How a decommissioned army training camp became a Landscape Photography haven.
Updated: Feb 5, 2022
Low lying mist, small purple heather, Scotch Pine trees dotted around the landscape breaking the horizon and a clear sky giving way to a pastel sunrise. This is how I was welcomed to Mehlinger Heide - a heather field just outside the small town of Mehlingen in Rhineland Palatinate.
Originally a huge forest till 1912, parts of the area were used as a military training camp during WW1. From 1937, the site was used again by the Wehrmacht till the end of WW2 after which the location was taken over by the French garrison stationed nearby at Kaiserslautern. Also, some of it was used by the US forces as a rocket base as an extension of the nearby Ramstein Airbase. This situation continued till the end of the Cold War in 1990, two years after which the training site was returned to Germany. Shortly after this, the Ministry of Environment of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate initiated measures to categorize the area under the umbrella of a nature reserve so as to preserve the natural flora and fauna in the area.
Over the years, the area has been a popular haunting ground for larks and a variety of other bird and insect species and has grown onto become the largest heather field in the South of Germany. Due to nature preservation and also because of the still existing danger of ammunition remnants, access to this area is only permissible through two main routes.
Haven for Landscape Photography
Ever since lockdown started and I became a bit more 'serious' about photography, I had been seeing more and more photos of this place, by both landscape photographers I admire from the area and also weekend travellers. Most of these photos were taken during the months of September to late October. During this period, the erstwhile training camp is covered with beautiful purple heather blooms. Add to that the low lying mist, characteristic of autumn in Germany and this area becomes a mystical haven for photography.
I finally got the chance to visit this place in the last week of September. Being a weekend, a friend was planning to accompany me. So after some hurried plans made just the previous day, we decided to head towards the location. We left the city of Saarbrücken at around 5 am, estimating that we will reach the location before sunrise. But we had underestimated how early it was and how empty the highway was. We made good time and reached the location about a half hour before our estimated ETA. No complaints whatsoever about this as we were able to take one of the two aforementioned routes and reached the centre of the field to be welcomed by a thick low lying mist engulfing the ground. Looking for compositions with my flashlight, I found a few and started waiting patiently for the blue hour and the subsequent golden hour to start. And start it did, and boy oh boy, was it magical!! First, a thin strip of the sky started glowing bright blue and as soon as it started covering the sky, the mist hugging the purple blooms dispersed the morning light and the entire environment was bathed in a faint purple glow while the sky was turning orange by the minute.
Having perused over countless images of this area bathed in pastel morning colours, and dreaming innumerable times of being at the location myself taking in the beauty and trying to replicate a semblance of it through my photos, I was simply overwhelmed when I was there. I could see mediocre compositions pop up all around me and I started running around like a headless chicken. After some precious moments taking photos in every possible direction, I decided that I should slow down and find one or two photos which should do some justice to this beautiful morning. This was when I was finally able to capture the most memorable photos from that day.
Looking back, those moments of clarity after the initial fruitless perambulation provided me with probably one of the, if not the most beautiful photos that I have captured in 2021, which also became the cover of my first ever calendar titled "Reveries".
Mehlinger Heide is testament to how time and a carefully laid approach towards preserving the environment can transform an arid army training camp into a mesmerising "shard of heaven" on earth.
Here are some more images from that beautiful day of photography and exploring, Hope to visit this area again in the coming months to be mesmerised again. Till then, enjoy the photos.