A high-wire family adventure in the Swiss Alps

There was definitely a goat in our bedroom. As the wind rattled the wooden shutters above the mattresses on the floor, where my partner and I and our two-year-old lay huddled, I woke with a start, searching the darkness for the creature whose bleats had interrupted my sleep.

We were in the centre of Switzerland, in the mountains above Engelberg, staying in a barn at Alp Oberfeld. Or – technically – above one, in a converted section of the upper floor, beneath which the 100 goats the Käslin family tend over summer are milked twice a day. I checked the clock on my phone. It was 6am. They were right on schedule.

Beside me my son stirred and yawned. I held my breath preparing for the imminent wake-up. Yet it didn’t come. Instead he snuggled under my arm and drifted back to sleep – something unheard of back home. I would have ordinarily been shocked. But on this, our third and final morning on the Buiräbähnli Safari trail, it was the kind of magic we had become accustomed to.

Engelberg is a region of Switzerland famous mainly with hardcore skiers who come for the 3,238m peak of Titlis and a glacier that is easily accessed. This newly launched 29-mile (46km) hiking route is an attempt by the local tourist office to put the area on the map for summer adventures, too.

The barn at Alp Oberfeld. Photograph: Oskar Enander/Engelberg-Titlis Tourismus Company.

Buiräbähnli means “farmer’s cableways” in local Swiss-German and refers to the series of small, often quirky, cable cars that were built across the country after the second world war to transport machinery, building materials and supplies to the farms among the peaks.

There were soon more than 100 across Switzerland, built to custom designs, becoming something of a cultural icon. But over the decades, as maintenance costs spiralled and more roads were built, the number in this region, once affectionately named “Valley of the Cable Cars”, has more than halved.

“They are still the lifeline for many of us in these mountains,” Nadine, a volunteer at Alp Oberfeld, told me, “especially in places like this, which still has no road access.” We’d arrived late on our second day, hot on the trail of the resident goats, amid the swirling clouds of a brewing summer storm.

The new circular, sporadically waymarked trail (useful GPX files and decent maps are available from the official site) begins from Engelberg train station and links together eight cableways under a special Buiräbähnli Pass (from 47CHF/£41). The route winds through spectacular landscapes and promises an insight into local farms and traditional life, and the chance to spot animals, all for – in Swiss terms – a relatively cheap escape. Trail runners and challenge aficionados might attempt it in around 12½ continuous hours, but to immerse yourself it’s best to break the journey into three stages with two overnight stays in farms or mountain huts en route. Reservations are recommended as beds are limited.

A morning walk from Berghof Brändlen to Oberrickenbach. Photograph: Phoebe Smith

We’d travelled on Eurostar to Paris, (cheaper than the standard fare with our Interrail passes) then to Berne, Lucerne and eventually Engelberg, where we collapsed at the Ski Lodge opposite the station.

With a rucksack filled with waterproofs, sunscreen, snacks, packed lunch and spare clothes (bedding is provided in all accommodation), and our son in a child carrier (all 14kg of him), we set off on the first and longest day – a 14-mile section from our hotel to a mountain farm just above the village of Wolfenschiessen.

We went slow and steady, as we moved from houses and proper streets on to the lower flanks of a peak called Huetstock, where ibex, chamois and marmots are often seen. Cowbells chimed as we passed fields of purple flowering Alpine clover and clusters of bright yellow trefoil blooms. I already felt enchanted.

We stopped to eat our picnic among the trees then resumed our walk, the path snaking behind a small waterfall with views back to Engelberg that stopped us in our tracks.

Swiss brown cows grazed on the high plains beneath towering buttresses of rock near Lutersee lake where we stumbled upon a 100-year-old mountain shelter, complete with honesty shop. Used by skiers in winter, in summer the farmer who tends the cattle stocks up on local Alpkäse (Alpine cheese), Hauswurst (homemade sausage), wine and the obligatory Schnapps for visitors like us.

Then, we found our first cable car. It looked like an American pickup truck with a blue cab and wooden slatted cargo area in front. We eagerly piled inside and waited for something to happen. There were instructions but not in English.

“What do we do?” I asked my partner, whose grasp of Swiss-German is as bad as mine. Every Buiräbähnli on this public safari network is electric and has a slightly different array of controls. He picked up the internal phone to ask the Töngi family, whose cableway it was, for help to send us down the mountain.

One of the Swiss brown cows that graze the Alpine pastures. Photograph: Manfred Thurig/Alamy

The cableway started with a jerk and then we were off, shooting suddenly over the edge of a cliff while my toddler squealed in delight. Trees rushed past and soon we were met by Mrs Töngi, at Rugisbalmbahn farm, who smiled, patted my son on the head, took our tickets and moved us on to the second of her cableways to transport us further down into the valley. When we reached the bottom a local woman was headed up for a hike. “You know her son Toni used to use this to go to school,” she said. And we watched in awe as she shot off back up the hillside.

Three more Buiräbähnli later and we finally reached Berghof Brändlen, an organic farm run by Ueli Schmitter who was – his daughter Rita told us as she handed us giant bowls of curry and a much-needed cold beer – still out in the field. The Buiräbähnli used to bring everything to the farm, including the cows, she said. More recently they began allowing paragliders to use it, then hikers, before diversifying the farm to offer B&B accommodation to help cover costs.

That night before bed we watched the sun set from the wraparound balcony, while the family’s peacock sauntered by and flying humans swirled on the thermals beneath their parachutes headed back down into the valley.

The surrealness continued the next day as, after a high altitude two-mile stroll from Brändlen, we took a pair of mint-green vintage cable cars uphill from the small village of Oberrickenbach to wander amid the mountain ridges and tiny hamlets. We stumbled upon Alpbeizli Haghütte where we were told it was cash-only. As we didn’t have any Swiss francs, we were about to head on empty-handed when a passing couple offered to exchange euros and we left with cheese toasties and huge smiles.

The author with her partner and their two-year-old son. Photograph: Phoebe Smith

We stopped off in another dorm-style mountain hut, Bannalp Chrüzhütte, with an onsite restaurant. The host was none other than Rita’s mum, Isabelle, who brought us mountain tea and plied us with homemade cake while our son napped in the hammock and chickens ran beneath his bed.

Finally we arrived at Alp Oberfeld where the Käslin family – Trudi, Thomas and their four children – were making dinner. They’ve been coming up here for the last 10 summers to provide B&B-style accommodation to hikers – and escape the rat race below.

That night we all watched the goats come home for milking then headed to our little dorm above them, while the evening mist swirled in.

Our final walk back to Engelberg the next day took in a path into the sheer rock face like a tunnel. We explored the Brunni mountain area (a ski hub in winter, but in summer a popular hiking hotspot replete with a toboggan run, cafes, and a free playground), and the final Buiräbähnli, Bordbahn.

Previously a rickety cableway unsuitable for people, since its renovation in 2005 with local support, it has enabled two families to get their kids to school from their farms, rather than face a long, difficult hike into Engelberg. This means they can stay in the mountains year-round, with costs covered by hikers and bikers who use the cableway.

As we walked the last couple of kilometres into Engelberg, I thought back to my bleating alarm call that morning and couldn’t wait for a night in a hotel bed. Still, the knowledge that our family adventure on these old cableways was helping keep this mountain culture alive, while allowing hikers to experience just a little bit of the region’s magic, would help me sleep as soundly as my toddler.

The trip was provided by Engelberg Tourism who offer the Buiräbähnli Pass for 47 Swiss francs (£41), which includes a ride on each cableway. Accommodation at Berghof Brändlen from £49 (berghof.ch); Alp Oberfeld B&B from £106 (under-4s free); doubles in Ski Lodge Engelberg from £123 (bellevue-terminus.ch). More information: myswitzerland.com

The Guardian

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