Exploring the Austrians’ love for traveling

In early 2009, five months pregnant, I listened in astonishment as my Austrian guy announced he needed to travel to Tibet for a project that involved mountain climbing. I reported this to my British friend Dave.

In the footsteps of Heinrich Harrer, artist Michael Höpfner made his way to Tibet. His journeys are about walking, often involving mountain ascents or treks across desert landscapes. Each trip lasts up to four months and is nearly always solo. // Courtesy of Michael Höpfner

Dave looked at me skeptically. “Austrian dude. Pregnant woman, climbing the Himalayas … Isn’t that Seven Years in Tibet?” I gasped. It was the opening of the famed memoir and movie – the story of Austrian mountaineers Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter’s time in Lhasa, sitting out the horrors of World War II after climbing a mountain in Pakistan, escaping a -British prisoner-of-war camp, and finding themselves on the rooftop of the world. And of Harrer missing his son’s early childhood. Happily, my partner returned after only two weeks, only a little worse for wear.

It was my first brush with the phenomenon of Austrian wanderlust. This is not just about pleasure, it seems, but about the discovery of far-flung lands and cultures that might be difficult to access, about journeying in ways that promote causes personal or philanthropic, or both. Many natives yearn for the challenges that come with altitude (coming from an Alpine country, some Austrians want to go even higher). Others have do-gooder missions, or a longing for something less controlled, wilder, than the rock-solid social democracy and tamed landscape most of Austria enjoys.

While other nations certainly have travel–hungry citizens (the Brits, Germans, and Dutch come to mind) the Austrians are a special case, particularly remarkable given the country’s small size, topography, and lack of a colonial history – and even of a seaport, for that matter.

Can Austrian, or even Viennese, wanderlust even be characterized? Maybe not, but a few local examples provide some insight into how the Viennese wander.

Climb ev’ry mountain

“A lot of the ‘adventure travel’ Austrians are known for is actually based on mountaineering,” explains artist Michael Höpfner, who for the past two decades has undertaken extended journeys in Nepal, central Asia, Libya, the Tibet Autonomous Region and other mountainous areas of China, and more recently the remote areas of the Balkan peninsula.

It makes sense. Austrians are connected to most of the world’s mountain ranges in some way. Austrians run several hotels at Vail ski resort in the Colorado Rockies, the Trapp Family Lodge Nordic ski center sits in Vermont’s Green Mountains, and a long list of Austrian geologists explored the Andes. Because the world’s highest peaks are mostly in the Himalayas, however, and no sea separates them from Austria, the connection between climbers and the region Höpfner has returned to again and again is a remarkably tight one.

Born in Lower Austria, Höpfner first visited Tibet in 2000. His journeys are about walking – decelerating, slowing the body and mind – and thus often involve mountain ascents or treks across desert landscapes (the arid Changtang Plateau is a favorite high-altitude destination). Each trip lasts up to four months and is nearly always solo. No cars, just sturdy hiking boots and an expedition backpack. No hotels, just a one-man tent, although the 45-year-old has been known to join groups of nomads, sleeping in yurts and drinking yak butter tea. In exhibitions back in Europe – including participation in a group show this summer at the Taxispalais in Innsbruck – Höpfner exhibits black-and-white photography and sculptural works.

For Jakob Horvat, “overlanding” wasn’t enough. He set out to hitchhike all the way to South America.
A minimal budget ensured he met new people every day, which he documents on his blog, Thousand First Steps. // Courtesy of Jakob Horvat

Thinking back, Höpfner realizes his first impetus to travel didn’t come from art, but rather from literature. “In the 1950s and ’60s, everyone in Austria had books by Herbert Tichy in their houses,” says Höpfner. A Viennese-born mountaineer geologist and journalist, Tichy was the first westerner to circumnavigate Mount Kailash, Tibet’s holiest mountain. His 1937 novel based on that trip, Zum heiligsten Berg der Welt, became a best seller; his subsequent climbing feats were many. “It was important to give simple Central Europeans an idea of the world,” says Höpfner, who found a Tichy book at age 12 and never looked back. Harrer and Aufschnaiter’s Tibetan journey was of course also well documented, and made into a successful Hollywood film in 1997, starring Brad Pitt. Later, Reinhold Messner (actually from the Italian South Tyrol, but Austria generally claims all Tyroleans as their own) was the first to ascend Everest without extra oxygen, in 1978. Messner has written more than 80 books.

Unlike some of his forebears, Höpfner interprets and communicates his travels not in words but visually and philosophically. Having returned to some of the same regions year after year, he sees the world’s most remote spots shifting with globalism. One site he’s revisited is now a rare-earth mine.

Yet, “I’m not there for any documentary purpose,” says the artist. “A big part of why I go to the places I go is trying to understand the metaphysical connection between human beings and nature; finding people who treat nature and their environment in a way that’s not just about consumption.” That, and climbing mountains and crossing deserts because they’re there. As Heinrich Harrer put it in an earlier book The White -Spider, a 1959 memoir about climbing the Eiger north face in Switzerland, “let us grant courage and the love of pure adventure their own justification.”

Hitchin’ a ride

Each generation, each era, has its primary travel mode and mood. In Austrian history, certain conditions lent themselves to exploration – the Austro-Hungarian empire, for example, was, at its height, extremely wealthy; not only did Empress Elisabeth travel far and wide, but the imperial court could afford to send explorers to the Arctic and Antarctic, Africa, and South America for geological, cartographic or zoological purposes. Individuals such as Ida Laura Pfeiffer (a tough as nails Austrian woman who traveled the world alone in the 1800s) got by with the sales of a series of remarkable travel books; others like Karl Ritter von Scherzer managed with family money.

Only in the 1960s and 1970s did exotic travel become possible for a broader group of Austrians – plenty of Viennese, now in their 70s, still tell tales of tramping from the Austrian capital to India, Afghanistan, Nepal and beyond, on the infamous (and currently politically impossible) “hippie trail,” known in Europe as The Overland. How? On motorcycles, in VW busses, or hitchhiking.

In fall 2016, Viennese journalist Jakob Horvat, 31, began a long journey the same way – with a sign and a thumb, starting from the highway just outside the city. His destination: South America, first by car from Austria to the Portuguese coast, and then via whatever vessel could and would take him to the New World as an unpaid passenger.

It was all part of a greater scheme, born of a fatigue with the current state of the western world. Starting the first leg with his Norwegian friend Martin, Horvat planned to take a 14 month sabbatical from his job as a news editor at ORF (the Austrian national broadcaster) and travel the world. What made the trip different from the usual time-off adventure is that Horvat set out to find inspiring people along the way and tell their stories.

“The key words I was dealing with in my ORF work – refugees, crisis – made me think the world was bad and dangerous. I wanted to do something that would show the opposite,” he says, speaking via WhatsApp from a cafe on the Galapagos Islands. Out of this came his website A Thousand First Steps, subtitled “a journey to the beauty of humanity” (thousandfirststeps.com). Horvat blogs about his experiences, including getting from mainland Europe to the Canary Islands on a small sailboat and then, after hanging out and befriending sailors, making it across the Atlantic on an Austrian-crewed boat, featuring stories of people who are “making an impact.” At first Horvat trawled websites and actively sought out people at NGOs in countries like Colombia and Ecuador, but now just as many come via word of mouth.

The journey combines the young journalist’s passions – travel, stories, and people, with the side benefit of building character. “The whole journey would be very different had I not hitchhiked the first leg,” says Horvat. This gave him a boost of confidence. “When you hitchhike you really depend on other people. If you give your control away, you cross the Atlantic on a boat, you open up to what happens.”

If Austrians of yore needed to explore the unknown because it was there, today’s travelers also see the need to release themselves from the shackles of everyday life in the West, often setting parameters, like stipulating a hitchhiking stint, to make sure this happens.

At the same time, Horvat understands that it’s a privilege to take time off, to possess the technology to research travel routes and communicate inspirational and transformative stories to the world (even our WhatsApp interview would have been impossible five years ago). Heinrich Harrer could have only dreamed of posting his exchanges with the Dalai Lama on a website.

Horvat recently found a South American project – an independently operated homeless shelter – that he’s helping to crowdfund online, and when he returns in January 2018, he might write a book about his journeys. But first comes another boat journey along the Amazon, then allotted time in North America. In California, maybe Canada, there will be more hitchhiking, placing trust in complete strangers, relinquishing control and finding the power therein.

“There’s a conversation I’ve had a lot about my generation,” says Horvat. “We want to make friends, and take the steps that are needed to make things better in the world.” And for that the first steps are, as always, the most important.

Lena Jäger and her wife were part of the team for hotelier Robert Hollmann’s new property in Sri Lanka. Jäger sees the freedom to open businesses in exotic and often poor countries as a privilege. // Courtesy of Lena Jäger

Haven’t found what I’m looking for

Beyond the urge to conquer difficult topography or spread goodwill comes another noticeable trend in Austrians and other Central Europeans who go abroad: The search for something missing in a home country that has been secure and wealthy for decades.

Sometimes what’s missing is a business opportunity, a feeling of possibility, or – just friendly faces, lush nature, and an easygoing lifestyle. In 2013, Vienna hotelier Robert Hollmann, owner of the popular 1st district boutique hotel Hollmann Beletage, was about to open a second hotel on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Lena Jäger (German but Viennese by choice since 2004) joined her wife, Simone, a well-known local chef, to get the hotel’s food and beverage department up and running. The two spent several months establishing a kitchen concept, culturally integrating local staff, and establishing relationships with suppliers.

Jäger noticed something odd in the months she spent in Sri Lanka. “We met a ton of Europeans who were there to start small companies – like a small surfing school, or pizzeria.” So while the country was “poorer than you think,” it was nonetheless a huge draw for Europeans attracted to its open culture and friendliness to outsiders. Hollmann himself could have opened a second hotel in “Linz, or Carinthia,” says Jäger, but wanted something else: Under the Mango Tree has in the interim established itself as one of the top-ranked hotels in its region.

Austrians have long established companies abroad. During the days of the empire, they didn’t even have to go overseas to set up businesses far afield. These days, Austrian brands – from Atomic and Aveda to Swarovski and Red Bull – have conquered the world.  Today, though, the impetus may have shifted according Jäger, especially for smaller-scale entrepreneurs. While geopolitical instability makes it harder to go abroad, there is a yearning for something different.

“I think a lot of Austrians and other -Central Europeans are sick of a life that’s preordained. In some ways the security here in Austria is a trap,” she says, adding that the freedom to open businesses in exotic and often poor countries is a privilege. And not without its issues: Globalism can sometimes be another form of colonialism and business owners need to be sensitive to local needs. Hollmann has been a responsible local employer. But rules have tightened since the hotel opened, Jäger adds, and it’s now harder for foreigners to purchase land in Sri Lanka.

She remembers the friendliness, the solidarity, the poor Sri Lankans who’d share everything they have, the complete lack of envy. “Living in Sri Lanka showed me how to be quiet and ask myself, ‘What’s important right now?’” says Jäger. “I was always skeptical about materialism – but since then I’m a lot more conscious.”

Vienna consistently ranks high (if not number one) on global urban quality of life lists, but if these examples make anything clear, it’s that many Viennese are looking for a life less ordinary – temporarily or permanently. Something in the bones of lots of Austrians urges them to go forth, to help (per capita, more Austrians assisted in the 2004 tsunami relief efforts than any other nation; in 2015, Austria took more refugees per capita than Germany, as they had with the Yugoslavs in the 1990s), to challenge themselves, to climb, if not move, mountains, and then to come back and enrich the society at home. This trend can only grow as the city continues to expand culturally and socially, and the needs of the planet change. A Vienna-led project, in fact, covers this last issue – Francesca Habsburg’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) foundation established the TBA21 Academy in 2012. Its mission is to explore the world’s oceans and, through art and discourse, advocate for greater sensitivity and smarter environmental strategies. On view this summer in Vienna’s Augarten is the Academy’s first exhibition, titled Tidalectics.

It all brings me back to my first pregnant brush with Austrian wanderlust: Now eight, my half-Austrian, half-American daughter has lived in four countries, speaks several languages, and is a mélange of influences. She climbs, she explores, she dreams of upcoming journeys, and fearlessly disappears to discover things around her, worrying me but always sure of herself. If the next generation is any indication, Austrian wayfaring, in all its forms and for all its reasons, has a long future ahead.