11 June 2012. I woke up heartbroken that I had to leave Switzerland. I wished I could stay longer. I was, however, excited (and bloody nervous) that I was going to be doing white water rafting on the way to Austria. But more of that later. I was also really excited to see Liechtenstein because for years and years my mother has been talking about how beautiful (and small) it is. How many people can really say they’ve been to Liechtenstein?
We left the hotel at around 8:30, after the usual task of loading the bus. Alex hopped on to the bus to reserve the seats directly behind driver Steve (CC and Jose sat behind tour manager Steve, they had their spot too) while I waddled along in the queue to help driver Steve load the bags onto the bus. It had become a set thing for Alex and I to do that by then. It would be a sin to miss the views of the Alps just because we were sitting at an awkward spot on the bus.
The plan was to drive straight to Liechtenstein where we’d have lunch, then go to Austria. There were about 36 of us who were going to be doing the rafting, so we had to pack an extra set of clothes in our overnight bags – something to change into after we were done with the rafting.
The drive through the Swiss Alps was nothing short of spectacular, as expected. Again, the green was like nothing I’d ever seen back home in South Africa, nor anywhere else. What thrilled me was how the clouds appeared to be half way down the mountain, so close to the ground. There was a significant amount of mountain both above and below the cloud. It was the perfect backdrop for photos, and I tried to take advantage of that from my aisle seat.
The aisle seat and I had a love/hate relationship. I had more legroom because I could stick my leg out into the aisle and also watch what Steve was up to whenever he opened the “bank” or drew up a new day sheet. I found his job very interesting and a large part of it is what I would love to do (i.e. travel for work). It also gave me a larger view out the front of the bus, as well as partake more actively in conversations with CC, Jose, and both Steves. The disadvantage though was that I got neither the view nor the headrest that I got with the window seat. I guess the pros of the aisle seat did outweigh the cons, so I won’t complain.
Steve explained to us that Liechtenstein is actually controlled by Switzerland, and that they use Swiss Francs there too. This didn’t help me since I didn’t have a single Swiss Franc to begin with. But ok, even if I did, I would have kept it as a souvenir (yeah yeah, I know I’m nuts, but I love everything to do with Switzerland). Liechtenstein also has its own Royal family, which I found a little amusing yet amazing at the same time. From what my mother told me, you can walk from one end of the country to the other in an hour, and that the whole capital, Vaduz, is basically one street.
Throughout the tour, even though we went through so many countries, Liechtenstein was the only place where we could get our passport stamped. Obviously my plan was to take advantage of that. Again, like I said, how many people can really say they’ve been to Liechtenstein? And what better way to prove that you were there than having your passport stamped?
After a couple hours, we finally saw some street signs for Vaduz. The scenery just seemed to get better and better as we got closer, and once we entered Liechtenstein territory it was as if we entered a real fairy tale kingdom. I don’t know if it was just in my head but the green got greener, the surrounding mountains got more majestic, and even though the sun decided to hide, it didn’t dull the beauty of the place. The size, or rather, lack of it, even though expected, still shocked me. It was bloody small!
As we drove towards the place where we were to have lunch, it was difficult not to admire the manicured sidewalks and spotlessly clean roads. To me, the cars looked out of place. If I lived there, I’d probably just own a bike. After all, in such a small country, why would you need a car? Well, to be fair to the locals, maybe the cars I did see were that of tourists or other Europeans visiting for the day.
Steve eventually stopped in the bus parking so that we could get out. It was great being able to stretch my legs again, and I could finally set foot in Liechtenstein. I was thrilled, even though the weather seemed to be in favour of grey rather than blue.
We headed straight for the restaurant and being the big group of 51, took up quite a bit of space. I sat at a table next to the window overlooking the deck which was raised slightly above the ground. There were some tables on the deck, too, but seeing as how miserable the weather was looking, none of us opted for the “scenic seats” unlike some senior citizens who were already there.
We were each given a menu which had the prices of all the food but not the drinks, which I found very weird. The drinks were listed as a paragraph, too. All prices were in Swiss Francs, which was when we had to confirm with the waiter that Euros would be accepted. They were, thankfully.
I could not resist ordering a Swiss Hot Chocolate, which was about CHF8, or roughly €9. That was ridiculously expensive for me but I had to drink something, and besides, it was Swiss and it had chocolate. Swiss chocolate. A combination that, for me, was a sin to turn down. Jose, who sat opposite me with CC, also ordered it. It arrived as a cup of milk with a sachet that contained the hot chocolate, and a little ginger biscuit. Since the biscuit was sealed, being the sucker for souvenirs that I am, I left it untouched. Jose, however, couldn’t wait and devoured his. CC doesn’t know up till now, I don’t think, that he stole hers too!
To eat, I thought of ordering the second cheapest thing on the menu (the first being chips – I can never handle that much starch), which was the apple strudel with custard. It was really good but I thought that the apple was a little overpowering. Thank goodness for the custard, which killed some of the sourness. It was only good if you ate both the strudel and custard together. The custard on its own was too sweet.
When we were done, we waited (rather impatiently) for the waiter to figure out how much each person owed and divide the bill accordingly. He gave us each our own invoice, which took forever.
When I eventually paid, there was a little time to go to the souvenir shop nearby. There were a whole lot of tourists from India who I was so annoyed with because they acted as if they were the only people in the shop. Its not what I expected of them because Indians (I mean specifically those from India) are generally very patient and courteous people. At least, the ones I know. But these ones seemed to have come from hell. They were pushing in front of people (both from my tour group and other tourists) and didn’t differentiate women from men, nor adult from child. They pushed everyone in any direction they needed to in order to get to either the cashier or the item that they wanted. Yes, I was also pushed multiple times by different people. I wanted to tell one of them off in Hindi but decided to keep quiet. I wasn’t about to be known as the girl who had a fight with some random tourist in Liechstenstein over being pushed to the side! Besides, how funny would it have been for a South African and an Indian having an argument in Hindi in the middle of Europe!
After I got whatever little souvenirs I wanted, it was time to rendezvous with the group. When I got to them, Steve showed us where the office to get our passport stamped was. I think that if I blinked, I would have missed it. It was so small! It was the most insignificant looking structure and if you didn’t look hard enough, you’d never know that that was the place you were looking for. In the picture, it is the little blue structure on the left.
By this time it had started to drizzle and we didn’t have much time before we had to leave for Austria to do the rafting. I took a brisk walk to the tourism office with Alex and we waited patiently as another girl got her passport stamped. We had to pay about €3 to get the stamp, which is nothing really considering the significance of it. I gladly paid and trotted back to the group quite pleased with my latest stamp. I then decided that my new goal would be to fill my passport before it expires. I wonder if I can do that. Hmm. So much to do, so little time!
Once everyone had gathered, we got back on to the bus and we off to Austria. Now, it was only on the previous day that I made up my mind to do the rafting. My mother had forbade me to do it, before I even booked my trip. I didn’t budget for it either, and it cost about €41, so I kept changing my mind about whether to do it or not. It was literally a last minute decision and I made that decision after I did the paddle boat ride with Steve, Tiffany, Seeta and Chloe on Lake Lucerne. After thinking long and hard about it and checking some things with Steve, I told him to count me in. Its more difficult for him to cancel an activity for someone than it is to book. He immediately made the call and my booking was confirmed.
I was nervous about the rafting ever since then, and now that we were going to do it, I was trying to prepare myself. The fact that I was going behind my mother’s back made me a little uneasy too, but I knew she’d forgive me once I told her. After all, I knew I wasn’t going to die. And even if I did, well, I’d be in Europe. I plotted to tell her only after I got back to SA, so that her period of worrying would be limited. The last thing I wanted to do was raise her blood pressure unnecessarily!
We knew that we had reached Austria when Steve put on the title song from The Sound of Music. I got goosebumps when he did that, it was perfect. The Sound of Music is one of my all-time favourite films, and I adore Julie Andrews to bits. It could not have been more fitting to have that song playing. The hills appeared to be even greener, but maybe I just had a moment of falling in love so things looked even better than they already did. I think the light rain enhanced the green even further too. I was slightly upset with Steve when he stopped the song before it finished, however it was because he wanted to give us the pep talk about Austria. Steve, couldn’t you have waited? Sigh.
Some time passed before we began a short descent into the valley where we were to meet the rafting instructors. The further down we got, the more rough the road became until eventually we were driving over gravel. It was the only thing around me that wasn’t green. When I got out of the bus, I had to grab my overnight bag that was stored in the side of the bus in order to get the clothes that I’d be wearing under the wet suit. Since I didn’t plan on doing the rafting, I didn’t pack swimwear for it. So it was going to be bloody uncomfortable to be in shorts and a top under the wet suit, which I was about to find out.
We were given a brief talk about safety from a big, rather loud instructor. There were about 5 of them, and a 6th one was standing beside a truck that contained the life jackets. The wet suits were piled in front of us, along with the shoes and vests which we had to wear under the life jacket. The wet suits were black but had either red or blue trimmings. There were also helmets for us to use.
After the talk we signed the waver form and lined up to get our gear, before going to the wooden cabin to get changed. It was awkward, to put it mildly, getting into that wet suit. And having to do so in such a small space didn’t make it any easier. So, as soon as I got the wet suit on, I went outside to put on the shoes, vest, and life jacket. I carried my helmet with me as I felt like I already looked like an idiot, so the last thing I wanted to do was add to the idiocy of the outfit. Seeing everyone else though made me feel a little better. No one actually looked that bad, but of course some did pull it off really well. We got together for 2 group photos which involved us climbing on top of one of the rafts. It was rather funny watching people trying to balance on it, but eventually we all fitted on it. I found a place to sit at the front, rather than stand, because I was already so awkward in that wet suit that I didn’t want the embarrassment of falling over from being stuck in it and hence losing my balance. It would be a hilarious way of falling. For others watching, that is.
We then had to separate ourselves into groups of either 6 or 8. There were one or two rafts that could fit 9, but on my raft we got 8. I didn’t know (or maybe I just couldn’t recognise) who was on my team other than Renae, Ronnie, Felicia and Kelly. We were shown some basic things like how to grab on to the raft, and decided on who would be at the front since it would require the most strength. Ronnie and I were already at the front of the raft so we didn’t have much choice on being the power generators. Our guide explained that Ronnie and I needed to look at each other (“not in a sexual way”, he said) so that we’d be able to mimic each others movements. The comment about us not looking at each other in a sexual way made us chuckle and my eyes also widened because Renae, Ronnie’s girlfriend, was standing right next to him. The guide obviously didn’t know that. It was a brief moment of unnecessary awkwardness.
We then had the daunting task of carrying our own raft down to the Inn River. That thing was bloody heavy and even though so many of us were carrying it, it was such a mission, especially considering it was just a yellow thing filled with air. It was much bigger than I expected too. We struggled carrying it for what seemed like a kilometre or so. At one point we had to cross a bridge and the only way we could get it across was by lifting it over our heads. Damn! By the time we got to the river I was quite exhausted.
Steve, along with two other teams, were standing on the river bank, wading in the shin-deep water. Steve wanted us to get wet so that the water would get into the wet suits and be warmed by our body temperatures. That’s how wet suits work, which I didn’t know before, obviously, since I’d never been in one before. He told us how dry suits work too.
Now, one thing you should know about Steve is that he has a very cunning sense of humour. He came up with this story, looking and sounding so concerned, that someone had dropped their camera in the water and that we should try to look for it before the current could sweep it into the main river. I was very skeptical about this tale and waited a few moments to see what everyone else was doing. A good number of people lowered themselves into the water so that they could feel the ground on which they were standing with their hands. This made all of them scream due to their upper bodies being hit by the ice cold water, which they had forgotten about momentarily since their feet were now warm. I then looked back at Steve and saw that him and 2 of the instructors were trying to hide their faces while chuckling to themselves at the expense of everyone’s stupidity. I shook my head and smiled at his wickedness. It was pretty funny.
I can’t remember how all of us got into our respective rafts. I think it must have been on the shallow river bank that we were standing on as there was no way we could steadily get into the raft in the rushing current of the river. Our guide sat at the back so that he could steer. Then we were off!
The guide showed us what to do whenever he gave us a command, such as “get down” and “go forward”. Getting down involved us holding onto the rope on the side of the raft with one hand, while placing our knee on the inner side of the raft down, holding the paddle with the free hand, and lowering our heads so that the water would hit our helmets. Going forward doesn’t require much explanation except Ronnie and I putting in as much power as we could and the others following diligently.
We had plenty of time to rest as we went down the river, and the guide told us some amusing tales of previous rafting experiences and the stupid questions he got asked. My favourite questions were “Does the river flow in a circle?” and “Is this the same sun we get in the States?”. I don’t think the word “dumbass” is appropriate enough for people as idiotic as that.
The part of the Inn River that we were rafting through is categorized as having level 3 rapids, which is easy enough for amateurs. This means that it doesn’t have too many rapids or dangerous areas that only experienced rafters can tackle. It was only because of this that we had that time to rest. Every now and again the guide would instruct us to move forward. It felt really good being able to row with such force, and we were making good progress which was evident by the fact that we were ahead of the other teams.
We were horrified when the instructor told us that we had to jump out of the raft, one side at a time. First, the right side had to jump out and hold on to the rope. The people on the left, which was my side, then had to pull the person opposite us back into the raft. We were taught to grab them by the life jacket, using the straps going over the shoulder as handles, and yank them out. Ronnie is much smaller than me so it was very easy for me to pull him out. I wish this made it easier for him to pull me out when it was my turn though. But, just so that I don’t shoot myself down too much, he was holding me incorrectly. He held my arm with one hand and my life jacket with the other, so it made things even more difficult. Because of this I also began to panic slightly because I was getting tired from kicking underwater (which we were told helps when someone is trying to get us out) and I really didn’t think he was going to successfully pull me out. In my mind I was freaking out a bit because the thought of being swept down river crossed my mind.
The guide eventually stepped in and told Ronnie to sit back down so that he could pull me out. He did so with such force, that he practically threw me into the raft. As if I wasn’t tense from the freaking out, I was suddenly hit with this shock of being hurled out of the water and thrown. I was in an awkward spot at the front of the raft after that, between the pointy end and the horizontal bit that went from the left to the right side, so it took me a few moments to calm down and get myself back up to my seat at the front. The guide kept checking with me if I was ok, which was really sweet of him. I was ok, I had just freaked out. It was rather embarrassing though! After getting back into my seat and catching my breath, I was perfectly alright. I also felt invigorated.
At one point I tried using so much force that I actually broke my nail on the rope, which sounds trivial especially considering I’m not a girly girl who has a fit when she breaks a nail, except that mine broke beyond the cuticle and was actually bleeding. It was bloody sore. There was a little joke about this with my guide and one other, but when I showed them that it was actually bleeding because of how far back it broke, they shut up.
There was only one occasion when we were really splashed, and the guide made us get down for that. I actually felt my helmet getting slapped, and my ears were also whacked with the cold water. It felt great though. At least, after I shook my head enough to be able to hear again.
I remember another instance where the guide asked us to grab onto the rope with one hand, and lean back in order to make our heads touch the water. I managed to do that without any fear, and was quite chuffed with myself. The guide then told us that he only did that in order to see how flexible the girls were. Um…right. Ok.
Through all of this, there were many chances to admire the surroundings. That is, the Alps of course. We didn’t have to look into the distance to see them, we actually had to look up. It was great.
We were heading closer to Innsbruck as we went down river. We knew we were getting close to the end when we approached a bridge on which some of our group was standing, waiting for us. Tina was there with her camera of course. She had become known as the girl who would not miss a single photo opportunity. It was great though because we could have a photo taken from a totally different angle. We all waved at her and the others as we got closer to the bridge.
Once we got to the river bank, we had to carry the raft again, but for a much shorter distance. We all were given a shot of vodka to celebrate our adventure, in “true Contiki style”. We could order photos too, including the group one we had taken before we started. It cost about €8 each, which I didn’t mind paying considering I’d never do white water rafting again. At least, not in Austria. Besides my moment of panic, I really enjoyed it because it was something I always wanted to do but never had the opportunity.
After I ordered my 2 photos, I went to join the others in removing the wet suit. We could dump the life jackets and helmets in a pile but had to put the wet suits and shoes in some water before giving them to one of the guides to hang. It was such a pain in the ass to get the shoes off, and Renae and I looked like spastic idiots trying to take ours off. Because of the water, they stuck to our feet. Our hands were also so cold, that we couldn’t really grab onto them tightly enough. Once everything was handed back, we found a place to shower and change. Time was running out so I didn’t shower, and thought I’d do so once I got to the hotel. I wasn’t too happy about it though because I knew I looked like hell and we still had to get to Innsbruck and visit the Swarovski headquarters. But, what was more important to me was getting back on the bus and not being left behind.
I was disappointed when the bus wasn’t ready when I was (so I actually could have showered) because I was starving and I didn’t have my wallet with me. It was still on the bus which meant I had to wait. I joined everyone else outside the little takeaway and tried to warm up in the sun. As soon as the bus came, I went to get my wallet and paid for the photos, before running back to the little takeaway to get a bite to eat, but unfortunately no one was around and the bus was going to leave, so I had to rush back without eating anything. That sucked because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and it was already after 3pm. Anyway…
After about an hour we finally arrived in Innsbruck. We stopped somewhere in town and got out of the bus just outside a park. We had to walk through it and contend with the drizzle as we made our way to the Swarovski headquarters. The town was quaint and really small, and nearly every building had window boxes. It was beautiful. I was so tired though that I don’t remember much of what Steve told us about the place.
After walking through some narrow streets, we arrived at Swarovski. When we got inside, it was like a huge boutique with black walls and a whole lot of bling. There was something sparkly in every direction, including the staircase. We were given a brief introduction about the business and were told that we’d each get a little voucher of some sort that would allow us to get a gift once we were done shopping.
After the talk, we were free to go mad. I didn’t really plan on buying anything but hell, I was at the headquarters so I couldn’t leave empty handed. If the crystalised animals didn’t cost so many hundreds (if not thousands) of Euros, I definitely would have gotten myself one. They really were works of art.
There were multiple floors of course (duh, the staircase isn’t just for show) and upstairs the floor opened up and there were display cases everywhere. The girls were going mad but who could blame them when there was so much to choose from like rings, watches, bracelets, necklaces and bangles… basically every item of jewelry you can think of. I didn’t find anything I wanted (or that I could afford) upstairs though and decided to make my way to the floor that was below ground level. Here, I found much more reasonably priced things and managed to pick up a ring for a mere €16. The gift that I got when paying was a little shard of I actually don’t know what because it looked like glass. Maybe that’s why it was free? Hmm.
When I was done I headed outside and Steve said that we would have some time to explore the town before meeting him at 6pm outside a building that was undergoing renovations that seemed to be in the middle of town. I saw Adam outside, the Australian guy who came with his 3 friends (the married couple and the sister) but he was all alone. I think the others had ditched him. I don’t know why I remember that he was wearing a black hoodie. Maybe because he was in an alleyway and it sort of fit with the suspect look.
I decided to take a short walk around the area and get something typically Austrian. I managed to get a really nice embroidered tray cloth from a little shop, as well as a red T-shirt. I had to get a red one because Alex and I were made to support Russia for the Euro 2012, and they were going to be playing the next day and I didn’t have a single item of clothing that was red. We actually decided on the bus about 2 days prior that every pair on the bus would support a particular country playing in the Euro 2012 and that they’d have to wear that country’s colours on the day that they’d be playing. So, my red item of clothing was taken care of, and I killed 2 birds with one stone since the T-shirt said “Innsbruck, Austria” on it.
After I got my goodies, I went back to the central point and met up with Tiffany and Kelly and we thought we’d take a walk around, beyond where I’d been already. We bumped into Adam’s clan and they asked what I was going to do. I mentioned that I saw Adam loitering outside Swarovski, which they found very amusing as they thought it was an appropriate word to use for him…”loitering”. They said that it was probably what he was doing. Haha! “The sister” joined Tiffany, Kelly and I, and I finally found out what her name was – Rachel. Her sister was Alli and her brother in law was Paul. They seemed like really nice people but I hadn’t really spoken with them before that day.
The 4 of us headed out and caught our first glimpse of a huge pizza. A guy had come out of a pizza shop holding this massive slice that he had to hold more than half way down his chest, and with both hands, in order to take a civilized bite out of it.
The further we walked, the closer we got to the Austrian Alps that formed the backdrop of Innsbruck. It really was a sight to see because the mountains were so close. They were right in our faces. I couldn’t get over how close the homes were to them. They were right at the bottom of the mountains themselves. I would have killed to live there among such beauty.
Once we crossed the busy road, we continued walking and were attracted by cheers and the sound of soccer commentary booming out from some speakers. We thought it would be nice to see the locals enjoying the football, so we tried to find a way to get into one of the fan parks. It was not long before we knew it wasn’t going to work and since we had such limited time (barely an hour) we rather spend it wandering around more and seeing Innsbruck.
We stopped at a little shop that sold clothes and accessories, and I managed to pick up a great handbag. Again, I didn’t intend on buying anything but this huge green bag for €29 caught my eye and I just had to have it. Girls will be girls, I guess. I don’t remember what the others picked up, but I think all of us left that shop with something.
We headed back to town thinking we had less time than we actually did, only to find that we still had about an hour left to kill. Since we were all pretty hungry and there was a coffee shop right outside the building where we were to meet Steve, we decided to park off and get ourselves something to drink, at least. We also met Alex there who decided to join us for a cup. I got myself a delicious cappuccino which cost about €6 if I remember correctly. Cheaper than Switzerland, but still expensive for me.
Finally, Steve and the rest of the group met up again and we took a short walk to the bus in order to get to our hotel, Dollinger. It was a beautiful red building with lots of window boxes. We got there l just before 7 and had some time to freshen up before dinner at 7:30. Our room was great, and I loved the bathroom. It was small but was very new and modern. In terms of cleanliness and beauty, it really matched the outside.
After neatening ourselves up, Alex and I went down to the dining room for dinner. It was a large room with lots of tables, and I found a spot at the head of the long table that spanned almost the full length of the room. Everyone I had become friends with was at that table so I was well positioned. It was very nice and the brightness of the room woke everyone up from the long day we had just had.
The supper we had was a bit like KFC. It was chicken schnitzel with some veg which included steamed green beans and black beans, as well as a dollop of mashed potato and some green salad. It was nothing special but was quite nice nonetheless.
I was exhausted after dinner and even though we had a free night, I didn’t want to go back to town. I think lots of people stayed behind after the tiring afternoon of rafting, but I was so exhausted by then that I actually can’t say for sure. I therefore showered and crawled straight into bed, only then realizing that the next morning I’d be heading to the place that I’ve always wanted to go to – Venice.