Bikers and Rafters - The Hills are Alive (with the sound of wheezing) - CycleBlaze

September 5, 2020

Bikers and Rafters

Mooslandl — Erlaufsee

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After the music had died down I slept pretty well - I'd securely entered the zone of tiredness when deep and dreamless sleep were pretty automatic. Awaking fairly early I was greeted with a calm day and cloudless blue skies - it was going to be a warm one again.

One thing I'd failed to stock up on was breakfast supplies, and I couldn't see any evidence of the camp shop which (I thought) had been alluded to when checking in the evening before. So I had a pretty meagre breakfast while I contemplated the way forward from here.

My route would be pretty straightforward today. I was committed to crossing the Hochschwab, the rather formidable and sparsely populated mountains separating me from the valleys to the east, by the natural route of following the Salza. From here this would take me on a sinuous, and hopefully scenic, route through the mountains, the only settlement of any size being Wildalpen. I had considered overnighting there, but I was actually pretty glad with the way this had worked - I could now cross the Hochschwab in a single day, and would be sure to find somewhere to stay around Mariazell, my target for the day. 

Another beautiful Alpine morning
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I had spotted this tiny tent the previous evening. I wasn't the only one amused when it turned out to belong to this guy in a very flash car.
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This meant I would be following the Salaztal radweg the whole way. This seems to be a popular route, and certainly promised to be picturesque. Unfortunately the whole route is on road - and on a red "A" road on my map - so I did prepare for a day with more traffic than I was used to. Setting off at 9, the roads were still quiet. They didn't exactly remain this way...

Setting off between luminous green Alpine meadows
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View back down to Mooslandl. What a location!
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There was some fairly stiff climbing to start the day off, but I took it slow and soon got into it. I followed the road out of Mooslandl and Gams, and along the south bank of the Salza (which joins the Enns further north). This back route was very quiet, and I was sad to leave it behind when I crossed the river and converge on the main road.

The only real traffic though, at this time, turned out to be tourist buses towing a remarkable number of inflatable rafts. White water rafting seems to be big business on the Salza - I was passed by several of them as I neared the turn to the Wildalpen road.

Turning off, I slowly worked my way over the climbs above the river - I would be (gently) climbing for all of today - and the rafting buses similarly struggled to pass me. A few kilometres in, I passed a launching point on the river, where the buses disgorged and turned around - a bit of a relief.

Someone is definitely going to draw the short straw with one of these rafts
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The road had the potential to be fast and had no shoulder to speak of - fortunately, it was nearly empty of traffic at this time
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Looking down at the Salza, which I'll be following all today
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Crossing the Salza
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It's not quite a tunnel - it's more a covered section to protect against avalanches (?). Because these are so much more open and light, I don't feel so dubious about cycling through these
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Jacquie GaudetIn BC (Canada) we call them 'snowsheds'. And that's exactly what they are for.
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Getting ready to raft!
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The next 10km to Wildalpen were glorious. Great conditions, and the scenery got better and better as the river cleaved through the Hochschwab. I didn't see a single car, but I did see a surprising number of motorbikes, who were obviously enjoying the spectacular course of the road. As usual, they were extremely good in passing me wide - though of course, they were loud

I knew there was a descent climb to Wildalpen, and I'd budgeted half the day getting there - I'd managed to eat through most of my supplies in the day before, so figured I'd stop there for lunch. I was a little surprised, then, when I rolled into town at 11am. 

Tremendous scenery on the road to Wildalpen
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This is a - rather informal - hostel of some sort, I think!
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Wildalpen is a sweet little village, almost entirely revolving around visitors and adventure sports in the mountains and river. It was also tiny - and on this Saturday morning, its single shop was closed.

I'd made great progress though, and was hungry for a descent lunch. Since I hadn't been to a restaurant since Bad Ischl and there was an appetising offer of gnocchi on the menu at the pleasant-looking hotel Bergkristal on the main square, I figured I'd have a sit-down lunch.

It turned out they didn't start serving until midday - but that was fine by me. I nursed a coke in the sun (and then rapidly moved into the shade when I realised how intense it was) and had a relaxing read and caught up on contacts. Quite a number of bikers arrived while I waited - this clearly was a well-established route for them - and after an hour there were dozens sitting around the hotel patio. When midday rolled around the waiters remembered my order, and brought me gnocci as priority - excellent stuff!

Little village of Wildalpen, seems to revolve around the tourist custom for adventure sports - not to mention a steady stream of (motor) bikers. I was the only pedal-powered example!
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The bar across the road has this to entice bikers in!
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An excellent meal in a great location. Definitely recommended if you're passing through Wildalpen
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Well-fed, I was ready for the main challenge - the 33km of sinuous road, now evidently well trafficked by bikers, that would take me the rest of the distance along the Salzatal and through the mountains. There would be no other settlements on the entire length, until I reached Gußwerk in the Aschbach valley near the end of the day.

The route? Spectacular. The road weaved between jagged limestone peaks, heavily wooded and remarkably unspoilt by development. While I was slowly climbing as I followed the river upstream, I felt good and covered the kilometres with some speed.

In fact, I barely had time to stop, appreciate the scenery, or take photographs. The road was relatively narrow but well-graded enough for the motorcyclists, which were now passing me in groups of dozens, to build up considerable speed - and I didn't much feel like dawdling in the road as they zipped past. At one point, a fast mini-descent swept my extremely battered and long-suffering sunglasses off my head - I did go back for them, but had to take great care no biker was going to come barrelling down on me in the middle of the road.

The road was riven with tunnels - fortunately, presumably in concession to the fact that this is formally a radweg, every one had an (accessible) path bypassing them specifically for bikes. I thankfully took them.

After passing a dammed portion of the Salza at around the 40km mark, there was a significant climb around a conical peak (the Gutenbrand), with grades approaching 10%. My speed was down in the single-digit kph, and I was passed by dozens of motorbikes also labouring up the slope. Coming around the hairpins was the only time I felt a bit vulnerable - motorcyclists may only see me at the last moment, and they had some speed. I kept well out in the road and made myself as visible as possible - typically, the bikers were very safe, and I had no problems. I was very glad of my mirror though, which was getting a thorough work-out.

The home stretch to the 60km mark had some descents in recompense, and I spun down them with abandon. There were huge numbers of bikers now - I was easily seeing more than ten or so every minute. And then, before I knew it, I saw the sign for Gußwerk. I cheered with some relief - this definitely felt like the sketchiest section I'd done so far in terms of traffic. But also a wonderful route.

Leaving the wild Alps
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Great limestone peaks up above...
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...and the narrow Salza down below
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You'll notice no bikers feature in these photos - that's because I was too busy gripping the handlebars as they passed
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There were lots of quite short tunnels, like this one below a spectacular pyramidal peak
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I didn't need to be told twice - very thankfully took the cycleway
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Memorial marker to a worker that died on the mountain here (on one of the tunnel bypasses)
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One of the tunnel bypasses itself passed through a small tunnel around a dammed and broadened section of the Salza
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A chapel - we must be getting closer to civilisation
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Scattered farm houses with an impressive backdrop
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Mighty limestone ridges rising steeply out the valley. This was part of the fast descent on the home stretch
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Gußwerk - good work!
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Back to civilisation in Gußwerk
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Gußwerk was also a fairly tiny place, and I passed through quickly, turning to the north onto the comparatively more major route 20 towards Mariazell. This was a fairly constant climb of 150m, and evidently followed the motorcylists' route - so I wasn't quite free of the traffic yet.

After several kilometres of quite serious slog, with my energy diminishing, I saw a welcome sign to Mariazell and gratefully pulled off the main road. Mariazell is a curious place - a picturesque and touristy town, but also a major pilgrimage centre in Austria based around an icon from the 12th century. My plan was to camp outside the town - my map indicated a campsite should be set up by the shores of the Erlaufsee a few kilometres out of town. But it was only 4pm, and I wanted to pick up provisions first (as I'd already had one restaurant meal today, I planned to cook tonight).

On this beautiful day it was packed with tourists. It was a bit discombobulating, coming from the open road and hundreds of motorbikes to pushing the loaded bike between tourists in the town. I located a Billa supermarket in the middle of town, locked the Shift outside (only the second time I'd bothered to do this in Austria) and dived inside.

For the very first time, seeing Wien on a roadsign. It doesn't seem common in Austrian states outside of Lower Austria to actually sign to the capital
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Arriving in Mariazell
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Specific plea to motorbikers in Mariazell - "Slowly and quietly please!"
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Mariazell high street
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The baroque basilica in Mariazell, looking very imposing against the cobalt blue sky today
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Fancy hotels and loads of tourists - a bit disorientating after the last few days
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As usual I didn't anticipate a lack of carrier bags in the supermarket, so emerged with handfuls of food. Once this was crammed in a pannier, I pushed the bike on foot until I was clear of the packed streets, and then pedalled off towards the north.

The Erlaufsee was just a few kilometres away, and served by a museumbahn tourist railway. It was easy to follow the rails towards the lake, clearly a popular recreation spot. I now had a dedicated cycleway lane, which was fortunate as there was a lot of traffic, both motorcycles and cars.

Arriving at the lake signs for the campsite were immediately obvious. Following them, I emerged on a beautifully situation and nicely informal (if slightly lumpy) site. The office was shut, but I didn't want to mess around and so picked a site next and got set up. I was next to another, domestic, cycle tourist - we rather shyly waved hello as I put my tent up.

I thought I'd spend the last of the afternoon sunshine by the lake, which was a few hundred metres away. As I was leaving, I passed the guardian, who gave me the thumbs up when I pointed out where I'd pitched.

Getting set up in the site by the Erlaufsee. A bit sloping, but otherwise a fantastic location.
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I was running low on power for my camera. Even with my trusting nature and the thoroughgoingly law abiding rural Austria, I wasn't keen to leave it charging. Fortunately, I was carrying a battery pack, which I was quite happy to leave charging in this (ahem) inventive configuration
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The lakeside was busy with happy bathers and promenaders - many of which seemed to be motorcyclists who had completed the Salzatal road. I bought an ice cream, getting some happy smiles from my dodgy German, and strolled across the sands. There really was a proper little beach, and it definitely had a festive atmosphere.

I was a bit too cool for a swim, but was very happy just to lie on the beach, eat and take stock. Another great day's ride, and I figured I'd completed the technically riskiest section. From here, my options were wide open. I had plenty of time - 5 days left - and Vienna was in striking distance. I watched the youngsters jumping in and out the lake - it really was a wonderfully peaceful scene as the sun went down.

A little bistro inside an old railway carriage
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Quite a fancy restaurant - apparently "Herrenhaus" means "manor house"
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Finally, I get a picture of some of the bikers - by the Erlaufsee
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The beautiful Erlaufsee
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Jolly bathers and the Erlaufsee
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The lake slowly cleared out as the sun went down
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Last of the sun behind the moutains
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Once it started to get a bit cooler, I picked my way back up the slope and found a back way into the campsite. Then it was time for a shower, and a simple meal of fried halloumi which I'd picked up in Mariazell. 

I sat on some benches a little away from my camp, fried my halloumi on my little stove, and drank wheat beer from the bottle. As the darkness came down I considered my situation - which was pretty good. Checking the virus border restrictions via the smartphone, I established that the Hungarian border had been entirely closed to all (!) foreigners - but that the Slovak border was still absolutely fine. I was pretty ambivalent about to Hungary anyway - this wasn't a problem.

I had plenty of time - I'd keep heading East towards Burgenland and the big lake of the Neusiedlersee, and then see if I fancied heading into Slovakia from there. The weather was forecast to break tomorrow - but no matter, I'd had a very good run.

Evening meal of halloumi
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Then it was into the tent and a very peaceful sleep - despite the rain which came to hammer the flysheet overnight.

Today's ride: 72 km (45 miles)
Total: 640 km (397 miles)

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