As I donned my alluring green suit of baggy pants and enormous cover-all shirt over my clothing, I looked around the changing room. All the other tourists were putting on their protective suits, in fetching colours of blue, brown, red and green. This certainly wasn’t the prelude to a fashion show, but the start of an underground exploration of the oldest salt mine in the world, in the Hallstatt High Valley in the Dachstein Salzkammergut region of Upper Austria.
The Salzwerk is located high above the town of Hallstatt. There are two ways to reach the High Valley. One option is the funicular, a small train that glides silently up the mountain side in three minutes.
The alternative is an hour long hike along a steep, zigzagging track up through the alpine forest. In an effort to burn off some of the delicious Austrian food we’d been eating, we chose to walk, and were rewarded with amazing views of the Hallstӓttersee, the town of Hallstatt below us, and the Muelbach Wӓsserfall which tumbles down the mountainside in a rush over the rocky, fern covered slopes.
There had been a heavy shower of rain the previous night and that, combined with the abundance of water in both the lake and the waterfall and the effort of hiking up a 45° slope for an hour, left us both feeling the extreme humidity. As we finally walked out of the forest into the alpine meadows of the High Valley, my husband remarked, “Everywhere in Austria is uphill!” We came across a shrine to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Instead of the offerings of coins and floral tributes left by other visitors I was tempted to leave a note suggesting that she should also be the patron saint of hikers.
Our guided tour of the mine began at the Christina Tunnel, opened in 1714, along which we walked for fifteen minutes before entering the Salt Crystal Chamber.
There were six enormous salt crystals, lit from within, giving the chamber an eerie red illumination and the perfect “glow in the dark” photo opportunities.
Long wooden slides have been used for centuries by miners to go from one level to another and our tour was no exception. At 64 metres, the second of the slides is the longest in Europe, and our guide put out a challenge – who could descend the fastest? Not me! I made a cautious but safe descent, while others took a leap of faith and hurtled down with shouts of glee.
Our guide won the challenge with a speed of 60 km per hour. It was obvious that she’d had plenty of practice.
Once we were all down the slide we made our way to the Hӧrnerwerk cavern which contains a large subterranean salt lake. The water was still and black, and reflected the walls of the cavern in a mirror image. A laser light show depicting the beginnings of salt mining in Hallstatt dating back to 5000 BC played across the rock and the water, while a robotic miner called Sepp told the story of “The Man in Salt”, an ancient miner whose corpse, with his hair, skin and clothes completely preserved in the salt, was discovered in 1734, and subsequently reburied in the prehistoric cemetery in the meadow outside the mine.
After walking more than a kilometre into the mine we exited at the end of our tour by boarding the pit train. This was no time for being fussy about the need for personal space as we all sat, lined up along the bench one in front of another, pressed together to ensure we all fitted on. The tiny train sped through tunnels just high enough to avoid a mass scalping, before shooting out onto a small platform that led up a flight of stairs to the obligatory souvenir shop.
There on the wall was a photo of me coming down the slide, my blurry green suit flashing past – maybe not a fashion shot but a permanent record of my underground adventure.