Peter Mildner has to think for a minute. “No, we’ve never been on a walk together before,” he says, glancing across at Helmut Venus, who strides along beside him as they head for Rauenstein. They were work colleagues before they retired from the local administrative authority in Pirna and now, as regional footpath officers in Saxon Switzerland, are colleagues once again. Only the river separates the sprightly pensioners – Peter Mildner is responsible for the waymarked trails to the left of the Elbe, Helmut Venus for those on the opposite side of the river. Together they look after 1,000 kilometres of trails, with the exception of the paths in the Saxon Switzerland national park. As such, they simply don’t have time for shared expeditions. “Each year, we are meant to walk all the marked paths in our area,” says Venus, “but of course that’s impossible.” Nonetheless, each year they hike hundreds of kilometres on a voluntary basis: “Luckily, for the most part we get a lot of support from the local footpath officers,” he adds. Mildner and Venus, who are both in their early seventies, have been regional footpath officers now for ten years and have no plans to hang up their walking boots just yet. Peter Mildner marches up to a signpost. “This needs replacing,” he says, peeling off an advertisement sticker and taking a photo. His attention then turns to the steps at the crossroads. To the left the path leads to Rauenstein and to the right to Rathen, via wooden steps. There’s a steel clamp jutting out of the ground. Time for another photo: “That’s a potential hazard.”
Waymarks and safety are the main issues for the footpath officers. It’s important that tourists can find their way through this impressive landscape of sandstone cliffs, and naturally that they can do so without being exposed to undue risks. On the climb up to Rauenstein, the two colleagues enjoy the view, inspect the hand rails and talk shop. “I always carry a few screws and some tools in my backpack,” says Helmut Venus. “It only takes a minute to fix some of the minor issues.” Maintaining the paths, signposts and hand rails costs a significant amount of money – something that tourist areas are often short of. Having reached the summit plateau, the two men go their separate ways. Mildner wants to make the most of the day and carry on a bit. For his part, Venus knows that on “his” side of the Elbe there are also many kilometres of hiking to be done.