A young German student made headlines by walking to Dundee with her Shetland pony. Jack McKeown finds out how Johanna Maria Würtz and Hechizo are settling in to life in Scotland.
When we meet at a quiet farmhouse near Longforgan it has been just over a month since Johanna Marie Würtz and her Shetland pony Hechizo walked across the Tay Bridge and concluded their epic journey.
Three months earlier, girl and pony had set out from Spain. Over the summer the blonde, smiling 22-year old, her cheerful little gloss-black pony and the small cart loaded with all their goods became a familiar sight on country lanes, cycle routes and walking paths as they slowly but steadily made their way up the east coast of Great Britain.
Their destination was Dundee, where Johanna is studying agriculture at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie.
Today they’re enjoying a well earned rest in an idyllic spot in the Carse of Gowrie. The farmhouse where they live is surrounded by trees and fields, and has a nature trail leading down to the banks of the Tay.
Most importantly, it has stabling for Hechizo.
Johanna opens the timber doors leading into the steading where Hechizo sleeps. Instantly, two little pony heads appear, curious expressions on their friendly faces – Hechizo and his new friend, fellow Shetland pony Alamo.
She has already had Hechizo out for a run this morning and he’s still damp and muddy. He stands patiently for a good brush, which restores his coat to a glossy sheen ready for Courier photographer Mhairi to take his picture.
Johanna first encountered Hechizo during a five-year stint working at a riding school in Germany. She was given the pony for her 18th birthday and the two have been inseparable ever since.
We take Hechizo for a stroll down to the banks of the Tay for a photoshoot. He trots beautifully alongside Johanna and it is clear from the adoring glances he frequently casts her way how strong the bond between horse and human has become.
Hechizo is 14 years old and very much in his prime. Still lean and fit from his long walk across Europe and Britain, he’s clearly enjoying a little excursion. Two full sized horses in a neighbouring field canter over to investigate him and his human companions and he gives them a quick nuzzle.
Johanna has trained him well and he will rear up when asked, his stubby forelegs waving in an achingly cute facsimile of a stallion.
There’s a mischievous streak to him, and he takes advantage of Johanna being distracted during a conversation with our photographer to hightail it, dashing back along the trail in search of a delectable patch of grass he remembers from our walk out. A mildly exasperated Johanna chases him down and brings the little horse back to complete his photo shoot.
Johanna studied agriculture in Germany and was working on a farm in Spain imder the Erasmus scheme when she and Hechizo set off for Dundee. “I wanted to study in an English speaking country to improve my language skills,” she explains. “My tutor in Germany has connections to the James Hutton Institute which is how I ended up studying here.
“Originally I was looking at a placement in Switzerland, so I was planning to either walk across the Alps, or from Spain to Switzerland. Then Scotland came up and I decided I would walk there instead.”
Johanna had a cart custom made for Hechizo, specially designed for his size. “It allows him to pull our equipment along without needing to have any weight on his back,” she says.
The pair began their journey on June 22. They walked through Spain, camping or sleeping in people’s homes, barns and even churches. “Quite a few times I walked into villages and would ask if anyone knew of a place to stay. In one village I asked the mayor and he let me stay in the vestibule of the church overnight.
“Then in Candalejo a car was coming out of a small street. It was driven by a woman whose husband owned a stud farm and she invited me to stay with them. I stayed there for four nights in total. He was a vet and had contacts all over the country so they sent me to stay with friends all along the way. That was the best way to find accommodation, and I made so many new friends.”
Johanna speaks German, Spanish and English, but her lack of French made travel through the Gallic country tricky. She only walked for a day or two through France before her father drove her the rest of the way and across the channel into England where she continued her walk.
Even in that short time she managed to have another adventure. “I met a French surf instructor in Biarritz,” she says. “He let Hechizo stay in his garden and gave me my first surfing lesson.”
Johanna managed to remain one step ahead of the worsening Covid-19 situation, often making it out of countries shortly before lockdowns were imposed. “I was very fortunate,” she says. “I left Spain and France just before the second waves hit there and walked up through the UK before there were travel restrictions.”
What did her parents think of Johanna packing her belongings onto a small cart and setting off with just her pony for company? “My parents were very supportive,” she says. “They would have loved to join me for the whole walk but they weren’t able to. My father was with me through France and stayed a few days in the UK. It was good to spend time with him.”
Johanna arrived in the UK with £25 in her pocket and knowing virtually no one. “At that time the Covid situation was starting to worsen so I decided to stay on the east coast of Britain to avoid big cities as much as possible.
“At the beginning when I didn’t know anyone it was difficult. I had some friends in the Lake District and those were the only contacts I had. It was just luck, bumping into people and being offered accommodation and help.”
Throughout her journey, Johanna was constantly delighted by the kindness and generosity of the people she encountered.
When a bend in her cart’s wheel worsened a bike shop repaired it for her and offered her a camping spot in the field behind their premises. “My father was still with me then. He parked his campervan and we had our last night together there.
“Covering the North Yorkshire Moors there were so many stiles blocking our way. One day we had to turn back four or five times. Often I had to unload everything and try to lift the cart over stiles or gates.
“One time I had unloaded and suddenly three dog walkers appeared from nowhere and helped me lift everything over.
“The first night in Scotland we stayed near Duns and took a shortcut which involved crossing a river. It was deeper than I thought. I got the pony through first – I didn’t want him to have to struggle with the weight of the cart in the river.
“Then I unloaded ready to carry everything over. Just as I got that done a Jeep arrived and he let me put all the luggage inside. I got in the boot of the Jeep holding the cart and he drove us across. It was perfect timing. I was starting to get a bit cold and didn’t want to get back into the river.”
By the time Johanna and Hechizo were making their way through Fife and then crossing the Tay Bridge on the final leg of their journey they had developed a huge following, with people turning out to cheer her on or walk a stretch with her, and thousands following her exploits on Facebook and Instagram.
In total, Johanna and Hechizo walked for 90 days and covered more than 1,100 miles together. “We got such a great welcome when we arrived here. I felt half of Invergowrie said hi, and the nursery kids were so sweet.”
Her journey through the UK has improved her English skills, while both her and Hechizo are in fantastic physical shape after three months of trekking.
“Walking alone I had to talk to people and in my journey up the UK I heard so many different dialects and accents. It was definitely good for my language skills. I didn’t have anyone else with me so I was forced to speak to people and use my English. That’s the best way to practice.”
They arrived in Dundee on September 19 and Johanna began her studies at the James Hutton institute at the beginning of October.
The numerous friends she made along her journey led to her being offered accommodation for the duration of her stay in Scotland.
It’s clear from an afternoon with Johanna that she doesn’t embrace publicity and enjoys a quiet life. Her idea of a good day involves taking Hechizo out, going for a run, and picking apples and brambles in the countryside for a homemade dessert.
Being in newspapers, on radio and on television, as she was throughout her adventure, isn’t something she would ordinarily seek out. Why was she comfortable with the publicity?
“It’s such a difficult time right now with coronavirus. No one knows what’s going to happen. So if I can bring a bit of happiness into the world and some stories that are positive then that makes it worth it for me.
“So many people helped me out along the way, which helped my faith in how good people can be, and so many people told me that my journey restored their faith in humanity.
“I really wanted to show that no matter how crazy or chaotic the world seems it’s still possible to follow your dreams.”
Johanna originally intended to stay in Scotland for six months, “but with Covid and Brexit it is impossible to plan so I may stay for longer. At the moment we’re meant to be here until the end of March but we will see what next year brings.
“I don’t know what the future holds for me. I got a job offer on a cider farm in Spain, on the Camino de Santiago, so I could do that, or I could go on with my studies.
“In the meantime I need to send a lot of postcards to all the people who helped me out along my journey and let me stay with them.”
Follow Johanna and Hechizo on Instagram at hechizo_de_la_via_campesina