I love to go a-wandering

The Sphinx Terrace at the "Top of Europe" where we experienced a bout of "altitude sickness"....
The Sphinx Terrace at the "Top of Europe" where we experienced a bout of "altitude sickness". PHOTOS: JUNGFRAUBAHNEN AG/SWISS TRAVEL SYSTEM
Justine Tyerman goes tramping in her sleep...

It's 2.13am but my jet lag-fuddled brain is not remotely interested in sleep. It's telling me to get my tramping boots on and go a-wandering. My brain - or whatever it is that controls the body-clock - is stuck on Swiss time and wants to return to the alps. It has even mastered our tour leader Birgit's lovely Swiss German pronunciation for the "wanderweg'' ... the hiking track.

About now in Switzerland, my brain tells me, we'd be finishing lunch at a restaurant high in the alps, and probably indulging in a small peach schnapps before lacing up our boots for the afternoon hike.

With sleep eluding me, I make a deal with my overactive grey matter. I give it full permission to sift through memories and images of the past two weeks hiking the Via Alpina wanderweg with Eurotrek ... in return for a few hours' restful sleep.

Dwarfed by the mighty Jungfrau on day two. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Dwarfed by the mighty Jungfrau on day two. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Given free rein, my imagination takes liberty and runs riot - images flood my consciousness. Mountains so tall and towering they threaten to topple over me; a horizon bristling with peaks all jostling for supremacy; pastures so impossibly green I'm tempted to rub the grass between my fingers to make sure it's real; cows so pretty the farmers must shine their coats and apply mascara to achieve those long eyelashes; alpine chalets competing for the most window boxes and the brightest red geraniums; wispy waterfalls free-falling in tendrils from gleaming blue-white glaciers; villages perched on little ledges thousands of metres high; vivid green alpine tarns or "sees'' surrounded by wild flowers; fluffy white cloud-duvets tucked neatly into valleys far below; cable-cars bobbing between mountain peaks or gliding vertiginously up sheer cliffs ...

I'm flooded too with sensations and sounds - the loud protestations of my calf muscles more accustomed to undulating terrain than steep inclines; the footfall of tramping boots on silver schist rock; my heart thumping like a big base drum as I struggle with the altitude; the heady exhilaration of summiting a high mountain pass; tinkling cow-bell symphonies; gurgling, gin-clear streams trickling their way down mountains to join forces with foamy, glacier-fed rivers; the laughter, jokes and chat of my hiking mates.

And tastes - crispy potato rosti; creamy, cheese fondue; succulent venison with sweet elderberries; cherry pie with icecream; Swiss cheese, yoghurt, chocolate, bread, schnapps ...

Near dawn, I drift into a tousled sleep, dreaming of the mighty triumvirate of mountain gods - the Eiger, Monsch and Jungfrau - who kept us company as we hiked the Bernese Oberland from Meiringen to Murren. I'm mesmerised by the Eiger's North Face where so many climbers have met their fate. There's a tiny museum near the foot of the Eiger that documents the triumphs and tragedies of past climbing expeditions. The stories are chilling, especially the horrific tale of the climber in 1936 who, despite valiant rescue attempts, froze to death on the end of his rope after his three companions fell to their deaths. He was just metres from safety.

The Jungfrau has happier memories. I chortle in my sleep as I relive an episode of "altitude sickness'' after catching the cogwheel Jungfraubahn train from Kleine Scheidegg with my adult daughter to Europe's highest railway station (3454m). Opened in 1912, the top 7km of the 9.4km of railway climbs through a tunnel hewn in the rock of the Eiger and Monch, an audacious project that took 16 years to complete.

The Jungfrau Railway.
The Jungfrau Railway.
From Jungfraujoch Station (3454m), we took a lift inside the mountain to the Sphinx Terrace at the "Top of Europe'' (3571m) and sat in deck chairs sipping prosecco in the snow under the dazzling alpine sun for several hours. We blamed our subsequent giggly light-headedness on the thin air and spectacular 360-degree panorama of peaks and glaciers.

I'm disorientated when I wake up, not sure where I am, but there are no mountains in sight, I can't hear cow bells and the grey Gisborne drizzle outside is depressing. Even my tramping boots look dejected sitting there beside my case, the contents of which are strewn across the floor, yet to be put away ... another side-effect of jetlag lethargy.

The clothes can wait. I seize upon the excellent Via Alpina booklet given to us by Eurotrek, which organised our self-guided hike and luggage transfers, and flick through pages and pages of magnificent hikes.

We barely scratched the surface of the Via Alpina, a network of five international trails, covering 5000km through eight countries. An impressive European project established in the year 2000, it offers 342 stages on clearly-marked paths from sea level to 3000m above. The trails are not technically difficult and are accessible to all hikers. Along the way, there are restaurants and chalets where you can eat and stay, and companies like Eurotrek which organises accommodation and luggage transfers - so all you need to carry is a day pack with your camera, water bottle, sunblock, and warm layers in case the weather turns cold. We stayed in delightful four-star traditional alpine hotels in Meiringen, Grindelwald, Wengen and Murren. The cuisine was outstanding - generous, hearty servings for hungry hikers.

With the excellent Swiss network of trains, buses, cable-cars, gondolas and funiculars that connect the stages, you can spend a day, a weekend, a week or a whole summer hiking the Via Alpina in Switzerland. Groups of all abilities and ages including non-hikers can share the experience - fit, energetic types can spend the whole day tramping the "wanderweg'', while others can meet them for lunch or dinner at any number of gorgeous restaurants and then take a leisurely stroll down a well-formed mountain trail to the nearest cable-car or mountain train station. It was heartening to see many elderly hikers striding along less strenuous pathways, enjoying easy access to the glorious high alpine environment, thanks to Switzerland's excellent travel system. It levels the hiking field for everyone.

• Justine Tyerman was a guest of Switzerland Tourism, travelled courtesy of Swiss Travel Pass and hiked in the Bernese Oberland with Eurotrek.







Add a Comment