The "I'm not a HAMSTER!" tour...
Saturday July 13
Karla sat in the passenger seat next to the naked driver, Stuart directly behind her hemmed in with suitcases, Polly the Collie squashed in the boot beside my boxed kit. The little car trundled down the B15 from Munich towards Salzburg in the beckoning sun of early July. Having stopped to get a motorway pass, I promptly forgot to buy one, and once I'd rejoined the motorway it proceeded to grind to a standstill with all the holiday traffic, as we waited, patiently, to proceed into Austria. The road wound it's way into the Tauern region, we passed Radstadt and headed along a winding road up the hillside to the tiny hamlet of Mandlberg where we had rented a farmhouse, from the very hospitable family Warter who also run a mountain distillery, for the week.
It was a big place, ideally situated, slightly apart from the other houses, and with a green square for the garden table and BBQ out back overlooking the valley. The big house slowly filled, as the day wore on, with naked hikers from every which place. Gianni and Mira arrived, and Maria, from Italy. Pascal and Clarisse from Strasbourg. Bruno Saurez and Frederic from Marseilles. Maarten from Amsterdam. Augustus from Rugby, Bernard Gibert from Paris, an experienced NEWT and active APNEL member. Andreas from Thuringen and Mathias from Hanover. Last but not least was Roberto di Mattei, who I very nearly forgot to pick up from the train station.
We made ourselves comfortable, in the twin and more bedrooms, on a first-come first-serve basis. Paul from Manchester and working for CERN in Geneva, was doubly unfortunate in that he had to firstly share a room with me and put up with my snoring, and secondly that he was forced to twin next to the lovely Spanish Conxita, a film-maker from Edinburgh. We promised not to tell his wife, Marion, too soon ;)
Sunday July 14
As most people had arrived, and for a gentle start to the week, we decided to get a short hike in on the Sunday, setting off behind our farm buildings and chapel, into the woods between us and the majestic backdrop of the Dachstein massif. Most of us stripped off at the first stile, and traipsed along the undulating forest trail beneath the shade of the high pine trees all around. We soon passed a blueberry hunter, dressed suitably all in blue, on the trail, who seemed amused to see us, a friendly reaction which would prove typical for this week, as the motley band of naked and semi-naked people ambled past.
We were a mixed band and it was entertaining to see Conxita's white Spanish arm, laid next to my tanned English (!) arm, under the Alpine sun. In fairness her fair complexion was probably mostly the product of too much time spent studying in the far north, in a city not renowned for it's sun-bathing facilities: Edinburgh. The result was still amusing. We continued along the gentle trail until we arrived at a lake, where we had our next encounters with clothed hikers, some of whom stopped to ask me directions, presumably because I had the map.
Next we zig-zagged up the forestry road, steadily gaining height in the alpine heat, until we passed a small Gasthof and eventually found ourselves up on the higher slopes of the forested hillside. We were going slowly so we sent a faster party ahead to scout for a rest spot with a view, finally arriving at an area of felled trees which gave us a view across to the Tauern hills beyond. We sat down to munch on our lunch and engaged in pleasant conversation with an elderly group of mushroom pickers. We returned the way we had come, stopping and dressing for a coffee at the small Gasthof, before continuing our way back to the lake for a dip for the brave/foolhardy amongst us.
Towards the end of the day, Mark from Los Angeles arrived with Vittorio and his fine dog Drago from Trento, and Harry from Belgium. I was relieved when my Polly seemed to recognize the calm Drago, from the previous year, on their first meeting as, putting it mildly, she can be a bit strained with other dogs. The farm had it's own resident white labrador, and they seemed to get on well too, so perhaps it was the Austrian mountain air, or the calming effect of 20 naked hikers which helped Polly to meet other dogs peacefully. Either way, I wasn't bothered, rather I was, as Admiral Pike would say: relieved.
Monday July 15
The day started by driving south along the rough road to the Vögeialm. Parking, we set off behind the farm buildings and headed up the valley, undressing as we reached the first trees. I had to shepherd Polly past several the herd of cows, as she has apparently decided, since an early encounter, to be perpetually terrified by these huge brown and usually docile creatures. We crossed a wooden bridge and headed steeply up the hillside, soon being overtaken by a small mixed group of friendly hikers. Interestingly, Conxita was along to make a film of the week, and on the first day had spend the main part of it hiking clothed, today however, she stripped off entirely early on and stayed that way for most of the rest of the week. For someone who had never done any naked hiking at all, ever, she seemed to be taking to the idea like a duck to water, and she was setting a fine example to the rest of us, and to others who might like to try the activity in future. It was really nice to see such enthusiasm from a young woman not afraid to shed her inhibitions in the company of strangers and passers by.
We ascended through the warm air, steadily gaining altitude, and after a couple of stops to wait on the slower members of the party, reached an incongruous snow field near a stream. Several of the team now (naturally) started throwing snow balls and sliding down the snow. Setting off again, we reached a high lake where we stopped as Karla, (of Free Range Naturism fame), just had to have a dip, and Conxita found a tiny frog by the lakeside, while the rest of us took a well earned break. The last stretch to the top of the pass was fairly steady going, and the temperature rapidly cooled as we gained height under the greying skies. Once we reached the pass we stopped for lunch and had a huge view over the Obertauern ski-circus below. Although we nestled into a couple of hollows to shelter from the wind, we didn't stay long as we were cooling down rapidly.
The Tauernhöhenweg trail now meandered lazily up the slopes above to the east, and we followed it around various pools, past the verdant grass amidst the light green rocks of the interesting plateau. We met several walking groups coming the other way, and at this point Karla was nearly the only naked person in our group, putting the rest of us to shame, and generating some light jocularity in the passing clothed groups. As we hiked, we warmed up slowly and more and more people started to strip off again, the wind now cooling us in a gentler manner and helping to keep us at a pleasant temperature under our exertions.
Crossing the plateau we descended the other side to the Oberhüttensee lake before separating into a fast shopping group, and the slower rest-of-group group. The slower group dressed for a quick coffee at the mountain hut, before descending the track which followed the valley tightly back down to our cars, and a welcome return to dinner and a cup of tea at our hut.
Tuesday July 16
The long dusty drive down the valley to the Ursprungalm saw us drift through the small clump of farm houses and barns and weave our way through the meandering cows to start our walk. Again, I had to carry the terrified Polly over my shoulder as the huge brown monsters lazily munched their way from tussock to tussock between the buildings. We set off up the wide track, and half of us removed our clothing on the outside edge of the valley hamlet. We hadn't gone more than a few hundred metres before we realized that this was actually a very popular path, today, and we soon nicknamed the track: the motorway. While we overtook some groups of clothed hikers, with an initial burst of enthusiastic speed, they mostly overtook us again in short order, as we waited for our large group to re-coalesce from time to time. Mostly our little naked group had friendly waves from the passers by, some giggles from a few young girls, and one or two semi-grumpy grunts from one elderly couple. Several people took photos and we waved in friendly fashion to them too.
The track simply followed the stream in the valley bottom the entire way up the gradually stonier valley, until we reached the gorgeous raised valley above. We stopped for photos, with one passing couple asking if we'd like them to take a photo of the entire naked group, before continuing our way around the gently rising path which traversed the length of the valley above the clear blue lake below. We passed mountain horses and arrived after a while, at a mountain Gasthof where beer and hot food was being amply served to the clientele. We had other ideas, so we politely dressed to pass the hut, and stopped perhaps 100 metres higher up the slope for a rest. At this point we undressed again, to feel the mountain air on our skin, and a belly of laughs echoed from the hut just below us, and we could see people taking photos and having a jolly time. Probably half of these people had been overtaking us, or been overtaken by us, during the last hour or so. We waved back and smiled.
We followed the now steepening trail as it wound it's way upwards between the high boulders and steep slopes of the mountainside and past a huge steep ridge of rock soaring up into the sky above us. As we broached the shoulder, we came across a small tarn, so stopped for the customary Karla-dip and a bit to eat. Loud moans were heard, as some wanted to continue the walk at high speed, and others wanted to have a long French-style lunch break of several hours, probably. I made an executive decision and we settled for a 20 minute break, to eat and to drink before continuing. A single male hiker came past, on the last leg of his journey from the far end of the ridge that day, and was very relaxed to meet this large group of naked hikers. He was a little hard to understand as his Austrian dialect was quite strong, but we got by all the same. With a friendly wave, we set off once more, and wove our way through the rocks, past a bigger lake, (with more moans that we hadn't stopped by the bigger lake), and then an even larger, truly majestic, one above that, surrounded by small snow and ice fields.
Continuing up the side of the lake, we gained height steadily, meeting now several groups of hikers coming the other way. All of whom were varying in their friendliness, but all of whom were distinctly friendly. Of course we were an unusual event in their day, but they took it in their stride and we made a few people smile, thus improving their lives for a short while. Our good deed for the day done, we crossed several snow fields until we reached the main ridge, with stupendous views to the rest of the ridge and the mountains all around. This was a fine place to stop for another lunch stop. Although the break was still a tad short for some, I was a bit concerned at the length of the walk and how the time was going and didn't want to linger longer than 20 mins or so. The weather was nicely stable though, and the scenery was magnificent.
We continued along the track, taking a line just below the main ridge, watching the mountains as they flowed beside us on the horizon. We reached the promontory of the main summit and skirted it's final slopes to the left over some slightly steep ground which was wall protected with cable. Coming from the south was fortunate as no-one could see the drop before they had got across the slightly awkward stretch. Sheep now kept us company as the trail snaked over the final slopes until we had crossed to the other side of the Schiedeck peak and rested, waiting for the small summit party to return after their mad dash to the top. Clearly some people were still full of beans.
Leaving our third food and drink stop after another, short, 20 minute break, we followed the ridge along and down towards a lower summit. Looking back we could see the fine ridge we had come along as we descended towards the forest below. After some time, we reached a hut surrounded by milling cows, and some welcome water. People were beginning to look a bit tired now, and Conxita's normally fine mood was not improved by her finding someone had put a rock in her rucksack. But we still had some way to go, as we had descended, but still needed to walk back the length of our hike to where our cars were parked. Now began, what some have referred to as the "Ursprungalm Deathmarch", as we followed the fairly easy, but long, trail through the trees as it wound it's way up, down and around various rocky obstacles along the way. The valley seemed to go on forever, and the car park never to get nearer, as we heard a helicopter come and go, several times up and down the valley, parallel to us.
Some time later we finally strolled, tired, into the car park, receiving a wave and a smile from a departing car, before setting off for the last leg of the day, the motorized return trip to the hut. Fortunately Gianni and Mira and Gus had decided to take the day off, so we were able to telephone ahead and get them to start preparing a BBQ outside our hut for when we returned, late and hungry, after our long but rewarding hike. It had been an especially magnificent day, with an interesting route and outstanding views, not to mention the good weather and the even better company. And even though we knew our legs might ache a little on the morrow, it was a day to treasure.
Wednesday July 17
After the long tour of the day before, we decided on a short tour to follow, so we headed up the forest behind our hut. As we entered the trees, most of us removed our clothing and placed it in our rucksacks, as was common practice for the week. So our group was already naked when we encountered the local girl from our farm herding her cows to a gate. We helped her guide them through, trying not to get in the way too much, and she waved gratefully, wishing us a good walk for the day. Now, if the farm and restaurant people didn't already know we were a naked hiking group yet, they certainly did now!
Our trail took a slanting upward cut through the trees, and headed steadily towards the ridge above. We kept a reasonable pace past the ferns and the undergrowth, gratefully shaded by the high foliage from the searing sun. This made for a nice contrast with yesterdays' rocky route with it's wide open skies. We traipsed up the side of the hill, slowly gaining altitude. The flora began to change, the trees more widely spaced and shorter and thinner, and then we could see sky through the tree tops on all 4 sides. We were on the top of the ridge.
Although we could have continued on to the Roßbrand summit proper, which would have been another hour or so of easy hiking, I wanted to stop here to let the group recuperate properly from yesterday's exertions. Instead we found a mountain hut with a convenient wooden table and benches and settled down for lunch with a stunning view to the Dachstein across the valley, and watched as our t-shirts dried in the bright alpine sun. A couple of groups of people walked along the same trail we had used, mildly amused to see the group of naked picnickers and waved in friendly greetings as they passed us by. Our hunger sated, we set off to retrace our steps back down the hill, to our hut for an early tea.
As we slipped our clothes back on, to walk past the restaurant next to our hut, I saw the woman, who owned both premises, sitting having coffee with a couple of friends or relations, and I had an idea. I approached them and asked about perhaps our group eating an early dinner at their restaurant. They said that would be fine, but they close at 18:00 (in 2 hours time). I asked them if they were aware that we were a naked hiking group, and they nodded and smiled. I then asked them if it would ok for us to eat our dinner at their restaurant, but that we'd like to be naked, (with suitable towels on the benches naturally), perhaps slightly to the side so we were not quite so obvious. They didn't even blink before they nodded and smiled again. "of course, that would be no problem", and the nice lady in charge waved her arm in the direction of the tables. Not needing to be told twice, I returned to the group and informed them of the new dinner arrangements before hustling them off the comfy table they had chosen and around to the slightly less public table.
We sat down around the large square wooden table with several of us stripping off immediately and some of the others remaining dressed. This was after all a new experience for some, and in any case it's always good when a group can accommodate different dress codes for different people. If there's one thing I've discovered about the best naked dress codes, it's that the only firm rule is a flexible one.
We ordered drinks from the nice young kellnerin, probably the daughter of the mother of the house, and settled down to enjoy an early tea. Our group languidly appeared and we brought over a couple more long tables and benches to enable enough seating for all of us. Gradually we had probably half of us naked and half dressed, and all comfortably eating pizza and toast, and drinking Austrian beer and fruit juice, in this very nicely placed low mountain restaurant. Harry from Belgium described how good it was during the week to just go naked hiking, in contrast to his prior experience with one hiking group who always sent out (dressed) people ahead and behind the group with walkie-talkies (for goodness sake) so they could warn the naked people to get dressed before they met any clothed hikers on the trail - this is the wrong way to change public perception about nudity, there is no need to hide from anyone if you're not doing anything wrong. It was good to see Harry come around to our approach during the week and we hoped we'd hear of him promoting this solution in his own area in future.
All the same, we did get several funny looks from a few of the other patrons, and one poor young boy nearly went flying through the (reinforced) glass window pane behind us as Paul stood up naked as the lad walked past to the toilets. Throughout our meal, we were served promptly and pleasantly by the staff and the Chefin, and although the dinner was a little early for the French, I think we all did it justice. One couple had apparently given us a strange look during the meal, so when Pascal, (our co-opted treasurer for the week), and I went to pay (dressed), I went up to them and explained we were a naked hiking group. The woman looked up, smiled pleasantly and nodded, and said: "oh, we know that already, it's perfectly fine with us, no problem whatsoever." More public acceptance of simple nudity - result.
After this congenial meal we retired to our hut to sit outside and enjoy the view over a fine campfire which Stuart built beside our garden tables. Another fine day.
Thursday July 18
After breakfast, and waiting to leave, we were entertained by some donkey sex in the next door paddock. A male and female donkey with what was clearly their offspring were gamboling about in the field. Every now and then, the female would back up invitingly to the male and make yawning motions with her mouth. He was not slow to take the hint, and mounted her from behind, taking care to make sure she stayed still by biting her firmly on the nape of her neck. This didn't stop her giving him a good wallop with her hind legs as she disengaged after, (as Sheldon would say), coitus was complete. This made for an entertaining start to the day.
Back to the hiking and we drove down another long and gravely track and parked before crossing a small stream, stripping off and heading up the path which snaked steeply through the rocks and trees. This time our path kept crossing a wide forest road which served the Gasthof and farm buildings high above us out of sight. This would be useful later for those of us with aching knees and tired legs. As we ascended steadily we unavoidably leap-frogged with various other parties going the same way. Several families with young children, some single people and a few couples. Without exception we were regarded with some curiosity and always friendliness. There is something about meeting other people on a mountain path, where one feels a certain affinity with kindred spirits, people who are in this place to experience nature. And what better way than naked? Nudity crosses and breaks down so many boundaries between folk that many times words are not needed and just a wave and a friendly smile is sufficient.
After an hour and a half of ascent, the path began to level out and we emerged into a glorious valley with a lake nestling within it's arms. After a dutiful photo stop, we settled down with a good view of the lake, while several hardier members of the party descended into it's murky and icy mawl for what they insisted was a good dip. The rest of us sat around soaking up the stupendous view up and over the high forested slopes to the mountain ridges all around us. There was a trail which went all around the lake, and we had groups of people, and the occasional horse, come past smiling or chewing grass, as was their want. Conxita found yet another frog, which we, (being of modern naturalist inclination), photographed rather than flattened in a book, and released again. There was much jocularity in the water, and everyone came back looking most refreshed, (translate=cold).
After a while, we decided to move on, and the party split, some with tired legs from yesterdays' major hike who were going to reverse this mornings hike back to the cars, and some who would work our way across the hillside on the other side of the lake and descend via the main valley. The main group then, headed north and between the 2 summer mountain huts which were both serving as gasthofs and teeming with people. I have an unwritten rule which dictates that on tarmac and in or near gasthofs (and the like) we dress, and "near" is of course always open to interpretation, with a guide distance of perhaps 50-100 metres, (or yards for imperious folk). Our route wove between the huts at a slightly closer distance than I would have liked, but as no-one seemed to mind, and most of the clientele had already passed us naked on the trail, it seemed pointless to dress so through we went. Once on the other side, having survived several strange looks, we headed into the forest, and started to follow the easy path which traversed the hillside in a northerly direction.
The heat of the day was still with us, and I was beginning to regret not having gone for a dip, but I hate cold mountain water so the feeling didn't last long. The path ambled along, quietly following the contours of the hillside, not losing height, and occassionally gaining a little. It was on one of the latter gentle ascents that I hears mutterings from the rear and decided it might be a good idea to stop for a bite and a drink, and to soak up the view of the high ridges on the opposite side of the valley to us. Having rested, we set off again, with more of the same traversing trail meandering through the trees. We met several people on the small trail, but generally it was a quiet route.
At length we arrived at an enclave of small mountain huts beside the river as it cascaded down the main valley, and here we turned to follow it back down through the forest. We passed a large forestry lorry in the middle of the route, parked askew across the path and loading huge tree trunks on to it's articulated trailer. We nipped around the back of a pile of logs as the man was clearly not stopping for passing hikers, and continued the long trail down the easy valley and back to the car park, dressing as we approached the final 100m. We met the others where the 2 routes rejoined, and chatted a while before jumping back into our cars to return to the village. A little shopping and then dinner. We were supposed to all take turns to cook and clean up, as ours was a 'selbstversorgungshuette' (self-service hut), but it seemed that Pascal's wife Clarisse cooked nearly every night, and was ably helped by a dynamic mix of whoever else was interested at the time. This usually included Vittorio, our Italian librarian who had a penchant for creating good food. We may have lost a little weight during the week, but it certainly wasn't because we were going hungry.
Friday July 19
For our last day, it seemed like most people would be happy to visit a lake and chill out, and also our Scottish weather forecaster had foretold rain, so we chose a short route for the day. We started with the easy trail behind the hut, and modified the route to use the larger forestry track through the trees. The route wound it's way in the shadow of the trees contouring the hillside and taking us in a generally northerly direction.
It was to be quite a busy day, in comparison to the rest of the week, and we met our first group of people quite early indeed, about only 1 km past our starting point. This was also the only hiking group I have ever met who behaved in this way, and it was quite startling, for all of us. As we approached each other on the track, and they were clothed (naturally) and we were mostly naked (naturally) the group did something most unusual, they all turned their back on us, like a caterpillar. Interestingly, (I thought), I've always said that if you don't like the look of something, (like a naked hiker), you can always turn away, and remove the sight you feel is so offensive from vision. These people did exactly that, and even though they were effectively following my own instructions, I still found myself finding their actual behaviour most rude. If that's their way of expressing their opinion of us, all well and good, but we still found it a bit strange. We decided they must be a fundamentalist religious group who had never seen naked people before, and we simply wished them all a pleasant day and continued on our way, as usual.
We got back to our hiking tour and continued on our way. During the next hour or so we met several other groups, which we thought must be all related, as they all seemed to be constituted of the same age and type of people, maybe 55 or so, and a high proportion of women, looking a lot like a local WI (Womens Institute) type of group. Several of the groups were a lot more amiable than the first, and we had the much more usual waves and smiles from some of them. Reaching the river as it cut back down the main valley, we turned and followed it as it flowed into the lake we had visited on our first day out.
Here we settled down for the afternoon, for a swim for the foolhardy amongst us, and a picnic for the rest. The single white cloud in the otherwise piercing blue sky, resolutely refused to bring on any Scottish rain, so we had to put up with being sunburnt, again. In the meantime, the hard core walkers decided things were becoming to sedate, and determined to hike up to the top of the nearest low hill, instead of sitting around like reptiles, so off they went. This left the rest of us to entertain ourselves with photography, sunbathing, and some minor interactions with yet more groups of people who seemed determined to commune with the spirits under the trees. They may have been Catholic, or Christian, or Pagan, it was really very hard to tell. We decided they were not Muslims as they were able to look at our naked bodies without being visibly upset. I should add that one group were particularly friendly and waved and smiled enthusiastically in response to my initial encouragement. One woman later detached herself from their group and sat near us with binoculars to better see what was happening further along the lakeside. Meanwhile Gus practiced his one-man show on "what drove me to madness", to an audience of alpine flora and fauna, and the rest of us looked on quietly bemused and lightly entertained.
It was interesting to hear that Roberto, the Italian barrister, who had been somewhat nervous, (quite understandably for a first time naked hiker), about being interviewed for Conxita's documentary, had declared himself quite happy to be involved with the filming if required. The general impression I have is that people are more nervous about this kind of thing when they are thinking about it in advance, but once they actually try naked hiking themselves, (or even see a naked hiker for instance), then they become much more relaxed to the concept altogether. As one would expect for a harmless and fun natural activity.
After a hot afternoon at the lake, we retraced our route of earlier in the week and returned through the forest to our hut, meeting still more groups of middle-aged forest hikers on the way. We hadn't seen so many people all week, and now they were everywhere. We had probably at least given them something to talk about, if they weren't too embarrassed to mention the subject of nudity to one another, that is. Now I'm just being wicked :)
Once we'd returned to the hut, we set about cleaning the place in readiness for the next mornings departure and preparing dinner. While waiting for the rest of the group to return from their hiking excursion, we sat outside on the garden table and benches and soaked up the rest of the stunning scenery which surrounded our well situated farmhouse.
Saturday July 20
The breakfast was barely over, and we were packed and people began to leave sporadically, one car after the other. We had a couple of volunteers to take the train-dwellers to the train station, so that saved me a heap of driving up and down early on and I was very grateful for that, so I could concentrate on ensuring the place was left spick and span. Everyone had done a great job of tidying up, and I was about to set off driving back to Munich naked when the cleaning ladies turned up. They seemed happy enough with the tidied state of the farmhouse and presumably see all sorts of people rent the farmhouse over the years. The phrase "nothing new under the sun" comes to mind.
In many ways it was sad to come to the end of our tour, but life goes on and I had work to get back to. Stuart was my navigator on the route back, and we made better time on the return drive as we were going against the flow of holiday traffic this time. It had been a week of pleasant weather, good routes and fine company, Newt 2013 had been a naked hiking tour par excellence.