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!