James Bond tour of the Swiss Alps: The knockabout Aussie who bluffed his way into entertainment infamy
Would James Bond do this? Would he step out onto this cliff face, teetering on the brink, clinging to just a small wire bolted into the rock, with a couple of straps and a few white knuckles separating him from a gory, spectacular death?
He definitely would. At least, Australia's only James Bond, George Lazenby, would. The attraction I'm experiencing, the "via ferrata" leading from the village of Muerren to Gimmelwald in the Swiss Alps, might be relatively new, but the legend of Lazenby's daring around here is anything but.
This is where the Aussie mechanic-turned-car-salesman-turned-model-turned-movie-star made his name. This is where, almost 50 years ago, he donned a tuxedo and jumped out of a helicopter and shot to stardom, before sensationally quitting the role and retreating back to a normal life.
Bond. James Bond. It's the character coveted by so many, and yet for one brief moment it was played by a knockabout Aussie who managed to bluff his way into entertainment infamy.
To hear Lazenby retell it, the experience of shooting On Her Majesty's Secret Service near Muerren was a wild ride. There were parties most nights. There were stunts to perform that no Hollywood actor in their right mind would attempt themselves. There were women. There were hangovers. And eventually, there was a movie.
One of the stars of that movie was the area of the world I'm now standing in, teetering above this yawning abyss. While Lazenby and his crew spent three months living in the mountain village of Muerren in December, 1967, the filming was done nearby at the top of the Schilthorn, at a revolving restaurant called Piz Gloria that is still instantly recognisable to fans of the franchise.
The restaurant is set in an almost impossible location, perched at the top of a high alp: the perfect Bond villain lair, the perfect film location, and the perfect spot to grab a buffet breakfast before putting your life on the line.
That was my plan, anyway, as I took a set of two cable cars from Muerren up to the Piz Gloria, staring wide-eyed as we sailed up, and up, and up, hundreds of metres above the green valleys below.
At the top, there was no escaping the Bond connection. Though the Piz Gloria is still a revolving restaurant with some of Switzerland's most spectacular views, it's also about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the On Her Majesty's Secret Service shoot in 2017, with new exhibits and plans for several of the original cast to revisit the scene of their famous movie.
There are several permanent exhibitions, too, that celebrate the film shoot, from an interactive museum where patrons can pretend to shoot bad guys from a ski sled, to a "walk of fame" featuring all of the cast members recalling their time atop the Schilthorn.
It's scary stuff. To hear the stuntmen tell their stories of death-defying plunges through thin air, it's amazing no one was seriously injured. To hear Lazenby and the rest of the cast tell their stories of the parties that went on in Muerren most nights, it's amazing anyone actually turned up to the shoot.
These days, Muerren is a little more sedate. It's a village of only 450 residents in the heart of the Bernese Oberland, accessible only by cable car. There are no cars, just pedestrian streets lined with traditional wooden homes and the occasional hotel, all commanding staggering alpine views.
It lulls you into a feeling of serenity. And then you see the via ferrata.
Unlike Bond, I'd earlier suited up in a climbing harness and a helmet, rather than a tuxedo and bow tie, and made my way to the entrance of this 2.2-kilometre track from Muerren to Gimmelwald. In some places the via ferrata is a rough dirt path, while in others it's just two wires bolted into a cliff face almost 1000 metres above the ground.
Suddenly, on that cliff face, the Bond stuntmen's tales don't seem so abstract. I'm shuffling my feet across a thin wire, peering down at a yawning abyss that seems to go on forever. And though you're always connected to one wire via a climbing harness, it would take a brave person not to feel the fear.
Bond would do this. Definitely. By the sounds of it, however, the way I feel once I finally arrive in Gimmelwald is the same way Lazenby felt after completing many of the film's stunts about 50 years ago: shaken, not stirred.
Qatar Airways flies from Auckland to Zurich, via Doha. See qatarairways.com From Zurich, trains run to Lauterbrunnen, from where you can access Muerren by cable car and local train. See myswitzerland.com/rail.
The historic Hotel Regina has basic double rooms in the centre of Muerren from CHF125. See reginamuerren.ch/en.
SEE + DO
For information on the cable car to the top of the Schilthorn, and eating at Piz Gloria, go to schilthorn.ch, or the website above. The via ferrata is free, though you'll need to hire safety equipment from Intersport in Muerren. See intersportrent.com.