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A Slice of Swiss Cheese

01 March 2013

by Dave Mitchell

Switzerland and New Zealand are chalk and cheese in many respects. The land-locked home of Swiss timing has no coastline, native bush nor wilderness. They keep sheep as a hobby and the farm animals wear bells.

The villages are chocolate box lid escapees - Swiss, of course. Motorways connect every node and have more tunnels than you can poke a troll into. The mountains are zig zagged with singletrack, ski lifts and train tracks. Food and lodging lurk on every pass and local walkers are happy to share the trails... sounds like mountain bike heaven.

Ditte and I hit Interlaken early June, their spring, but it felt like summer. Basking in the sun, the tourist hotspot balances between the lakes of Brienzersee and Thunersee- wondering which to plunge into for a swim. It's also smack dab in the middle of the Berner Oberland alpine region. Ditte's high school German helped interpret our fistfull of 'Swiss Singletrail Maps' purchased from a local bookshop. They collectively boasted 3280kms of bicycle trails. We needed no further encouragement to establish base camp in Interlaken. 'Camping Hobby' rented us grass and the cleanest facilities this side of the European Space Agency.

Tent up and we headed off (the wrong way as it transpired) around Thunerseeonto some very steep and dodgy singletrack. Our internal compass was not to be trusted in this hemisphere. The GPS sorted us out. Back on track we climbed a gravel road above the railway line from Spiez into oak, pine and elm forest. The smell of two stroke oil and pine filled the air. Just around the corner a local farmer was "making firewood while the sun shines". Perfect stacks lined the trail. We climbed 700 metres through bright green meadows, past farm sheds, barns and dwellings. Shiny black cowbells adorned the wooden verandas. Brimming flower boxes added to the Hansel and Gretel look. The downhill was long, edgy and leaf-littered, providing a good taste of what was to come.

Over the following 15 days we gorged ourselves - indigestion was always a concern. The template was to ascend the mountain roads and blast down the singletrack - mostly too steep or rocky to ride up anyway. It didn't take long to rein in the navigational hiccups. In true Swiss-style, the map conveniently reconciled with sign posts that regularly appeared when required. Maps indicate the level of difficulty (blue, red, black) and trail type (strasse - road, fostweg - gravel, or singletrail) - so we generally knew what sort of trouble we were getting into. It often rained at night but the place leaks like a slice of gruyére, so the tracks were more-or-less dry when knobbly met dirt the next day.


We made several excursions into the thin air under the watchful eye of the Jungfrau. Mönch and Eiger. Well-benched technical singletrack traversing the steep slopes was plentiful. The Eiger's north face towered above us, glaciers of blue ice hanging precariously from its rocky buttresses. Riding surfaces varied from dirt to rock and scree, with rocky ledges and melt-water gullies to splash through. There was little buff but plenty of bluff.

Cog railways appear in the most unexpected places - all the more impressive given they were built well before helicopters. A train climbs to the Jungfraujoch (3545m) via a 7km tunnel chipped though the Eiger and Mönch. Quite a shuttle! We used trains a lot though (and lifts occasionally) to link rides. It was fabulous to just wheel on and enjoy the trip home after a big day out.

New Zealand backcountry huts provide a roof, mattress and perhaps a fire. Swiss alpine huts are more like hotels, with lift access and food. It is pretty cool to crest a pass after a hard climb and to see a café magically appear out of the mist... coffee and cake then transporting itself to your table. It wasn't all beer and skittles though. After a particularly rocky descent to Café Berghaus we were confronted with an axe wielding anti-mountain bike proprietor. It wasn't Jack Nicholson. The situation was diffused with English, German and sign language, along with our Swiss Singletrail Map showing the track to be open in the off season. We opted not to patronise his café though.

I recall some thespian wisdom about not riding with children or animals. Not so in Switzerland. We befriended some roadside pigs at the start of one day. Then later happened upon a bovine orchestra, a large herd of cows playing an assortment of bells for our pleasure. We were entranced (really) and delayed moving on for sometime. Themusic followed us for a while, until drowned by the thundering waterfalls at the valley's head.

We had climbed the equivalent of a couple of Everests, enjoyed riding with a few locals and ate enough nussgipfelis to sink the Swiss navy. And like Arnie, we'll be back.

Nitty Gritty

  • Switzerland is riddled with 'singletrail'. You could dedicate a lifetime to exploring the tracks on offer. Any region provides more than enough terrain for a few weeks' holiday or more. 
  • A session on Google Earth both inspires and helps to scope adventures. Ski lifts and trains can minimise the pain of gaining altitude or extend the rideable horizon. 
  • Spring (June) is great for wild flowers but lingering snow can limit ride options. Late summer and early autumn (September-ish) boasts more stable, warmer weather. Best to avoid the high season in July and early August. 
  • English is widely spoken but we couldn't find any English guidebooks. The Swiss Singletrail Maps are superb but expensive.www.singletrailmap.ch andwww.ride.ch are worth checking out. 
  • Most tracks are mountain bike kosher with just a few closed during the peak tourist season.
  • Camping is easy. Supermarkets keep the cost of living under control. Wine and cheese are cheap, but they do charge for the holes. 
  • Nussgipfelis - croissants filled with ground almond paste - are obligatory post-ride electrolyte replacement.