Kangaroo-dog, cloudberries and a road trip.

Week 4. 16th – 22nd June

My weekend followed the theme of previous weekends – predominantly nature, which I am loving. It involved a long ramble up the Lasaberg, a hill just outside my front door, and a hike in Wießpriach with the EVS volunteers from Salzburg, who had all piled into a bus to visit the Lungau.

Nature and good spirits

So the Lasaberg is gentle, and covered in pine forest. I headed out in the afternoon up a country lane that followed a stream, zigzagging up the path to inspect everything that drew my eye, before cutting into the hill on a forestry path. Pines towered above me and it was cool and damp under their shade. The path was overgrown, swampy where the sunlight couldn’t reach it, and grasses and wildflowers tickled my ankles as I set about exploring. As I headed up higher, I began to see glimpses of Tamsweg through the trees, laid out before me looking like a toy town. I could make out the clock tower in the centre, and the two rivers that flowed through Tamsweg. I didn’t come across a single soul whilst walking, just me and the trees. It feels wilder when I don’t encounter other people, and I lose myself – all my worries floated away; they suddenly seemed unimportant and small when I start to think about how vast the mountains are and how long they have existed. As always I lost track of the time, but came back to reality with a jump when Anni sent a message saying that dinner was ready, and I was almost two hours away…

Sunday, we had invited the volunteers from Salzburg down to the Lungau to go hiking in the Weißpriach, which is the valley I visited a few weeks ago. I was so excited to be going back, and this time alongside my wild team I would also get to meet a bunch of EVS volunteers from the city. EVS, the European Voluntary Service, are currently funding my year with the European Wilderness Society, and they fund a host of other young people all across Europe in social, business and environmental projects. So Sunday was an opportunity to meet some of these other volunteers, who work in social projects in Salzburg.

They were all friendly, outgoing and full of smiles, and had brought along an excitable greyhound that ran like a rocket the entire walk, bounding and weaving in between us all and earning the nickname ‘kangaroo dog’. The valley was beautiful, it’s the only limestone valley in the region and we followed the river path upwards, the chalky hills either side dominated by pine and larch.

 

We stopped at Ullnhütten Wasserfall (jaw-dropping) and to say hello to a cow on the path, her cow bell gently clanging. She was huge and soft but I kept my distance – anyone that’s seen me in a cow field before knows I’m not happy being close to cows, they make me all nervous and jittery. (Incidentally did you know that around five people are killed every year by cows in the Alps? This was something I found out on Sunday that I’d probably have been happier not knowing…)

The weather was beautiful and everyone in good spirits. Our final stop was at a traditional German hut for food, the ‘Grangleralm’. We sat outside on wooden benches by the river, and had our fill of German dishes, all of it local, organic and delicious. Heading back to Tamsweg, my pockets full of sweet-smelling larch pinecones and a wet dog laid across the three of us on the backseat of the minibus, I had tired legs and a happy heart.

 

The week brought a mix of ups and downs; I was mostly in the office, where I spent my time reading, writing, and proofing. Monday I focused on bear trophy hunting and policies in Romania, getting riled up at how the government can justify killing 10% of the bear population every single year, and the money going into the pockets of trophy hunters. This really happens!) I wrote a post for the website but I struggle to balance the line between neutrality and shouting that it’s never okay to kill animals like this, particularly protected species. Website stats tell me we have lots of people (to me, at least) that read the posts and it’s important to send the right message out. I also have a habit of writing too much, and I ended the day feeling lost and unsure how to improve my writing to be able to write catchy, informative website posts.

Nick also had a big deadline on Thursday so I tried to help where I could, and Verena was back in the office so I spent some time reading up on Leave No Trace, which she had just been to a course about in America, and looking into the European equivalents. I was researching regulations about collecting firewood for campfires, but I also discovered many little nuggets of information, such as the names of magical sounding berries to collect in Finland, like cloudberry, bog whortleberry and bearberry. (I read a paper on their utilisation and income generation and it was like a cross between science and moominland).

Let’s Get Wild

Wednesday was a long day but definitely the highlight of the week – basically a road trip. The Let’s Get Wild project is a school residential project running in Kalkalpen National Park, that allows children to reconnect with and observe the natural environment, and learn about national parks, wildlife, wilderness and skills such as orienteering. It’s an EWS project, and we needed photos for our reports and funding applications, so Verena and I jumped in her jeep and set off for the mountains with a ‘let’s get wild’ banner and our orange EWS shirts. We set off early to arrive before the kids started their day, and drove through mountains, valleys and a precariously narrow, bumpy track to reach a few little huts nestled deep in the forests of Kalkalpen. It was hidden so far off a road in the national park, a little secret place where kids could get back in touch with nature.

 

We met two rangers at the top, who agreed to let us take photos. First though, they said they would be smoking with the children. They had all slept outside on the decking under the stars and were a hotpot of excitable and tired, so they would all calm down and talk about their task for the last day and do some smoking.. I stood there nodding and smiling and wondering if this was a mistranslation or they were going to pull out a packet of 40 and start handing them out.

It turned out that smoking was an ancient Alpine tradition, the ‘Rauhnächte’, and the ranger passed a smoking branch in a bowl round the circle of children, who wafted the smoke over their arms and behind their ears. The smoke symbolised cleansing their spirit, and in the past has traditionally been used to clear houses and buildings of bad spirits. The rangers gave everyone the opportunity to speak about how they were feeling and what they thought of sleeping outside, before getting everyone outside together to take a photo for our records. Everyone said cheese, and soon we were on our way again. But instead of heading straight back to Tamsweg Verena drove further, to show me more of the Austrian landscape.

Landscape love

The heart and soul of Austria’s landscapes are the mountains, and we took a scenic drive to Gesäuse National Park, where the mountains are limestone and characterised by sheer rock faces and jagged edges. It was a drive full of exclamations about the view, for both of us. We followed the River Enns runs through the valley, a wild and dynamic river popular with white water rafters, and stopped at the Willow Dome to eat our lunch. This was a small greenspace by the bank of the Enns, covered with willow trees growing in arches. We sat in the shade looking at the steep rock face, listening to the roar of the river in the background and marveling at our ‘office’ for the day. The drive back was long, we went out of our way to drive through the most beautiful mountain landscapes, Verena teaching me about the geology and geography of the region. We stopped a few times along the road to take pictures, to look inside the cathedral of Spital am Pyhrn, and to say hello to a herd of deer in a roadside field. They were part of a farm and didn’t run away, instead came up to the fence where we fed them handfuls of grass and even managed to stroke their antlers (so soft). It was a long trip – we travelled through three of Austria’s nine districts, Salzburg, Upper Austria and Styria – but it gave us an opportunity to see many impressive landscapes.

I can’t get the rivers and mountains out my mind, and know I’ll be back as soon as I get the chance, to explore the region further.