Dublin: Driving in a Twilight Zone

He  was expecting a warm Irish welcome and not a trip to the Twilight Zone

By Conal Healy

(aka Mick In The Middle)

THE traffic lights had changed to red.

Thank God. Desperately I tried to find the demister button. The heavily fogged windscreen needed to be cleared.

Nothing looked familiar on the dashboard. Bloody hire car! Swearing , I flicked the switch for the wipers.

Again, I swore!

Somebody had switched the indicators for the wipers.

Another button was quickly jabbed, this time the wiper came on.

The back window wiper, that is.

Heavy rain was now hammering on the roof of the car, drowning out the DJ gibberish from one of the local radio stations.

I was at one of the busiest traffic junctions in Dublin, Ireland, about to hit a highway, and I needed to see where I was going.

Frantically I looked across the unfamiliar controls while keeping one eye on the road ahead.

I knew that one false move could switch this tin-can on wheels from four-wheel drive to two-wheel drive … or it would clear the screen.

From the back of my jet-lagged mind, vital information was fighting its way forward to my sub-conscious (“Wiper on the left . . . indicators on the right . . . it’s reversed, you nong* ”, yelled my frustrated inner child).

The rain had now turned to sleet.

Big lumps of grey-white were now hitting the windscreen.

“And the weather forecast for Dublin is for rain, maybe snow later. A top of four degrees,” burbled the radio station.

“And now time for the surf report . . .” It was at this point, my mind snapped.

A 28-hour flight from Australia had left me exhausted, constipated, jetlagged and now my ears were hearing the local surf report. I muttered in disbelief, then stared at the radio — who in their right mind would go surfing when snow is forecast? Jeez it is April. Early spring, late winter … if you were a pessimist.

“… Lahinch should be up to two-metres…. Strandhill has a few swells…” an ex-pat Californian with a mid-Atlantic accent was doing his best to talk up the surf.

“There should be a few small point breaks down the Wicklow coast…”

If I thought things couldn’t get weirder, I was wrong.

There was an urgent knock at the window of the car. I span away from the radio to be confronted by an imploring face.

Surrounded by of four lanes of traffic, in the middle of a snowstorm, a one-legged, sodden-to-the-bone Polish woman was trying to sell me a copy of the latest Big Issue magazine.

She was hammering on the window with one of her crutches.

“You buy? Five Euros?” in a heavy Eastern European accent was erupting in one ear. “…and Bundoran might have the odd point break,” said the American into the other ear.

Am I really in Ireland, my mind asked? What is this madness!

With just enough Euros for the highway tolls, I had to decline buying copy of the charity magazine.

And to calm my brain, I jabbed at the radio, turning it off.

Keep an eye out for Irish ambulances.

IT was just that moment the traffic lights turned green. Thank God.

Still struggling to make sense of this mind-numbing scene, my foot hit the accelerator, the car lurched forward and I aimed it into what I hoped was the correct lane for the Dublin orbital ring road.

Big lumps of grey-white cotton drops were hitting the windscreen as the snow turned back to sleet. With a badly misted-over, sleet-splattered screen the car merged successfully onto the multi-laned 120km/h highway.

Being a four-wheel drive, the hire car didn’t respond well to my desire to keep up with the traffic flow.

It might have only been a few weeks old, but the Irish Terios lacked the grunt of my regular Australian car, a six-cyclinder four litre Ford Falcon.

In the swirling snowstorm behind me, other drivers were ignoring the speed limit and were busily flying past, flashing their lights, honking their horns while shaking angry fists in my direction.

By a stroke of luck a roadside construction site loomed into view.

There were many “Slow Down” warning, 60kms signs. I braked to slow down, relieved at the chance to study the various dials and buttons.

Okay, there’s the heater… Ahhhh there’s the demister …check road ahead…. clock… knob for side mirrors…check road ahead. I looked in my back mirror and realised slowing down was  a mistake, a big mistake.

I was now being tailgated by three cars, behind those were other drivers eager to switch lanes.

To my side, an expensive streams of Audis, Beamers and Mercs sailed past, seemingly oblivious to the speed restrictions.

With roadworks on both sides of the highway I was obeying the limit …and was the slowest car in six lanes of traffic. Welcome to friendly Ireland.


OVER the past 30 years Ireland has experienced an economic boom and depression.

Hundreds of thousands of workers from across Europe and around the world  descended on the small island nation to make money, to party hard and to drive on almost-Third World roads. When the money ran out, so did a lot of the foreign workers.

Tourists have been warned that “many Irish roads are below international standards, many Irish motorists are unlicensed, and the police have no way of removing uninsured foreign drivers from the roads, on the weekend many country roads belong to boy racers”.

Be sure to watch out for cyclists, pedestrians and the occasional garbage truck while in Dublin.

It is not unusual to see vans perform illegal U-turns in the traffic light intersections (halting eight lines of traffic).

Or for a learner driver to do a leisurely three-point turn on one of the city’s main arterial routes at rush hour (causing a two-kilometre tailback) just to get a car park spot in front of the local conveniences store.

A standard day out in Dublin usually involves at least four breaches of the Australian rules of the road. You might regard yourself as a good driver in Australia but when you’re in Ireland, do as the Irish do.

A tourist coach and truck get close in Ireland.

The rules you are most likely to breach are: Parking on the wrong side of the road, mounting the kerb, illegal (and repeated) use of the car horn, queuing across intersections. In Ireland people seem to park wherever they can.

In places like Dublin, Cork and Galway motorists run the risk of having their car “clamped” — where your vehicle is immobilised by a large metal contraption wrapped around your front wheel.

Be aware that in the best traditions of the informer, locals can get a “spotters fee” if they see a car illegally parked and report it to a clamping company.

The declamping fee varies –but a good average is around $150. Driving in Dublin is a nightmare. The CBD is a maze of one-way streets. Car-parking is expensive ($3 for 30 minutes). Traffic lights seem to be positioned every 50 metres.

On some streets you share the road with windscreen washers, beggars, bike riders, motorcyclists, other car users, double-decker buses and Dublin’s light train system, the LUAS.

Dublin has a system of light railway called The LUAS. It can make driving in the Dublin CBD a nightmare.

ONE of the best things about Dublin — as the old joke goes—is the network of highways that lead away from the capital.

Off the motorway many local roads are not well marked.

Therefore, it is helpful to know the name of the next town or village on your route. Directional road signs are usually a single post with a number of arrows pointing in different directions. In some instances it is difficult to determine which way the arrows are pointing.

Some signs are broken and the arrows are pointing in the wrong direction. And to add to the adventure, some are in the Irish language.

In some part of the West of Ireland the signs are wholly in Gaelic.



You have to understand Gaelic to drive in Ireland. (Watch out for the sheep too.)

Don’t be afraid to stop and ask for directions. The locals are usually very helpful and more than willing to offer assistance.

Ireland is largely a rural country and rural traffic is the norm.

Expect slow and gigantic pieces of farm machinery around every corner, especially in Roscommon (but that is just my personal experience).

Also be prepared for wildlife and pets suddenly crossing the road. Cows and especially sheep don’t mind using the public road as a resting place.

Even in Dublin collisions with horses are not unknown.

There is network of highways radiating out from Dublin. Top speeds can be 120km/h.

MY relationship with the Terios 4WD hire car lasted 10 days, adding 1200kms to its clock.

On the highways it was a nightmare, it had to be coaxed up to the legal speed limit of 120km/p.

Around the city it was perfect – it mounted the kerb admirably, it was nippy in one-way streets, high enough to see errant cyclists, and the rugged wheels tackled the city’s potholes with ease.

The car’s heater meant the heavy winter coat was occasionally discarded — but not the gloves and the scarf. And the off-road features? The car climbed over high mountain passes, flew past misty peat bogs, stopped sharply for a flock of sheep, chugged happily along behind rural tractors and only once left the tarmac.

As the Terios was being dropped back, on one bright spring morning — but with snow on the Dublin Mountains — the boom gate remote control failed at the entrance to the Dublin airport car park.

Rather than double-back through the airport’s torturous one-way traffic system, the Terios mounted a small nature strip and effortlessly drove around the boom gate and into a nearby car park space.

Who said you shouldn’t take a 4WD into the city . . . mind you, it was just a pity a surfboard couldn’t fit into the back of that Terios.

The Terios parked on a country road in County Dublin. Roads edged by tall stonewalls are common in the East of Ireland.




Clamping in Dublin: Why and what to do


Driving in Ireland?


Spring (March – May)

In spring it becomes gradually warmer with average temperatures between 8- 12 °C.

Summer (June – August)

The average temperature during the summer is between 16-20 °C. Apart from short refreshing showers, this is Ireland’s driest season.

Autumn (September – November)

In autumn, the temperature ranges between 14-18 °C.

Winter (December – February)

The average temperature during the winter ranges between 4-6 °C.

Daylight in Ireland

Winter: In Ireland, on the shortest day (December 21), the sun rises at about 8:40 a.m. and sets at about 4:10 p.m. providing approximately seven-and-a-half hours of daylight.

Summer: On June 21, on the longest day, the sun rises at about 5am and sets at about 10pm.providing approximately 17 hours of daylight.

Are you planning to visit Ireland soon?

Check www.met.ie for the latest weather forecast for the next 5-10 days around Ireland.

* Nong – in Australian slang, nong is used as a pretty mild and/or endearing insult. A bit of a twit, or idiot.  (Source: Urban Dictionary)


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NZ: Battling a winter blizzard … in a campervan


By Conal Healy

(AKA Mick In The Middle)

TAKING a campervan around the South Island of New Zealand in winter is not for the faint hearted. This was the thought that struck me as our campervan hit another patch of icy-snow, started sliding off the road and stopped – luckily – before we went over the cliff.

A bright but chilly afternoon turned nasty as we headed over the Arthur Pass after collecting our vehicle at Christchurch.

Rain turned to snow and eventually a blizzard as we hit the top of the pass, the heating on, wrapped in our winter clothes, rugged up with the van’s doonahs (duvets).

Now this is cold, I thought as we started our mountain descent down what can only be described as a glorified goat track. The windscreen wipers, even on high speed, had difficulty clearing the snow as the blizzard turned horizontal.

We drove slowly avoiding the waterfalls which poured onto the road. At the same time we had to keep a watch for ice patches which threatened to slide us over the cliff to the valley floor hundreds of metres below us.

The road was being upgraded so most of the guard rails had been removed.

To add to the holiday’s excitement we had to share the pass with heavy earth moving equipment which would loom out of the snow storm like technicolour dinosaurs.

It was a great relief when the snow turned to heavy rain again as we reached the valley floor.

As night fell – at 4pm – we realised we were over the worst part of the journey, on what had been our first day on the road.

With the first overnight stop of Hokatika still an hour away, we drove through a scenery which was losing the battle against the annual 2.5metres of rainfall.

Grey, bedraggled sheep, sheltered from the storm behind granite boulders or bushes of yellow flowering gorse. Tiny two-roomed humpies  (small homestead) lay hidden, surrounded by sparse windswept trees.

The barely two-lane road, regularly narrowed as we approached a bridge which usually doubled for both rail and road traffic.

Another of our nightmares was for the campervan to be trapped on one of these bridges and not see the train looming out of the mist … until it was too late.

That first night, Hokitika could have been anywhere, all we saw were the town’s neon signs shining bright out of the storm. We were happy and relieved to reach the guide’s suggested campervan park, make dinner and warm ourselves at the open fire of a nice West Coast pub.

With the wind gently rocking the van and the rain washing the mud from the outside we fell asleep.

THE next morning the local radio station told us that the Arthur Pass had been closed by our blizzard, that cars were trapped and the pass wouldn’t be re-open for three days. We had been the last people over the pass.

Outside the rain had cleared, the snow-capped Southern Alps shone pink in the early morning sunlight.

The plan was to go down the West Coast, stopping off to see the glaciers in the Franz Joseph National Park,  head for Queenstown and turn north and finish back at Christchurch.

The circuit would be three days of driving but with plenty of rest between each long haul.

As the six-berth campervan handled like a brick and the road conditions meant we rarely got over 50km/ph the driving duties were shared among the four of us. One person would drive, the other front seat passenger would ride shotgun (scouting for icy patches, scenery and sign posts) while the other two would sit in the back looking after the two children.

Backseat passengers also had to tidy the cutlery and clothes from the floor of the van after the drawers and cupboard emptied after we took a sharp turn.

Even when everything was secure there was still the almost constant rattle from within the van.

The millions of potholes we seem to have bumped over in the course of two week ensured we appreciated the regular stops to admire the beautiful – and silent – scenery.

Mirror flat azure lakes reflected the greens of a rainforest, the browns of heather covered mountains, the white peaks and the cold blue cloudless sky.

Hard sandy beaches, edged with giant boulders, lashed by huge Tasman Sea waves.

Wide, stony grey riverbeds, empty expect for a central channel of swift glacier blue torrents. A twisted ribbon of a road scratched into the narrow stretch of land between the cold grey sea and the sharp, angular mountains which rose like a wall.

Deep steep ravines occasionally littered with the axles of smashed vehicles warned us that it was best not to travel that stretch of the road when it rained or at night.

FOR two days we waited at the town of Haas for the mountain pass to Queenstown to open. Snow eventually turned to slush and then rain before we felt brave enough to load up the van and set off.

Hidden – by rain clouds – from the watchful gaze of Mt Disappointment, the van slugged its way up to the Hass Pass passing Misery Creek.

“A very appropriate name,” muttered someone as we were enveloped by mist.

Even though we followed the tyre tracks cut in the slush by the previous vehicles, we could made out where others had skidded and ended up in the ditch. With the rain now turning to snow we debated whether to keep driving or risk being stranded after spending 30 minutes attempting to put on the van’s snowchains.

Our lack of confidence about the snow chains decided we drive on – slowly through the snow storm.

As we reached the top of the pass the weather cleared to a fine winter’s afternoon and the road ahead to Queenstown seemed clear.


IT wasn’t until we turned a corner and were confronted by a road crew that our hopes were dented.

An earthquake the previous week had closed the only route through.

“We’ll open a single lane for 20 minutes, in two hours time. After that the road is closed til tomorrow,’ said the foreman to the queue of 10 vehicles stopped at the barricade.

The kettle was just coming to the boil and the soup simmering when the foreman changed his mind and we all had to leave “Now” or stay the night.

Whoever was in the back strapped in the kids, held onto the hot lunch and tried not to be throw around too much.

Upfront, it needed one set of eyes to spot the debris on what was now a goat track. Meanwhile the driver made sure the van didn’t get too close to the edge of the ravine which plunged down to Lake Wanaka.

Twenty terrifying minutes – and five kilometres – later we hit tarmac again, we pulled over at the first safe spot and settled down the two scared children. It took a long lunch before the four adults recovered.

It wasn’t until we were packing up that I looked over the edge of the ravine and saw the undercarriage of another campervan which lay rusting on the edge of the lake shore. I slowly walked back to the van and kept my mouth shut until we hit winter ski resort of Queenstown.


Like most of the places we stayed at on the South Island, the Creeksyde Campervan Park, offered excellent facilities.

A well furbished kitchen/dining room/heated TV lounge offered a welcome a break from the cramped van.

The lounge also gave us a chance to gleefully swap horror stories with other campers over a couple of beers: “Our toilet backed up, flooding the van…we ended up in a ditch…the heater broke down and we nearly froze…my wife couldn’t stand the campervan’s constant mess so we flew her home to Sydney…our gas water heating system doesn’t work…”

Nearly everybody agreed that taking a campervan around mid-winter New Zealand was something of an adventure.

Which is fine, if you want an adventure, a family planning a relaxing break shouldn’t consider it.

CAMPERVANS can be cramped, the on-board facilities are best described as adequate.

How many families would relish the prospect of spending two weeks in the space smaller than a large bathroom. (We regarded ourselves as lucky that six of us didn’t have one argument in the two weeks we were holidaying in the van.)

A campervan allows you a certain amount of freedom as to where you travel, however an NZ tourist body suggested it was safer to use the van parks.

“Several isolated van have been attacked an robbed,” we were warned.

As already mentioned, most parks have good facilities, but these are geared mainly towards summer campers when it might be bracing to have a shower in an open-shower block.

In winter it’s a different matter, especially if you are used to showering on a daily basis.

The South Island is beautiful, the scenery fantastic and the people friendly – next time we’ll go in summer, hire a mini-van and stay in motels.


February is the hottest month in Hokitika (on the west coast of NZ’s south island) with an average temperature of 61°F (16°C) and the coldest is July at 46°F (8°C) with the most daily sunshine hours at 8 in August.

During the winter, Queenstown has snow-capped mountains and crisp, clear days, while during the summer, the days are warm and can reach a temperature of 26°C. There is not much difference between seasonal rainfall in Queenstown, but March tends to be the wettest month with an average of 80mm.

Simple rules for safe winter traveling in NZ

  • Allow extra time
  • Ensure your vehicle is safe for winter driving
  • Drive to the road and weather conditions
  • Slow down and be prepared for unexpected hazards
  • Allow greater following distance between you and the vehicle ahead
  • Make sure your cell phone is well charged, check car charger also
  • Have blankets, snacks, bottles of water ready in case of emergency or a breakdown.
  • (Source: https://www.nzta.govt.nz/media-releases/winter-journeys-be-safe-plan-ahead/)


Things to do in Queenstown:


Things to do in Hokikitta:


Where on earth?


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Stanthorpe: Stepping back into history

World War 1 echoes can be found in Stanthorpe, Qld.

By Conal Healy

AKA Mick_in_the_Middle

WHAT do the names Amiens, Messines, Passchendaele, Bullecourt and Pozieres have in common? They were the names of train stops on the outskirts of Stanthorpe, Qld.

Of course, they were also some of the deadliest battlefields of World War I and half-a-world away from the sleepy city that nestles high on the Granite Belt of South-East Queensland.

The train line that serviced the “battlefield stations” is long gone, so are the stations, and sadly so are the diggers who fought in that war to end all wars.

Around 100 years ago, WWI returning soldiers were offered selections on the outskirts of Stanthorpe as a thanks for their military service. The train stops to service this suburb were named after the European towns that a lot of war veterans must have tried to forget, or to mentally move on from.

At the time (1920) The Amiens Branch Line would have been big news, it was opened in 1920 by HRH Edward, Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward).

Today most of the diggers’ land selections are covered in orchards, or in vineyards.

A POIGNANT reminder of the settlements can be found in the station signs which survive at the Stanthorpe Heritage Museum.

Stepping inside the museum is like stepping back in time, if you are over 40 years of age. It’s like stepping into another world  – if you are under 40.

To the touch-screen generation the 22,000 contents must seem from outer space, or to have come off one of the First Fleet ships.

For example, there are big, black heavy telephones which had to be hand-cranked. There were phones where the numbers had to be turned on a dial using your index finger, rather than being prodded by a stylus, or tapped on a smart phone.

On display were the latest – in the 1950s and 1960s – multi-media Home Entertainment Centres which played vinyl records (at 33rpms and at 45rpms) and the wireless too. It wasn’t exactly portable – more of a piece of furniture. In the same display were the first portable record players, about the size of a small suitcase, and which could play music in Hi-Fidelity Stereo, or in Mono (at a pinch).

For younger members of Spotify generation, in the middle of the last century music came on plastic disks, called records. This is getting technical, I know, but a diamond tipped “needle” would run along the “etched grooves” in the plastic disk and the resulting scratches – ie the music – would be “amplified” and transferred to a “Loudspeaker”.

There were no such features as “repeat” or “skip” but you did have a choice between a “single” (about three minutes worth of music on EACH side of the disk), a Long Playing record (LPs tended to last for 20minutes, but you could flip it over for a second 20-minute) record or the inbetween mode, the Extra Play (EP) which usually had enough music for around eight minutes, about three or four songs.

Moving into the SoHo exhibits, there are wonderful range of typewriters. Again – for younger readers – a typewriter was an early communication device. Similar to a laptop, a typewriter had features that included “instant save” and “print” functions, most were extremely durable (could be dropped or on occasions flung across the room and still continue to work). The email function was slow in typewriters, sending a letter usually involved the use of – pardon the technical expressions – envelopes, stamps, bodily fluids from your tongue and possibly a trip to the nearest Post Office by car, bike, horse and buggy, or by walking.

For the generations of children who believe that bread, milk, butter and jam comes from the fridge (or maybe the Local Supermarket), the kitchen in the Stanthorpe Heritage Museum must seem like an industrial zone. In many ways it was. In most 20th Century households it was the place where meals were “made”, as in produced and constructed (and not simply a place where a “packaged something” is reheated).

This museum kitchen reflects the industrial side of cooking: Bench-top mincers, meat safes, ice-boxes, rolling pins, metal sieves, butter pats, jaffle irons and metal counter-balance weighing scales with accompanying measuring weights (in pounds and ounces, naturally). This was a kitchen were families (or if you were lucky, servants) actually worked, this wasn’t a place for a touch of “recreational cooking”.

Back in the 20th Century, life was a lot less convenient, compared to today. And this is reflected repeatedly in the museum’s 22,000 exhibits spread across eight rooms/buildings.

As you would expect, there are the early pioneer era wooden hut structures (and their furniture and household necessities) – these would look “ancient” to most 20th Century parents, but in the other buildings are the donated items (from the middle half of the century) that really catch the eye.

I dare anybody to walk through the museum and not say “My mother had one of those  …” or “My Gran had one of those in her house”. Items that would have end-up up in a rubbish dump 30 years ago are nicely displayed, ready to generate a long-forgotten memory from a by-gone age.

In the space given over to the school exhibits, there are stern wooden desks (complete with inkwells), a picture of a young Queen Elizabeth, as well as blackboards, counting frames, an oil heater, a pair of wooden dividers, and a large wall map of Australia which illustrated the wealth and features of this vast brown land. It stands in almost glorious isolation from its Asian neighbours.

I’m sure if I looked hard enough there would find a map of the globe where most of the continents (including Australia) were shaded pink, indicating that the Great Britain and her young Queen still held sway over vast portions of Planet Earth.

Yet another relic from a different age.

Fact box:

The Stanthorpe Heritage Museum is at 12 High Street, Stanthorpe. Opening hours: Wednesday to Friday, 10am-4pm;  Saturday, 1pm-4pm; Sunday, 9am-1pm. Groups by appointment.  Entry cost: $7

Website: http://stanthorpehistoricalsociety.org.au/


Where is Stanthorpe?

An hour and a half from Brisbane, two hours from the Gold Coast and a two hour drive from the Sunshine Cost. The region is well connected via highways and road networks including the Cunningham, New England, Warrego, Leichhardt, D’Aguilar, Brisbane Valley and Gore Highways and the Great Inland Way and the Adventure Way.


Want to know more?


Stanthorpe shopping:

Department stores: Target County.

Food Stores: IGA, Woolworth and Aldi.


Winter: Owing to its elevation, Stanthorpe features a subtropical highland climate. At an altitude of 811 metres (2,661 ft), Stanthorpe holds the record for the lowest temperature recorded in Queensland at −10.6 °C (12.9 °F) on  June 23, 1961. Sleet and light snowfalls are occasionally recorded, with the most significant snowfall in over 30 years occurring on  July 17, 2015.

Summer: December – 15/27 (Eight rain days); January – 16/28 (Eight rain days). February – 16/26 (Seven rain days).

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Untersberg: Climbing every (snowy) mountain


The Untersberg is very much a typical Alpine geographical feature. In other words, it rises sharply out of the valley floor, as though some subterranean giant had delivered an upper cut to the earth’s crust.

By Conal Healy

(AKA Mick In The Middle)

THE plan was to climb the local mountain, today. Yesterday was the tour and seeing the sights. Tomorrow it was shopping. Today – as was said before – was The Mountain. But there was a problem.

Here in the small Austrian city of Salzburg the weather had closed in.

A thick cloud of freezing fog had descended overnight and visibility was now pretty poor. The rocky escarpment at the end of the street was still there, but only just.

The big local mountain – The Untersberg – on the other hand was not.

A mountain, with a high point of 1857metres, disappearing – well, that was disturbing.

The Untersberg dominates Salzburg. It even dwarfs the huge Festung Hohensalzburg, the local medieval fortress that has kept watch over the region for hundreds of  years.

If you check out the background  – and ignore the singing Julie Andrews – in the film The Sound of Music you’ll catch glimpses of this mammoth of a mountain.

By European standards, the Untersberg is very much a typical Alpine geographical feature. In other words, it rises sharply out of the valley floor, as though some subterranean giant had delivered an upper cut to the earth’s crust.

It is the sharply angular lump of a mountain that is loved by advertising agencies trying to sell breakfast cereal, bottled water or a pine-scented deodorant.

In geological terms, the Untersberg is still a toddler (about 22 million years old). The forces of nature – the wind and rain – have yet to knock the edges off this rock. And it will be millions of years before the Untersberg takes on the rounded profiles found on many of Australia’s ancient mountains.

But today, the majesty of the Untersberg is lost to us – thanks to this cloud of freezing fog. The helpful staff at the Hotel Lasserhof were having an each-way bet when asked if today was a good day for climbing.

“I could be cloudy down here, but at the top? Who knows? It could be clear?”  was their suggestion. Hmm, it was sound advice but not very helpful.

What would be the point in climbing to 1857 metres (nearly 5000ft) and NOT being able to see your hand in front of your face? We could easily step outside the hotel and get a better view of the swirling greyness at street level. It would also be a lot cheaper.

So what to do? It was now just after breakfast but a decision would have to be made soon.

Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg, Austria

IN winter, the days in this part of the world are famously short.

In January, the sun rises just after 8am and is almost gone by 4pm. In some of the high Alpine villages, which are surrounded by mountains, the sun might not be glimpsed for weeks.

Mid-year, the long summer days (5am-9pm) makes the Alps an ideal location for hiking, rock climbing or a place to simply amble. From late spring through to early autumn, the Untersberg’s myriad of trails are open to walkers. Now in mid-winter, the only safe option was a cable car service, directly to the top.

In the end a run to the mountain was agreed. A short trip on a  local bus from central Salzburg found us at the base of the Untersberg, next to the cable car station. The mist – or was it low-lying cloud? – was as thick as ever. From the valley floor the visibility was a dim 200 metres.

In reply to a mangled question in German, the box office attendant announced that the sun was shining at the top of the mountain, but muttered (almost under his breath) “for now”.

Money was exchanged for tickets and we followed the directions to the waiting cable car. As the three-quarter empty carriage swung into the cold gloom we caught sight of the snow-covered landscape.

Wonderfully cute Alpine chalets – the inspiration for generations of cuckoo clocks – sat dusted in white. Towers topped with onion-shaped roofs stood defiant in the mist. Swimming pools in summer holiday homes had now become ice-rinks.

Farmfields looked like ironed-flat bed sheets. Mist swirled through a belt of pine trees that wrapped around the base of the Untersberg.

Moment later the cable car swung off another pylon and one half of the view disappeared and we suddenly faced the shear rock face of the mountain. And that’s when the cloud enveloped the car. Now all that could be seen was hard rock wall, lone trees appeared, sometimes it was patches of snow, sheets of ice, or long daggers of ice hanging off ledges.

The rest of the carriage windows showed grey cloud.

Would there be sun at the top, was the question being asked. The car’s operator tried to assure people, “Yes there is sun, but in 20minutes – who knows?” Well, at this height, I figured, there would be decent snow.

Salzburg in the snow.
Salzburg in the snow.
Salzburg in the snow.
Salzburg in the snow.
Showing the way.

TWO nights earlier the Ryanair plane had touched down in Salzburg. The favourite conversation on the flight was snow, or the lack there of. The mildest winter on record – blamed on global warming – had left most of Europe’ ski fields snow free.

News reports the previous week had shown ski competition organisers bringing in – by helicopter – giant bucket of snow for their downhill events. Thin ribbons of white where being constructed in green Alpine meadows.

Salzburg, which usually gets its first snow in November, was still waiting for the first fall. And this was January. One of  the passengers on the plane had asked, almost in desperation: “What do you do at a ski-resort when there’s no snow?”

We’d all gone to bed that night wondering when – or if – the white stuff would arrive. But there was no need to worry, the next morning Salzburg woke to an inch of snow on the ground. It wasn’t going to get the serious skiers excited, but it was fantastic for the first-time snow seers.

The already picturesque Salzburg looked magical but cold. By mid-afternoon, the snow had cleared from the streets and paths. And there hadn’t been a chance to build a snowman or to have a snowball fight.

The Unsterberg promised – at the very least – deep snow, perfect for snowballs.

Above the clouds
Above the clouds
Above the clouds
Above the clouds
Snow at the peak of the The Untersberg,Austria.

BACK at the cable car we reached the top. Looking back, the black cables stood out against the grey cloud they disappeared into.

The door slid open, we got out and walked up a few step into a waiting lounge. As we walked to the window, to see the view, there was a gust of wind and the last vestiges of cloud disappeared from the top of the mountain.

We went outside, into bright sunshine and into a day that almost defies description.

On top of the Unsterberg we were literally above the clouds. The clear sky was a delicate blue. Before us, stretching to the horizon, was an ocean of soft whiteness. The high peaks of the distant Alps stood like low islands above this fluffy whiteness.

In the cold, still air it was silent. There was a sense of being alone, on the roof of the world.

It could have been the thinner air, it might have been the view, but the top of Unsterberg is euphoria -inducing. It forced you to stop and admire the work of Mother Nature.

Sitting on rock ledge, surrounded by deep snow, it was possible to see (with the naked eye) individual snow flakes. I’d seen snow before, but as coin-sized fluffs and puffs. Here each crystal of snow seemed to have its own identity. This was not the compacted almost-wet snow of my Irish childhood – instead it reminded me of  grains of sand. The wind forming each flake into dunes of snow, rather than into banks.

Only a handful of people had gambled on a low cloud ceiling and ventured to the Unsterberg to wander the mountain’s top snow-covered walking trials.  The mountain-top restaurant sold local post card souvenir of summertime hikers, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, beaming smiles, walking along gravel trails through Alpine meadows littered with edelweiss blossoms. There were photos of happy wanderers sitting outside, sipping on ice-cold beers while working on their suntans.

In mid-winter, it was very different. The dress-code was thermal underwear – ankle to neck – shirt, jumper, heavy coat, hats, scarves and gloves. No bare skin could be  exposed for long for fear of frostbite. It was now below freezing point.

The warm weather chalet restaurants/bar stood closed, their many tables and benches stood snow-encrusted. Dissolve-at-a-touch ice crystals, as big as fingernails, formed on thin cables making them appear as thick as a mooring rope.

On top of the world – Untersberg, Austria
On top of the world – Untersberg, Austria
On top of the world – Untersberg, Austria


On top of the world – Untersberg, Austria

THREE monuments marked the ridge line path that stretched into the distance.

The first marker was an iron cross, and was a few hundred metres from the cable car station. An already-beaten path had been made in the snow making it an easy trudge. Underfoot, layers of ice and frozen snow made footfalls tricky, but the view made the effort worthwhile.

From this vantage point, the valley below could be glimpsed as the clouds thinned out. Sometimes a slight wind change would force a bank of fog to break away, ride an updraft and smother the top of Unsterberg.

Surrounded by cloud, in a bright white landscape it wasn’t difficult to imagine straying off the path, walking off the unseen edge of a cliff and falling to your death.

The second lookout beckons from the first cross, but on this glorious day few people had succumb to it’s siren call.

In the deep snow a few sets of footprints led off into the distance. I set off the half -kilometre determined to make the monument that offered a better lookout of this already unforgettable view.

I trudged on, taking one step at a time in the thin air. An English woman passed me coming back, I greeted her with a cheery good morning and we chatted, posed for photos with our own camera and went our separate ways.

A few minutes later, I met her boyfriend. “Is it worth it?” I asked. His beaming smile said it all. I struggled on, stopping to catch my breath and to marvel at the ocean of white before my eyes.

The second marker was a monument to the Alpine rescue squad. I sat down, read the plaque, and watched the view.

On nearby bushes, thin branches were transformed into white fingers by the snow. Individual ice crystal glistened in the noon day sun. Overhead was the sky blue that only airline passengers see. Below, windows in the cloud gave a God’s eye view of the valley.

Alone on the top of the Unsterberg the third marker was calling out, offering even more worldly delights.

A blanket of snow covered the bushes, the rocks on the trail to the last post. Nobody had ventured to this final marker to the edge of the mountain’s big cliff. There was no safe path. No foot prints to step in. It would be dangerous, especially if the clouds came back.

I took one last photo, pulled my scarf over my nose and headed down the icy track, ignoring the urge of that ultimate stop.

Chalet near the peak of the Untersberg, Austria

THE Unsterberg was going to stay with me for the rest of my life and kept walking. Inside me there was wonderful sense of fulfilment, of being alive, of achievement.

Behind me the sun cast shadows in my footsteps. Ahead of me was the promise of a hot meal.

The rest of the party had gone back to the station restaurant and ordered me a traditional Austrian winter warmer, a thin vegetable soup with cheese dumplings.

Now that was going to be a meal to remember.


Snow and ice.

Where in the world is this?


Riding the cable car:


Counting the cost – Ascent and descent:

Adults: €25.
Children: (6-14 years) for one child only € 12.00 – all others free of charge
Students: (up to 26 years, ID required) € 17.00.

Sound of Music connection:

The Unsterberg gained international fame as the “distinctive, lopsided peak” featured at the beginning and end of the 1965 movie The Sound of Music, although the filming was done on the German side, not the Austrian side. It was where Julie Andrews sang The Hills Are Alive at the opening scene and where the family climbed the mountain on their escape to Switzerland at the end of the film. (Source: Wikipedia)

Fast facts:

Around 100,000 passengers enjoying the ride every year.

Between the valley station the lift rises an impressive 1,320 m in elevation.

The ride in  gondolas takes about ten minutes. When you step out at the top, there is a view of Salzburg City, Berchtesgadener Land (in Germany) and the Rosittental. In good visibility, you can even see all the way out to the Salzkammergut lakes as well as Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria.

Numerous hiking routes begin close to the mountain station, too. But if you simply prefer to relax and take in the views,  they suggest renting out a comfortable deckchair.

You have a number of options available to you whenever you get snacky or want to sit down for a drink. In addition to the restaurant at the mountain station, hikers may wish to visit Bergrestaurant Hochalm and sample their delicious homemade regional specialties. Traditional refuge huts, such as the Zeppezauerhaus, also serve refreshments to visitors.

Things to do in Salzburg:



What is the best time of year to go to Salzburg? Here are some average weather facts we collected from our historical climate data:

  • During the month of June, July, August and September you are most likely to experience good weather with pleasant average temperatures that fall between 20 degrees Celsius (68°F) and 25 degrees Celsius (77°F).
  • The months April, May, June, July, August, September, November and December have a high chance of precipitation.
  • On average, the warmest month is August.
  • On average, the coolest month is January.
  • July is the wettest month. This month should be avoided if you are not a big fan of rain.
  • February is the driest month.


Hohensalzburg Fortress

Hohensalzburg Fortress sits atop the Festungsberg, a small hill in the Austrian city of Salzburg. Erected at the behest of the Prince-Archbishops of Salzburg with a length of 250 m and a width of 150 m, it is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe.

Cost:  Tickets start from 13 Euros.

Want to know more?


View of Salzburg in the snow.
Fortress Hohensalzburg is a real eye-catcher, high above the Baroque towers of the city.
A courtyard inside the Fortress Hohensalzburg
A courtyard inside the inside the Fortress Hohensalzburg.
Inside the Fortress Hohensalzburg.
The Festung Hohensalzburg
View of Salzburg from the Festung Hohensalzburg


View of Salzburg from the Festung Hohensalzburg
View of Salzburg from the Festung Hohensalzburg

What airline fly into Salzburg?




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