cross on your mental map. But none of these were the reason we were in Söderåsen. Not even the story of the dragon. We were simply travelling between two places in Sweden and were looking for somewhere to stop. Google maps did the rest.
On the first evening we headed out from the youth hostel at dusk, greeting a group of German rockabilly campers who had arrived ahead of us and had managed to set up speakers and a barbecue from their vintage American cars but hadn’t yet thought about putting up a tent. From the surrounding area the Söderåsen is a striking site, a ridge covered in thick beech forest.
At dusk the forest was foreboding, a low mist hanging in the canopy. We followed a wooden trail into the park interior until we reached a reservoir at the bottom of the steep-sided Skälarid ravine, the centrepiece of the park. If there was a dragon sleeping, perhaps it would be found there. As the light faded we looked out across the water and into the ravine. Tomorrow we would explore. We headed back to the hostel, where an impromptu rockabilly festival was in full swing as a group of campsite kids had joined the Germans and were dancing to the music.
The next morning we followed a trail from the National Park house by the reservoir up onto the ridge. The Söderåsen is what is known as a horst, a raised block of the earth’s crust between two faults. Between the beech trees there were also scree fields caused by the various periods of glaciations and other weather processes. All we knew was that in a part of Sweden known for gently rolling fields, the path up was surprisingly steep.
Along the way we passed traces of human settlement, a reminder that like so many nature reserves and other protected zones that nowadays are left to be, Söderåsen has a long human history on its slopes. We discovered the foundations of farms and crofts. Mounds of stones that had once been cleared to allow farming. Stone walls that had once stood between crops and grazing animals, now swallowed once more by the forest.
We climbed higher, winding our way through the forest until we’d reached the plateau above the ravine. Lookout points offered a view through and above the trees, a seemingly never-ending carpet of green that was – we would later learn – one of the largest expanses of uninterrupted beech forest in northern Europe.
In the middle of the 19th century the forest had been at its smallest extent, the wood extracted for housing and ship-building, while the valley floors were kept clear for grazing or haymaking. Like elsewhere in Europe at that time, the dramatic retreat of the forest led those that remained to become repositories for stories of an increasingly distant past.
In Söderåsen, they were the tales of young women fighting off the unwanted advances of travelling soldiers, whose fallen helmet gave copper colour to the scree slopes, a lake in which it was supposedly possible to see the eye of Oden and, of course, our sleeping dragon. We never found it, and its sleep would remain undisturbed. Instead we followed the trail back down into the ravine, searching out the stream that would lead us back to the reservoir and back out of the park.
Sometimes you choose a place for no other reason than it is on the way to the actual place you want to get to. And sometimes, it is the place discovered in passing that lasts longer in the memory. A forest trail experienced in mist, rain and sunshine. Hundreds of thousands of trees stretching out towards the horizon. Card games in the hostel. And some friendly rockabilly campers beneath a rift in the earth millions of years old.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton