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Ice skaters, car drivers mingle on Czech world-record rink

Lipno Nad Vltavou – The people skating on the vast frozen lake resemble a tranquil scene from a Flemish master’s painting, until a car drives in at full speed kicking up clouds of fine snow.

Lipno lake in the southern Czech Republic is something of a curiosity. Not only is it the country’s biggest body of water but in the chilly Czech winters it is arguably the world’s longest naturally frozen ice rink — as well as a shortcut for motorists who ignore the danger of driving on ice.

"It’s the longest regularly maintained rink in the world," said local businessman Jan Stanek, who has taken over the task of maintaining the icy surfaces stretching an average 10 kilometres long (6.25 miles) and six to eight metres (yards) wide.

Proud locals applied for entry into the Guinness World Records book in 2009 when the ice stretched even longer than usual, reaching 10,922 metres or nearly 11 kilometres (6.8 miles), according to official Czech records.

This easily beats the current Guinness holder, Ottawa’s Rideau Canal which registered in 2005 as the world’s longest rink at 7.8 kilometres, as well as the 8.5-kilometre record claimed by Winnipeg in 2008, according to nationalpost.com, the website of one of Canada’s major papers.

A dam built on the Vltava river to generate hydro-electric power in the 1950s created the lake that holds pride of place in this once sleepy zone now a bustling tourist attraction drawing Dutch, German and Russian visitors.

In summer, it is replete with swimmers, anglers and sailors. In winter, there are the skaters and the skiers.

Lipno’s boom in the past two decades, which owes much to Dutch investors who fell in love with the area, saw record numbers last year with the rink attracting up to 70,000 skaters, according to Stanek.

On weekends, up to 5,000 skaters show up daily.

Maintenance — financed by towns in the region — requires a lot of elbow grease.

Every day, one man skates over 50 kilometres, pushing a one-metre broad brush propelled by an engine. "But we have now bought another brush for another cleaner," Stanek said.

Stanek also measures the thickness of the ice regularly, using a home-made device fashioned from a child’s ski stick that is stuck into a hole drilled through the ice.

On a dim and frosty Saturday morning, skaters of all ages throng on the ice.

"We regularly come here in summer, because we have a summer house here. But it’s our first time in winter — and it’s fantastic," said Petr Honzejk from Prague, pushing a pram with twins.

Jan Kobes, a young man from the southern city of Ceske Budejovice, glides along next to the skateway on cross-country skis, while his family ski the nearby downhill slope.

"But we’re going skating in the afternoon. I think this place is perfect for skaters," he said.

Life on the fast lane

The frozen lake is also a dangerous temptation for drivers travelling to Austria, whose border is within eyesight. Many use the ice as a substitute for a ferry boat which rests onshore in winter.

"Local people say that when the ice is more than 15 centimetres (six inches) thick, it can hold a rider in full armour," skater Honzejk contended.

Alexandr Toman stops his dark blue Audi halfway across the lake.

"I cross five days a week. It saves almost 70 minutes a day," said the young man who works as a waiter in a nearby Austrian winter resort.

He ignores a crack forming along the crossing used by about 10 cars within 45 minutes on a Saturday morning, as well as the cracking sound and tremor of the ice underneath.

"We are just a bit afraid. But a guy told us he had crossed a while ago," said another young man travelling to Austria.

Michaela Pavlickova, a spokeswoman for the local police, said the drivers could not be fined since "a frozen lake is not a road according to the law and there is no relevant regulation."

Though no lives have been lost, two cars disappeared under the ice over the past six years, said Pavlickova — one in 2008 and one in January this year, when an Austrian driver steered his vehicle onto thin ice.

"He took a shortcut in a place where no locals would ever drive," Pavlickova added.

But even the boss of the skating rink took an involuntary bath last year when his four-wheel-drive equipped with a snow plough sank.

"It cracked, the four-wheel drive vanished at once, and I kept crawling, but always on thin ice which gave in. I needed seven attempts to get out," said Stanek.

"But I didn’t mind really. I take icy showers every morning anyway," he chuckled.

AFP / Expatica