In 2007 I got a taste for urban trekking when I made a 6-mile hike across downtown Calcutta. For most people this is not the most appealing of trekking holidays and I could have been killed many times and in several different ways.
Speeding juggernauts, motorbikes and taxis were a constant threat. Various forms of pollution probably reduced my life expectancy and mangey irate dogs were a regular worry. There was also an un-signposted 30-foot trench bristling with masonry spikes that I could have fallen into.
Obviously I didn’t get killed or I wouldn’t be writing this now. But far from being traumatised by my experience, the feeling of satisfaction after reaching my destination – Alipure Zoo – was equal to that I have felt after conquering any hill or jungle.
But mention the rather newfangled term ‘urban trekking’ to most people of sane mind and they tend to give you an odd look. Why ambulate around somewhere busy, man-made and ugly when you can explore nature in peace and solitude?
What is urban trekking?
There are varying definitions of the term. For the Potomac Area Council in Washington, DC, urban trekking is an educational programme intended to help disaffected young people navigate their way between American cities.
A swift Google search shows the term to have been hijacked by various tour operators. They are headquartered in cities but offer trekking holidays in the Great Outdoors, which makes the term a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me.
One blogger describes a pleasant mooch around the elegant cities of Florence and Pisa as ‘urban trekking’. While we can agree with him that this form of travel is the most sustainable, I’m not sure that sightseeing around the posher parts of Italy can ever be classified as trekking.
So instead let me offer this definition of a textbook urban trek: ‘a journey on foot through an urban environment that involves some element of physical exertion and/or risk, that yields a new and surprising insight into a city.’
Why trek a city?
Most trekkers are Romantics i.e. they hold up nature as the most life-affirming and spiritually/physically-renewing place to explore. However, others believe that it is the city that offers the greatest challenges, lessons and rewards to the hiker.
According to Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, for the first time in history there are now more people around the world living in cities than in the countryside. Like it or not, the city is now the place to be and the place to explore.
Cities are where the most interesting things happen and have more interesting things to see per square mile than anywhere in nature. They can be dangerous, adventurous and life affirming. Ultimately, cities are where world wide = agendas are set and where the planet’s future is decided.
Trek against the machine
There is a political dimension to urban trekking too. The French philosopher and ‘psychogeographer’ Guy Debord saw drunkenly ‘drifting’ around the streets of Paris in the 1960s as a way of frustrating the oppressive and controlling boundaries of the modern city.
Author and ambler Will Self updates the creed like this: ‘The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.’
Which sounds like the urban trekker’s version of ‘the rambler’s right to roam.’
But what about the weirdos?
It is true that pests and nutters are occupational hazards of urban trekking. I recall an initially delightful mosey through Muscat amid the palm trees, the lively souks and the rosewater scent of ladies’ perfume – which climaxed (almost certainly the least appropriate word) with a sexual advance from an Indian migrant worker.
But disaster was averted: as soon as he squeezed my thigh I bade him farewell and exercised my flaneur freedom of movement as quickly as I possibly could!
I appreciate that not every urban trekker gets off (again, not the choicest phrase) as lightly as I did in Muscat. There is of course a risk – especially to women, according to the stats – of walking in certain streets at certain times in almost any city in the world.
While assaults on female tourists abroad often make the national headlines, incidents more often occur as a result of break-ins at hotels. This is not to say that urban trekking is less risky than staying in a hotel, just that everyone should take sensible precautions in any travel context.
Try urban trekking
Calcutta didn’t kill me it made me stronger – and wiser. It was worth getting up close and personal with the city to understand something about Indian culture and society. I certainly wouldn’t have learned this from a ramble in the sticks.
I certainly wouldn’t give up hiking in the wilderness, trekking up mountains or walking in the countryside for a hike through a city. But next time you are in a city be sure to explore the urban jungle on foot and get away from the tourist areas to really get a feel for the destination.
Whether you like your hikes to be around the city or in the countryside be sure to check out our trekking discounts as you could save a fortune on your next trip.