Going with the flow - irrigation channels in South Tyrol
Going with the flow - irrigation channels in South Tyrol
In this scenic corner of the alps, the irrigation channel trails (or Waalwege in german) are well-frequented by hikers of all descriptions. Yet these trails have a much older story. This is a short personal anecdote about what communities once achieved through sheer hard work, and the revival of the old channel trails as a modern tourist attraction.
A so called “bowl stone” along the way. Their function and origin are still a mystery.
That October, as I stood in front of the refurbished Waalerhütte mountain hut on the Tscharser Waalweg trail, sipping water from my bottle, the weather was still summery. In my childhood, I’d often trekked along the Tscharser and Stabener Waalweg trails on family hikes and school excursions, but today I was about to rediscover these popular trails.

Anyone hiking on the slopes of the Sonnenberg mountain above Naturno will have experienced its special allure and the potent sunshine. On average there are about 315 days of sun in the year on the Sonnenberg, which are favourable for both tourism and farming. However, Naturno also has the lowest rainfall in the Eastern Alps and scarcity of water has long been a problem. The local population had no choice but to invent innovative ways of irrigating the land to render it arable. A comprehensive network of water canals was created to irrigate the parched earth with the vital spring mountain waters. Using the basic tools at their disposal, the locals excavated channels out of the earth and stone and installed a system of wooden troughs.
The way I see it, is that the Waalwege canal system bears testament to what people can achieve if they work together as a community.
Juval Castle - start and finish of our hike
For the less fit, it’s good to know that the Tscharser Waalweg trail running along the canals leads across the slopes of the Sonnenberg without any significant inclines. Both the Tscharser Waalweg and the Stabener Waalweg trails below it run through sparse mixed forest, steppe-like terrain and chestnut groves. The conditions vary across the landscape and the workers had to constantly adapt to changing terrain as they cut through rocks, meadows and forests.Thus, each of these trails is different from the rest.
Along the hike, a young woman jogs past, hair bobbing up and down to her rhythm. I pass a large family, the sound of their excited chatter punctuated by the clicking of the walking sticks. The sound of the flowing water in the canal next to the trail is constantly in the background. All this is the result of the toil of the old Waaler, whose task it was to regularly monitor the flow of the water and clean the channels of branches and from other debris. When the steady rattling of the Waalschelle (a type of water wheel) stopped for some reason, the Waaler was alerted and it was his task to restore the flow. The job of the Waaler could also be life-threatening at times, which is why they were important members of the community. Besides physical canal management, they were also responsible for distributing water rights to farmers. Usage was restricted to certain times and in limited volumes. Even back in those days, there were those that broke the rules, andsome times there was brawling or cases of bribery.
Hoachwool Via Ferrata gives an idea of the danger building and maintaining it.
An hour later I reached the turnoff to the Stabener Waalweg, where I descended to return to Juval Castle back along the circuit. I marvel at the magnificent views of the Venosta Valley and the Merano basin. As the sun moves further west, the valley is bathed in the warm light of sunset. In autumn, Naturno is nothing less than spectacular. Gazing up at Juval Castle an hour or so later, I can make out the Hoachwool via ferrata – built on the most challenging stretch of the Naturnser Waalweg trail – which rock climbers cross nowadays using steel chains for support. Back in the old days, when the irrigation channel system was built along those sections using the simplest tools, iron rods were anchored into the rockface to which wooden troughs were to be attached. This allowed the water to be carried from the Schnalstal Valley down to Naturno. The remnants of this construction work are still visible on parts of the rockface. The Waaler had to ascend the rock face without support
at dizzying heights and keep his balance along the steep paths. Those who lost their balance almost certainly paid with their lives. Two Waalers were assigned to this dangerous section and those elected to the job had to be sure-footed and immune to vertigo. Nowadays, people like that would probably be called crazy or extreme!
An ancient Roman saying comes to mind: “A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without desiring what he doesn’t have.” Looking at the Waalweg trails near Wallburg Castle, I smile to myself. That ancient Roman couldn’t have reckoned with the dogged determination of those old Tyroleans who built the trails against all the odds! Even today, some apple orchards in the Venosta Valley are still being irrigated by the waters of the ancient canals.
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