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I'm a nomadic mama with four lovely daughters. We're travelling Australia in a small housebus — meeting inspiring people, learning lots and re-thinking everything. I feel passionately about travel, good design, alternative education and conscious parenting.

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18 September 2014, 18:35

A visit to this gigantic ice-cave system was high on the list of attractions in Europe. Eisriesenwelt — say it with me now: “Ice-reezen-velt” — is outside the pretty village of Werfen, just south of Salzburg. If you’re in Salzburg for a couple days, it’s definitely worth the detour!

Eisriesenwelt, Werfen, Austria
Each winter, about another 10 cm of ice is added to the formations inside the 42-kilometre lengths of tunnels.

Photo copyright Eisriesenwelt Werfen, used with permission.

We arrived at Eisrisenwelt as the sun was dropping behind the staggeringly high alps. The visitor centre is perched on the side of the mountain, accessible by a perilously winding and narrow road. Tour buses regularly make the trip, and by driving our campervan on European roads, I have grown in awe and admiration for the bus-drivers of Europe who daily navigate the hairpins and narrow causeways that slow me to a stressed crawl.

It’s my preferred pattern to arrive at an attraction the night before and sleep in the carpark so we wake up on-site and full of energy to enjoy whatever we’ve come to see. This also means that we drive after the girls are worn out from the day’s activities. It’s a routine that suits us, and as I watched the sun bounce off the highest rocks on the peaks across the valley as the girls played their games in and around the surrounding forest, I felt immensely grateful for this evening’s spectacular camping spot.

In the morning, we had a good breakfast, packed a little picnic, and then started up the mountainside — detouring through the visitor’s centre to buy our tickets for the cable-car and tour. It’s possible to walk all the way to the cave, and — by using a series of well-marked walking tracks — into the neighbouring hamlets, but I don’t feel that adventurous — or fit — at the present.

One of the surprise highlights of the walk was a rough-cut tunnel that provides a short-cut through one side of the mountain. Inside, spot-lights shine on the puddles formed by water seeping through the rock, and we liked to catch the drips and watch the play of the light on the puddles.

The cable-car is a enclosed cage that hangs perilously on its steel cable. It runs to a strict schedule (these people have mastered time-pieces for a reason!), and we had to wait at the little station until the quarter hour. We were visiting Eisriesenwelt in the shoulder season, so only half a dozen other people waited with us, but in peak times, I can imagine that the site would get very busy.

Cable-car to Eisriesenwelt, Werfen, Austria
A cable-car ride is the popular option for speeding up the time it takes to get to the cave. It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the bottom cable-car station and another 20 minutes to walk from the top station to the mouth of the cave.

Photo copyright Eisriesenwelt Werfen, used with permission.

A small restaurant sits at the top cable-car station. It’s a beautiful place for a picnic or a treat, and the view from this altitude is truly spectacular, even taking in a small castle across the valley. The last section of track leading to the cave-mouth winds along the edge of the mountain.

In Australia, precipitous edges are treated with great caution: chain-link fencing, signs, and closures after erosion. Clearly, the Austrians have few issues with acrophobia; their children grow up on the edges of mountains like most Aussies grow up swimming at beaches. I found the simple post-and-rail fencing on the edge of a 200-metre drop psychologically inadequate and kept asking the girls to not get too close to the edge. Other walkers didn’t seem bothered, and I saw several bringing their dogs with them to tour the ice-cave.

Pathway to Eisriesenwelt, Werfen, Austria
The well-formed pathway to the cave is roofed along the cliff-side to protect against rock-falls.

Photo copyright Eisriesenwelt Werfen, used with permission.

At the mouth of the cave, we had to wait for our turn with an English-speaking guide. Our group was a conglomerate of many different nationalities, united by not being able to understand German.

Carbide lamp, used for touring Eisriesenwelt, Werfen, Austria, September 2014
Before we enter the cave, a guide distributes carbide lamps to the tourists. These will blow out immediately upon entry, he warns, but he'll light them again on the inside. The atmospheric-pressure difference between the sealed cooler interior and the outdoors creates a freezing gale whenever the door to the cave is opened. The door seals the cool air in during warmer summer temperatures and is left open all winter to allow the ice to grow.

The walk through the ice cave takes at least an hour. We paused a several particular points of interest — some ice formations have been named — and the guide lit magnesium flares to light up the cavern as he explained the history and science behind what we were looking at. Photography inside the cave is forbidden — mostly because with the number of people who come through the cave, adding photography into the mix would make each tour unbearably slow.

With the temperature in the cave at 0ºC or below, it was cold but the walking (climbing) kept us warm. Just our hands felt the cold as we used the railing to keep our balance on the sometimes slippery surface.

Eisriesenwelt, Werfen, Austria
The tour within the ice cave follows a boardwalk with about a thousand steps (no exaggerating). Gloves are highly recommended because the metal handrail is (literally) freezing.

Photo copyright Eisriesenwelt Werfen, used with permission.

The girls liked touching the ice and trying to knock off pieces of it when it was spread over the boardwalk. This was their introduction to real cold and ice, and they weren’t uncomfortable with it. Although the steps were steep, all the girls managed the walk okay. Generally, the group as a whole moved very slowly as we kept pace with the least fit adult.

Once outside the cave, the girls practically ran down the mountain. Actually, they did run, and I was left behind to catch up at my own pace. We enjoyed a snack before taking the cable-car back down to the bottom track and eventually back to our campervan.

The only hiccup in our day’s expedition was that Brioni dropped a toy along the track and so she and I had to return up to the cable-car station to find it. All the climbing and walking was tiring, but we used the remaining daylight to continue our tour through the Austrian alps and into Italy.

I’m so glad we visited this natural phenomena. It was a beautiful day of wandering in the woods, looking out over startling alpine views, touring the icy tunnels and being surrounded by nature. If you’re visiting Austria, make Eisriesenwelt a priority!

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16 September 2014, 18:02

Upon returning to Austria, its difference to Hungary was as sudden as passing through the now-defunct border checkpoint. Properties were immaculately maintained, all gardens were well-groomed and colourful flowerboxes adorned everything from windows to road-signs and guard-rails.

Beautiful cottage in Austria, September 2014
Much of Austria is as incredibly beautiful as our friend's cottage outside Graz.

This trip has shown me how little my American-curriculum education taught me about Europe. In driving across the continent, I’m dismayed to only discover now — at 37! — that many of the place-names I know have been distorted by English-speakers.

Austria’s beautiful capital is Wien, the Nazi war criminals were tried at Nürnberg, and the 1972 Summer Olympics were held in München. Surely we English-speakers don’t have to be so dominant that even endonyms (natural place-names) are supplanted! (On a related note, the inspiring Lainie recently shared this world map of countries in their native names.) I’m also wishing that I knew some German so I could communicate better in Germany and Austria!

I’ve loved driving in Austria. An Australian Rainbow friend accompanied us in the campervan for a couple days, and together we marveled at the engineering precision of the roads. The Austrians build bridges over the top of villages, sliding the roads neatly into the sides of mountains and out the other side so the road traverses rivers, valleys and craggy peaks — all without a single degree of gradient! I love the novelty of the long tunnels and we would eagerly read the signs at the entrance, always hoping for a longer tunnel. The girls particularly enjoyed the tunnels, too, and would try to estimate our exit by counting down.

The Austrian Alps are also so beautiful, and the wooden chalets that dot the slopes so precisely carved and decorated, that everything appears as a postcard. We took detours off the highway — sometimes on purpose, sometimes not — and found that the scenic route was so rewarding we didn’t mind the extra time on the road.

Minimundus

Iconic world buildings (heavily favouring European architecture) have been recreated in miniature form at Minimundus near Klagenfurt. We spent several hours touring the facility, identifying the buildings we recognised and reading about those that were new to us.

Minimundus, Klagenfurt, Austria
Buildings from all over the world are represented — mostly in a 1:25 scale. We wander around, looking at those that take our fancy.

“Overview Minimundus” by Andreas E. Neuhold (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the model choices are obvious (Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, Statue of Liberty) but others were more obscure (the Maiden Tower of Baku, Azerbaijan, a random mansion from the southern U.S. and lots of railways). The scale of the buildings wasn’t consistent, which was disconcerting at times, but the girls were entertained by the animated railways, the sights they recognised and a small playground off to the side.

Some of the information was disturbing (it took seven years and cost around $800,000 to build the two-square-metre St Peter’s Basilica), and other exhibits awakened a desire to travel further afield (and particularly visit the University Library in Mexico City). The staff at Minimundus provided us with English-language workbooks that were based on theme of Phileas Fogg touring the world, and these gave the girls hours of entertainment later on. I appreciated the inclusion of English descriptions on each of the exhibits.

St Barbara’s

It’s been hard to navigate and research attractions without access to the internet. However, I managed it a lifetime ago, and so with a little bit of ingenuity, I’m managing again. Roadsigns have become my best friends, and when I saw a sign flash by with “Hundertwasserkirche”, I took the exit and followed the brown sign-posts, hoping that I was going to discover something cool. It was.

St Barbara's Hundertwasserkirche, Barnbach, Austria
We were happy to have time to explore the exterior of the church and its grounds, although the building was locked so we couldn't go inside.

By Zairon (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

When we reached the town of Bärnbach, I caught a glimpse of a golden onion spire in the distance and pointed it out to our friend who was still along for the (now detoured) ride. “That’s it!” I exclaimed, “That’s the mark of a Hundertwasser building!”

I was first introduced to the work of Hundertwasser in New Zealand, and I find his style very appealing. I mourn the loss of my photos of this amazing church, simply because I haven’t been able to locate a webpage that shows all the details I saw that make this Hundertwasser building so amazing! This is a conventional chapel that was redecorated by the Austrian artist in the late 80s.

His mosaic artwork, bright ceramics, golden spire and wonky edges extend into the garden, where 12 gates represent the major religions of the world, a unusually unitarian approach for a chapel in a small town. I liked the rainbow circles on the roof tiles which resembled the circles of a peacock’s tail feathers. The stain-glass windows were also included in the design, and strange gargoyles hang from the building at odd intervals. If we ever come back to Europe, I’ll make an effort to return to St Barbara’s and to visit other buildings designed by Hundertwasser.

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11 September 2014, 21:23

This week’s drive to Hungary to join the World Rainbow Gathering was slowed by a sightseeing detour along the castle-dotted banks of the Rhine in Germany. The girls were eager to meet up with the friends that we knew would be in Hungary, and we were delighted to be reunited with people whom we hadn’t played with for over a year and half!

The gathering was held on beautiful rolling hills outside the small village of Bercel, very close to Budapest. I appreciated our meander in and through the centre of that old city, although the traffic was pretty hectic. It’s been interesting to pass through so many countries on our way here — each one has characteristics that sets it apart from the others. Austria is by far the prettiest country with the best roads, and in contrast, Hungary feels like a return to the developing world.

World Rainbow Gathering, Hungary, September 2014
We arrive at the Rainbow Gathering as everyone is circling together for an evening meal. It takes a little while to spot our friends in the crowd of thousands.

The Rainbow Gathering was held on S.U.N. Festival land which means that communal facilities were already established, and artists had left several years-worth of sculptures across the landscape. We parked outside the main gathering area and wandered in to the circle each day. The girls were eager to play, and Brioni and Lana covered themselves with mud which meant that they were forced into a chilly pond to wash off.

In Australia, it’s vital to camp next to a clean freshwater source for drinking and washing, but in Hungary water was trucked in instead. I spent a lot of time looking at the resources and facilities — hoping to learn some tricks to improve our Rainbow Gatherings in Australia. Instead — after consulting with other Australians who could help me make comparisons — I determined that we’re already doing a better job, albeit with less than a tenth of the people attending, and instead we should focus on improving our established methods for handling food preparation, water sourcing and hygiene.

Lauchie talking to us on the grass, Rainbow Gathering, Hungary, September 2014
It's wonderful to have this time to catch up with travelling friends whom we last saw in Australia.

Photo © Nicole Delaine. Used with permission.

We had last been with Nicole in the February Rainbow Gathering in Tasmania and Lachie at the Easter Confest. Other friends from Tasmania were in Hungary too, and Kieran, a UK-based friend that we hadn’t seen since Melbourne in early 2013. It’s wonderful to maintain a close connection with a tribe of people who are also travellers, and extra-fun to meet up on the other side of the world! Rainbow Gatherings are such an eclectic group of people that you never know who you’ll meet and when you’ll next see those people again.

World Rainbow Gathering, Hungary, September 2014
We laugh at the juxtaposition of two very different types of mobile homes!

Photo © Nicole Delaine. Used with permission.

When the rain started pouring, we decided to leave — especially as the forecast predicted several more days of it — but I was hesitant to take the now muddy track back to the main road. It felt like we were stuck, and I resigned myself to staying in place for a while, but after some encouragement from Lachie and others who had successfully driven out, we made it out, filling our campervan with happy hippies (and their dog) who needed a ride to the closest village.

Now that we’re on our way again, we’ll continue with our planned itinerary that will slowly return us to Denmark. One of the most difficult things about driving through so many countries is that I’m unable to get an internet connection unless I purchase a SIM card in each nation. So for the next couple of weeks, I’ll give up trying to stay connected online with friends and will revert to living in the moment with the girls as we tour the most child-friendly attractions in Europe.

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