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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 6 (October 2, 1933)

St. Gothard's Pass — A Memorable Winter Journey

page 45

St. Gothard's Pass
A Memorable Winter Journey.

The illustration of the St. Gothard's train in the “New Zealand Railways Magazine” recalled to me my journey through the famous Pass in the dead of winter, a memorable experience.

We had been travelling across France all might in one of the unbearably stuffy and overheated French trains which, owing to speed, gauge, or construction of the carriages, rocked and rolled like a ship at sea. The small wagon lit in which we were confined for our sins was rather like our own corridor carriages or “birdcages,” but it was so heavily upholstered and curtained, its windows appearing hermetically sealed and its doors locked, that we felt rather like the inmates of a luxurious prison until we were released in the early hours of morning at Bale, on the Frontier, where Swiss officials demanded our passports.

In the cold grey light of a winter dawn, after a hastily snatched breakfast, we shiveringly began our journey into Switzerland, the Winter Playground of the World. Toes and fingers ached as if being slowly crushed in a vice, but all discomfort was soon forgotten in the beauty of our surroundings.

The pretty little Swiss villages were like villages in a picture, quaint chalets with sloping red roofs and pointed gables, churches with tapering spires, farms and orchards of leafless trees, every branch and twig thickly coated with sparkling hoar frost and looking like the fantastic branching shapes of snow-white coral. Here and there old-fashioned toll gates barred the road and bullock wagons with their muffled and mittened drivers, probably on the way to early market, were waiting to be passed through. In spite of the intense cold we all stood on the observation platform eagerly surveying this snow-white world, for the sun was not yet visible, hidden somewhere behind that austere line of heaven-kissing Alps. The road was rising now and soon our train would enter the great St. Gothard Pass. St. Gothard has been described as the central mountain mass of the Middle Alps, 9,865 ft. high, and is the core of the whole Alpine system, forming the watershed for the Rhine and Rhone and other lesser rivers. There is a magnificent driving road through the Pass from Lucerne to Maggiore, 6,936 ft. high, but the railway line, with its 9 1/4 mile tunnel. runs on the lower slopes. The Pass was opened in 1882 and the magnitude of the great engineering feat can only be gauged by those who have travelled through it, feeling as we did at times like a fly on a window-pane forever crawling upward.

As our train rushed onward through the villages a silvery-blue mist began to blot out the scenery and we feared that we should see nothing of the wonders of the Pass. When we reached Lucerne, that loveliest of lakes with her encompassing groves of trees and villa-strewn slopes could be seen but dimly, like a deep blue bowl where the eddying milky mists curled and fumed in thin smoky wreaths.

Then as we entered the Pass, a miracle happened. The mists rolled up and floated away revealing a sky of deep, soft, cloudless blue and against it stood out a magnificent line of snow-peaks glittering in brilliant sunshine. Steeper grew the way, higher and higher, the train mounting spirally, so that at one time a church or bridge seeming on our left would suddenly appear on the right and there would be excited arguments as to whether it were the same object or another, similar in appearance. Remembering similar eccentricities on the part of our own Spiral at Raurimu I felt superior in knowledge, but here as we stared down at-those immense heights there were no sombre masses of bush and groves of giant ferns or red rock cuttings, but stark precipices of granite-grey stone towering abruptly from long narrow clefts of spotless snow, walling in tiny scattered villages. On an isolated crag here and there would appear a church, its slender up-lifted spire thread-like against its background of dazzling snow, and churches, chalets, tiny cottages and pent-house public buildings were all alike frosted with white, like figures on a wedding cake.

Bells were pealing with an almost unearthly sweetness up there on those rarefied heights, goat-bells, church-bells, school-bells, their mellow chime mingling with the rush of waterfalls which leaped down the rocks and ran foaming through the valleys under high arched bridges of stone. They in their impetuous rush were full of life and motion, sound and fury, but here and there were curious round ponds fast locked in glassy-green solid ice.

Dark green pine-forests, almost black in that light silvery-bright atmosphere, clothed the upper slopes above the villages, and through every break in the mountain wall one caught glistening glimpses of the icy-capped Alpine peaks like sailing icebergs on a blue sea, deep turquoise mountain lakes and flashing streams, all bathed in the frosty sunlight of a perfect winter day.