Trip to Europe: Day 6 – Mt Pilatus, Switzerland

9 June 2012. This was going to be the best day of my life. I could just see it. Ever since I was a child, the only place I have been dreaming about visiting was Switzerland. I can’t explain how much I was in love with it before even seeing it. I told Alex the night before that we had to make sure that we got front seats on the bus because I knew that we would be getting fantastic scenery from driving through the south western part of Germany and into the Alps.

Ah, the Alps, something else I had always dreamed about. I think I need to blame Heidi for this because I can’t recall anything else that was associated with Switzerland in my childhood besides some dolls that my mother had bought when she visited at my age. I had been looking forward to this part of the trip the most. I just wish we had longer, but I knew I was going to enjoy every second of it.

We left our hotel at around 7:30 that morning, after breakfast of course. My excitement made waking up very easy. We had to get to Lucerne at around 1 so that we could go to the top of Mt Pilatus (at least, those who wanted to) and be at the hotel in time for dinner. Since the drive was close to 500km, we had to make a service stop after about 3 hours. It was still too early for lunch so I got myself a little cappuccino and some kind of pastry with jam in it. Both were delicious, as expected, but I think they overkilled the pastry with jam. According to my receipt, we had stopped in Freiburg! I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t meet up with Melanie, my pen pal, but the fact that I was helpless made it easier. I didn’t feel so bad then.

Once we were done and paid around €2 for using the bathrooms, we got back into the bus for the final stretch. I couldn’t contain my excitement from that point and I think I must have been smiling like a sheep the whole way.

The signs for Zurich and Lucerne were getting closer, even though we were still in Germany. I knew that of all the countries that we would be going to, Switzerland would have a proper physical border that we would pass through. I didn’t know this as a fact, I just love the Swiss too much and I wouldn’t expect anything less from them. They’re like superhuman for me. I think they can do anything that normal mortals wouldn’t think possible. No, I don’t think I can blame Heidi for this perception I have of the Swiss. I actually have no idea what made me love them this much. I just do.

After some time Steve made an announcement that we were approaching the border and that we should have our passports ready, just in case. I remember smiling to myself when he said the word “border”. When I saw it about 100m away, my heart started beating faster. I think my eyes became bigger too.

The second we  passed through it, I could not hold back the tears. No, I did not start howling like a deranged banshee, I just cried to myself. Like I said, it was somewhere I wanted to be my whole life, and at that point I knew that my dream had come true. I can’t say that there have been many occasions where I cried tears of joy, but that was undoubtedly the happiest moment of my life. Here I was, in Switzerland, surrounded by the Alps, with nothing but some clothes and a bunch of wonderful people. That’s all I could have ever asked for and I just kept thanking God that I was there and that it happened.

Soon, we got into the town of Lucerne. I didn’t actually care about which town we were in at that point. All that mattered was that I was in Switzerland. Driver Steve of course headed straight to where we were to catch the cable car to the top of Pilatus.  The whole drive there was so scenic, and I think I was so busy absorbing the stunning beauty of the place that my eyes took control over my hands which were clinging to my camera (phone). I therefore didn’t take many pictures of the town at all. At the back of my mind though I knew that I’d get great views of the whole town from the cable car, so it didn’t really bother me that I didn’t get many pictures in yet.

When we got out of the bus, Steve asked us to wait at the entrance while he got our tickets. We had of course paid him already, when he opened the bank on the bus (i.e.: us sitting on the step at the front of the bus between him and Driver Steve, while he had his paperwork, pen, and wallet out), so all he needed to do was pay for the tickets and hand them to us. Some people had also paid for all the optional excursions at the beginning of the trip, which helped the rest of us who wanted to pay in instalments. Also, it would allow us to go for an activity now and pay later.

We had some time to take in the mountain air and admire the surroundings, which included the little red cable cars directly above us that were leaving the station. When Steve got back he explained that the small cable cars seated 4 people, and that we’d have to get off at the second stop and meet there. From there, we would all get into the large 40-person cable car which would take us to the summit.

After we received our tickets and left some people behind (they were crazy, how could they miss this of all things?!), we swiped in and joined the line to get into the cars. Tiffany was already freaking out a little because she’s afraid of heights, which made my ride in the little red car all the more amusing because she would scream at every little whim that the car made when going over the wheels. It was just the 3 of us in the car – me, Tiffany, and Tiffany’s Australian roommate Kelly. I don’t know where I had lost Alex, but I guessed she had probably moved ahead because I paused to look at some items in the shop at the entrance which had nice jackets with the Pilatus dragon on it. As much as I love jackets, I really didn’t want the extra baggage so I gave it a miss.

As we were going up in the little cable car, besides Tiffany’s occasional screams and frantic gestures, I felt like I was surrounded by heaven. I had to turn almost right around because I was facing the mountain, therefore the town was behind me. We had spectacular views of Lucerne, as well as Lake Lucerne. As we got higher, the trees became far more dense, until it was obvious that we were surrounded by forest. The thing with being in a cable car is that you don’t really realise how fast you’re travelling until you look at the angle of the cable and how many cars are in front and behind you.

What really confirmed that I was in Switzerland was the sound of the Swiss cow bells. It was unmistakable and it wasn’t long before we saw some cows grazing directly below us. The cable cars were so high above them that they were totally oblivious to our presence, which I loved. They looked so peaceful and at home.

On our way up we could also clearly see the stainless steel toboggan path which Steve told us about. He said that once you get to the summit, if you walk a little down, you can toboggan down the mountain instead of taking the large cable car. I was pretty sure I was gonna do it, even though I was a little nervous about it. But I just could not pass up something like that when I was in the country I was waiting the longest time to see. And besides that, who knew when I’d ever get the chance again?

After 20-25mins, we reached the second station where we teamed up with the rest of the group. We had to wait a few minutes for the big cable car. Everyone was a little nervous because all we could see in the direction of the summit were clouds, so we had no idea just how high we were going to go. I was also a bit uneasy at the thought of it being cold and windy at the top, as I had never been to the top of a mountain before and wasn’t sure quite what to expect.

When we stepped outside it was quite breezy and rather chilly,  but it was only a few moments before the large cable car arrived. We got as many people inside as we could, and then we were off. I became aware of a few people who were scared of heights, one of them being Steve. I think I am a little too, but remember, I was in the hands of the Swiss, so I had nothing to worry about.

It was not long before we were totally surrounded by clouds and the only thing we could see was the cable leading into the skies. We all had a moment of panic when a wooden pivot station showed up, if you can call it that, out of nowhere and the cable car was approaching it at the same speed as we had been travelling the whole time (which was much faster than the little red car). It was obvious that that wasn’t the last station, but the fact that we couldn’t see around or beyond it made everyone’s eyes pop out. We all gasped when we were lifted slightly over the peak and then dropped back down, even though it was probably only around half a metre.

Eventually we got to the top station and entered a wide open, yet enclosed space. There were some shops and a restaurant, and glass windows all around so you pretty much had a 360 degree view from anywhere. I didn’t want to waste time there though, I needed to go outside.

When I ascended some stairs and actually got outside, I thought I was in heaven. There were clouds everywhere, I was actually walking inside them. The weather was surprisingly pleasant. It was somewhat nippy, but refreshing; nowhere near chilly. Even though it was dull, I needed to keep my sunglasses on because of the glare. I was literally on cloud 9.

Alex and I took some photos of each other before going up an uneven staircase, made of a combination of wood and rocks, to the summit. It turned out to be quite a climb, but the fact that we couldn’t see how high up we were made it a little easier. At times we had to awkwardly step aside in order to let other visitors who were descending to pass.

When I finally reached the summit, I had to take a moment to take in the view surrounding me. I couldn’t see much except clouds, but there were places where the sun was shining through the the clouds were like white, rolling hills, with a bit of green in the background. I was convinced that it really was Heaven. I could not stop smiling.  I was looking directly at the sky without even having to tilt my head upwards.

Alex and I spent some time admiring the view, and got more pictures of each other, including some slightly daring ones. I don’t think I would have sat where I did if I could see what was behind the clouds, which is why I refer to the pictures (or rather, our positions in them) as “slightly” daring. My mother would have certainly killed me if she saw what I was doing. Sorry, Mummy!

I wished that the clouds would clear but they didn’t. Seeing how fast they changed from such a close range amazed me. I had obviously been in clouds dozens of times before, from all the flying I’ve done, but you can’t count that as really being IN them. It was just me and the clouds here, with nothing but air separating us. I loved that the sky was peeping out now and again too, and I needed only look straight ahead to see it. 

After some time we decided to make our way back to the station, and maybe meet up with the rest of the group or have a bite to eat. I wasn’t really hungry, I think my excitement was keeping me going. I walked around the area and went into one of the souvenir shops. They had some great stuff but I ended up not buying anything. I knew we’d have time the next day so I didn’t want to waste my money going crazy in a shop I knew would have typical touristy prices.

I saw a watch that I really liked and since it was my goal to get a Swiss watch, I was really tempted to get it. But again, my brain told me not to jump at the first thing I saw. At the back of my mind was the advice (I don’t know whether it was good or bad) Steve gave us on the first day: “Rather live in debt than regret”. Hmmm, you know, Steve, some people may abuse that advice! But not me, at least, not in this case. I was gonna wait till we went to Harry’s, the Swiss watch shop the next day.

I found some people from my group and met up with Alex again and we decided that we were going to do the toboggan ride down the mountain. I was both scared and excited as we were walking up a bit of a hill to get to the wooden cabin that sold the tickets. As we were walking up, I could not help but stop now and again to take in the view. It was just breathtaking, and the only sounds I could hear were cowbells, birds, and the occasional toboggan rider going down the steel run.

When we reached the top, Steve was already there with some of the guys. Steve said that he goes on the toboggan ride every time he visits Pilatus, and when we got to him, he was actually just about to go for his second run. That gave me a little confidence boost, especially seeing how wide open his eyes were from the thrill. He was sort of jumpy, and it was obvious that he just couldn’t wait to go again. I on the other hand wasn’t sure if I would do it a second time (I was such a bloody chicken), so I just bought one ticket. In my defense though, everyone I was with bought only one ticket too, so I didn’t want to be the only one going for a second time which would have meant me being alone on the mountain when everyone was gone back down. I was such an idiot. If I died there, I’d have died happy.

I remember Alex saying that she was gonna go as fast as possible to try and break the speed record (I can’t remember what it was now, but I think it was something like 45km/hr). I know it didn’t work out as she planned, but anyway, for someone going on it for the first time, one can’t really predict how one would react. We had to carry our own toboggan to the start of the steel run, and had to swipe our ticket in the machine in order to get to the starting point. There was actually a little robot (or should I say traffic light, for my American friends) that signalled when to go, so as to allow for enough space between you and the rider in front of you.

Off went Alex, and it was my turn to get on. It was simple. There was a lever between my legs, and I had to push it down to go faster, and pull back to brake. I must have looked like a spastic idiot when I pushed down and the thing didn’t move, but then I realised I wasn’t really at a steep enough angle for it to move. So after waddling a little forward while still seated, I pushed down the lever and off I went. I was a little scared and didn’t really go fast at all. I must have definitely seemed like a senior citizen at first, but then, suddenly, the mild adrenaline got to me and I just thought “Let’s do this!!” and I began speeding up more. The smile on my face intensified as I started to enjoy every second of it. The only other things I had to remember were to brake slightly around corners, and to lean in to the corner so as not to be thrown off from the force. I remember saying to myself “This is GREAT!!”. I knew that the speed camera was coming up soon too, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by going like an old lady, so I sped up and managed to hit about 32km/hr, which I didn’t think was too bad. What a thrilling ride!

When I eventually got to the bottom, the Swiss man at the bottom was smiling at me already and asked how it was. The only word I could think of that described my feeling was “Fantatsic!”. When I came to a stop, I picked up my toboggan and pushed it along the horizontal steel path that was especially designed for it. The man then picked it up and placed it on the steel tube that was going back up the mountain. He told me to sit still and enjoy the view, and that I was not to touch the lever. I wasn’t sure how that was going to go because of the angle, but I left it in his hands. A hook that was attached to a long cable above me arrived, and he hooked it into the back of my toboggan. Up I went!

I sat with my forearms resting on my knees and just looked around me as I ascended the mountain. I had not had a moment alone like that in my life. Even though I spent an afternoon alone in Amsterdam, it was nothing like this. If I was a guy I’d be embarrassed to say this, but I got emotional for the second time that day. I couldn’t believe that I was there, in what seemed like the most peaceful place in the world, surrounded by lush green grass, a forest on my right, a mountain behind me, and a gorgeous town and lake in front of me. I had time to admire the little things like the little white flowers on the grass (I even grabbed a few and played with the petals as I looked around) and the goats having their early supper. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It was too bad that I didn’t have my camera with me because I had to leave it at the log cabin where we bought the tickets. In fact, I didn’t even leave it there, I left it (my bag) on the table outside the shop next to the log cabin, along with some other girls. My passport, money, cellphone and wallet were in that bag, but I had so much faith in the place I was, that I didn’t worry a single bit about theft. When I eventually got back to the top of the mountain, the shop was closed but my things were safe and untouched right where I left them.

Did I mention I love the Swiss?

Some of the people had already started making their way back down to the station where we were to get the back in the small red cable car, but Alex had also arrived just a few moments before me so she was waiting for me. We didn’t know who was after me but there was one bag left behind, so we waited and found that it belonged to Chloe, another Australian. When she got back, we began our descent. Not far down we stopped to watch some people on the zip line. The lady we were watching took forever to get going though, so we gave up before she could let go.

When we got to the station, there was another long line. The cable cars were moving pretty quick and Steve’s one had one spot left, so I made a quick dash for it. I think Jose and CC were in it too (the American couple from San Diego). On our way down, Steve spoke about his fear of heights. I’m just glad he didn’t scream the way Tiffany did. That would have been hilarious. He got to spend some quality time with him on the way down as well, and found out how things operate for a Contiki tour manager. He had to call the hotel to confirm our dinner, and we found it quite amusing listening to the difficulty at which he was trying to speak to the old lady who answered the phone, one who didn’t speak very good English. Haha.

Once we got to the bottom, we met up with Sam and the rest of the people who didn’t join us on the mountain. Some of them went shopping while others walked around the area a little and grabbed some lunch. We all got back on the bus and Driver Steve drove us to the hotel in the little town called Kriens, not far from the base of the mountain. The hotel seemed to be divided into 2 buildings, with one being across the street. The boys were placed in that one, since there were only 14 of them (besides Steve and Driver Steve) out of our group of 51. After freshening up, we were all starving, and we went down into the dining room.

Alex and I found a table close to one of the windows, and sat with Kameron, a tall Australian guy who thought he was the oldest in the group at 32, and if I’m not mistaken, Adam, another Aussie. By the way, there were 3 Adams in our group – the one I met on the first day who came with the married couple and the girl who was not his girlfriend, this one who I was sitting with at dinner, and Aadam, one of the twins.

We had a pleasant supper and ended off with ice cream for dessert. One thing I must make clear is that I love ice cream. It is my thing. When I was a kid, I would eat a 2L tub every week. I generally prefer sweet over savoury, but I don’t like anything too sweet. When I tasted this ice cream, it was on the extreme end of sweet. I wanted to have it because I mean, look at that thing, it had the Swiss flag on it, but I could not get beyond a quarter of it. It was just too much to handle and sadly I had to leave it without finishing it.

Steve gave us till 7ish to be done and he was going to take us to a nearby pub, since the Euro 2012 was on. I wanted to walk a little around the town and since I hadn’t been to the pubs in Amsterdam, I wasn’t about to pass up on any opportunity in Switzerland. It was a short 10 minute walk to the pub, and I got to admire the quiet little town of Kriens. Some people were waiting to take the bus into town. It was, after all, a Saturday night. Another reason for me to go to the pub.

When I got there it was very strange territory for me. We don’t go to pubs in South Africa, at least, not the way the English or Europeans do, and especially not Indian girls. I’m not much of a drinker at all either, I had never had  a beer in my life, so I had no idea what to even get. It was great watching some of the locals who seemed so at home there. It was like a normal thing to do to stop over for a quick beer before heading home. I loved that kind of life. Well, not the beer drinking bit, but how natural it seemed for them to do it. There’s nothing wrong with it anyway.

After dilly dallying around and watching a bit of the game, I felt pretty tired and thought I should make my way back to the hotel. Some girls came with me and we walked back in the light drizzle. When Alex and I got into bed, I  heard some church bells and I smiled for the hundredth time that day to myself. Switzerland so far was everything I had dreamed of, and I still had another whole day to look forward to.

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