Austria, 23rd July 2007

I haven't heard from some people on my mailing list for ages and ages so on this mail I've asked for a read receipt so that hopefully I can find out if the mail is being opened, or if it is disappearing into a junk mail filter. Some might say that's the appropriate place........ Please confirm the receipts so I can get some idea who is not receiving my mails then maybe try to do something about it. Oh. Please don't put my sending address for his mail in your address book, it's a disposable.

Back to my trip. I drove on through Austria. I didn't really stop anywhere, I just kept on driving, admiring the views. I didn't find any tourist offices, and I didn't have a good map of Austria, and, without the tourist offices, I didn't have any attractions set up to divert me.

So here are some pictures.

OK. That was some rivers. Here are mountains.


By now I'd reached Filzmoos. I made my first long distance Alpine flight here, back in the winter of 1978, with Simon Faithfull, (yes that same friend Simon who gets all fired up now when I talk about pretty girls), in the first BP Alpine Balloon Race. This was a week long distance race, the idea being to fly as far as possible each day, then return to base, and start again the next day, the winner being the pilot with the highest total distance flown over the week. We actually won the first task, but were disqualified. There was a 30 minute slot in which you were required to launch. We were ready before the end of that period but were refused permission to launch, because there was a balloon low over the launch field. It was actually Dick Wirth, whom, as most people reading this will know, was also a friend of mine, and who was having some fuel supply problems. Eventually we were given permission, but it was after the 30 minute period, so, after we returned from our winning flight, we were disqualified.

It later did appear to us, and to others, that the rules were written to favour a certain local pilot. For us, and to all other entrants, except that one local pilot, this was our first experience of flying over the Alps. Flying the Alps is incredibly different to the local flying we normally do. You need to carry all sorts of special safety equipment, radios, avalanche lines, snow shovels, all sorts of stuff. It is way colder than we are used to, fuel connections do not work so well, for example, you need to pressurize the tanks with nitrogen to compensate for the lower pressure in the cold propane. To get the endurance needed, instead of flying with 3 or 4 fuel tanks as we are used to we needed to load up our 5 man balloons with a dozen or so fuel tanks, with only 2 people on board. And yet doing, and checking all this, you had to be in the air within this 30 minute time period, irrespective of safety checks, whatever. This was the first ever hot air balloon meeting held to fly over the Alps. Gas balloonists were telling it was unsafe, dangerous, to fly hot air balloons over the Alps. And yet we were given a 30 minute slot to launch.........

Local pilot had no problems. His large local crew inflated his balloon during the briefing, so that all he had to do was saunter out to the field, jump in his basket and launch. We had to leave the briefing, inflate our balloon, check it all out, load all the special equipment, first time we had ever done it, for real, and then launch.

I never did discover the safety reasons for having this 30 minute launch period. They must have had a story about it to get the race approved by FAI.

Really, for us, the slanting of the rules was no big deal. We were there to experience flying over the Alps, winning was of minor importance. It was only later, when we thought about it, that it niggled a bit.

And Alpine flying is amazing. I used to say, there is about as much difference as standing on the ground and flying in a balloon, as there is between a regular balloon flight, and a flight over the Alps. It's like standing on the top of a mountain, but you are moving, the view is changing all the time. In those days we had no GPS, navigation was a challenge, the tops of all snow covered mountains tend to look much the same. Landing is a challenge too. You are flying at maybe 50 mph at height - a couple of times I exceeded 100 mph - and you need to land in a valley. You can't be too low approaching the valley, you must fly over the mountains, and that includes the mountains at the side of the valley, at minimum 1000 ft for each 15 kts wind speed otherwise you are in danger of being caught in a rotor, a very severe downdraught. Then when you reach the centre of the valley you must drop at maximum rate of descent so that you are still in the valley centre and not drifting over the side. In the valley there is usually very little wind, and the cut off between the higher winds and the low valley wind is usually quite sharp.

My technique, which I discovered later, was at the start of the valley to drop a length of toilet roll, with a simple knot at one end. This falls at around 500 fpm and the idea is, you follow this down, about 500 ft above it. When the paper reaches the calm valley winds it suddenly disappears behind you as you continue on. You now check your descent and know you are just above the calm valley winds. When you reach the centre of the valley you pull the parachute line, and drop steeply, directly into the calm valley winds. If you start your descent too high then your speed will carry you past the centre of the valley.

Well, it worked for me. I've made around 50 high flights over the Alps, probably more than any other pilot not resident in the Alpine region, and I'm still here. I never had a serious crash, and I've never needed a helicopter retrieve.

But things happen. We had one "occurrence" in our first flight. We were pottering along, around 10,000 ft, when there was an explosion in the basket. Boom! We checked around. This was our first flight in the Alps. We were concerned. We were still flying, we were not dropping out of the sky, so what was it? Ah. A bottle of water, glass, had frozen, and burst. The second bottle went over the side, very gingerly.

There was another rule in the competition. The Pilot had to be back at control by 10 pm, theoretically to ensure he had enough sleep before the next morning's flight. (No check on how late he stayed up partying!) In the Alps, with all the snow and stuff it can sometimes take several hours to get the balloon close to the road, and packed up. Now just guess who had a second car in the retrieve to whisk him back to the control in case of possible delay, those of us who had driven over 1000 miles to get here had only brought one vehicle and the pilot had to pack up the balloon before he could get back.....

Heigh ho. We actually came second one year. No chance ever of being first.

In Filzmoos I called to see John Hampshire, owner of the Alpenkrone (note the link!) , the hotel where we stayed for our Filzmoos balloon meetings. He was out when I called but I caught him the next morning. We had a superb chat. His memories of the slanting of the rules by the organisers was similar to mine! In fact he reminded me. He was a superb help at those meetings. Once, on the way there, we broke down at Munich. John drove out in his van, about a 500 mile round trip, to bring us and the balloon to Filzmoos, if we hadn't been there to check in we would have been disqualified. That's rather more than the sort of support you expect to get from the owner of the hotel where you are staying. John's support, in general, almost made up for the disinterest of the organisers. My memories of details are blurred with time, I just remembered John was someone I wanted to meet again.

John's son Stephen is now running the hotel. He must be doing something right. When John was out I didn't feel I could call to see a hotelier then depart to my camper van, so I asked if I could have a room. The hotel was full.............

I tried to get a photo of the Bishopsmutze, the local, and in my memories, very famous mountain, but there was lowish cloud, and the outline of the bishop's mitre could not be seen.

I drove around a little, returned to the next valley, looked at a couple of old landing spots, took a pretty road through the mountains, and arrived at the very pretty village of Hallstatt.

The local map showed a parking place out of the town and towards the mountains, and I settled there for the night.

In the morning I visited the salt mine. It is the oldest salt mine in the world, they have been mining salt here for 7,000 years. But before you get there you have to climb the mountain. I went up on the funicular. Here's the view looking down, from half way up. You can just see my van, second from the left, whey hey!

It was interesting to see the salt mines but to my mind they slightly missed it. They were right up there with the song and dance - they have even put in a couple of slides they call miners slides, I had my photo taken on one sliding down at nearly 30 kph (20 mph) but there was limited history about the old mining operations.

I took another photo on the way back down.

I took a walk around the town.

I visited the interesting town museum and the foundations of the sports shop - with Roman and earlier artifacts.

It was hot, again, in the afternoon I just sat by the lake. There were a few people swimming, putting up with the sort of debris you find floating on an Austrian lake, flower petals, bits of wood, and so on. I don't think there were any turds floating around as in Hungary. So tough, all you turd seekers, don't come to Austria! While on the subject, Austrian public toilets are almost up to American standards, although not quite so plentiful.

I returned to my quiet parking of the night before.

Then, in the morning, it was the caves. The Ice Cave, and the Mammut cave. There was lots of ice in the first, and no mammoths in the second. Both are high up in the mountain. You need a cable car ascent.

The Ice cave was huge. Cold air descends into it in the winter, and gets sort of trapped. Ice melts above, and trickles into the cave through fissures in the rock, and freezes. At one point the ice is 25 metres thick. Different to the ice cave near Twin Falls Idaho, which is minute in comparison, but there the ice is formed by some strange method when wind blows though various vortices and cools the air sufficiently to make ice. More fascinating.

The Mammut cave is bigger still. I think Mammut is German for big, even gigantic. So far, 64 Km of the cave has been explored. The 1 Km section we walked though is huge. No cave formations to speak of, but it's big!

It started raining while I was up there. After I descended by cable car I decided to miss out on the Koppenbruiller Cave, an active cave, with flowing rivers, down in the valley. Two caves in one day is enough. I drove a little in the rain and stopped for the night, only 8 Km from Hallstatt but somewhat further the way I had driven.

I must stop writing. It's nearly midnight, and I have 4 museums planned for tomorrow.

Best regards

David Barker
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