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Saturday April 12, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday April 12, 2014 MYT 9:33:45 AM
by keh chooi lan
One Malaysian woman braved haunted castles and thunderstorms in the Austrian Alps.
My hair was standing on end as I sat alone on the pew and listened to the pre-recorded hymn at a Gothic pilgrimage church high in the Austrian Alps.
According to legend, a relic containing the blood of Jesus Christ was kept in the church at the village of Heiligenblut, which means “holy blood” in German. It’s also the beginning of the 750km long Alpe-Adria-Trail which goes from the Austrian Alps through the mountains of Slovenia before ending at the Adriatic Sea in Italy.
This was the start of my five-day trek in the Hohe Tauern National Park, the largest nature reserve in the Alps and home to the largest glacier in the Eastern Alps.
I was picked up by my 57-year-old guide in the village of Seeboden. Ron, who is an ex-commando from his native Holland, is the chief among the seven park rangers here. Perhaps there’s no surprise that there are only seven of them, as the requirements to be a ranger are very tough: apart from having a bachelor’s degree, one has to undergo a full time two-and-a-half year course on mountain guiding plus a further two-year course to be a park ranger.
Ron had been working as a mountain guide during his summer holidays since he was 25. But 13 years ago, he moved to Austria permanently and qualified as an official ranger four years later.
The other trekkers in our group were an Austrian couple and a mother-and-son team from Luxembourg. After so many trekking trips with Caucasians, I’ve come to the conclusion that my shorter Asian legs can’t keep up with their longer strides. It was no different on this trek!
However, Ron would always wait for me to catch up and when I did, he would sing “Hello Chooi! How are you today?” Later in the trek, Ron confessed that, to communicate with me, he had to translate what he wants to say in his mind from his native Dutch to German and then to English. So he sings because there’s no translation involved.
On Day One of the trek, we walked uphill and downhill over 11km of mountain farming villages. We ate wild strawberries found along the trek and Ron told us that it was safe to drink straight from the stream. I was skeptical of the water quality, so I stored it in my bottle and drank from it only half an hour later, when the others didn’t keel over and, God forbid, die.
Ron was like a walking, talking German encyclopaedia on the medicinal uses of various plant species at the National Park. He pointed out a herb which was used in making pizza, which I found out later was thyme. He also showed us a plant to cure stomach upsets and another for curing “thick eyes” (I think he meant cataract). There was also a poisonous but very attractive plant with bright purple flowers.
We completed the day’s trek in three and a half hours. My lower body was protesting at the pace which I put it through. That night, I was too exhausted to sleep and lay on my incredibly comfortable bed like a dead starfish. Instead of sleeping in mountain huts, the National Park had arranged hotel accommodation for us.
The following day, we took a bus through a winding mountainous road together with a busload of tourists to the largest glacier in the Eastern Alps, the Kaiser Franz-Josefs Hohe glacier. However, if global warming continues on the current course, the glacier is expected to disappear in 30 years.
From there, we trekked 13km for five hours back to the hotel in Heiligenblut where we gathered our bags and were driven to our next destination, Dobriach, which was an hour away. Even though the day’s trek was mostly downhill, my poor knees protested. Still in agonising pain from yesterday’s trek, I had to do my “dead” starfish impersonation again that night.
Can’t afford rest
Day Three was supposed to be a rest day. But I had come too far from home to rest, so I went for a free 9km guided hike organised by the local tourism office. We trekked past two mountain huts. The farmer in the second one made his own cheese and was very happy to give us a tour of his cheesery, but to describe the smell within as pungent would be putting it mildly.
Day Four had us all feeling like we were walking on top of the world – well, sort of. We trekked up to the highest point in the area, which was about 2,100m above sea level, and trekked along a ridge which was marked with a series of crosses. We were also rewarded with views of a lake called Millstätter See.
The landscape that day consisted of lush Alpine meadows and we came across several herds of cows. Some seemed to eyeball me suspiciously when I went up close, while others sat at the edge of the ridge, as if they were contemplating life before the slaughterhouse.
Not unnoticed by Ron, a thunderstorm was heading towards the ridge. He asked us to finish our lunch quickly and then we set off.
The sound of thunder got louder and more frequent as the sky turned an ominous grey. Ron waited for me to catch up, and then said in a very grave tone, “Chooi! I need you to walk faster!!!”
As the ridge is the highest point in the area, the probability of a lightning strike is highest there. I was walking so fast that my heart felt like it was racing at Ferrari speed inside the body of a Kancil. Eventually, we got to the descending point from the ridge. Back at the hotel, we gathered our bags and were driven an hour away to the village of Velden, for the final stage of the trek.
Day Five consisted of another long hike. Our destination – the haunted Finkenstein Castle! Along the way we came across a Mirabelle fruit tree which was alien to me. The others racked their brains as they tried to remember the English name of the tree. We spent a good 15 minutes plucking and eating the small, round fruits and stuffing our pockets full with them. A quick search on Google later revealed that Mirabelle is a kind of plum.
However, as the trek wore on, much to my horror, I found myself turning into one of my kids as I kept asking Ron: “Are we there yet? How many more hours?”
Twenty-one kilometres and six hours later, we emerged from a pine forest. I was so relieved that the first guest house we came upon was indeed the one where we’d be staying for the night. I was on all fours, crawling up the steps to the outdoor dining area and groaning in pain. The land lady looked at me in alarm but still had little pity for me, as she assigned me a room which looked out to the ruins of Finkenstein Castle, and gleefully told me it was haunted!
Haunted or not, I slept like the corpse that night, oblivious to the raging thunderstorm outside. I was simply too happy that I had managed to complete the trek, accident free!
> Chooi Lan is a full-time mother of two tweens. She goes on yearly expeditions to mountains far and wide, while her husband lives in fear.
Getting to Seeboden
It is nearer by train from Munich than from Vienna. There are direct trains from Munich to Spittal. From the train station there, hop onto a public bus for the 15-minute bus ride to Seeboden.
Online train tickets can be purchased from www.bahn.com
The Alpe-Adria Trail
This is a 750km long distance hike through three countries – Austria, Slovenia and Italy. Consisting of 43 stages, the route starts from the foot of the highest mountain in Austria, the Grossglockner. It then connects to Slovenia and ends in the village of Muggia, Italy, at the Adriatic Sea. Each stage is about 20km long and takes six hours to complete.
For more information on the Alpe-Adria Trail, goto www.alpe-adria-trail.com/en.
More information about Hohe Tauern National Park can be found at http://www.nationalpark-hohetauern.at/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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