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Adventures Down Under -- in Salt Mines


© St. Petersburg Times

HALLSTATT, Austria -- I'm essentially an above-ground person and experience a vague discomfort even in subways, but Susan convinced me that in a historic sort of way, a visit to a salt mine made sense.

We had spent two wet and chilly days seeing the sights in Salzburg, Austria. Salzburg, once one of the crown jewels of the Hapsburg empire, brims with baroque palaces, royal residences and grand churches dating from the Renaissance, all capped by a huge, solidly medieval castle perched high on the ridge that dominates the Old Town.

Salzburg translates as "salt mountain" and salt dug from the mines south of the city provided the wealth to make all this possible. So there was no choice, really: We had to see a salt mine.

We chose one in the mountains above the village of Hallstatt, about 32 miles southeast of Salzburg on the western shore of Hallsttater See, a deep blue lake. It is surrounded by the photogenic Dachstein mountains.

The sky was bright blue, for a change, and thesun made sweaters unnecessary. We strolled down a road and though the the heart of Hallstatt, a pleasing jumble of small, neat houses, one- or two-story affairs of dark wood or thick stucco, burdened with bulging flower boxes.

We eventually reached the funicular, a cog railway that slowly carried us up the mountainside and deposited us above the town in an alpine meadow awash in blue and yellow wildflowers. I fully expected to see Heidi and Grandfather rambling down the path that lay before us. A few minutes of gentle uphill walking through the mountain sunshine got us to the old mine offices, which now serve as the ticket office. A sturdy looking woman -- she turned out to be our tour guide -- ushered us into a room crowded with 50 fellow tourists, all busily pulling on protective jackets and trousers over their clothes. Depending upon their size, people were now a drab gray or a pea green or a sort of tan color unworthy of an adjective. All the trousers featured, for reasons then unknown, a white chamois insert in the seat. We headed out the door and clambered up the 20 yards of steep road to the starting point of the tour. Now reassembled, the guide addressed us. In German.

My proficiency in the German language extends from the polite ordering of a beer (ein Bier, bitte) to the polite ordering of dessert (Apfelstrudel und Bier, bitte). I listened to our guide, not understanding a thing, while what sounded like extremely important survival instructions were imparted. Finally she asked, "Englisch?" My hand shot up and waved about. I gently elbowed Susan, who lifted hers. Our two hands stood lonely in the air. The tour guide shrugged. Not enough Englisch to be of concern.

Presently, a miniature locomotive headed into view riding along its tiny tracks. The tracks led up to two sturdy wooden doors located in the side of the mountain. A driver sat straddled atop the locomotive, which pulled a train made up of five or six large logs, cut lengthwise in half.

The tour guide signaled us to climb aboard. As we moved forward en masse, I shuffled past a sign, in English, which contained a list of warnings, each followed by a growing army of exclamation points. Stay with the group! Do not lean out when on the train!! Remember -- keep your feet up!!! Another, I did not catch! The exclamation points deeply concerned me.

We straddled the logs, the engine gave a toot and started forward; the wooden doors ahead of us swung laboriously open. With hearty laughs and yodels emanating from our Austrian comrades, we rode into the mouth of the mountain -- into total blackness. Occasional pools of light from naked bulbs strung along the track revealed how uncomfortably close the tunnel walls were. All I could do was sit with my arms around Susan who sat in front of me and was, unbelievably, humming a little tune to herself.

After some minutes, the train halted at a relatively wide spot in the tunnel. We had arrived at a large wooden slide that descended perhaps 25 feet and was once used by the miners to quickly gain their work. The slide consisted of two smoothed wooden rails, between which one placed one's butt. Legs dangled over the sides of the rails. We had reached the "Remember to keep your feet up!!" section of the tour -- and the reason for the chamois in my pants.

After observing everyone else, whooping and yodeling, rocket downward, Susan and I sat in tandem atop the slide. As the others did, we pushed off, leaned back and down we zoomed. The sliding thrill of speed was a sensation reminiscent of childhood, a solid three seconds of fun. At the bottom, the slide flattened out and we slid into a sort of amphitheater equipped with a semicircle of wooden benches facing, of all things, a movie screen. We were shown a film on the history of salt mining and the evolution of salt-mining techniques through the centuries.

The film ended. We rose and followed our tour guide through dark and damp passages sculpted from the rock. If I had cared at all, I would maybe have considered them grimly beautiful. The tour guide occasionally stopped and explained something to the Austrians, who nodded in understanding and chatted away to each other. I stumbled on in the near blackness. The tunnel took several turns. My sense of being lost doubled to include not only language but direction. Were we marching down? Up? Deeper into the mountain? I could not tell.

We trudged on, to a second slide, somewhat longer and slightly steeper than the first. Deeper still into the mountain. However, this sliding business was something with which I was now somewhat familiar. No problem. I climbed aboard, again in tandem with Susan, and we launched ourselves downward.

Perhaps what happened next was due to faulty technique. Perhaps my feet weren't up enough. Whatever the reason, after the first few feet of the descent, I began to heat up, friction-wise. My rear felt the way a match head must as it zooms across its striker toward inevitable conflagration. (I do recollect one selfless moment during this ride -- a brief hope that Susan wouldn't burst into flames with me.)

Anyhow, milliseconds short of my ignition point, the slide began to flatten. We slowed to a stop. I leapt off and began an impromptu dance, hopping up and down and fanning my butt with both hands in an attempt to dissipate heat. I heard laughs and closed my eyes against the flash of several cameras firing away at me.

Attention toward me thankfully waned and our guide led us to a large, deep underground lake. It had been fashioned by the salt extraction process and lay eerily still, totally clear and reflecting perfectly the ceiling of the cavern. Our guide, as a demonstration, tossed a small stone into it. The stone made its surface shatter, not with the expected waves but crazily, like a fine crystal plate dropped on a marble floor. Nothing behaved as it should down here.

The tour continued, seemingly endless, more walking, on and on, single file through dank, salty tunnels. We paraded past a diorama, cut into a recess of the rock, depicting two medieval mine workers, their faces lined with fatigue, holding torches aloft, bags of salt slung over their ancient, bent backs. My heart beat with sympathy and a grim understanding.

We climbed a tight spiral staircase to a small wooden room. The tour guide spoke, blessed finality in her voice. The Austrians applauded. After one last herding through a tunnel 378 paces in length (I counted), we waited in the dark for several minutes. Then, a small light grew in our vision. The train, come to take us to freedom. I squeezed aboard, happy to be headed for the sunlight. But the train stopped short of the exit doors and we were told to dismount. Ahead of us, the doors opened upon a gray that was only slightly less gloomy than the tunnel in which we stood. The bright alpine day had turned sodden.

So, as miners had done for millennia, we marched through the doors on wearied feet, and returned to the surface of the Earth.

With our subsurface exploits behind us, we scrambled through the gloom to the ticket office. The tour guide bade us individual good-byes, positioned at the exit to receive her last-minute gratuities. With a clear conscience, I stiffed her. Rion Klawinski lives above ground in Chicago. SC: PG: 1E

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