Crocodile Hunting

Switzerland; a relatively small land-locked country in Central Europe known for its mountains, wonderful alpine roads, chocolate, watches, Swiss Army knives and . . . railways.

I have mixed feelings about Switzerland.

It can be a strikingly beautiful place, but it gets to me; the countryside is, I feel, often rather too over-manicured and can resemble pictures on a box of chocolates. For alpine motorcycling Switzerland is right up there, wonderfully maintained roads in some of the most magnificent landscape our planet has to offer. So I guess you can’t have it both ways.

It’s also undeniably it is one of the most expensive countries in the world to go shopping, though fuel prices are often reasonable. It’s public transport network is arguably the most efficient, punctual and integrated anywhere and fare-wise actually very reasonable to use. Busses, trams and trains all seamlessly link into each other with the precision of a fine Swiss watch.

The famous Swiss Railway Clock


So, lets look at those railways…

Railway construction in Switzerland got started in the mid 1840’s, by 1850 the famous British railway engineer Robert Stephenson was engaged to construct a network of over 600km of lines and the first true alpine route was opened through the Gotthard Pass in 1882.

In the early days of railways, nearly everything was powered by steam and for the Swiss there lay a problem; Switzerland has no source of coal. The country quickly became reliant on imported energy, which was both expensive and unreliable. The country was and still remains on the cutting edge of Hydroelectric power the Swiss railways became, of necessity, early pioneers of electrification. By 1939 nearly 80% of the network was electrified, whilst other European countries could only manage around 5%!

Most of the trunk and international routes are laid to what is known as “Standard Gauge,” the distance between the rails being 1435mm (4ft 8 1/2in) and many secondary and mountain lines are metre gauge, 1000mm.

Arguably the most famous of the metre gauge systems is the Rhaetian Railway, which operates in the canton of Graubünden in South-Central Switzerland and even extends to Tirano in Northern Italy. Serving the major tourist destinations of Davos, St Moritz and Klosters, the Rhaetian Railway has become known to travellers from around the world.

Rhaetian Railway train in Tirano Italy.

Two lines of the Rhaetian have grown to almost legendary status, the Bernina and the Albula, which are now both recognised as Unesco World Heritage Sites. The Bernina route is renowned for the “Bernina Express” which crosses the Pass of the same name, whilst the Albula is famous for Crocodiles!

At this point you may be forgiven for thinking that yet again Old Dookes has lost the plot, but please stick with me.

The metre gauge Albula line is 38 miles long (61km) and links Thusis with the spa resort of St Moritz, crossing the Albula Pass on the way. The route was opened in 1904 and is one of the most spectacular narrow gauge railways in the world. Originally the line was worked by steam locomotives, but by 1919 electrification work had commenced. For the technically minded, a 11Kv overhead system at 16.7Hz AC was built.

The newly electrified route needed some pretty powerful locomotives to keep the trains moving and therein lay a problem, because back in 1919 electric motors were bigger than we can make them today, a lot bigger!

The solution that the Rhaetian settled on was to use two of the biggest motors available. Then to mount them on the frames of a railway locomotive and link the drive to the wheels via a system of shafts and rods; quite crude, yet brilliantly simple.

The new locomotives weighed 66tonnes, were 43ft long, had a centre cab and long noses at each end.

With that impressive long nose they soon gained the nickname of “Crocodiles.”

For over 50 years the 15 Crocodiles were the sole motive power over the Albula route and each notched up impressive mileage during their working lives. Gradually their numbers began to dwindle, today there are only two left in service on the Rhaetian and then only for special workings. Four others survive as museum exhibits.

Last September when Harls and I were passing through Switzerland I planned that our route would take us over the Albula Pass. I also knew that one of the museum Crocodiles was on display at Bergün railway station which is almost the halfway point of the Albula Railway, so it seemed logical to pop in and have a look.

The road over the Albula Pass is delightful; it would have been even more so if we didn’t have seriously sub-zero temperatures that morning. Thank goodness for heated gloves and jackets! From the South the hairpins start almost as soon as you turn onto the Pass road in the village of La Punt Chamues, but unlike some other passes they don’t go on for long as you are already at serious altitude.

Heading to Albula.

Early snow had given the scenery a delightful dusting of the white stuff and for Northern Hemisphere dwellers a sense that Christmas was coming. Fortunately the road was dry and clear, even if the temperature took my breath away as we climbed to the summit. Poor old Harls was having a tough time of it though, her carburetor was icing up in the thin alpine air and the lack of oxygen saw a serious drop in performance, good job we weren’t in a hurry!
We paused at the Pass, partly to take in the moment and also to let Harls warm up a bit; I know, it seems strange to stop to let the engine warm up, but it’s the way in the mountains.

As we began our decent, I set my sights on Bergün and the elusive Crocodile, but first there was a load more lovely twisty bends to enjoy.

For anyone that hasn’t either ridden a motorbike, or even a pedal cycle, it’s a little difficult to explain just how fantastic it is to ride around sweeping bends as your machine leans into the curve. Get it right and it’s simply magical; get it wrong and it’s, well, not so nice. . . fortunately we mostly get it right!

Pulling into Bergün station car-park, I kicked Harls side-stand down, grabbed my camera and went off in search of the “Croc”. I found it sitting in it’s own protective shed at the North end of he station and duly took a number of photographs.

The preserved “Crocodile.”

It’s quite an impressive beast and I must say that by and large it looked pretty well looked after. I have a bit of a hang-up about any machine that is parked up as a museum piece, yes its great that it has been preserved, but just sitting lifeless and cold it’s like the living breath has been sucked out of it.

Crocodile captured I wandered back towards Harls, but being a railwayman at heart I couldn’t resist a visit to the station platforms just to see what was going on. In short… not a lot! There were no scheduled departures and no-one else about, but wait a minute that signal is showing a “Proceed” aspect; perhaps there’s a freight train about.

Within a few minutes the rails began to sing their distinctive metallic song indicating a train was approaching. I looked to the North, scanning the line eager to spot the approaching train.

My jaw dropped open and I had to look twice; approaching me at speed was a Crocodile on the head of a train of excursion passenger cars!

A living breathing “Crocodile!”

The 78-year-old locomotive, one of only two left in working order, swayed over the point-work and tore through the station, it’s air whistle echoing a shrill warning off the surrounding hills and it’s side rods clanking a happy song as it passed by me.

Yes I was a train spotter again, but hey can you blame me!

I’d come hunting Crocodiles and my word, I’d found one alive and well in it’s native habitat!

“The biggest kick I ever got was doing a thing called The Crocodile Rock.”

Catch you soon.

Crocodile Dookes

It’s a bit Parky!

(Old British saying for “It’s a bit cold” and a favourite of my old mate Chutney.)

What a lovely alpine morning I woke up to; blue sky, sunshine and what’s that glistening on the grass? Frost!

I took a short walk outside the hotel and the still morning air really made me catch my breath. Gee-wiz it was cold, minus 3°Celsius by the sign on the pharmacy just down the street, was going to be a bit of in interesting morning.

Just before I left home I was prevaricating about whether to take my heated jacket with me, September is meant to be summer after all. The wise-ness that is Mrs Dookes took the decision out of my hands, her suggestion that if I had it and didn’t use it against not taking it and wishing I had, totally persuaded me. Actually, it just took the decision out of my hands, but today I loved that woman just that little bit more, because I stayed lovely and warm.

I’m too tired now to do the math, but -3° in Livigno, bloomin’ colder at Bernina Pass, -5 at Julier Pass and -7° at the Albula; then add in the wind chill even at a modest 40mph, oh yes you’d better believe that I was so much more in love with Mrs D as the heated gear did its stuff!!! What a brilliant suggestion to bring it, thank you darling!

Unashamedly we were Pass Bagging again, well depending on your take, it was either Nature or God that put ‘them thar mountains’ there, so it would be crass stupidity not to enjoy them!

From Livigno we topped Forcola di Livigno at 2315m, and slipped out of Italy;

Swiss side of Forcola Di Livigno, no-mans land!

it’s a bit weird then, as you trundle along for a good five kilometres before you arrive at the Swiss customs point and border which is actually halfway up the climb to Bernina Pass. I pulled Harls over by the summit board on Bernina for the customary photo, what I assumed were puddles were actually solid ice….we were on a mini skating rink!

From the summit, the road sweeps North, like piano wire passing through glorious scenery and with the world famous Rhaetian Railway keeping close company. The swanky resort town of St Moritz lies at the bottom of the hill, but best not say to much about it and just ride on to Julier Pass, at 2284m we were getting higher….and colder!

Julier Pass

Funny that there weren’t many other motorbikes about, I wonder why?

At the Julier we did a ‘U’ turn and cruised back to St M, then hung a left for a few glorious blasting miles on almost empty road before turning left again onto the Albula Pass road.

In contrast to the Julier, which is built on the alignment of a Roman road, the Albula is pure Swiss sheep herder track. Tight, tricky little hairpins catch you out if you don’t pay attention and yes, I was daydreaming when one nearly caught me out…no harm done, the road was pretty much deserted. A pair of BMW bikes caught me up, poor Harls was struggling with the altitude and the cold, her carburetor was icing and I had to give her about 25% choke to keep her happy. The first BMW swept by me, but the second tucked in behind me.

Nearing the Pass I could see that this was hard country, almost a cross between the Arctic and the Moon, I wouldn’t like to get caught out here, even though it was mind boggling beautiful.

Parking Harls outside the Gasthaus at the summit, it turned out that the two BMW’s were a husband and wife from Munich. He had powered by me and she was happy to ride behind me as she though her husband was riding too fast; so did I, but I didn’t say anything!

Spot the icicles!

After taking more photos we continued North towards Tiefencastle, eventually picking up the St Bernadino Autobahn and having a bit of higher speed fun.

Peeling off to cross the pass at St Bernadino was a bit of a disappointment, so then it was back onto the Autobahn and more exhaust rasping mile-munching, oh I love that bike!

We dropped off to bag another Pass that had intrigued me for some time, the Splügen, which straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy. The thing that had captured my imagination as the compact set of ten bends just below the summit at the Swiss side.

Splügen staircase. Totally bonkers!

Compact also equals bloomin’ tight and tricky, especially on the inside bends! They do make a good photo though!

Then it was more Autobahn blasting for about thirty miles towards the St Gottard Pass. I had wanted to stick this one in as a cheeky extra, the main road now goes through a tunnel, but the “old main road” and the original cobble road still exist; today though for some reason they were closed with police blocking them off.

Oh well, back to plan “A” the Nufenen Pass / Passo della Novena, at 2478m / 8130ft this is the highest paved pass in wholly in Switzerland and I think it’s just moved up to my favourite pass in Switzerland too!

Broody mountains, looking North on Nufenen Pass.8130ft.

I suppose I need to clarify what I like in a good Pass…

Having esoteric tastes in all things mechanical, I don’t conform to any norms. I ride Harley Davidson bikes because I like them, not because I want to be identified as “a Harley Rider,” I haven’t got a beard, ear-piercing, tattoos or a belt overhanging gut! The only trouble with the Harley’s that I ride, compared to other road or adventure bikes, is that they have a longer wheelbase and that means that they don’t like very tight bends much; neither do I! I do like a good gradient, long sweeping bends, nice views, places to stop and take photos, plus not too much other traffic.

On that basis :
Stelvio = Poor.
Nufenen = Excellent!

Here’s another thing to shout from the rooftops, that old Harls of mine has now topped the highest Passes in France, Switzerland, Italy and Andorra. She’s also done eight of the top ten in Europe and 22 out of the top 30 and we have plans for the stragglers!

The star of the show, on to of Nufenen Pass, looking a bit travel-stained, but we’ve been through a lot.

Any wonder why I love that bike?

At the end of today we rolled into our hotel car park in Ulrichen, tired, very happy and quite a bit warmer.

“One day like this a year would see me right for life.”

Catch you later.

Dookes