Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. The euphonious clinking of the bells around the necks of the Tyrolean Grey cows I’m hurtling past intermingles with that of the bell on my handlebars. It’s like a melodious cacophony of wind chimes and Buddhist prayer bells, but these are the Alps — not the Himalayas.
On the last weekend of September, as tradition dictates, Tirolean farmers dress up their cows with ornamental bells, drape them with intricate tapestries and wind wildflowers around their horns. The cattle are paraded down from the hills where they spend the summer grazing, then it’s back to the valley for the winter. I too am coming down from the hills, but my method is somewhat faster.
Ding-ding-ding-ding. I’m not sounding my bell as a sort of bovine inculcation to clear a path, nor some misplaced attempt at campanological communication to get the cows to follow the road rules, it’s just that the rough mountain track I’m speeding down — gnarled, treacherous, crumbed with dirt, littered with loose rocks, and bounded by steep drops — is making my mountain kart shudder to the extent that the mechanism is wildly ringing itself.
My vehicle — a kind of three-wheeled go-kart with chunky, all-terrain wheels — has no motor, crank, nor pedals, since gravity provides locomotion in spades. Powerful pneumatic brakes control each rear wheel independently, allowing me to navigate hairpin turns by locking the steering and the corresponding back wheel, and sliding — or drifting, as it’s called in rally circles — around corners at breakneck speeds. It’s terrifying; it’s wonderful. Wringing out one’s adrenal gland under the blazing sun shakes up a vertiginous cocktail of endorphins.
It feels as though there’s a distinct possibility of flying off the mountainside or being garroted by the electrified wire that encircles some of the fields lining the route, but despite the perceived danger, everyone makes the three-mile descent in one piece, from Harschbichl mountain cable-car station to the valley station in the pretty market town of St. Johann in Tirol at the bottom. The minimum age requirement to operate it solo is just 12 years old, and many parents are opting to ride with toddlers between their knees. I guess this trip is only as dangerous as the driver decides to make it.
“The first time is pretty scary and everyone goes slowly,” says a fellow mountain-karter, an Austrian man in his mid-60s, as we pause en route to allow some more cows to cross our path. “The second go is the best, because you’re confident and know what you’re doing. It’s the third, fourth, fifth goes that are most dangerous because everyone thinks they’re a pro by then.” As a break in the cattle traffic appears, he zooms off down the mountain with the vigour and enthusiasm of a man half his age.
The Tirolese are obsessed with sliding down inclines in all their various forms, from boards on snow in winter to locked wheels on gravel in summer. And the locals are a healthy-looking bunch — perhaps thanks to their outdoor lifestyle of hiking, biking, skiing and triking that so many of them are reminiscent of extras from an Alpen advert, in spite of a diet that’s rich in traditional cheeses, sausages, beer, and fried batter of various kinds.
Austrians make good use of the mountains here: the area is riddled with hundreds of miles of designated walking and cycling trails and, when winter ends, the cable-cars still ply their routes to the peaks, dropping off hikers, mountain bikers and sightseers instead of skiers.
Culturally cut off from the rest of Austria, the area has a unique Bavaria-meets-Italy vibe and, come summer, the Tirol’s verdant valleys, pretty villages — and St. Johann in Tirol’s frescoed facades, set against the backdrop of the awesome Kaiser Mountains — have their chance to shine. It’s with this in mind that I take a 37-mile bike ride with Andreas Troger from bicycle tour company Bike Nature, on a route around the nearby Kalkstein massif.
I try an e-bike: a standard mountain bike with an electric motor concealed within its frame, which acts like a set of extra gears. The undulating foothills and villages are no problem, and I leave the motor turned off, for the most part, occasionally pressing the button to switch to eco mode, which gives a low, battery-friendly level of support on the longer uphill sections. But it’s when we head up to the mountain peaks for a spot of lunch that the electric bike comes into its own.
While the ascent up to Huber Alm — one of the former farm turned restaurants ubiquitous in the Tirol — can feel like cycling uphill through an avalanche of molasses, switch the e-bike to turbo mode, and your pedal power will create enough torque to do wheelies up the mountain. It might sound like cheating, but you still need to put your back into it and taking an e-bike out for a spin will increase your range and altitude gains, opening long rides up to all ages and abilities. Even seasoned all-terrain riders are embracing this technology.
When I reach Huber Alm on this warm summer’s day, it’s populated by hikers and cyclists being served kaiserschmarrn — a favourite Austrian dessert of ripped-up fluffy pancakes served with fruit compote — by a waitress wearing a dirndl dress.
She brings me a plate of knödel — a dumpling so popular locally that St. Johann in Tirol hosts a festival in its honour on the fourth weekend of each September. Around 12,000 people from across Europe munch their way through approximately 25,000 portions of 23 kinds of dumpling. My waitress then does something unexpected: she spontaneously produces a trumpet and serenades the very hills with music.
Around these parts — as pastoral as it is, with its cartoon Milka cows and clear streams, so clean you might be tempted to drink from them — modern, minimalist architecture sits alongside postcard farmhouses. Dairy farmers have high-tech day jobs, and smartphones long ago replaced yodelling as means of communication. So I have to ask Andreas the obvious question: “Is this just for tourists?”
My cycling companion looks confused: “No. One of the locals asked her to play.”
“And what about the dirndl; isn’t that just for Oktoberfest?”
Andreas is nonplussed. “It’s our traditional clothing.”
“And what about lederhosen?” I ask, pointing to a waiter.
“Whatever the event, you’ve never worn the wrong thing if you’re wearing lederhosen.”
As I get back on my increasingly sharp saddle to ride a thankfully downhill section, I wish I were wearing such sturdy shorts.
Two days of mountain biking in the Tirol’s mountains gave me visions of lowering stiff legs into an ice bath, and hobbling around the museums and cafes of picturesque Innsbruck, but strangely it’s my hands that ache.
And once again, as I career downhill — this time behind Stefan Österreicher, a mountain bike guide from Innsbruck’s Die Börse sports store, whose 15 years of off-road biking experience is apparent — my fingers grasp the brakes for dear life. I’m trying to find the correct pressure with which to apply them: too little and my speed will rise from 22mph to 37mph, and I’ll ricochet off tree trunks like a pinball through a pine forest. Too much and my wheels will lock on the loose terrain with almost identical results.
As we near the bottom, the mud-and-grit track — knotted with tree roots and strewn with rocks — turns to tarmac. I’m both relieved and disappointed it’s over. Suddenly, I’m back in suburban Innsbruck, and in a heartbeat the cowbells are replaced by church bells.
When in Tirol
The bagpipes-like instrument played here is called a dudelsack. Every Wednesday, at Lake Pillersee, locals put on a show, with lanterns on the water accompanied by dudelsack music.
While in Innsbruck, visit Bergisel Ski Jump. A restaurant at the top lets visitors feel how the world’s craziest sports stars must feel looking down from on high.
Thanks to a system of interconnecting funiculars and cable-cars, Nordkette Mountain is accessible from Innsbruck city centre. Be sure to head to the top for breathtaking 360-degree views.
Published in the Austria 2017 guide, distributed with the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)