Bern - Aitchhhoooo. An icicle projectile shoots out of my nose. Snow snot. From 30ºC in balmy Cape Town to -21ºC in Switzerland you could say I’ve gone out of the fire and into the deep freeze. That’s a 51ºC temperature swing. 51ºC? That’s more degrees than the entire UCT senate.
Like the Swiss in World War II, I’m neutral. Not about this beautiful country – with its snow-capped Alps, trees dusted with sugary crystals, fondue feasts, birchermüesli, Heidi (yodel-leh-hee olay-hee oly-oo), clockwork efficiency, chocolate and Swiss Army knives. No, I’m pro all of that – especially the chocolate.
I’m neutral about the snow. I’ve been neutral about snow since I became a victim of the Great Snow of Johannesburg in 1981. Well, more anti-snow than neutral. I was a schoolboy in short pants when the freak snowstorm occurred. At first it was all giggles and yippees and snowball fights, then the bell rang signalling the end of the day. I got on the bus still marvelling at the white miracle. The 3km walk from the bus stop home took about half an hour on non-snow days. On September 10, 1981 it took three hours. I arrived home with blue lips (like I’d been smooching Smurfette) and frozen toes. I was, unsurprisingly, emotionally scarred.
Thirty-three snow-free years later I decide it’s time to give snow a second chance. So, when an invitation to tour Switzerland plopped into my inbox, I let out a yodel-leh-hee olay-hee oly-oo
Switzerland is only 10 hours by air from Cape Town. I’m with a team of four South African journalists – Sarah, Duffy, Mia and A’eysha – and our chaperone, Karin. Our first stop is the magical ski village of Wengen – home to about 1 000 residents – at the foot of the Jungfrau mountain range.
“It’s time for snowshoeing,” says our guide, Rolf.
Soon, as the sun sinks, we find ourselves walking on icing sugar.
You don’t have to go all the way to Switzerland to snowshoe. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. Try it in your own home. Buy about 100 000 litres of ice cream, sprinkle liberally all over your lounge. Now stomp and yodel-leh-hee olay-hee oly-oo. The next day we hop aboard a train and head skywards to the highest station in Europe, at an altitude of 3 554m – our destination is Jungfraujoch, the top of Europe.
It’s blisteringly cold outside – I have three layers of clothes – but inside the train it’s toasty. So warm, in fact, I sweat or “schwitz”, as Catrina, our guide, gives us the Swiss-German word. Outside is Switzerland, inside the train is Schwitzerland. We head up Jungfraujoch and into the heart of the glacier, where there’s an ice palace with ice art, sculptures of penguins, wolves, eagles, seals and Sherlock Holmes – he must be working on a cold case. There’s a million tons of snow above us. This is one time when it wouldn’t be nice for the ice to be broken. I’m feeling woozy, weird, wonky and weak-kneed. Catrina reassures me that there’s nothing to worry about: I’m just a dude with altitude attitude. I take a few deep breaths and let out a tame yodel-leh-hee olay-hee oly-oo.
We leave the ice palace and head outside into minus -31ºC chill. My mouth goes numb – it’s hard to speak. My teeth hurt, my ears freeze, my glasses frost over and the 100km/h wind cuts through me. I’m positively frigid but manage to take a selfie before my fingers fall off.
At -31ºC, it’s 62ºC warmer than the coldest temperature ever recorded which, according to the LA Times, was -93.2ºC, recorded in Antarctica in 2010. Humans could survive that “for about three minutes”.
I head back inside where -5ºC is a breeze and begin to thaw. According to our programme, it time for sledging. This is something I can do. After all, I’ve watched my fair share of Tests. I can outsledge an Aussie. I practise some suitable snow sledges: Warnie, you’re an ice hole.
But there’s been a type-o on the programme. We’re going sledding, not sledging. Soon I’m on the sled, roaring down the mountain, steering with my feet. Our guide is Malese, a seventysomething woman.
It’s a jaw-dropping, stomach-churning, ball-rattling ride as we zip, zoom and swish around corners and ramp over bumps. I’m screeching to the edge of the mountain and I’ve forgotten how to brake. “Put your legs on,” yells Malese. “Put your legsssssssss on.”
I dig my feet into the snow. Bump. Shake. Crash. Snow goes up my pants and into places I didn’t know I had. But I don’t go over the edge. I stand and spit snow out my mouth. I turn to Mila. “It’s remarkable we made it in one piece,” I say. She nods. She takes a step forward. And that’s when the wheels come off. Her feet give way and she falls flat on her back. Her sled shoots like a missile down the piste, between skiers, snowboarders, sledders and Japanese tourists taking selfies. The runaway sled sparks a domino effect. Karin slips and grabs on to me, pulling me to the ground and into Mila. Sarah crashes into us. Mila-Sarah-and-I have formed a huddle puddle. Karin holds on for dear life. If anyone has a camera this South African heap will go viral and we’ll become a YouTube sensation.
Fortunately, we manage to untangle ourselves. We climb back on to the sleds and make our way back into Wengen, where Malese invites us into her home for a himbeergeist (raspberry) schnapps and to meet her husband, Peter Leibundgut, author of a sci-fi novel called Ultima Ratio. “It’s about an extra terristicle,” he explains. “It comes down to Earth and gives humans an ultimatum to reduce the population by 500 000 or else – but the extraterrestrial falls in love with a Wengen woman and and and ...”
An extra terristicle would be useful I think. I lost one of mine while sledding.
We leave Wengen for village, Mürrin – pronounced Moer-in – where only 350 people live.
We’re handed brooms and stone things and engage in a spot of curling at the local ice rink. I soon discover I have a curling calling. If only curling were big in South Africa I’d make the national squad and when I represented South Africa at the Sochi Games the Russian chicks would have thrown their thermal knickers at me.
We make our way to a bar for some “Après curling”. The bar is an old gondola. The music sounds exactly like sakkie-sakkie. I think Coldplay would be more appropriate or rapper Vanilla Ice or the Black Iced Peas. Maybe even whistle-blower Edward Snowden could give a talk here. A patron who has had one too many schnapps looks like he could be sick. First curling, I think, now hurling. We head off to the Schilthorn summit, which takes half an hour by cable car – which plays the Bond theme tune. This is where the 1968 Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was shot. Not with Roger Moore but with the Bond actor no one remembers, George Lazenby. Alas, the tongue-twisting pun potential of Roger losing his temper in the village is lost: “Moore in Mürrin is the moer-in”. At the summit is an interactive Bond museum, where you can enjoy a thrilling 007 experience.
Bond is everywhere. In the Piz Gloria restaurant you can order a Bond Burger – with a 007 branded on the bun. Of course, if you turn your burger around it reads: L00.
The floor starts to wobble. At first I think I’m pissed on altitude (we’re 3 000m into the clouds, remember?) but then discover it’s not me it’s the restaurant which is, in fact, moving. Yodel-leh-hee olay-hee oly-oo. From Bond Burgers to the Swiss national dish – fondue. We dip bread chunks in a communal pot of rich, gooey cheese soup that has just a hint of wine and garlic. This is a real fun do, I say. Fondues make me cheesy.
We leave Mürrin. We’ve traversed Switzerland without stepping into a car: from cable-car to train to funicular to bus to sled-power – the trains are ski, bicycle and dog friendly (dogs pay a child’s fare) and everything runs like clockwork. The Swiss are the makers of the time, so it stands to reason that they are the timekeepers.
We make our way to Engelberg – not named in honour of singer Engelbert Humperdinck but named because a thousand or so years earlier a Benedictine monk spotted an angel above a peak.
That night we up the cheese ante – and go hard-core cheese: raclette. We’re warned not to sleep too soon after our cheese fest. We are given slices of raclette and a portable grill – we slide the cheese on the grill. The sizzling combo of the nutty cheese with boiled potatoes, gherkin and pickled onions make this a perfect mountain meal: it’s warm and indulgent, soothing and festive. Yodel-leh-hee olay-hee oly-oo. I go to bed thinking that raclette is better than a fondu; it’s a funner do. My mind changes sharply the next morning. I should have heeded the don’t cheese-and-sleep warning. That night I have searing sweats, nauseating nightmares and horrific hallucinations. I’m tripping on cheese, man. Never mind LSD, this is LS-Cheese.
In addition to a monastery, which houses the biggest organ in Switzerland, Engelberg boasts a cheese factory (don’t mention the war), and is the leading mountain resort in central Switzerland, making it the ideal spot for our first ski lesson from our guide, Dominik.
“First lesson,” he says, “don’t look like a tourist.” I hobble about in snow boots, trying not to spear anyone with a wayward ski.
The skiers are so graceful and make skiing look super easy. I stumble and plod and fall and leave my dignity on the slopes of Mount Titlis – if you’re going to leave your dignity anywhere it may as well be on Titlis.
Ski culture is to Switzerland what gun culture is to South Africa: massive. People of all shapes and ages walk with ski paraphernalia. Skiing is big, crime is not. This may have something to do with why Switzerland, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Quality of Life Index last year, is the best place in the world to be born.
We make our way to the top of Mount Titlis in the world’s first revolving aerial cable car and then on to Europe’s highest suspension bridge. Then we visit an igloo village, which is a hotel that can accommodate 52 people, six to an igloo, or as a couple in a romantic igloo. It is the world’s coolest hotel. It has a whirlpool and sleeping bags that can cope with minus -40ºC. It also has electricity. And toilets. An igloo without a toilet is just an “ig”.
After a week of bad puns, brilliant company, throaty yodelling, and fun in the snow (snowshoeing, curling, sledding, airboarding, skiing), drinking beer and eating cheese and chocolate (not at the same time), it’s time to head back to Cape Town. Snow? Bring it. I ain’t scared of you.