In the foot­steps of Miss Jemima

Walk­ing the Swiss Alps armed with a pi­o­neer­ing lady’s diary

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SARAH BAX­TER

ONCE just short­hand for a tour bundling trans­port and lodg­ing, th­ese days the word pack­age car­ries dingy con­no­ta­tions of high-rise ho­tels, beaches crammed with blis­ter­ing bod­ies, and lurid cock­tails slurped from ex­posed belly but­tons.

By con­trast, the belly but­ton of Miss Jemima Mor­rell re­mained mod­estly cov­ered be­neath a stiff crino­line on her pack­age hol­i­day. She was also al­ways on the move, be it via train, pad­dle-steamer, car­riage or on foot.

In June 1863, this 31-year-old ad­ven­turess from York­shire in north­ern Eng­land em­barked on what was one of Thomas Cook’s ear­li­est tours to Switzer­land and, thanks to Miss Jemima’s dili­gent di­aris­ing, was the first to be recorded.

So, 150 years on, I de­cided to re­trace the lady’s foot­steps, pack­ing a tatty copy of her Swiss Jour­nal, which I’d tracked down from a batch printed in 1963. I was to be as­ton­ished by the moun­tains of the Ber­nese Ober­land, as ma­jes­tic now as then, and struck by the har­di­ness of this pre-suf­fragette, pre-Gore-Tex woman who didn’t blanch at 4am alarm calls, 32km hikes and dress­ing for din­ner.

‘‘The days spent on foot, or by the sides of mules, af­ford the great­est sat­is­fac­tion,’’ she wrote. ‘‘It was then that, away from the life of the city, we were taken into the midst of the great won­ders of na­ture and seemed to leave the fash­ion of this world at a dis­tance as an en­tire change; the usual rou­tine of life was gone. All mem­ory of times and sea­sons faded away and we lived only in the en­joy­ment of the present.’’

To cel­e­brate her spirit of ad­ven­ture, In­ntravel has launched a self-guided Jemima-themed itin­er­ary, com­pris­ing glo­ri­ous hikes con­nected via Switzer­land’s ex­cel­lent trans­port sys­tem, and fol­low­ing her 1863 route.

I picked up her trail in Leuker­bad. Perched high in the Valais, its medic­i­nal spring wa­ters have been drunk since Ro­man times, while traders used a nick in the moun­tains loom­ing be­hind to con­vey goods from south to north. This notch, the for­mi­da­ble Gemmi Pass, was to be my first chal­lenge.

As I gazed at this seem­ingly im­pen­e­tra­ble 935m-high wall of rock, my sen­ti­ments echoed those of Miss Jemima, who noted, ‘‘We were hard put to dis­cover a path, or to un­der­stand how we should reach its sum­mit.’’ To­day’s trav­ellers aren’t so hard put as a ca­ble car whisks them up in min­utes. How­ever, de­ter­mined to be a purist, I fol­lowed the signs (Kan­der­steg: six hours) and made the zigzag­ging as­cent on foot.

Crows cawed about the gul­lies, flaunt­ing their power of flight as I laboured sweatily. The up was un­re­lent­ing, and the trail pre­cip­i­tous, its edges drop­ping into a gran­ite abyss. How­ever, the climb was nowhere near as creepy as the 2350m top of the Gemmi, a dra­matic high-al­ti­tude plateau with a sin­is­ter edge. Hik­ing across it, I passed bleak, scruffy slopes and a lake of cheer­less grey.

Farther on, the iso­lated Sch­waren­bach Inn ap­peared. Built in 1742, it was once a hangout for ne’er-do-wells and fea­tured in one of Arthur Co­nan Doyle’s mur­der­ous tales; it’s less threat­en­ing now, so I stopped for tea, like Miss Jemima.

Af­ter­wards, again like Miss Jemima, I walked down from the Gemmi Pass into the Kan­der Val­ley; she had no ca­ble car op­tion, so I sim­ply ig­nored it. And I’m glad I did; I saw no one else as I wove through pine and larch trees, the se­cre­tive Gastern Val­ley to my right, the clank of cow­bells all around and Kan­der­steg’s belle epoque Ho­tel Vic­to­ria wait­ing just ahead.

Hav­ing fol­lowed the river from the bot­tom of the Gemmi, I reached the ho­tel’s el­e­gant foyer by late af­ter­noon, red-cheeked and moist. When Miss Jemima stayed here­abouts, she was up at 4.30am to catch the car­riage to Spiez to meet the steamer cross­ing Lake Thun. With slicker trans­porta­tion at my dis­posal, I had time to linger for a day in Kan­der­steg, and I spent it walk­ing around the ar­rest­ingly blue Oeschi­nensee.

The next morn­ing I took a train to Spiez, from where I set sail through the mist to In­ter­laken. The over­cast weather, though ini­tially dis­ap­point­ing, would prove to be a boon. As an­other train de­liv­ered me from In­ter­laken to Lauter­brun­nen, it was like glid­ing into Mid­dle-earth, PIC­TURES: GETTY IM­AGES (MAIN); CHRISTOF SCHUERF (ABOVE); CHRISTOF SON­DEREG­GER (OP­PO­SITE) the val­ley’s sheer rock sides and gush­ing glut of wa­ter­falls vir­tu­ally scream­ing the fact JRR Tolkien was in­spired by this land­scape.

My fi­nal ride of the day was the rasp­ing haul up to Wen­gen, via a rack-and-pin­ion rail­way in op­er­a­tion since 1891; Miss Jemima had to walk. Bal­anced 1275m up on the val­ley’s eastern side, charm­ing car-free Wen­gen grabbed me im­me­di­ately.

My ho­tel, the Alpen­rose, was a cosy den of wood pan­elling and gera­nium-filled win­dow boxes. Next morn­ing the gloom had van­ished and, from my bal­cony, a wall of snow peaks seemed al­most close enough to touch.

I was to get closer still. Armed with fresh bread and cheese, bought from a farmer’s hon­esty box, I strode out into the frost-crisp air. I craved a crino­line: my legs were chilly in shorts, and though the sky was cloud­less, the ris­ing sun would take time to warm my path. When it fi­nally did, it was spec­tac­u­lar, il­lu­mi­nat­ing ice-en­crusted edges of leaves and sprin­kling crys­tals into the warm breath of cows. As the path wound on, I al­most walked into the Eiger or at least, that’s how it felt, so near were Switzer­land’s Alps. I felt close to Jemima here, shar­ing the same un­changed moun­tain view.

In the 1860s there was a smat­ter­ing of for­eign pack­age tours: Thomas Cook took his first over­seas group to Paris (via Bel­gium and Ger­many) in 1855; af­ter the 1863 Switzer­land tour, trips to Italy fol­lowed, then North Amer­ica and Egypt. Th­ese were the pre­serve of the af­flu­ent mid­dle classes; Miss Jemima paid £19 17s 6d (roughly $1460 to­day) for her 21-day all-inclusive, which was more than a ser­vant’s an­nual wage.

Al­though it would be an­other 100 years be­fore the work­ing masses started hol­i­day­ing abroad, th­ese pack­ages were a step to­wards the democrati­sa­tion of travel and many were at­tracted to Thomas Cook’s tours be­cause, as a sup­porter of the tem­per­ance move­ment, Cook’s orig­i­nal trips were al­co­hol free. I’m sure Miss Jemima would have needed a drink by the time she

Oeschi­nensee Lake, above and top; sheep graze un­der a wa­ter­fall at Lauter­brun­nen

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