I am very proud of my fur coat. It’s glossy, black and silky soft to the touch. A cloak like that must have provided my ancestors with a great camouflage in the forests and John tells me I blend in quite nicely on a dark carpet which must be why I can stalk my mousey so well. But on the crispy white snow of Innsbruck I stood out like a sore thumb. With my jet black fur and John’s tomato red ski jacket we looked a right pair! Luckily most peoples’ attention was focussed on the sturdy metal bathtubs that kept sliding at full velocity down a sloped twisting ice chute. John said it was the 2017 World Cup Bobsled competition and the humans dressed in shiny Lycra cat suits with protective helmets were deliberately descending the ice chute to see who could do it the best.
Bobsleigh or bobsled (not sure what the difference is) involves teams of two or four people pushing the sled down a narrow, banked ice track before leaping into it just as gravity powers it along and they rocket down the track at around 120mph. This is a popular winter sport in Innsbruck which is known fondly as the Capital of the Alps. It’s the fourth largest city in Austria yet its small enough to get around on foot. The Olympic Winter Games in 1964 and 1976 were held here and it is a hub of snow-based activity including skiing, snowboarding, skating, mountaineering and snowshoeing. The bravest of all compete in the luge competition where one or two people lay face up on a skateboard literally inches from the hard ribbon of concrete beneath them and thunder down the track without even being able to see where they’re going.
Innsbruck is known for its imperial architecture with gothic attributes like the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof) building, a landmark structure completed in 1500 and decorated with 2,738 fire-gilded copper tiles for Emperor Maximillian 1 who was King of the Romans from 1486. We also did a bit of celebrity spotting when we went out for dinner and saw some of the cast of reality TV show The Jump relaxing in an Austrian restaurant in the old town. One of them kept rubbing John’s hair which is admittedly extremely bouncy and curly and grows at an alarming rate. One time I heard tweeting coming from his head and a twig fell out! Anyway, I’m not sure if this is an Austrian tradition or simply a quirk of this particular eating establishment but as we got to the end of the meal, there was a commotion. Apparently one of the photographers on the trip, didn’t finish all her food and was punished with a smack on the bottom with a fish! Everyone roared with laughter but I thought it was a waste of a perfectly good sea bass!
Spring-watch, Harry Potter, Wonders of the Universe and Planet Earth are some of my favourite shows to watch on television. So when John called me in from the kitchen last Sunday night as Planet Earth II was about to start, my little paws hurried across the lounge and I hopped on to my favourite end of the sofa, sniffing it furiously before turning around 3 times and adopting my front facing semi-alert crouch down posture. John said it was snow leopard night and I was looking forward to watching these magical and highly elusive creatures in their natural environments. Patterned with little black rosettes, the fur on their gorgeous smoky-grey coats is up to 5 inches thick, especially on their tails which they use to help them balance on the narrow ledges and rocky outcrops where they live. They also place their long lush tails across their mouth and nose like a muffler to shield them from the harsh winds and snow of the Himalayas. I’m not jealous!
I am always astounded at how animals manage to survive in the wild and snow leopards are no exception. The cameras followed a female and her 2 year old daughter as they used every ounce of their stealth and stamina to find shelter against the harsh climate, avoid danger and hunt for food. They feed on a variety of herbivores in their mountain range habitats and one goat can keep them going for 2 to 3 weeks. Like many wild animals, they are on the brink of extinction with an estimated 6000 left roaming their territories thanks largely to human persecution, prey loss and habitat destruction. Anyway this brave female had a fur-raising encounter with a larger male that involved a lot of growling and snarling and swiping of paws, the male making his intentions clear and the female putting him in his place while keeping her daughter safe from harm. I was on the edge of my seat during this aggressive meeting and quite frankly relieved when they all walked away unharmed. It was the total opposite to the adorable mating ritual of the Wilsons bird who desperately wanted to impress a female he spotted looking down at him from a branch. This little black bird of paradise suddenly flashed a bright green disc of feathers at the female in a courtship display that tickled my senses. I wiggled my rear-end in excitement as the bird skipped and danced in front of his girl, flaunting his emerald cape and putting his heart and soul into his performance. In case you’re wondering, he won the heart of his fair lady and did his duty to propagate the species. Ah the wonders of the universe.
I like horses and I know they like me because I was once kissed by a horse on a fence. I was on the fence, not the horse, and it was moist and bristly but nonetheless enjoyable. The beautiful white lippizan horses you see in these pictures live at the Stanglwirt Riding School in Kitzbuhel, Austria and they did not seem like the type of horse to go around kissing unknown cats on fences. As John and I arrived by car to the Riding School as part of our Austria weekend, the lippizan horses pranced and skipped in perfect motion from their warm dry stables out on to the snow covered field before them. I watched their tails swish charmingly from side to side and their manes flow almost magically as they broke into a canter in front of us.
I decided there and then that they weren’t the only ones who could waltz around looking all willowy and elegant. So when John opened the car door I lifted my nose high into the air and puffed out my chest just as one of the horses looked towards me. Perfect timing! With one nimble action I leapt from the seat but unfortunately landed awkwardly on a patch of ice resulting in a minor skid and slight stumble. Thankfully I recovered my poise quickly at which point I swiftly turned around to hop straight back in the car. Boy that snow was cold and my knees were wet where I’d hit the deck!
After a marathon licking session my fur was back in place and I was a snug as a bug in a rug, having wrapped myself up in my favourite blanket on the back seat. I looked through the window and couldn’t help feel a sense of admiration at the stunning lippizaners so impressive with their smooth tresses of hair and muscular frames. This noble breed is renowned for graceful movements and magnificent physiques, as well as liveliness and good natures. They are born dark brown, black or grey until the white coat appears between the ages of 6 and 10. Apparently there are less than 3000 in the whole world so they are highly prized in equine circles. The horses at the Stanglwirt Riding School were clearly cherished by the humans who cared for them and I could tell by their well-groomed coats, clean hooves and happy temperaments that all their needs were met. After performing some of their stylish dressage moves, they played in the snow, flicking it around with their powerful legs and chasing after each other. They reminded me of the lambs I’ve seen frolicking around in the fields at home and I smiled to myself as it occurred to me that I’m not the only dignified animal who likes to fool around for amusement. I miss teddy!
If they made wellies for cats, I would have worn them. Unfortunately a soft knitted sock from your auntie might be a kind thought but is not going to keep your paws warm on the cold hard ground of an Austrian winter wonderland! As you can see from the photos, the vista was like a scene from a Christmas card, with piles of snow balancing on the top of fences, bending the branches of thick evergreens and glistening in the distance. This was the sight that greeted John and I as we headed out from the hotel in Kitzbuhel to watch the snow polo world cup. Who knew there was a snow polo world cup?!
John wanted to take me with him on his trip to Austria for a winter weekend break while he flexed his photography muscles at the 2016 snow polo championships and I enjoyed a rest from the photography business. Ok let’s be realistic, it’s hard enough to operate the focus mode switch on my equipment with my thumb and dewclaw, but I cannot seriously be expected to do it in 2°c with 5 cm of snow on the ground. So we both decided it would be sensible for me to stay on my blanket in the car while John stood at the edge of the pitch to capture the action.
The objective of polo is to score points against the opposing team by driving a ball into the opponents’ goal using a long-handled mallet. It sounds simple but there are a multitude of complex rules to follow such as tapping the ball on the correct side in the correct way or ensuring that the player in the line of the ball or at the smallest angle to the ball has the right of way. You would have thought that the horses end up crashing into each other or someone gets walloped in the eye with that big stick, but the rules are designed to promote the safety of the ponies and their riders and it seemed to work.
There were 3 players per team and it was all quite civilised as the players pushed the surprisingly large ball around the surprisingly small pitch. I suppose the pitch can’t be too big or they’d be worn out very quickly and the ball needs to be reasonably sized (it was about the size of a cantaloupe melon) and brightly coloured red so it can be seen. The ball is very light so the players need to strike it carefully so keep it on the ground. The horses have special shoes so they don’t slip and there are about 5 horses per player, so one horse plays for a few minutes before being taken to a warm dry box while the next horse makes an appearance. I was impressed at the agility of the horses as they were able to leap forward, stop and turn in an instant, and they seemed to anticipate where the ball was going and how the rider needed to play. John got some great shots and my favourites show the glistening snow being scattered into the air under the hooves of the horses. I’m amazed that John managed to operate the focus mode switch on his equipment considering the number of layers he had on! But he’s not the type to let thermal gloves, a cotton layer, a fleece layer, a waterproof layer and an insulated beanie get in the way of a good photo opportunity!