“It. Was. Awesome.” was how Declan described today’s visit to the Hallein salt mines.
People have been mining salt at Hallein for thousands of years. At first they simply dug hunks out of the mountain-side, then they progressed to digging tunnels. Finally, they started using a very clever method where they would pump in fresh water, leave it to become brine, and then pump the brine down to the town where the salt was extracted through evaporation.
In the 17th Century the mines were producing an extraordinary 36,000 tons of salt a year – all of which went to enrich the coffers of the local Prince and made Salzburg one of the economic powerhouses of its time. But by 1989 salt production was no longer economically viable at Hallein and the mine was converted into a museum.
The tour of the mines starts with you putting on hooded overalls to protect your clothes. While severely lacking in style, it soon becomes apparent that they are necessary. You progress to the mine train which, because the mine is very narrow, you sit upon astride a single bench – creating a train where everyone is facing forward in single file. The train rattles its way 800m into the mountainside before you get off and walk to the first slide. During the walk you move from Austria to Germany under the border – a peculiarly exciting experience.
Then comes the slide. The slides were how generations of salt miners got to work and they are quite unusual. You slide down sitting, or lying back given how low the ceiling is, astride two raised wooden rails. It’s surprisingly comfortable although the thin rails generate a deal of friction and you do start getting warm. It’s also quite exciting; the boys came off the slides positively bubbling.
After the slides you walk further into the mountain and then take a raft over an underground lake – originally one of the brine-creating pools. The lake is a couple of hundred meters long, and not much more narrow, and would have been impressive even without the sound and light show that accompanies the transit. On the far side there’s an even longer slide and then a walk back to the train which takes you out to the surface. Along the way you learn a fair bit about salt production and a lot about its part in the history of the region.
Declan was quite right. It really was an awesome outing.