Monthly Archives: July 2015

Bugwoman on Location – The Konigstal

The start of the path along the Konigstal

The start of the path along the Konigstal

Dear Readers, today we decided to tackle the Konigstal, the fourth of the local valleys that reach out like fingers from Obergurgl. Unlike the other valleys, which involve a climb and then a nice gentle stroll, the Konigstal involves climbing and climbing and climbing. It’s about 600 metres from where we start to where we finish, which doesn’t sound much, but doesn’t account for all the scree and snow and streams that are involved in getting to the little hut where we always collapse in a heap.

Snow lasts for a long time in the Konigstal

Snow lasts for a long time in the Konigstal

IMG_3477I haven’t seen many bumblebees since I arrived in the Alps, but today there was a little group of three  who seemed to prefer to crawl over the flowers rather than fly – at this altitude I imagine that they want to save as much energy as possible. This species is, I believe, Bombus mendax, a purely Alpine species which has a conservation status of  Near Threatened, what with climate change and the fragmentation of Alpine habitats.

IMG_3482Up and up we trudge. The mountains surround us as if we were specimen at the bottom of a bowl.

IMG_3489Can you see that tiny speck on the horizon? That’s where we’re going…

Funny how it never seems to get any nearer.

IMG_3495And the nearest place for a coffee is up there, at the Top Mountain Star cafe, a mere 3084 metres above sea level….

IMG_3494So we traverse some snow, scramble up some scree and all of a sudden it all seems doable.

IMG_3496And then, after a final push, we arrive.

IMG_3497This used to be the old customs hut, for people bringing goods from Italy into Austria. Whole herds of sheep, sometimes with whiskey bottles strapped to their tummies, apparently sneaked past this hut at dead of night without the customs officer waking up. I rather suspect that some of the whiskey found its way into the customs officer’s tummy.

And look at this view back down.

IMG_3501Glory hallelujah.

The flowers up here are the high altitude species that don’t thrive anywhere else.

Bavarian Gentian (Gentiana bavarica)

Bavarian Gentian (Gentiana bavarica)

And I was especially pleased to find these little beauties – they are Glacier Crowfoot, and can grow up to 4200 metres, so are some of the highest altitude plants in the Alps.

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Glacier Crowfoot (Ranunculus glacialis)

And so, it’s time to head back down. All those hard-earned metres melt away as we skip like mountain goats back down the path (or, to be more accurate, plod down with an occasional heart-felt groan). When we get down a little lower, armies of Spiniest Thistle appear, waving their ‘arms’ like miniature triffids.

Our old friends, Spiniest Thistle. En masse.

Our old friends, Spiniest Thistle. En masse.

And then, suddenly, we’re back on the main drag, walking back towards the Hochgurgl lift which will take us down for an Apfelsaft and a tea. We pass a small family group, who are conferring in German over a map. We manage to help them work out where all the paths go, but one woman holds back.

“Is it all like that?” she asks, gesturing at the path.

I realise that it probably does look rather daunting, as these things often do before you actually do them.

“About twenty-five percent of it is a little bit scary”, says my husband, “but the rest is fine”.

“It’s very beautiful”, I say.

“But I’m very scared”, she says.

And what can anyone say to that?

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I understand”.

And we turn away, to let them make their own decision. When we look back, it seems as if the father and one of the children has gone down, and the mother and another child, who is complaining bitterly, is heading back to the lift.

It’s so hard to beat our fears, sometimes. There are walks here that I certainly wouldn’t do – walks that are too exposed would not work for me. We all have our particular red lines, and this poor woman must have reached hers. Maybe she will gain in confidence over her holiday, but today this was just a step too far.

As we cross the last meadow, I notice a butterfly, and realise that it’s that great traveller, the Painted Lady. It’s already crossed the Atlas Mountains, and now it’s giving the Alps a go. How can such a fragile creature be so resilient, and so determined?

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

The underside of the wings is almost as beautiful as the top.

The underside of the wings is almost as beautiful as the top.

And as we reach the lift, we pass a very interesting character.

The scariest water trough in the valley

The scariest water trough in the valley

The Tyroleans have a very singular sense of humour that often falls over into kitsch. But there is often a dark side too – I have seen several water troughs carved into faces, and the people here seem to love witches on broomsticks, dwarves, gnomes, and other such folk. This chap looks rather menacing to me, with his staring eyes and gaping mouth.  I think I might wait till later to get some water, thank you.

Bugwoman on Location – Ooops

IMG_3457Well, after complaining about the heat yesterday, I should have guessed that the weather gods would take umbrage and provide one of those days when the clouds are below the tops of the mountains and the temperature drops ten degrees. But, as I have a twinge in one ankle, we decided to take it a bit easier today and pop down the valley to the town of Oetz, where they have a cable-car that we don’t visit very often.

The Ackerkogelbahn

The Ackerkogelbahn

Now, I generally like cable-cars and chairlifts and all the other ways of getting up steep hills quickly, but the Ackerkogelbahn is unusual in several respects. Firstly,  it’s an old lift, designed for the days when folk were shorter and nimbler, and so you have to duck your head very carefully when you get in to avoid a knock on the noggin. Secondly, this is one fast lift – you have about ten seconds to get in before the doors slam shut and off you go. So, you have to be both quick on your feet and physically flexible. Fortunately, we managed to get in without a hitch, and were just settling back and congratulating ourselves when, with a strange whirring sound, the whole thing came to a halt, above a vertiginous drop into a pine forest. This in itself is not a problem, except that the whole car bounced up and down in slow-motion like a yo-yo, which is most discomforting for the stomach. Up and down we went, like a boat wallowing in a heavy sea.

When you’re moving, it’s easy to forget that you’re suspended in a little pod on a piece of wire. When you stop, you become all too aware of the fact.

Did I mention that my husband suffers from travel sickness?

Well, fortunately we were soon underway again. And then we stopped again. And then we roared up the rest of the way and practically fell out at the top, a little green but otherwise intact.

Never was I so glad to see a miniature horse.

IMG_3464Like many farmers in the valley, the ones at the Ackerkogelbahn keep a few creatures for the children, who will then persuade their parents to visit again and again. These tiny horses have been here for years, and indeed one of them nearly ate my rucksack on my last visit. I think it was the one pictured below.  Today, a very small boy toddled over to him, watched by his adoring parents. As the child reached out to pat the horse, the horse moved smartly away, leaving the poor infant sprawled in a cowpat. A horse that could do this could certainly maul a favourite walking accessory.

IMG_3463And there were also the ubiquitous Tyrolean Grey cows, including this calf, who was having a drink in the cow trough.

IMG_3469So, I took this as a hint that it was time for me to have some lunch, and to steel myself for the cable car back down to the bus stop. My ankle feels rested, and tomorrow we are hopefully tackling the  Konigsjoch. This is one of those walks that will definitely get my heart rate into the high 150’s, as it is uphill all the blooming way, and some years we end up wading through snow and fording (small) rivers. My husband has assured me that this year it will be different. I await the morrow with a cynically-raised eyebrow.

Bugwoman on Location – Too Blooming Hot!

IMG_3430The weather in Obergurgl this week has been the best that I’ve ever known – sunny, blue skies, little white fluffy clouds, the lot. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it the easiest weather for walking, so we’ve been setting off early and getting home early. And today, we decided to head for the archaeological site of Am Beilstein, about an hour and a half’s walk from the village.

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Heading up to Am Beilstein, with the peak of Hangerer in the background. People fitter than me actually run up it!

To start with, we cross the Gurgler Ache, the river for which all the villages around here are named.

IMG_3428We have Obergurgl (of course) but also Hochgurgl and Untergurgl. Never did a river have such an onomatopoeic name.

The rocks on the slope here are full of wary marmots. So wary that they declined to be photographed. Ah well.

IMG_3400The great joy of this walk is that it’s all about water. The streams from the mountains above pour down next to the path like bridal veils, or cascades of ice crystals, or some other simile that I’m too hot to create. I think that there is something about a stream that touches something very deep in us, that makes us feel as if this is a good place to be. So it must have been for our ancestors, because this area has been used by human beings for over ten thousand years.

IMG_3403The water is icy-cold and good to drink, pouring pure from the heart of the mountain.

IMG_3412Hunter-gatherers lived in these hills.  Did they crouch down to bring a cupped palm to their mouths as they looked around for deer or hare? Did their dogs lap in these waters? On this blazing hot day, we were the only people on this trail.

IMG_3410IMG_3413And finally, we got to Am Beilstein itself. The path ends, the hillside falls away, and we can see for miles into the valley below.

IMG_3420In previous years, I’ve been too afraid to go close to the edge, but maybe my vertigo is improving. There is some stonework here from the Twelfth Century, which was used as a pen for sheep or goats, long after the hunter-gatherers had turned into farmers.

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The woodwork here is a reconstruction, but the brickwork is from the 12th Century.

So, we sit on a stone and gaze out at the valley, identifying two mountain huts which seem to erupt from the surrounding geology. One is perched like an eagle on a crag, and we look at it longingly. It’s much too hard a climb for us this year – the last five hundred metres is a hard scrabble through boulders. We eat our (slightly stale) cheese sandwiches. And then, as I stand to leave, two roe deer run through the pasture below us. They are the colour of caramel and seem spring-loaded, making elegant sweeping leaps until they disappear behind the rocks and the stunted pine trees. They were here and gone before I could raise the camera, but it’s good to just watch sometimes, to admire the play of muscle and sinew, the dash and bravado of it. For the first time in maybe ten thousand years, these deer can pass humans without fearing for their lives – this whole area is a national park, and it is forbidden to hunt here. However, the inside of any Tyrolean hotel will tell you that things were different very recently. Here is just a selection of the ‘decoration’ in our hotel. Ugh.

Chamois

Chamois

Roe deer

Roe deer

Badger

Badger

Marmot

Marmot

Ibex

Ibex

And so we head down, to David’s Hutte, where we manage a cup of tea and a huge shared plate of the local delicacy Kaiserschmarren – a plate of chopped up pancakes with icing sugar and jam. The Hutte dog has found the only piece of shade in the place, and is making the most of it.

IMG_3431And what a wise and gentle dog he seems to be, a distant ancestor of those half-wolves that our hunter-gatherer ancestors first domesticated.

IMG_3439

Bugwoman on Location – Changeover Day

IMG_3393Dear Readers, Saturday is Changeover Day in Obergurgl. Lots of visitors are going home, and new people will be sitting at their tables in the hotel tonight. It’s a bittersweet day: we are pleased to still be here, but the folk who have gone will take their stories with them.

For instance, there’s  the mother with her eighteen year-old daughter at the next table. The mother was up for breakfast at 8 a.m. every morning. The daughter didn’t get going till noon at the earliest. When the daughter did get up, she had to put on her full make-up before she left the room. She got travel-sick on chairlifts and buses. She hadn’t brought any walking clothes. Her best day was when she found some make-up in one of the shops at 30% off. Never was a person so out of place on a mountain holiday.

And yet, when I saw her, all sardonically painted eyebrow and red lipstick, what I saw was someone teetering on the edge between the security of childhood and the great unknown of being a woman. Someone who wanted her mother to look after her, and yet repeatedly shoved her away.

In other words, someone much like me at the same age. In a few years, so many of these painful things will have been worked out, and I hope that she will be able to have a happy relationship with her mother. But for now, there is just too much going on. She is metamorphosing, and that is a painful thing. As I saw them wrestling with their suitcases this morning, I wished them both well, and I meant it. They will both come out the other side of this, and will wonder what the hell it was all about.

It’s all change in the village as well. With the weather set fair for the next few days, the pastures are being cut. On the bigger fields, like the one in the photo above, a tractor is used to cut the grass and then arrange it into rows, but these are swept into little mini haystacks by hand. And soon the later plants will grow, ready for a second cut in the early autumn. This is what keeps the tremendous variety of plants here, and helps to make sure that dandelions and docks are part of the mix, not the majority of it. But it is sad to see a butterfly flickering over the cut stems, investigating a fallen clover. Fortunately, there are always some areas which are wild, and which hold enough nectar for the pollinators. Which brings me to this.

Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium helenoides)

Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum)

A week ago, the Melancholy Thistle was a mass of buds, but now it’s in full flower. It was said by Nicholas Culpeper, the herbalist, to make a man ‘as merry as a cricket’. But it isn’t just humans that it makes merry, for as soon as it opens, something rather wonderful appears.

IMG_3383These are a type of scarab beetle (Protaetia), and I only see them when the Melancholy Thistle is in flower. Some years, they seem to be mostly green, but there were a lot of gold ones about today. They rummage around in the thistle flower in a kind of frenzy, undisturbed even by middle-aged ladies trying to capture their portrait.

IMG_3384The beetle on the right seems to have some whitish powder attached to it, which I am assuming is pollen. The one on the left is positively drunk on nectar, and wasn’t coming out to say hello. Oh, and there’s a fly too. What a resource a thistle is! I must try to encourage some more in my garden.

And in the other highlight of the day, a mysterious bird has been spotted, who might or might not be an eagle. I am putting my money on it being a buzzard, although I’ve never seen one previously in these parts. I have only one photo so far, and it isn’t great. All opinions welcome, and if I get a better photo, you’ll be the first to know!

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Bugwoman on Location – Walking the Gaisberg Valley

IMG_3333Dear Readers, one of my favourite walks in Obergurgl is along the Gaisberg valley. But to get there, there’s a hard, steep pull up a serpentine service road. The road surface is made of slippery stone-chippings, the sun beats down, and everyone going up in the lift to the hut above has a good view of your (lack of) progress. I have taken to wearing a Fitbit, to log my footsteps. It also records my heart rate.

“What’s your BPM now?” asks my husband, as I suck in some air for the final ascent.

I squint at my Fitbit.

“153”, I say.

“Is that even possible?” he says.

And unless I’ve transmogrified into a hummingbird and not noticed, I doubt that it is. So much for monitoring.

At last we get to the entrance to the valley. I plonk down on a stone, and soon notice that the whole area is full of the blood-red blurs of Six-spot Burnet moths.

IMG_3325They are everywhere here, gathering nectar and bumping into things. As a caterpillar, they would have fed on Birdsfoot Trefoil. These moths are newly emerged, making the most of the short summer season. And less than a quarter of a mile later, there are none at all. Such is the variety of habitats on this walk.

IMG_3344The sheep are finding the heat a bit much. They would be laying in some shade if they could find some, but there isn’t any and this is a risk for humans too – I managed to get a slightly burnt neck yesterday. Here in the Gaisberg, the sheep simply form a ‘sleeping heap’, which seems to work for them.

IMG_3336IMG_3337We stop for sandwiches at a flat rock by the weather. As usual, I am surveying the hillside for marmots, and we soon see one running from rock to rock. Then another appears. This has been a good year for sightings, and I hope a good year for baby marmots.

IMG_3349

Spot the Marmot!

As we head towards the glacier, the flora changes too.

Mountain Houseleek (Sempervivum montanum)

Mountain Houseleek (Sempervivum montanum)

The Alps are full of succulents like the Mountain Houseleek, which has the ability to conserve water in this dry environment. But what cheers me most of all is my first sight of these flowers: Snowbells.

Dwarf Snowbells (Soldanella pusilla)

Dwarf Snowbells (Soldanella pusilla)

These little flowers are the very first to appear when the snow has melted – you can see them pushing through the ruined, yellowing grass where a snowdrift has lain. In fact, they are said to melt the snow themselves, by fermenting sugars and raising their temperature. They are a member of the Primrose family, and are never found below 2000 metres, so they are true Alpine flowers.

The road home.

The road home.

We turn to head back to the hotel. A cool wind chills us as we slide down the scree and march down the service road. One day, I know, we will not be able to do this walk. Maybe (hopefully) we’ll be tramping up the hill for years to come, but the day will come when it’s too much. This is not being morbid – it’s just being realistic. Some of our older friends no longer come to this resort because of the altitude and the difficulty of many of the walks. But this year we have managed it, and that is a cause for a modest celebration – a glass of water, and a slightly-squashed cheese roll from our lunchpack. Life seems to be a balancing act between being grateful for what we have, and yet not deluded about what lies ahead.

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – The Alpenrose

Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum)

Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum)

Dear Readers, there is one plant above all others that tells me that I am back in the Tyrol, and that is the Alpenrose. Some years, it’s already faded. Some years, it hasn’t really come into flower yet. But this year, the hillsides and the forest are full of the cerise flowers.

IMG_3290It is not a rose, as one glance at its flowers will tell you: it’s a Rhododendron. This was a surprise to me, as I always thought of this gaudy family as being something you’d find in Asia. But this is a plant that lives only in the mountainous regions of Europe, and only where there is acid soil. The underside of the leaves has iron-brown spots, which give it its species name. It only grows to a couple of feet high, and can carpet whole areas completely. However, it can’t cope where there is soil disturbance, so doesn’t encroach on to the pasture areas where the other plants thrive.

IMG_3286Although Alpenrose can set seed, and its flowers are loved by bees,  it is especially adapted for the heavy snow conditions which will completely cover the plant in winter: the weight of the snow enables it to root from those branches which are pressed into the soil. It is also a very long-lived plant: one individual in the French Pyrenees has been estimated to be over 300 years old. Not bad for a plant living in such harsh conditions.

IMG_3288Alpenrose is poisonous, but has been used for many years in Alpine traditional medicine as a treatment for rheumatism. And as I huffed and puffed up the mountain trails today, I could well imagine how useful such a medicine might be for those whose whole way of life depended on being able to get up and down the kind of slopes that a Londoner doesn’t encounter. On the other hand, I see many people of advanced years cheerfully eschewing the chairlifts and the bus and walking through the pastures to collect their cows or their shopping, so maybe the message, as in so many things, is ‘use it or lose it’. And aren’t mountain people some of the most long-lived and healthiest in the world? Let’s never underestimate the value of day-to-day activity, of the kind that doesn’t necessarily involve a gym.

IMG_3296

Wednesday Weed from Obergurgl – Heath Spotted Orchid

Heath Spotted Orchid(Dactylorhiza maculata)

Heath Spotted Orchid(Dactylorhiza maculata)

Dear Readers, it has been such a task trying to decide on the Wednesday Weed for this week. I wanted to find a plant here in the Alps that we also have in the UK, even if not necessarily in East Finchley. After a lot of deliberation, I have settled on the Spotted Heath Orchid, because it is very common around these parts, but you would look for a long time to find it in Britain, and there are some very interesting reasons for this.

IMG_3210When I think of orchids, I tend to think of the waxy blooms of the Phalaenopsis orchids that are for sale in every supermarket and florist, but the orchid family is much more varied than this. Tropical orchids tend to be epiphytes – that is, they grow on the branches of trees and other plants. Most European orchids are terrestrial, growing from tubers (the generic name Dactylorhiza means ‘finger root’), and these roots produce new stems and flowers every year. Hence, they tend to grow in places which may be mown, but where the soil is not ploughed or otherwise disrupted.

The root of the Heath Spotted Orchid ("Dactylorhiza maculata20090914 071" by Bff - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dactylorhiza_maculata20090914_071.jpg#/media/File:Dactylorhiza_maculata20090914_071.jpg)

The root of the Heath Spotted Orchid (“Dactylorhiza maculata20090914 071” by Bff – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons )

The root is interesting because different parts play different roles. One part supplies the stem with the materials that it needs to produce the flower and seeds, while the other part conserves the elements required for next year’s plant. However, the flower is only fertile if the orchid is in relationship with some very interesting fungi.

The flower of the Heath Spotted Orchid - what an elegant landing platform for a bumblebee! (By Hectonichus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The flower of the Heath Spotted Orchid – what an elegant landing platform for a bumblebee! (By Hectonichus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

We are only just beginning to understand the interplay between some kinds of fungi (called mycorrhiza) and plants, but this is an ancient relationship which influences many elements of a plant’s success. The mycorrhiza may intertwine with the plant’s own roots or even grow within them, extending their area and making the uptake of water and certain minerals much easier.  In return, the fungi have access to the sugars that the plants produce. This kind of ‘deal’ between two different kinds of organisms is known as ‘mutualistic’ or symbiotic. It is vital for the health of soils, and is, of course, yet another element which is disrupted when we blast fields with chemicals, particularly fungicides.

Seedhead ("Dactylorhiza maculata20090812 084" by Bff - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dactylorhiza_maculata20090812_084.jpg#/media/File:Dactylorhiza_maculata20090812_084.jpg)

Seedhead (“Dactylorhiza maculata20090812 084” by Bff – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons )

Where the Spotted Heath Orchid has access to the mycorrhizal fungi, it may produce seeds.  The plants are hermaphrodite and are pollinated by bumblebees.  My Field Guide to the Flowers of the Alps mentions that this plant is found in ‘unfertilised’ meadows and pastures – fertilizer disrupts both the balance of plants in a grassland, and the soil ecology, including the fungi.

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I found this particular plant growing beside one of the glacial streams, where it would be regularly flooded and where the soil is damp, and this is another requirement for the plant to flourish. It would once, I’m sure, have been common in our water meadows, but then, according to Historic England’s pamphlet on conserving such environments, we have lost over 90% of our grassland in lowland areas, and long-standing water meadows are vanishingly rare. Here in Austria, Orchids are common enough for no one to comment on them, and I hope to find some more examples for you later in the holiday. In England, you are as likely to find an unfertilised, unploughed, damp grassland with no biocide use as you are to find a golden eagle. Having said which, I can think of one such meadow along by the river in Oxford, which has never been meddled with. The variety of plants and insects there would rival that of Obergurgl. Some days, I could weep for what we have lost in the name of profit and production.

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But still, this plant is thriving here in the Alps, and is found in mountainous areas of Europe as far east as Siberia. It has a wide range of common names – according to the Plant Lives website, they include Curlie-Daddie, Dandy Goslings, Queen’s Finger and Crow’s Flower. This would suggest a rich harvest of folklore and medicinal uses for the Heath Spotted Orchid, but so far I have only found one tale, from Hungary (courtesy of Plant Lives). As usual, it was for a love potion. The roots of the plant needed to be dug up on Midsummer Eve, dried, and mixed with menstrual blood. The mixture should then be sprinkled on the food of the reluctant lover, in order to turn him or her into a besotted swain. I can only imagine how delighted they would be when they discovered what they’d been eating.