Bbc – travel – switzerland’s valley of the cable cars 4 gas giants


To the farming families of the Engelberg Valley region, which lies about 35km south of Lucerne in the Swiss cantons of Nidwalden and Obwalden, cable cars aren’t built for ski holidays and scenic views. They’re basic transportation, used to haul supplies and run errands. But the Buiräbähnli (German for ‘farmers cableways’), which are concentrated in the region, also welcome hikers, who can pay a small fee to hop aboard, like an Uber of the Alps.

“We call this the Valley of the Cable Cars,” said Linda Schmitter, 22, who uses one of her family’s small gondolas on her work commute to Engelberg. Her family runs a dairy farm in the hills above the village of Wolfenschiessen, and two dormitory-style mountain huts, offering room and board to visitors like me. I met her after a day of hiking that had included four cable-car rides zig-zagging up and down the Engelberger Aa River valley.

Linda’s father, Ueli Schmitter, a third-generation farmer, helps neighbours keep their gondolas in proper repair. The cableways must pass an annual government inspection, and every five years undergo a complete safety assessment, using X-rays to reveal stresses to cars and cables.

Although the family’s cars are 38 years old, they look brand new, with gleaming royal blue and lime-green paint jobs and a playful decal of a cow hanging from a cable car on the door. It’s not artistic license: occasionally Ueli attaches a basket to the bottom of his cars to transport his small-sized Dexter cattle down to the valley.

Farmer cableways developed after World War I as an efficient way to bring supplies to high Alpine fields and a cheaper alternative to building roads. Because of the hilly topography and reliance on agriculture, many developed in the canton of Nidwalden, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of cableways in the world. They’re particularly prominent in the Engelberg area, which has a third of the country’s remaining farmer’s cableways.

The cableways soon became quasi-public, with neighbours sharing them for deliveries and transportation. Eventually some were opened to hikers, who would pay owners a small fee for rides. But since it was difficult for visitors to learn details and plan outings, in 2016 the local tourist board began promoting a package ticket for a multi-day hike using cars around the Engelberger Aa River valley.

It was that hike that led me the next morning to the compact village of Oberrickenbach, where three cable cars promised an easy ascent to the looming peaks. Two were commercial operations, but my ride was hidden around the corner, where a farmer lifted bales of hay onto a platform hanging from a cable.

When I requested a lift, he stepped inside a storage shed to press a button, and a second cable started to move. A few minutes later, a faded red vehicle glided into view. Again, I clambered aboard and a few minutes later found the farmer’s son, Daniel Durrer, unloading the hay his father had just sent up.

Durrer, who had taken a day off from his job as a chef, grew up with aerial transportation. “For me, it’s natural. When I go outside for work, for school, for anything, I take a cable car,” he said. “When I was a child, I used one every day.”

This stop was only a waystation. After a few minutes of chatting, he pointed to an open-air vehicle that looked like a cable-car version of an antique pickup truck, with an open bed ringed with removable wooden guards. I piled in, and as the vehicle began to climb, Durrer waved goodbye.

At the top of the hill, a winding forest path led to a cheesemaker’s rustic studio and cafe, where owner Barbara Wismer seemed eager for company. She served a plate of nutty, creamy cheeses and freshly baked bread, and recalled how she left her banking job in Zürich to join her boyfriend. They live here from spring through autumn, and generate electricity with a wood-burning stove. Supplies come up by cable car.

In the last 10 years, the Engelberg Valley has seen the number of cableways drop from about 100 to just more than 40 as the government began to remove cable cars from communities served by roads, Ueli Schmitter told me. The lines crisscrossing the valley were deemed a hazard to helicopters and paragliders, and expensive to regulate.