Out in the Swiss Alps I walked up the remote Saustal valley, and in the whole day I met only one other person.
As it turned out, I was pretty glad when he appeared.
The map showed a thin ribbon of water winding between two rock ridges, eventually passing a couple of buildings marked as Oberberg. The path in reality was beautiful, climbing past a series of waterfalls and crossing alpine meadows. Oberberg was a huddle of ancient wooden barns – probably unchanged for the last two hundred years. There was no-one to be seen. Only the brown cows, going about their grazing to the low jangle of cowbells. No more pastoral scene could be imagined.
About an hour past the barns I took off my red rucksack and sat down in a sheltered hollow to eat my sandwich and check the map. I slowly became aware that the mellow note of the bells was changing. Looking up, I saw that concentric rings of cows were gathering at the rim of the hollow. There must have been a hundred of them and they were steadily converging. As I stood up they began to run at me, cows and calves together, horned heads lowered and hooves thundering. I’m a country bred girl and I’m not scared of cows, but this was fairly alarming. The bells clanged so loudly I thought that if I wasn’t going to be trampled or gored to death I’d certainly suffer the same fate as the victim in The Nine Tailors. As the first wave reached me the animals began not very gently nudging my hips and my red bag with their horns, snorting hot breath on my lunch. Unwilling to sacrifice it I waved it over their heads, feebly shouting ‘getaway’ and wondering how the Swiss emergency services would respond to a cow/sandwich alert.
Then a hat, and a head beneath it, rose above a rock outcrop. The cowherd had a red rucksack just like mine except that his contained white powder, which he strewed in handfuls on the ground. The herd wheeled away from me. I took the opportunity to nip between him and the rock for protection. The cows licked up the powder, tongues rasping the grass.
‘Salt?’ I gasped. The young man nodded and smiled. ‘I was – ah – nervous.’
‘No need. They are so lovely’. His face was bright with affection. ‘They think you bring them a present’.
We fell into conversation. He told me that he was an agricultural student who was spending the whole summer at the Oberberg barns with only his herd for company, and the occasional hiker. He had a hundred cows to care for, and he knew the face and the foibles of each one. We talked cows and cow-related matters for a few minutes and then he politely asked where I was from.
I told him London, and then remarked that I was here in Saustal but almost everyone else was in London right now.
He looked at me blankly.
‘For the Olympics’, I added.
His sunbrowned forehead puckered a little. ‘Really?’ he said. ‘In London? This week?’
It all depends on where you’re standing.