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Cartoon by
Edi Barth


My New Profession


“Tomorrow we have to move our cows from the lower to the upper Ueschinen hut,” said Denise as we chatted over a fence.

She was a young farmer woman I got to know in Kandersteg, a village in the Bernese Oberland where my partner and I owned a little chalet.

“Do you need some help?” I asked because she was always stressed out with work.

“That would be good,” she said. “I’ll pick you up at 10:30.”

I was trying to enjoy a bucolic summer holiday, but swarms of flies and mosquitoes disrupted the tranquillity, not to mention eighteen goats Denise put out to graze in the adjacent field. They had their greedy eyes on the roses and clamatis Janet had planted in our garden. That kept me busy fixing the fence so the goats wouldn’t poke their heads through it or jump over.

The following day, Denise and her mother Emi rolled up the path in a Volkswagen Touran and I got in. The car was packed with food and clothes. At the end of the village, we took a sharp turn right and went up a narrow, winding road that led to the Ueschinen Valley. As we entered it, the asphalt stopped and we bumped along a gravely path. The hillside to the right was dotted with Sennhütte (alpine huts) where farmers make cheese. To the left was the massive mountain called Gällihorn and behind that a trail to the Gemmi Pass which the Romans already used to traverse the Alps.

About fifteen minutes later we stopped in front of a weathered brown hut. Martin, Denise’s uncle and Emi’s brother, came out in blue overalls and green rubber boots. He had been mucking out the stable. He proffered a gnarled, sinewy hand and uttered Gruessech, the typical greeting of the Bernese dialect. Martin had been farming all of his life. During the winter he worked as a carpenter to supplement his income.

I asked why they had to move the cows to the upper hut. Martin explained that the herd had grazed the lower pastures and now it was time to take them to the lush upper ones. Farmers of the region have been following this tradition to a set schedule for generations. We would have to wait for the herds of  twelve other farmers to pass until it was our turn. After lunch, the clanging of bells came through the window. I rushed to the door and saw the first cows swaying along, a farmer at the head coaxing them with a “Komm, komm, komm…”, while a boy at the rear goaded the animals with a long stick. Two of the cows had milking stools strapped onto their heads which made them look like aberrant unicorns. The parade continued like that for another two hours with herd upon herd passing by, filling the valley with the sonorous melody of large ponderous bells called Treichel worn by the mature cows. The younger ones sported smaller bells higher in pitch. What a beautiful Helvetian concert!

Finally it was our turn to go. We went into the stable. The cows were lying down, leisurely chewing their cud, the switch of their tails fastened to wires suspended overhead to keep their bovine bottoms clean, I found out. Martin and Denise untied the strings. Reluctantly the cows stood up and lumbered through the mucky path. Then we had to shove three heifers out from another smaller stable. My task was to bring up the rear and make sure all the animals stayed on the main path. Martin thrust a long stick into my hand, making me a full-fledged cowherd.
For the first ten minutes everything went well. I trotted behind the cows, shouting “Giddyap”, occasionally whacking the haunch of a brown-eyed beauty till I realised that my command was in English and not appropriate. Denise walked along the side of the herd, shouting “Gang, gang”, meaning “Go, go.” Suddenly one of the cows took off to a creek left of the path. Denise chased her with a stick, trying to get her back up. As I watched, two of the heifers escaped up the hill on the right. I ran after them, yelling “Komm, komm!” when I stomped into a marshy patch. I felt water and mud seeping into my shoes but persisted in my pursuit. I managed to corner the heifers by an outcropping of rocks but just as I moved in, brandishing my stick, they dodged me again. Denise was now at the bottom of the hill trying to catch them as they dashed down. Were it not for two farmers who came along and helped to get the heifers back on the path, we would still be chasing them. And it was high time because in the distance another herd of cows was catching up with us fast!

After a couple more strayings on the part of the heifers, we reached the upper hut. The cows immediately wandered over to the pasture allotted to them. I was amazed that they still remembered which part was theirs.

“Cows aren’t as stupid as people think,” Denise commented.

We went inside the hut. Emi made coffee and served cake. Then Martin brought out a bottle of Bätzi, a potent apple moonshine to add to your coffee. By the second cup, and generous helpings of Bätzi, we were in a very relaxed mood. I thought the moment opportune to ask how I had fared at my new profession. Everyone assured that I would make a great cowherd, but I think I’ll stick to teaching English to Swiss people – they’re easier to handle.

 
 
 
 

Photo Roger Bonner

The Father of All Hikes



We agreed – it was the best hike we’d ever done. We, four middle-aged guys: Jerome and John from Canada; Peter and Roger from Switzerland. We had known each other for years of spending vacations in the Bernese Oberland. Now on this beautiful July day we decided to hike from Kandersteg, our base camp, over to Adelboden. We reckoned it would take about eight hours, so we left at an easy 9 a.m. We trudged through the village in our clunky hiking boots, backpacks amply filled with bread, wurst, apples, chocolate, and water. To cut down on the boring part of the hike, we took the Allmenalp gondola up a sheer cliff to an altitude of 1725 metres. At the top, we resisted pausing at the restaurant to have our first beer. This was going to be a tough, disciplined hike. We continued down along the side of the mountain to the Ueschenental, a rugged valley relatively ‘unspoiled’ since it is mainly used by farmers as summer pastures for their cows and goats.

We plodded along the road fringed by numerous Sennhütte, chalets and huts where the farmers make cheese, and once again resisted pausing at the next alpine restaurant to have a beer, for we were strong-willed. In Switzerland you never have to hike very long without encountering one of these tempting watering holes.

Peter, being the ultimate Swiss from Berne, assumed the role of lead cow (or bull) because he is an experienced hiker and mountain climber. He is also a prankster, as we found out when an old red Subaru came chugging along the road.

“Stop!” Peter stepped out in front of the car with his right hand raised. “Do you have a permit to drive on this road?” He addressed the driver in the familiar ‘du’ form in his slow Bernese dialect.

Like Sherlock Holmes, we deduced from the cow dung splattered over the front fender that the driver was a local farmer. He just smiled as Peter continued: “What a messy car! When did you last clean it?” The driver laughed this time and we joined in the general merriment by making similar remarks about the ashtray spilling over with cigarette butts. Jerome took pictures of the fender.

“How about some of that beer?” I said pointing to a case in the backseat. The driver continued smiling.

When he finally drove away, I asked Peter if they were friends. “Never seen him before in my life,” he answered with a grin.  

At the end of the valley, we puffed up a winding trail. Some clouds were gathering in the sky, but there had been no forecast of rain.

“Do you see that mountain up there?” Peter stopped us as we gazed at a range of imposing peaks. “That’s the Tschingellochtighorn.”

“The what?” the three of us said.

Tschingellochtighorn! Repeat that after me…Tschin…gell..loch..tig…horn…”



To this day I cannot say that name without tripping over the third syllable, but the mountain with its five peaks was truly imposing.

We had to cross a ridge with scree on both sides till we reached the base of the mountain at a dizzying height of 2730m, but what a panoramic view we had of the Valaisian and Bernese Alps, and way down below the Adelboden Valley in swirling mist!

It was 4 p.m. and we weren’t near the end. Our supplies were running out, especially water. We hiked down the steep switchback to the Engstligenalp when we saw a sign with the magic word ‘Luftseilbahn nach Adelboden’, the gondola that would whisk us effortlessly to the bottom of the valley, and lots of beer. We were tired and I had a tiny problem with my right boot: the sole was starting to come loose! The trusty Lowa boots were ten years old and had never failed me, but Murphy’s Law says, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. It didn’t matter because we were only about a half-hour away from that wonderful gondola station. After forty minutes it still didn’t appear. We saw a hut with a trough and pipe with running water where we drank like dehydrated cows. From inside the hut, a chorus of moos greeted us, then a farmer who leaned over the half door.

Grüessech,” he said.

Grüessech,” we answered.

“How much does a room cost in this hotel of yours?” Peter asked.

The farmer just smiled and nodded. He probably thought we were silly city slickers.

“Where’s this Luftseilbahn nach Adelboden?” I asked, hoping it would be just around the next bend.

“’Bout forty minutes back up the hill,” the farmer said, scratching his chin.

We groaned at the thought of walking back, but the farmer assured us that the lower station wasn’t far. “’Bout thirty minutes thataway.” He poked his finger in the opposite direction.

So off we set with renewed vigour. In the meantime, that sole on my right boot had loosened more and was flapping in the air like a panting St. Bernard’s tongue. The downward trail grew steeper. Every so often I had to stop and remove pebbles and twigs that had lodged in between the sole and my foot. My main worry was that the boot would fall completely apart and I’d have to hobble the rest of the way in my sock.

Forty minutes later we were still descending when we realised that the farmer had pulled a fast one on us to get even for Peter’s hotel joke. But again the view was fantastic. To the left we marvelled at the 600m long Engstligen Waterfall, the second highest in Switzerland, after Staubbach in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Just above a gondola was gliding down to the lower station like a magic carpet. That’s where we could have been…  

“Hurry up,” Peter said. “We have to catch the last postal bus into the Adelboden village!”

That jolted us into action, also the sole that was about to drop off. We had been hiking for almost nine hours and I didn’t relish the thought of limping down the long, long valley into the village and next bus stop. It was 6 p.m. when the gondola station finally came into view. Next to it there was, of course, a restaurant with people eating and drinking at outside tables. We rushed towards it, hoping the bus had not yet arrived.

“I’m sorry,” the waitress said, “but the last bus left ten minutes ago.”

There was only one consolation – litres of beer which we immediately ordered. When the waitress brought us four frothing glasses, we raised them to our mouths and took deep, guzzling draughts. John plonked his glass on the table, leaned back and belched. If we had just finished ‘The Father of All Hikes’, then his deep, rumbling eructation was ‘The Mother of All Belches’ (though I’m sure no mother, or wife, would approve). The grazing goats nearby looked up startled; the guests in the restaurant froze for a brief moment, then broke out in laughter. We followed suit by emitting minor burps. We knew John’s could never be outclassed.

“Hey,” one of the locals shouted as looked up from his table. “I heard you missed the postal bus. Well, I can take you in to the village.”

We were saved! After finishing another round of beer, we piled into the man’s van. Peter sat in front next to the driver and yakked with him in the Bernese dialect, which John and Jerome couldn’t understand.

“You have to excuse those two for their behaviour,” Peter told the driver as he turned back and winked at me, “but they are Canadian Mounties on holiday.”

Of course, this was not true, but I went along with the joke and added, “You know, being policemen they have to behave properly the whole year and are now just letting go.”

“I can understand that,” the driver said as he dropped us off at the next bus stop. “I like to relax too when I’m on holiday.” Before leaving, he looked at John and Jerome and gave them a crisp military salute.

“Why did he do that?” they asked.

We explained and then split our sides laughing just as the postal bus to Frutigen and Kandersteg swayed round the corner to take us back home.


 
 
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