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.
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.