Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Monday, December 10, 2012

An American in Germany / Part # 14 / Berchtesgaden

GAPP Exchange Journal 2012
Berchtesgaden / Salt Mine Tour

On the Road Again with Fitztum
Today the Warwick students were headed off on their first class field trip adventure to tour several popular attractions in the Berchtesgaden area.  We all clamored aboard the Beck tour bus piloted by a familiar face.  Fitztum was the friendly bus driver who had previously driven us from the Munich Airport to Altötting when we first arrived.  He would be our driver for all our group transportation needs while in Germany.  Today our day trip was led by KKG English teacher Reinhard Wagner who was first taking us to tour an underground salt mine.  The salt industry was the backbone of the area's economy and an extremely valuable trade item throughout the regions long history.  It was so precious, it gained the nickname white gold.  The bus ride was very entertaining with incredible views through the bus windows, providing an endless show of beautiful landscapes.  We passed by several quaint villages, market squares, rural farms, and increasingly incredible mountain views.  As the distant Alps got closer and came into view, the students perked up, cameras came out, and questions were asked.  For many of our students, this was their first real view of the prestigious Bavarian and Austrian Alps.  They were so impressive, serving as a surreal backdrop for several small housing communities and isolated rural farms.  It must be amazing to wake up every morning, walk out your front door, and look out over such a breathtaking dreamlike landscape.  I could only imagine what the view might look like during the other three seasons of the year.  I can't believe I am here... 

Salzach River through Berchtesgaden
We headed into the valley of Berchtesgaden where the Bad Reichenhaller Salt Company has been extracting the valuable mineral from the Alps Mountains for the past 500 years.  Originally the salt was removed through old school pick and shovel hard rock dry mining.  However, today the salt is removed from the mountains through a process known as wet mining where water is pumped into open caverns within the rock walls.  Later the liquid brine is withdrawn from the cavern and is then pumped through pipelines to the processing plant where the brine is converted back into a solid form.  The recrystallized salt is further milled into the desired granulated size according to the customer's preference.  Over 300,000 cubic meters of salt brine is extracted annually from the Bavarian Alps, most of which is naturally processed into fine table salt.  So in a way, white gold continues to be the mainstay of the local economy, mined from the same mountain locations for multiple centuries.  The vast mining operation has continuously infused mineral wealth into the local area since the year 1517.  Today a portion of the complex tunnel system has been turned into an underground mine tour and museum.  Over 400,000 visitors a year are transported by rail approximately 1,000 feet underground for a guided hour long tour.  We pulled into the parking lot of the Bad Reichenhaller Salt Mine, where we would soon head underground in search of white gold!

Bad Reichenhaller Salt Mine
Reinhard led our group into the waiting area where tickets for the group were purchased for a scheduled tour of the mine.  The mine even had a little salt cubed animated mascot name Salz, who helped point the way through the process.  As our time approached, we were all surprisingly fitted with a mining suit of work overalls, mandatory apparel for the trip underground.  How realistic was this tour?  Were we all going to work for wages?  How soon can I ask for a day off?  We all got into our miner's garb and admired each other in our new industrial "digs"... No pun intended!  We had a lot of individual and group portrait photographs taken of our new outfits to document our time as hard core laborers in Bavaria.  It would be the last pictures I was allowed to take since photography was "verboten" during the mine tour.  We assembled as a group in the waiting area of a narrow gauge railway and prepared to take the trip into the darkness of the mountainside.  Our dark blue mining suits with white reflective stripes were getting a little hot, especially when properly zipped up to the neck.  A train emerged from the dark tunnel filled with a group of happy senior citizens who were laughing and full of smiles.  I guess we could handle this...  We all jammed ourselves into the multiple train cars to fill every space.  Another small group arrived and merged with ours, filling the train to the maximum number of passengers.  Our additional tour members also appeared to be a group of senior citizens.  I was feeling more confident by the minute!  Time to go to work... All Aboard!   

Hi-Ho Hi-Ho It's Off to Work We Go!
Suddenly a small man appeared, dressed in a blue uniform and adorned with an official looking cap.  Our tour guide had apparently arrived and what he lacked in height, he more than made up for with his loud strong voice.  We received some general safety instructions for the train ride into the mine along with a short introduction to the tour.  Our tour guide took his seat on the small locomotive in front of our train car and began to move toward the extremely narrow tunnel entrance.  I couldn't help but start humming the theme song to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.   The train rapidly picked up speed to a surprisingly fast velocity and I began to feel like I was on a roller coaster.  I couldn't help but show my bravery by raising my arms in the air, an action repeated by several of our students seated behind me.  It was surprisingly fun!   I was instantly aware of the comfortable cool temperature inside the tunnel, exaggerated by the speed of the train.  It was a very refreshing contrast to the stuffiness of the hot waiting room where we boarded the train.  It was my first time experiencing air conditioning in Germany, even though it was just a natural coincidence...  I'll take it!  The mine was a constant 53 degrees all year round and was a welcome break from the hot 90 + degrees outside.  I could have just curled up in a corner somewhere and fell sound asleep!  The train came to a stop within a large cavernous room where the official tour would begin.  The room suddenly went dark and a narrated presentation began that consisted of a laser light show demonstrating the process involved in wet mining.  The cavern appeared to fill with water, the salt began to crystallize, and eventually the salt brine drained from the space.  It was an excellent visual representation of how salt gets extracted from the mountain using the wet mining technique and really kept our groups attention.

Salt Cathedral Cavern Slide
(Photo Credit / Salt Mine Berchtesgaden)
Following the high tech introduction, our guide demonstrated the best way of getting to the bottom of the cavern, where the tour continued from below.  There was a gigantic sliding board made of dual polished wooden rails that sent you hurling all the way to the bottom at breakneck speed.  There was even a surprise camera system to capture your excited expression mid-slide, which I imagine are much more commonly found at amusement parks thrill rides than mine tours.  It was tempting but I decided to take the long, slow way down by way of a steep walking ramp and watched the kids have their fun from the bottom.  However, when I saw the senior citizens start flying down the slide, I was suddenly feeling extremely old and began to regret my decision.  I was starting to take a U-turn at the urging of the kids to go back up the steep hill but the tour guide began to lead the group through the next tunnel.  Oh well, live and learn!  We were soon shown several religious themed monuments within the salt tunnel, which blessed the safety of the past miners, which hopefully also included present tourists.  Next, we explored the salt storage vault known as the Treasure Vault where there were multiple interactive displays explaining everything you ever wanted to know about sodium chloride and more.  We examined some antique early mining equipment and a large brass pump that was engineered to pump salt brine to the surface of the mine where it would then be piped to the factory for processing.  We continued onward through the expansive twisting tunnels and accompanying exhibits when suddenly we came to another slide!  Step aside grandma, this time I was going for it!

The View of Mirror Salt Lake
(Photo Credit / Salt Mine Berchtesgaden)
The kids were encouraging the old guy (me) to take the plunge and several joined me to take the descent toboggan style to increase our velocity.  It was really a lot of fun even though it wasn't quite the length and height of the first slide.  We were now within a dark space and when the lights came on a huge open cavern was revealed that was extremely wide and yet not very high.  The cavern was completely filled by a tranquil body of still water known as Mirror Lake.  Our tour guide got everyone seated on a large wooden raft like boat and then disappeared entirely from view.  The water looked so inviting, I found myself thinking it would be a really cool place to go for a swim.  The boat began to slowly move forward as the main lights went off and colorful bright colored dots began appearing on the ceiling above.  The flashing lights overhead were accompanied by electronic music and were soon joined by lines of light resembling the shape of salt crystals along the side wall.  The lights continued their energetic dance to the quick pace of the music, as we glided across the dark lake.  When we arrived on the far side of the water at the landing dock, all the lighted shapes went dark for a few seconds.  Suddenly our playful tour guide reappeared a few feet from the front of the raft, illuminating his face with a flashlight, eliciting a few giggles from ladies who were sitting up front.  He was a great tour guide and seemed like a really nice guy despite times where he appeared a little creepy, which I think was part of the act!  He did a great job interacting with our kids, joking around, and keeping them entertained during the hour long tour.

 Salt Deposit / Mining in North America
(Map Credit / Salt Institute Trade Association)
As we exited the raft, there was a small faucet running on the dock, filling a trough with water from the lake.  We were all encouraged to stick our finger under the falling water for a taste.  It was incredibly salty and was actually the brine we had been learning about, which contained a salt content of over 26 percent.  The saltiest major ocean in the world is the Atlantic, which has a salt content of about 3.5 percent, so you can imagine the taste... It was awful!  White gold tastes terrible!  I guess it wasn't such a great place to take a swim after all!  We entered into the mine tunnel again, which had all been carved through solid red colored rock salt.  One of our students decided to lick the wall to taste the mine itself... you know who you are... Gross!   I myself, had had enough of salt and was beginning to get extremely thirsty, craving an ice cold Coca-Cola Light!  There are major salt deposits all over the world, including the United States.  Geologists from the University of Michigan have estimated there are untapped salt deposits in the Detroit area equating to 71 trillion tons of sodium chloride.  Something to consider as a backup industry for the Motor City, just in case the automotive market starts to fizzle again.  We wound up at an elevator shaft and piled into two large square cars that were attached to an incline railway.  The smooth ride back to the top on the incline elevator seemed a welcome technological advance compared with the incredibly steep, rickety, wooden steps that we watched pass by through the side window.  I could picture the exhausted miners climbing the steep grade of steps with heavy feet at the end of a long shift.  No Thanks!

Berchtesgaden Salt Mine Tunnel Exit
We found our way back to the beginning of the tour where our train was waiting to take us back up to the surface.  The ride back was equally as fun, flying through the narrow tunnel until daylight could be seen in the distance... Hence, the light at the end of the tunnel.   The locomotive eventually pulled us out into the warm sunlight of the outside world again.  Hey, what happened to the air conditioning?  We pulled into the rail station located just inside the mine entrance and received a small salt shaker of Bad Reichenhaller Salt as a token parting gift.  It reminded me of the small piece of chocolate you get at the end of the educational ride at Hershey Chocolate World, except you couldn't eat it.  Anybody have a roasted ear of corn on the cob I could have... and a stick of butter?   Berchtesgaden Salt Mine was really a fun experience for all.  Our kids really had a great time during the tour and were really well behaved.  Our tour guide even complimented Wendy and I on our students attention and polite behavior during the tour.  Something he confessed, he doesn't always see with school groups.  Wendy and I both really appreciated our students acting like young ambassadors of our country, state, and school.  Good impressions go a long way in a foreign land.  Now it was time to leave the salt mine to visit our next destination on today's agenda. We had just visited the extreme bottom of the Berchtesgaden area, and now it was time to scale to the extreme heights, located up above in the peaks of the Alps Mountains.   Stay tuned for our visit to Adolph Hitler's mountain top headquarters and retreat known as the Eagles Nest...

Chaperone Miners Wendy and Reinhard
Please stayed tuned for the next installment of our adventure!




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