Looking down at my blue overalls – I bore a tenuous resemblance to an Austrian salt miner – I obeyed. Outside the window, fairytale clouds obscured Halstatt’s prehistoric burial ground and hung like impenetrable curtains to the lake’s edge.
It occurred to me, as I looked slippy at fastening flares about my ankles, that the designer of this apparel had left little provision for carrying sandwiches. Not a single pocket in sight, and with a sizeable walk through wood-lined tunnels ahead. Tut tut, was this outfit really necessary?
‘You’ll see why,’ explained Amon, our guide, as we began marching. ‘Now we go back 250 million years. Please follow me, it’s a long way.’
I felt a little like Jules Verne’s Professor Leidenbrock as we penetrated the earth’s bowels, entering the oldest salt mine in the world and learning that, 7,000 years ago, mining hoes were made from venison horn.
Europe’s Longest Wooden Slide
One of the big draws of Halstatt’s salt mines, however, is the 64-metre slide, the longest wooden slide in Europe. ‘No braking,’ instructed Amon, as our gaggle congregated apprehensively at the top. The abyss looked hairier than a Sicilian grandmother’s upper lip. ‘I repeat, do not brake. Or touch the walls. It’s very dangerous, you can break your fingers.’ Gulp!
She briefly demonstrated the sliding position and watched the first of her student lemmings disappear. What fun the miners must have had travelling between “galleries” in this manner. At the bottom, my forced smile, suffused with unfamiliar g-force, was frozen on a TV monitor along with a radar-recorded speed. I was disappointed. What had felt like a new slide-speed record had turned out to be a gnat’s eyelash over 23km/h, but I’d finally recognised the need for the overalls.
‘You’re not so fast,’ remarked Amon, joining us and further deflating my ego. She rose from the slide’s end with consummate eloquence, as though her descent were nothing more taxing than a nap on the sofa, and glanced nonchalantly at her own speed. ‘Yes, anything over 40 is good.’
Outside again, the weather remained foggy though enigmatic, the mists wholly enveloping Halstatt’s funicular. I felt the first droplets of rain. Yet I trudged to the start of the Brine Pipeline Trail, a walk along the world’s oldest pipeline dating to 1595. And I thought:
Austria is certainly worth her salt.