By Michael McCarthy
For some strange reason there are people who love to travel simply to keep a checklist of all the countries they have visited, as if life is a contest with a big prize at the end for the winner. As a travel writer from Vancouver, Canada I have visited a lot of countries (41 to be exact, as of today, but tomorrow is another day) a puny number compared to many people I have met. Why, in Europe you could visit 40 countries in a year. My friend Gypsy Jean in San Francisco had visited 157 the last time we talked, but chances the number has risen by now. I was the first journalist to interview Charles Veley, at that time unknown but even then branding himself as “the world’s most travelled man.” But stepping foot off the plane for an hour to get an entry stamp like Veley is not what I call travel. So when I went to Germany for a day just to say I had been there I didn’t know there was going to be a nice little adventure involved as well.
It was the wettest summer in a century in Europe. I had been travelling around Switzerland and I could attest to that fact. It was very moist. The rivers that run through Zurich and Lucerne were ready to burst their banks. For some reason I had forgotten to bring an umbrella. I could have purchased one but unfortunately I was touring Switzerland where a Big Mac with fries costs more than my car. I got wet. My friends that I had met in Cambodia when our ferry boat sank were working in Zurich and allowed me to sleep on their couch. They showed me the city sights and on a weekend we all popped into their car and drove north towards the border with Germany to enjoy some wine and cheese. Since the border was only a few kilometres away I asked if we could go have a peek at Germany, as if somehow wandering across the border everything would change and people in funny hats and socks would emerge from quaint little cottages and sing me an oom-pah-pah song.
Our destination was the Rheinfall, the largest waterfall in all of Europe, conveniently located right on the Rhine River that divides Germany from Switzerland. Since there are no border crossings with guards and all that officialdom in Europe, it’s hard to tell where Switzerland ends and where Germany begins. Maybe you could look at the cows and see which ones are more contented but apparently few of them talk. There is a small town called Neuhausen and I think the south side of the river was Switzerland and the other side Germany but don’t quote me on that.
If the river in Zurich was raging, the Rhine was roaring. You could hear it long before you saw it. Mists cascaded through the sky, mixing with the pouring rain. Probably most summers the parking lots would be packed but who wants to vacation in a downpour? There were restaurants and cafes clustered around the river just north of the falls where you could sit and enjoy a bratwurst and watch the show as the little wooden boats plunged through the cascades and wonder how close they could get before they sank.
The Rheinfall enjoy a width of 150 meters (492 feet) and a height of 23 meters (75.5 feet), and 600 m³ (21,189 cubic feet) of water plunge over the falls in the summer every day. On my visit it might have been a million cubic feet, although I don’t know what a cubic foot looks like. It was an awful lot of water.
Just like Niagara Falls, on the border between Canada and the United States, tourists at the Rheinfall wanting a closer look can board a boat and get up close and personal to the mighty thunder. Gnawing on my bratwurst and bun, I gave this opportunity some thought. Obviously it must be safe, otherwise the boats wouldn’t be in operation. On the other hand, maybe nobody had noticed it had been raining for two months straight and perhaps there was more water in the river than was allowed under the rules? In that case, how close to the falls should the boats get? In any case, the conundrum was solved when my friends bought me a ticket and who was I to decline?
Even though this was Switzerland, where a National Commission is struck if a train is thirty seconds late and you can be arrested for flushing your toilet after 10 pm, there were no life jackets offered to paying passengers. There were no safety instructions like “don’t fall overboard, it’s bad for your health.” There were no harsh talking, broom wielding, uniformed women like the public lavatories of Zurich where you pay to pee and the cleaners attack your feet with gusto upon your exit. At the Rheinfall, you were on your own. Must be the German influence. Best not to lean overboard to get a snappy photo.
My boat did its very best to counter the mighty current, which was like pitting your poodle with one paw behinds its back against an angry Rottweiler with a toothache. It was no contest; we got heavily pounded. We also got heavily soaked. The challenge seemed to be just how close we could get to the falls without sinking. Given that I had very little interest in seeing the boat flip over, I was very happy when the captain admitted defeat and gave way to the mighty current, sweeping us back to our starting point much quicker than the way we had come, still alive and pleased to talk about it.
After the Rheinfall experience my friends were happy to drive north a few kilometres into Germany so I could add one more country to my list. Actually, the landscape in Germany looked exactly as the other side but I managed to get them to stop for a second to shoot a photo of me at the border to prove I had been there so you won’t call me a liar. I took a photo of a German house too. It did look a bit different than houses on the other side, but don’t trust me in regards to architecture, history, houses or cows. In a jiffy we were back in Switzerland and I added another notch to my belt.
I may not end up as the world’s most travelled man. Neither may Charles Veley. After I interviewed him in San Francisco years ago, when he had just touched his toes on over 200 airport tarmacs on his race to become the World’s Biggest Jerk (he didn’t show up for the birth of his child; he is now divorced) my article on Veley touched off a race of its own. The list of jerks vying to become the biggest jerk of all time continues to grow. However, I wonder if any of them have dipped their toe into the Rheinfall?
Michael McCarthy stories can be found at www.transformative-travel.ca
Charles Veley www.mosttraveledpeople.com