The Achensee (ah-khen-say) is a beautiful natural lake nestled in the mountains of Tirol, Austria. The lake is sizable being 1 km wide and 9.5 km in length. It was to this lake that we traveled for a day trip.
The Austrian countryside sped past our window as the modern, aerodynamic train shot down rails of seamless steel. After a quiet, thirty minutes ride from Innsbruck, we departed at the Jenbach Bahnhof (Jenbach Train station) and proceeded only a few steps to the waiting Achenseebahn (Achensee train).
Here stood a mechanized anachronism; an old-time, coal-burning, steam engine. It traveled on a narrow gauge rail, yet the engine was surprisingly large. The engine was oily, smelled of grease and belched and hissed steam. Inside the engineer’s cockpit, a messy pile of coal was sprawled across the metal floor. Along the sides of the machine were giant metallic wheels which supported the steam engine’s carriage. Underneath and between the wheels was a giant gear – a third rail – this was used by the train for traversing steep gradients.
We boarded one of two open-sided passenger cars. An antiquated latch locked a mini-door and kept several of us pinned in our row. A plaque on the wall stated the car was built in 1889 for Kaiser und König (Emperor and King).
The steam engine’s whistle was activated and a long high-pitched wail announced the start of the journey, with a small chug the behemoth came to life. The chugs grew with intensity and the entire train lurched forward as the engine pushed the cars uphill. Just one minute into the trip the tracks became steep and the third rail was activated, a clank-clank-clank of the greased metal gear could be heard.
Geysers of dark smoke belched from the engine’s stack, the plumes repeated faster and faster as the machine’s power came to full strength. An engineer or an assistant shoveled coal into the engine’s furnace to feed the fiery beast. The burning coal boiled water and produced steam, this in-turn powered gears that moved the locomotive ever further up the hill.
The cars were pushed by the engine about as fast as a person could jog; through forests, past houses, small villages, and fields. Cars would stop at crossing signals and patiently wait for the train to pass, the people inside the autos were smiling just from seeing this historic train. On occasion tourists would run to a fence and start snapping photos, people in the train would wave back. The engineer would blast the whistle to add some zest to the excitement.
Sitting in the passenger car with my arm on the railing, I noticed my outside arm was suddenly covered in ash! The great billow of dark smoke had risen over the cars and the heavier ash particles were softly raining down.
After the train crossed the highest point the engine was detached from the cars, it then traveled on a parallel track to the front of the train and was re-attached. Now the engine pulled the train. We resumed our trip. After a few minutes the track curved and in the distance was a sheet of blue hidden among the trees – this was the Achensee, a great inland lake, the largest in Austria. The lake rested in a deeply carved valley surrounded by high Alpine mountains.
A jet of steam was released from the side of the engine as the train stopped just meters away from the lake, we had arrived at the Achensee. The engineer jumped out and pulled a large faucet arm over to the engine and released a great flow of water. The steam engine greedily guzzled water to replenish itself for the return trip – a trip this steam engine had made thousands of times over the past hundred years.
The lake was beautiful, and because it was easy accessibility by automobiles and buses, the lake was a tourist haven, especially along the southern and western shore of the lake where we had arrived.
We walked on a lakeside trail for about 5 kilometers before we finally passed the last of the restaurants, tour buses and a multitude of visitors. It seemed odd that so many folks who visited these areas of comfort and relaxation looked unhappy and solemn from behind their sunglasses and wide-brimmed sun hats.
The trail we were on followed the edge of this elegant lake. Once we were past the touristy area the paved pathway narrowed, then became gravel walkway, then smaller again to become a dirt footpath. The lake began to reveal itself as we walked and passed small springs and quiet pebbled beaches. At one point a waterfall burst over the edge of a precipice – from fifty feet above – and tumbled down upon the path. The force of the water was strong but this part of the trail was shielded by a tin-roofed structure that looked all the worse for wear. The falling liquid drummed loudly on the roof as we passed under it.
The trail meandered along the inlets and indented shoreline of the lake. At one point we passed a great disgorgement of stone that had slid off the mountain – the action had created a jumble of rocks that fanned into the lake – we stood at the tip of a giant landslide. The mountain above was scarred like a great wound had been inflicted upon the surface.
We had been walking for two and a half hours since we left the train and were hungry. The plan was to meet several family members at an Alm about halfway up the northwestern side of the lake. They would arrive by ferry. We met them at the Alm and ate lunch, though, afterward we wished we had not eaten, for the meal was industrial in its preparation and it was presented without emotion. The meal was a disservice both in flavor and price paid -it did not represent this beautiful area. Having said that I must add that as I left the restaurant we passed others wolfing down the same meal, they were raving about how good it tasted.
We went outside and waited for the ferry. Our return trip would be by boat rather than by shoreline.
A large ferry boat out on the lake blurted its horn. It approached and with surprising agility maneuvered up to a small dock; we boarded. Not many people were on the ferry and we had the ship mostly to ourselves. Placards inside the main cabin advertised a nighttime cruise, an attached photo showed a sparkling and illuminated vessel on a dark body of water with a setting sun over a backdrop of mountains.
The ship hugged the shoreline. Now, just offshore I could study the topography of the steep and rugged mountains; from the sharp angle of the land entering the lake, it was obvious our ship traversed over deep waters. Looking overboard and into the lake’s water, the late afternoon sun shot lances of light down into the depths. The visibility was about 9m (27 feet) or so.
The recently eaten lunch sat in my tummy like a brick and I thought that if the vessel was struck by a calamity and sank into the dark waters of the Achensee that I would sink with it, like a stone, all because of that unfortunate meal that weighed so heavily on my stomach.
Within twenty minutes the vessel covered the same distance that I had walked in about 2 and a half hours on the shoreline. It was then I realized I had not been so far away from the touristy area as I perceived myself to be, in fact, I had been in the middle of it. We docked near some hotels to gather passengers and the same solemn looking tourists I had seen earlier boarded. I guess they had eaten some terrible food too and that unhappy experience had etched itself on their faces.
In another fifteen minutes, the ship docked again and we disembarked. The Achenseebahn was quietly puffing away, waiting for us and others to board and be returned down the mountain.
The engine growled to life and we enjoyed a pleasant journey back to the train station. Everyone was tired and some of the people on the train slept, which was surprising considering the noise from the engine.
The late afternoon light provided great opportunities for photos as the train descended into the Inn Valley. In the distance, the train station and our final stop. Ten minutes later a modern, electric powered train arrived at the adjoining station and transported us back to Innsbruck in comfort.