Clockwork Tanks and Pitchforks

In the vale of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, dominated by the Jungfrau glacier soaked by 72 waterfalls lies the obscure, tiny village of Hahnsaftdorf.

This unremarkable village draws thousands of visitors every year to the annual Tankfest, where locals and enthusiasts begin a 123-mile hike along the ‘Tank Line’.

We love tanks, big ones and small ones. They are so useful and so versatile. Being a tank expert myself I set off with my researcher to Tankfest 2016.

The Swiss started production of tanks many years before any other European nation. With clockwork precision, these tanks rolled off the production line, never to be used.

Switzerland is of course famous for not only clockwork precision but also clockwork precision, being the foremost creators of watches and clocks like Rulex, Patek Thistle Phillipe and Casioe.

Although Switzerland stockpiled weapons, like its navy, became largely unused as Switzerland is of course a country that doesn’t get involved with wars and generally likes to sit them out.

The government, realizing they had a stockpile of tanks, brought their greatest minds to the Conference of Bern, in 1912, to brainstorm ideas for alternative uses of their tanks. The brainstorm team included notables such as Nicholas Von Der Flue, Renee Zellweger, Huldrych Zwingli, Ursula Andress and Leonhard Euler. For three years they discussed, argued and literally fought over who had the best idea. By the time they reached a consensus, on the eve of the First World War, both Der Flue and Zwingli were long dead.

Euler stood before the Swiss parliament, the Bundesliga, and made his famous announcement, “Colleagues, our group has reached a consensus, three years, which is half the time it would have taken us should we have taken six years, but it was worth the investment in our time.” He then sat down and the government immediately implemented his plan.

Tanks would be used as giant sundials strategically placed across the country, angled to cast the best shadow. These immovable hulks of metal would no longer be weapons of moderate destruction and forever be precise timekeepers, at one with nature.

The hike begins with the traditional yodelers and copious amounts of roasted meat and beer. There is a ‘guess the weight of the cheese’ competition and hilarious three-legged races, Swiss style, with one member having both his legs bound to the right leg of his companion, then the race begins with a mile slide down the side of a glacier. Ambulances are always on standby.

After an hour’s sleep we line up at the start by the first tank, bright pink and proud, in the shadow of its gun denominating 9am and with its co-axial gun’s shadow pointing in the direction of the second tank.

It is traditional to kiss the metal hulk of the opening tank as hikers walk past, as of course do we.

Tank number two is only three miles away. It is decorated in garlands of flowers and Swiss flags. Notably the tank stands in the village of Tod an Ausländer, which last year received the accolade of Switzerland’s friendliest village. Its tank also has an interesting optical periscope.

We carry on passing many tanks, all decorated by local villagers and all very nice, but a little bit boring. Our guidebook warns us of this, but we carry on nevertheless.

The final tank called the’ last tank’, bizarrely in English, is where all the trouble really kicked off.

One of our party yawned, sending a wave of murmurs around our fellow hikers. Apparently yawning with your mouth open in Switzerland is a great insult. The next thing we knew the hikers surrounded us with pitchforks demanding an apology and a promise never to return. To our great relief, or so we thought, the police arrive.

After inquiring what the fuss was all about, they herded us into the back of an unmarked van, drove us 50 miles to the German border and kicked us out with a warning to never return, and no we are were not allowed to buy duty free.

In the words of the U.S. Consulate of Germany, “We had a wonderful time in Switzerland, a most interesting and absorbing country of never ending fun, with some of continental Europe’s friendliest citizens.”

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