First With A Mountain Flyer

Trip Start Jan 31, 2010
Trip End Jul 21, 2010

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Where I stayed
Liesbeth's House

Flag of Switzerland  , Aargau,
Sunday, June 27, 2010

I wake just before my alarm, sun shining through the window. All my bits are packed next to me, the wooden floor is a refreshing cold as I stand watch the sky through the window for a bit. Liesbeth moves around in the next room, making her way to the shower. It is time to start moving, the plan needs us ready. Breakfast is leftover wicked pineapple crumble – suggesting it last night was the best idea ever – and hot bread, something of a tradition in all of Europe, including England. We're up and out the door with little fuss, not a peep from the two downstairs - it is Sunday after all. Switzerland’s tourism board has created a crazy incentive scheme to get the people to venture outdoors and see more of the country they call their own. From the website regarding said tourism one can apply for free or cheaper tickets to different destinations. This acts as a promotional tool for both the transport industry (you have to get there somehow) and the Swiss tourism board. Everybody wins, and we get to be tools.

Changing trains at Aarau we’re in a cabin with two others as we read draw and slowly watch the mountains come into view. I’ve been focused on the coral imagery from the dreams I’ve been having – the submarine from Malaysia gets different bits every time – and looking up with a sound from Liesbeth has the snowcapped peaks coming into view. Absolutely amazing, especially with us both in shorts and shirts. The conversation somehow turns to Switzerland’s cities, with both of us unsure which is the actual capital, Zurich, Bern or Basel. Having never heard of Basel until I passed through it two days ago and heard even less about Bern, I was going with Zurich. There is an American girl with us that corrects us with Bern. She asks us where we’re from, and after give or respective hometowns she answers the phone in Swiss German with a strange accent that is neither American nor German.

We change at Basel, with a few minutes to walk under the bridge to look out onto the water. Beneath the surface we see something shining. A fish flaps limply in the current; a passer by suggests in German that it drank itself to death. How very morbid. We get back on the train.

Arriving at Interlaken Ost, a lovely touristy town, we get a connecting train up into the mountains, amongst the peaks that make up the Jungfrau Region. The most notable top is call Jungfraujoch, The Top Of Europe, also known as being the most expensive trip of the region, traveling up a tunnel inside the mountain to find snow.

Our first stop in Grindelwald is to the tourist office to see if we can arrange some sort of plan to get as much done in a day. Our first thought had been to catch a Gondol up to one peak and walk across to another, the two appearing rather close together on the map above Liesbeth’s desk at home and on the Internet. Apparently this is not the fastest route imaginable, the hike paced at taking six hours. Liesbeth's knee and my general lack of fitness have us deciding upon something else. Looks like it’s the Flyer then.

We have coffee before moving much further up the mountain. It is so surreal to be in shorts and hot sunshine enjoying a coffee in the heat to then see snow atop the mountains. It simply must be a picture. Liesbeth agrees.

Walking to the Gondol, we live the life of le tourist and stop in a few gift shops, looking through windows and strange cows and beautifully coloured butterflies. Liesbeth loves butterflies and flowers, I remember noticing her concentration waning on the train the first day when a lady with a big bunch of flowers got on.

The station holding the chairlift carriages – referred to as gondols by Liesbeth so I went with it – is a crazy array of silver wheels and runners on blue steel runs with a cable out and up into the sky. Watching it pick up the gears of the chair and slow to collect people, before launching them at twice the speed up the mountainside is amazing, like a factory that puts lids on milk bottles or something. It’s the same process every time, but the way every single piece is handled is amazing. Looking at it one can see Liesbeth also owns a set of fascinated curious eyes. Her father would have this beast worked out in minutes, and remembers such an occasion that he she and another were taking a chairlift and she asked the third how it worked. Her curiosity was met by an implied wall of "Why would you be interested in such things? Get back in the kitchen."

Traveling in the box feels like one must when in the glass elevator from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, every now and again you forget how it is connected to the cable, convinced we’re floating away in the breeze. The rocking and jolting of the pausing stations brings you back to reality.

The mountains cape gets a good capturing by the camera. Looking back I’m sure all of these will look so similar it will appear as though some crazy time lapse reel, but you may only got the Swiss Alps once, make every photo count. Below us the grass changes colours as paths and buildings intersect it. We fly over the most amazing tree house I have ever seen (that wasn’t in a book), all hexagonal shapes and magical colours. I hope we can find it on the way down; noticing a path nearby may be the one we use on the walk down again. This is followed by a wicked playground that should be made for adults too, like the one you find in Ferntree Gully that is in fact a fortress and castle, or the Mitcham Haliday Park with its very own flying fox and spider web rope grid. The Mitcham one was a favourite spot for dad to take us when mum had to sleep, barbeques and more aplenty. There was one afternoon spent there panicking over not being able to get the indicators to work, dad flipping frantically through the manual and shaking his head. It turned out the hazard light button had been left on so long the lights simply refused to work any more. It’s these sort of buttons a twelve year old sitting in the passenger seat will play with while left alone in the car, the whole ten minutes he has to himself before the parents come in after locking up the house. Yes, that was I.

The gondol is turned off at night, and Liesbeth tells the tale of one mother and child who became trapped one winter. There are operators at either end of the gondol; the one departing sent a message to the one at the top that the mother and son were the last for the night. When the receiver picked up a mother and child, who it turned out were not the two mentioned by Mr. Departing, he turned off the machine, shut off all the lights and went home, thus stranding the pair metres in the air in a small enclosed glass case. Without the use of mobile phones – coverage in Switzerland is terrible due to the mountains – the mother thought the only thing to do would be to try to climb out of the carrier to go for help. Once outside the carriage she attempted to jump from the box, two stories off the ground that resulted in two broken legs. Still she somehow made it to help to get her son down from the chairlift. I will not be climbing out over anything but the station today.

We pass over a herd of cows, navigating the incline carefully and nearly lying down to eat. Their bells are heard even from up here and further on as we continue.

We reach the end of the cable road. First, pronounced Fierst, is listed as 2167 metres above sea level, so says the numbers on the side of the gondol station. We walk around a little up top, taking in the amazing views of the mountains and down the hills. Walking tracks dot the landscape, some much more noticeable than some. Some are so invisible the only reason YOU EXPET them to be there is the fact a small group is walking single file across a mountain. The clouds move quickly across the sky, soon blocking the view of one or two peaks. They cast shadows on the grassy slopes, chasing the walkers on their paths. The glaciers in between still look painted, I cannot believe I’m starting to sweat from the heat while there’s layers of ice building just over there. Granted, just over there is so much further than just over there. Small streams cut through the green and layered slate rock, the white visible against the stones black and grey. We saw them on the way up, but from the peak they are just s thin whit line.

Between two peaks –First and Bort – runs a cable attached to a tower and a catching point. This is the First Flyer, the flying fox of doom we plan to take this morning. To one side is a launching area for Parasailers, their coloured parachutes filling the sky above us. Each sailor takes a while to unfold his chute, filling it with air and strapping it on but not in that order, that’d be crazy, as other queue with huge backpacks at their feet. For the time it takes to get into the air those that are already there must have been riding thermals for hours. From the bottom of the steps to the first Flyer we watch - It looks simply amazing.

Waiting in line we’re surrounded by people of different ages, heights and weights. There is a man in charge – noticeably not Swiss - climbing about on the cables that hang over the edge of the platform to strap the chosen flyer into his seat. Seatbelts over shoulders, legs and crotch guarantee you will not slip from the seat. Backpacks and everything carried with you is strapped into your lap, so it looks like people are hugging a large outdoor teddy bear as they fly, using one hand to hold onto the hand straps descending from above. The nerves are building as we wait, checking out the facts in two languages on the badly printed sheets of paper. You fly for 45 seconds reaching speeds of up to 80km/h in the open air. Strapped in and waiting I think this doesn’t really seem that fast, until you’re asked to push your legs against the doors they open and swing you out from the ground. On my way out I catch my hand on the door, the one holding the camera of course.

OH my god oh my god oh my god. Screaming through the air as we fly I start to turn around without controlling it, heading backwards for a short stint before righting just before we land/. Liesbeth is wailing beside me, eventually ahead. Then the catch at the bottom. Springs line up and smash together, stopping you from crashing into the ground at said 80km/h. Lifting my feet as the safety sign suggest I nearly kick the springs ahead of me.

We’re both at the bottom and unstrapped, standing next to the machine, shaking and full of adrenalin. A perfect amount of adrenalin to begin our descent of the mountain by foot.

What is Switzerland if not a mountainous area to keep your cows? The light brown beasts we passed over earlier are gathering towards the road as we pass. Their bells are a ceaseless ring, their ears, head and tail never still. Flies gather around their damp spots – the nose the corners of the eye, the sweaty spaces behind the legs, the mouth – doing their best to find a space that will not have them disturbed. The cows do everything to move the insects away, one or two resorting to sticking their faces in the grass and rubbing the flies away. Still the bells ring. I would have gone mad if I was one of these cows.

The drinking baths are dispersed amongst the fields, sitting on concrete blocks to keep the level fixed, perfect for bathing in. A mock photo is suggested, but the thought of walking down in pants that begin cold and wet and spend a lot of time warm and wet before simply being sweaty does nothing to convince me.

We talk of children’s books and movies, and other creative things that seem to often come from nowhere – things that make us think of childhood and I’m baffled at our connection on so many things. And animation in German translates to Trick Film, which is freaking wicked. We encounter madness as people ride their bike UP the mountain. One pushes through in a low gear and sweats profusely, the other has dismounted and looks to find more even ground to begin again.

Half way down we come across the wicked playground we saw from above, finding a lovely long grass area to set up a picnic. Laying down the rug you realise how stressed your legs are already with the walk, thinking twice about getting up again. We share the remainder of the pizza, thankfully making enough to survive two meals a relax with the clouds moving overhead, the wind carrying dragon flies and bumble bees and butterflies. One amazing coloured insect circles over head, landing on blades of long grass nearby and creating the perfect photo moment for Liesbeth to catch. The dragonflies refuse to land, instead darting about madly, one following the path of a bumblebee.

As we descend you can see the trees change, different species surviving better at different altitudes. This prompts me to speak of everything that I know from Swedish forest and Alex and Steffan and everything. I really cannot wait to see him again.

Turning off the paved road once again and onto a dirt one of rocks and brown we get a call from behind us. Three youngsters in helmets mount two wheelers and ask us to move. The downhill kids are mad as the fly by, dodging trees and screaming, trying to hold a straight line and doing their very best to keep from falling. The tree roots and more than must surely snap wheels and spokes and neck pass below them without a word.

The paved path also allows the travel by wicked scooter things one can hire, and even comes with photos opportunities for you to catch yourself pulling a crazy face as you struggle to control the beast. We decide to stick to feet.

After countless photo opportunities of the wicked mountain scape we find the treehouse again. With Liesbeth holding the fort under the shade of a tree I sprint off to get a better look. From behind electric fencing I can see the magnificent construction in all its glory. Every window is different, every surface another colour. The down pipe has googly eyes on it, turning to an open mouth and laughing. I want my kids to have this tree house. I want to have this tree house.

The path eventually leads down through the houses of the locals atop the mountain. Imagine living here! Many house are for rent during quiet months, not that there would be such a thing. Summer you have tourism loving the sun, winter you have the ski slopes. Home businesses adorn many-a fence – parasailing courses, tours and more. Eventually we hit the tourist-shopping district again and Liesbeth picks up the butterfly she fell for when we passed on the way up. I get some wonderfully clichéd postcards of things I did not see atop the mountain – a St Bernard complete with small keg of rum under the collar. I think the animal would have passed out from the heat.

Back the station at the bottom of the hill we head for the other train. The other thing on our list of things to do was to head up to the peak on Schynige Platte, something doable via a lovely scenic train that needs to run on a cog and gear system to keep from sliding down the hill along the tracks. Safety first – wicked. Checking train timetables, the man behind the desk tells us this will be the last train up the hills, and the last train back down will leave twenty minutes after we arrive. So we have less than half an hour to experience the top view. This is not the worst thing that can happen, as most of the excitement will be in the carriage itself, and from our experience in the glass case up the hill a few hours earlier today, more photos are taken going up than actually at the top anyway.

Waiting in the open-air carriage, sans windows with wooden seats painted red and green, the car slowly fills with people taking up two seats, the second filling with huge backpacks. These are the Parasailers  - apparently there is a wicked launch point about half way up the hill. It’s not until we pass it later that aside from myself, Liesbeth and two or three other people, this is the only reason to take the train this late.

Two in front of us are talking about something in German. The only words I understand are England and Deuchland. Apparently Germany is winning in the soccer. Yes, I’ve started to follow this.

The train ride is slow, smelling of grease from the gears, creaking from the weight of the carriage, and absolutely amazing. As there is only one track up the hill they have made meeting point areas like in Sweden, where the track splits into to only for the length of one carriage to let the other pass down the hill.

We get to the top with the said fifteen minutes to look around; otherwise we are here for the night. Rushing up the side we pass more construction work, moving the flow of traffic to a temporary wooden bridge with fake carpet to keep from slipping, there is no sign of this being competed son, and there is no signage as to when it began. The courtyard areas beyond and scattered with chairs in a sign that no one will be sitting here again until tomorrow. One or two couples sit amongst them, coffees and biscuits enjoyed some time ago. Gumboots and teacups are reused along the windowsill, filled with soil and earth and plants and moss. There is even a perfectly arranged tea set with plants growing out of every possible spot. Magic.

The restaurant is deserted, the sound of a television in the next room with voices gathering. Two young girls wait by the cash register, but look like they plan on doing very little work. In the hour free between lunch and dinner we will not be served. It’s ok, a coffee would most likely take half an hour to make, and we’d be here for the night if that occurred.

Back at the train and we share a booth with an older lady who looks out to the mountains with a visible face of longing. She says last tie she was here this was her most memorable bit, a reason to come back. But the cloud cover of the late afternoon as changed that memory. Every photo she has taken from up here misses the magic she saw the first time, largely because of the peaks that are no longer visible. I have no point of reference, and I’m finding the surrealist ideals of the place so magical I don’t understand her disappointment at all.

She has moved quite a lot over the past two days, spending it atop other peaks and showing photos of everything. This everything includes the Top of Europe; complete with photos of the snow she did not bring winter gear for, leaving it one of her two large suitcases back in the hotel, which she complains about no end.

One thing we do relate on though is the joy in coming across a good sunrise. These are moments she remembers the most, finding a wonderful sunset after stressful day of running late for everything. Had she been on time it would never have been found. She seems like a lady who needs a plan, so learning I cannot help her with her further travels of Switzerland turns to Liesbeth, asking for names and places and times and estimated durations on everything you could possibly see in the next two days. Liesbeth gives what she can, but in all honesty is not a Swiss local either, so feels a little put out by it. When we get of at the bottom of the hill later after a wicked ice cream half an hour later she finds us again and all the words out of her mouth are to do with tomorrow and how long does Liesbeth think she should spend somewhere before she gets bored……..

During our second decent we see the Parasailers once again – their fluoro pink and orange and blue chutes catching the sunlight as the carve circles in the sky.

With some time to kill before the train home we check out the living houses of the neighbourhood, happening across the local church and graveyard. With the names inscribed on the tombstones Liesbeth spins webs of stories and connections, working out who married whom and who was the first to let go.

After ice cream and missing a train – somehow, the timetable must have lied – we’re back home after a long day in full sunshine (I’m feeling a little pink) in le mountains. Between trains Liesbeth happens upon a friend from her old work, his wife and a friend who celebrated their birthday this weekend. The conversation stays largely in SwGerman on the train, with a wicked pause to watch the sunset. Everyone stops talking, holding their breath, before slowly starting again. The four of us – leaving the birthday girl behind – get coffee in Aarau waiting for a connection, sitting out in the park just short of the construction machinery. I learn of the troubles language has brought Switzerland – how the unwritten rule is that the Swiss Germans are not 100% on their German background as far as language is concerned, wanting to distance them from the north country, thus changing the language. The French part has no quarrels with their neighbour, and happily chooses to keep the language the same. And much like Belgium the smallest language pool to the south keeps to themselves with their Italian. Unlike Belgium there is no talk of dividing the country – the parts continue to exist knowing unity is the best plan. I can see the reasons to want independence in terms of language, being associated to something can hang like a stigma, and with every European country fighting to keep their traditions and history alive, this distancing is another sign of national for pride. Thinking this I see army kids getting on and off the trains at the station, many of them carrying guns I have no idea how to use.
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