European Wilderness Volunteer DiaryThe Diary of the European Wilderness Society Volunteers

Losing my “river virginity”

Rebecca Hollely

At the end of my full second week in Austria, I find myself sitting at my desk and looking back on my week with contentment. I’ve settled into the office – I’m surrounded by post-it notes with random German words and phrases I scribbled down hastily, I have a little banana stash on the corner of my desk, and I no longer have to google silly things like ‘where is the delete button on a mac keyboard’.

It’s been a good week for me here.  Starting where I left off, my weekend was a fun mix of scrubbing my walls (they had shoeprints haphazardly going up them, which leads me to imagine some poor sod desperately trying to kill an insect on the wall), Nick showing me round Tamsweg and helping to personalise my room, and nature.  

Local Legends

Saturday afternoon we took the car to Lake Preber (Prebersee), just a short 8km drive up the mountains to around 1500m above sea level. It was a quiet lake with dark, murky water, nestled between mountains. We were accompanied by the ever-present afternoon thunderstorms/rain that we’re currently experiencing (more on the rains later) so we didn’t head up the nearby mountains, but Nick pointed out hiking and sledding trails to come back and try. We made a gentle circuit round the lake, wetlands and the lake to our left, pine trees and mountains to our right. Everything smelt fresh and green, and it was so peaceful  – no noisy cars or tourists, just cows in the nearby fields with bells round their necks, and the occasional dog walker.

The whole lake is steeped in mysteries, as I found out later. There are tales of golden treasure on the lake bed, and red-headed witches that spit in the lake on full moons. The wetlands were covered in a blanket of purple orchids, and an information board told of these flowers, which the locals traditionally believe grant you special powers on the 24th July.

There was also a shooting range on the lake and Nick explained the Preberschiessen to me – a shooting competition where instead of aiming at the target, you aim at the water and the bullet ricochets up to hit the bulls-eye. According to local legend, the ‘mysterious’ quality of the bouncing bullet on the water was discovered accidentally by hunters. A deer was grazing by the water and a hunter mistakenly shot the reflection, but the deer spookily dropped dead. And from this the shooting competition was born, which happens once a year at the end of August. Marksmen from all over Europe travel to compete and score the sought-after ‘Hexenblattl’ – bullseye!

Feeling Alive

Sunday was a bigger adventure. We took the van to the Weisspriach, the next valley across from Tamsweg, which meant another jaw-dropping drive through the mountains. I sat in the backseat with the dog practically on my lap, and my face pressed against the window as I tried to take it all in. The road followed a crystal-clear river and the mountains rose either side of us, covered in pines. The sky was bright blue and as I stepped out the van I could smell how fresh the air was, the kind of air that makes you feel invigorated, good to be alive. We set off following the path by the river, passing through little forest patches of moss and dappled sunshine, and wildflower meadows. All the while the mountains surrounded us, and we were seeing and hearing the river. It was clean enough to drink, which I tested and to which Max grandly announced that I’d lost my river virginity. It was cool and refreshing and I thought about the bottle of tap water in my bag, and considered dumping it straight into the river and refilling my bottle with river water.

We ambled up the path and stopped to play for a while in the river (hello soggy socks). Then as we walked a little further; mountain streams were flowing down the hill into the river like little waterfalls, and as we turned a corner we reached a bigger waterfall. My jaw-dropped (again, yes, it’s been doing that a lot recently), it was just so beautiful, it looked like a photo taken with slow shutter speed. The water flowed smoothly, loud enough to remind of the power of nature and persuade me I didn’t want to swim, but not loud enough to drown the stream of wonder running through my head. Being surrounded by such vast and beautiful scenery was constantly humbling.

On the return walk we stopped at a traditional Austrian hut for food and more play. It was a little wooden cabin, complete with plenty of outdoor seating and dirndl-decked waitresses. All the food was fresh, local and organic and we shared a few dishes between us. Being outside amongst nature this weekend made me feel alive and grateful, but it was also an opportunity to just breathe and experience life. As I mentioned in last week’s post, it was a hurricane of a week, and taking myself outside helped to slow my brain down and keep me present in the moment. The time was flying by and I wasn’t ready for all the days to blur together. Fresh air and the high altitude had worn me out though – I was looking forward to working the week ahead, but first, plenty of sleeping please.

A working brain is a happy brain

During the week I fell into an easy rhythm in the office. I would write posts for website, and jumped between whatever topics interested me, or I thought would interest the readers. So this week I researched and wrote about Hainich National Park in Germany, wolves in Sweden, and wild boar in Denmark. It was all interesting and kept my brain happy. In between writing, I picked out photos for the annual report and the next Wilderness Journal, which meant swimming in a sea of thousands of photos to find pictures of the Wilderness, wildlife and the team in action. The office also had its first delivery of emergency fence kits, and it felt like Christmas morning as we were surrounded by a dozen boxes of different shapes and sizes. We unwrapped two metal storage units, big enough to fit the fencing and posts, generator, battery, cables, tape, ‘warning electric fence’ signs. And boy were they heavy. Carrying it all upstairs (then downstairs to take a photo and then back upstairs) was hard work. Each storage unit was 40kg. A roll of fencing was 7-9kg depending on the size and when we put everything in the box it came to over 100kg, too much for my arms. The plan with these fences over the next year is to deploy them to farmers in Austria if there’s a wolf attack in the area. We take the fence and help put it up quickly round the herd to prevent the wolves getting to the sheep, and hopefully we have happy farmers and less human-wolf conflict.

I’m learning quickly that wolves and large carnivores are a big problem in Europe. It’s a tangle of politics, hunting, farming and tourism that I hadn’t experienced in the UK, but am quickly learning about, working for the European Wilderness Society and living in wolf territory.

Every day’s an adventure

So I spent my days in the office and my evenings were free. On Monday I took myself for a little run up the nearest hill after work. It was humid, thunder was rumbling in the distance, and it was awfully steep, but none of those things mattered. Just taking myself outside gave me the opportunity to tuck the demands of life onto the back shelf and exist for the moment only. I left my phone behind and swapped my responsible brain for a more childlike approach to the next half hour. I let my body run if it wanted, stop to smell the pines or feel the tree bark if it wanted, and gave my mind a little room for curiosity. And the view from the top was worth the tired legs – the whole of Tamsweg stretched out before me, safe in its little home between the mountains. Here is a place easy to love.

Every evening after work I walked a different route home, a little 15-20 minute microadventure to build a map in my head of Tamsweg. It’s a challenge to actually get lost in the tiny town, which is my usual tried and tested method of exploring, but the weather has made every outside trip a bit more interesting. It has rained and thunderstormed just about every day here since my arrival, with plenty of big thunder rumbles that sound like the sky is breaking apart and rain that pours from the sky like someone is continually emptying a bucket of water over us. It has made planning anything impossible and forced me to embrace a more spontaneous approach to my day, which I am loving. Even with checking the weather forecast I’ve been caught out a few times, and forced to shelter in a bus stop or sprint through the streets and get soaked. For example Thursday I popped back home for lunch – it’s a 15 minute walk, what could go wrong? Hah. The walk back to the office went from sunshine to me needing to borrow a whole new outfit from Anni whilst I rung out my own clothes in the sink. Every day’s an adventure.

And so I can’t share my plans for the next week, the weather is too unpredictable! Instead I will take each day as it comes, and post weekly updates of my work, thoughts and adventures. See you next week.