FRANCE GR5 2012 Lac Léman to Chamonix

GR5 (French section) Stage 1. Lac Léman (or Lake Geneva) to Chamonix
Now that wordpress lets me see what I’ve done at a glance, I could note that I had omitted the first stage of the GR5. Here it is as my memory has it.
Day 1.
As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I never post pictures of food. But as you will also know if you read me enough, I am VERY partial to a delicious slice of cake. Now, the dinner with which we began this trip at Évian-les-Bains put me in the very best of moods. Every part of it was great – but hey, just check out this for dessert! (We each got one that size – it was not a ‘dessert for two’).

With that to energise our monster climb (over 2000 ms for the day), we were pretty well set, and climbed efficiently considering how formidable the mountains appeared from the opposite shore in Switzerland, from where we’d come, and two thousand metres’ climb is not undertaken lightly.

This starting point was not the official one (St Gingolph), nor the official first reserve; however, I had read a blog that said it was the prettiest way to begin, so that’s what we did. We weren’t doing this to prove any points – merely to enjoy ourselves – and beauty wins over all other factors each time. We thus wouldn’t meet anyone else doing the walk until the first night. (And not then, as they were actually all asleep by the time we arrived).

After the storm.
We were at a fairly nice village called Bernex in time for a picnic lunch by their fountain before setting out for the final stretch to our destination: Chalet Bise. Up we climbed, following a téléphérique … and as we climbed, the sky got darker and darker and darker until it exploded with an almighty bang, right onto us. Luckily, we were near the top of the lift by this stage, and spotted a little booth the size of a broom cupboard or single toilet. In we dashed, only half wet at this stage, and not wanting to get any wetter. We stood out the rather long storm, by the end of which things seemed rather tenebrous and gloomy. My watch said we had about an hour of light still left. The map said that should be sufficient. But the map didn’t know, and I didn’t reckon with the fact, that at that stage of his life my husband was severely under-medicated with his Parkinson’s disease. We were walking a ridgeline which I happened to know had a 400m drop each side. Luckily, there was mist and Bruce couldn’t see how far he’d roll should he fall, but he was still scared (Parkinson’s does that to you) and walked in tiny pinprick little steps. I realised after half an hour that we would never make it. I saw a farmhouse below, and thought I’d ask if we could sleep with the cows in a shed or something. Any shelter would do.

My husband by this stage looked the picture of utter exhaustion. If anyone put on that look you’d say they were over-acting, yet the farmer turned us down. It was still raining, albeit lightly now. We were not allowed to sleep anywhere on his property. Luckily for us, there were two people there who were nice to us, and told me where I could find an old barn for shelter. Off we set. It was still 30 minutes away, downhill and in the wrong direction, but we were desperate.

Just as we arrived (miraculously – the instructions were not exactly clear, or maybe my French wasn’t good enough to have picked up some subtleties), who should approach but these two people, from below. They said they didn’t want to offend the farmer, but now they could offer us proper help. This amazing couple drove us about 60 kms around the mountain to get to a place that was only about 4 kms as the crow would fly. They were, however, 4 kms that my husband was incapable of doing that night. Not only that, but they plied us with fabulous farm bread and cheese in huge quantities, explaining that Chalet Bise did not serve food. From rejection to a feeling of incredible warmth we swung, soothed to know that there is still human kindness out there in this world where most are terrified of, and hardened by the prospect of, litigation. When we did meet people doing our route later, they said that the descent from the mountain to the Chalet was an absolute nightmare, sliding down metre after frightening metre of slippery red mud. They hated it. Bruce had been spared in more ways than one.
Day 2.

Warm from the events of the previous night, and elated by a pink dawn, I was floating as we left the chalet to begin this day’s climb.

Chalet Bise, nestled in a quiet farming valley with cows all around.

A lovely early start, through fields of dewy flowers and with light that still had a golden hue.
Off we set, full of cheese, through pastureland lavishly sprinkled with dewy wildflowers to do the climb of the day, Pas de la Bosse (1816 ms asl), which only took us 33 minutes. From being exactly according to the book’s times the previous day, we cut them dramatically this day, arriving at our destination only one and a half hours after leaving the chalet. But this was good. Lack of both the kind of food I like, and of sleep, was catching up on me. We found a gîte d’étape, I had a snooze before lunch, and then we explored Chapelle d’Abondance, eating magnificently that night, and meeting other walkers doing our route. The good food helped me regain my equilibrium. I feared at once stage that I was getting the flu.
Below, you can see the pass we climbed to before the long descent to our lodgings.

Day 3.
My diary reports that we really enjoyed this day, being fully refreshed by the lightness of day 2. We bounced over the ground to cut a 7-7.5 hour day (depending on your source) to one that was a bit less than 4. I also seem to have been very impressed by the food we got at our destination, which rather seems to be a theme of how I respond to walking in the mountains. I do like good petrol. I also remember, however, that we were pretty hot and tired by the end; we had had lunch in a pass replete with yellow flowers all over the ground and views as far as the Matterhorn, but were very grateful for the delicious afternoon tea of fromage blanc aux myrtilles and banana bread at our lodgings, the refuge du haut Bise at Col de Bassachaux – sustenance that helped us last until dinner time. We sat on the verandah eating and reading, and watching the light change on the mountains around us while we waited for the next meal.

You can see from the above that climbing midst fields of flowers was a theme that was pursued this whole trip.
Day 4.

Like its predecessor, this was another hot day. Writing this from Tassie and a fizzer of a summer, that seems a very pleasant idea. I believe we felt the heat at the time, and were very glad to arrive at our destination, Mines d’Or, by 2.20 in the afternoon, giving us time to explore the lake there and relax. It had only taken us three and three quarter hours’ walking. Days like this are always welcome, as I love to explore my destination.

One hour from the start, we arrived at Lac vert and a little booth there, where Bruce enjoyed an iced peach tea. Much nicer than drinking from a suss lake!

The views along the path on this day really thrilled us; it seemed like Heidi country.

This was perhaps my favourite sunset so far.
Day 5.

Well, you don’t stay near a lake without getting up early to see what sunrise does. It did not disappoint.
But meanwhile, this was a more challenging day, so we needed to get started straight after breakfast. It would take us 4 hours 35 walking (plus breaks) to reach Salvagny, hot and bothered. In fact, this was another time that Bruce exuded consummate exhaustion at the end of the walking day, and, on this occasion, that stood us in good stead, as the gîte we wanted was full, but taking one look at Bruce, they phoned around and found us a place to stay that was not expensive at all (Le Petit Tetras), and that had – oh joy of joys on a day like this – a swimming pool. Boy did we love swimming and staring up at the mountains while we did so!! The gîte had us for dinner, as our place was actually closed, so served no food. The people at this gîte were amazingly considerate and kind; their food was fantastic, and plentiful. No wonder it was full.

A walking highlight for me on this day was a series of ladders up a very beautiful gorge – Gorge des Tines.
Day 6.
The trek from Salvagny to the refuge at Chalets d’Anterne took us less than 2 hrs 30 of walking time (with many stops to examine waterfalls and cascades and to eat crepes), which meant that this day operated as a kind of rest day, which is always a bonus.
We knew the day would be short, so lazed around our more upmarket accommodation, whose space and comfort we really appreciated after a few days of simple refuges. Rain looked imminent, so we read books and stalled off the leaving process.

Cascade de Rouget

Where the main falls were, Bruce must have been looking very tired, as the people at the cafe where we stopped for a crepe, Le chalet du Lignon, gave him lumps of sugar to try to get him to his destination.
Soon thereafter, rain set in, which rather interfered with any ideas of a pleasant picnic lunch in the forest. The route was certainly very atmospheric in the rain, and the flowers absolutely wonderful, but there is no point in lingering in such weather. The mist was so thick by the time we arrived at the refuge, that we only saw its silhouette at the very last minute, appearing from nowhere out of the grey. Only much later that evening did we get any sense of our surroundings. Meanwhile, we ate our stale bread and cheese for a late lunch at the hut, and met other, very nice walkers who’d also called it quits here, and so whiled away the afternoon in chatter.
Day 7.

Ah. So this is what our place looks like. Well, well. The morning revealed almost all.

This day was another very short one. There was mist and rain, which made Bruce disinclined to proceed a great distance, but, probably more to the point, all our new friends were only going to move on the short distance to the next hut (one and a quarter hours away), and we didn’t want to ruin the party, so agreed to only go that far too. Same party, new location. different food. This location was the Refuge de Moëde.

The food here was terrible (I remembered it from when I did part of the Tour du Pays du Mont Blanc, and it hadn’t improved), but the company was fun – and the location is splendid. We also made new friends – frustrated / thwarted climbers, retreating into comfort from the rain.
We hung out for yet another afternoon.
Day 8.

An early party, before we climbed into the snow. We were all trying to make this final day last longer.
Off we all set. My main memory of this day is of the incredible kindness we encountered from our fellow travellers. I was walking out the front with the British climbers when we crossed a narrow, sloping section of ice. I said I’d better wait here, as I always had to carry my husband’s pack in sections like this, and explained about his Parkinson’s. “Hell”, they responded, “but he’s one of the fittest people on the track.” They offered to wait with me and use ropes if he needed them. What wonderful people. He didn’t need ropes, but how lovely of them to make such an offer to a virtual stranger.

Bruce, inching his way across a section of icy snow.
We had a kind of party together in the saddle below Brevent, where I kept looking up at the snow and ice and thinking Bruce couldn’t do this. I explained to the others that we’d go on ahead, as I didn’t believe he was capable of what lay ahead, so would probably have to backtrack and descend a different way. They all jumped up. “No, no, we’ll help you.” One meets so little kindness these days it always makes me feel like crying when it comes my way. They placed Bruce in the middle of our little queue across the ice, and Raoul put out his stock as a visual barrier to help him, and Cor insisted on taking his pack – a job that I normally do, doing each section three times to make it easier for him. Slowly he inched his way through the terror, emerging successfully out the other side.

Made it.
Hoorah. We had another celebration party at the refuge on the other side before saying our fond farewells and descending to Chamonix. The others were continuing the journey in the offical direction of les Houches, but we wanted to pop into our old hub, Chamonix, and at this nexus, we were going to switch from the GR5, heading south, to the Haute route, heading east to Zermatt. The GR5 saga would continue in 2014. Meanwhile, this party was over … but we had so many happy memories to buoy us as we dropped steeply to the valley below. They linger still, the human kindness even outweighing the beautiful scenery.

FRANCE GR5 2016 Modane to Briancon

FRANCE GR5 2016 Modane to Briancon

South of Modane, high in the mountains near Col du Thabor

The tale of the GR5 this year is one of goals abandoned rather than mission achieved. I am not sad about this. I had only ever said I wanted to make Nice if Bruce was happy about the venture and if the scenery remained beautiful. I could see no point in continuing if we didn’t appreciate the landscape around us, and if Bruce wasn’t happy, it would not be right to inflict torture.

He began well enough, after a more than shaky start in England. I always use the week in England as a kind of acclimatisation period for him, in which he supposedly increases his amount of exercise each day as the fatigue and stress of work are gradually shed. This year, there was no shedding, and no increase of exercise. The only thing that grew was his anxiety about being away from the place where things are familiar – an unfortunately frequent symptom in his illness that has not invaded him up to this point but which is mushrooming now. He slept a lot in England, so I just kind of hoped that the resulting rest would mean he’d be nice and fresh for the task of France.

 He started very well for the first hour, but then began asking: “How far now?”, a bad sign that many parents of young children will recognise immediately. I encouraged and cajoled and eventually he made it. As you can see from my images, this was a very beautiful place, with heaps of wonderfully photogenic snow. He was not happy walking on snow, and after dinner went straight to sleep while I explored and took the above photos.

In the morning he slept through my dawn shoot (in all other trips, he has accompanied me, to share the beauty even if not to photograph it). He said at breakfast, however, that he wanted to walk the route I had planned – my Plan A of many – so off we set after we’d eaten (hut breakfasts are not to die for), dropping down sharply before climbing up very steeply indeed to another col, and finally descending to Plampinet, where we arrived for a mildly late lunch, our day’s work done. Apart from a single incident where he was obviously geographically confused, he appeared to be going very well, ate his delicious omelette with gusto and joined me exploring the two churches (two of about ten buildings in this whole quaint place built of stone), one of which dated back to 1450 and was having its bell repaired : Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Grâces de Plampinet.
Later on, he said he was exhausted, so I arranged for him to catch a bus to my next destination, Briancon, while I went high into the mountains and over three cols to drop down and join him. He was happy with this. I took him to the bus stop, wrote notes for him about where to go, what to ask for, and everything was fine. All the other walkers had meanwhile changed plans and abandoned going high, as they were frightened of the thunderstorms that had been predicted for this day.  They would walk along the valley floor, following the beautiful river to Briancon and avoid all climb. However, I was here to be in the mountains, not to make destinations per se, so I set off into the mist alone. For me, seeing the kind of scenery I wanted was more important than saying: “I have walked from Lac Leman to Nice”. The others kindly said Bruce could go with them, but he doesn’t deal well with changes of plans, and was happy with the one we’d set in motion. He carried it all out well, and at the end of a truly wonderful long morning where a storm did surround me but didn’t drench me, and certainly didn’t kill me, I met him at the Gîte d’etape in Briancon. This was a fascinating town with dried out moat, old cobbled streets about the width of two donkeys and a great feel to it.

Bruce underway on day 2.
When there, I discussed with the Tourist Bureau how Bruce could get to my end point for the following day, Brunicard. He nodded with approval at our plan, but half an hour later said he had never heard that conversation and knew nothing about what we’d agreed to. Meanwhile, he couldn’t walk. I could tell he’d been sleeping for much of the morning, which was not an encouraging sign. He was obviously not comfortable with what I’d planned for him this next day, despite my offer to go with him to the starting point of his vehicular journey. 
One of my cols on day 3

I asked was there anything we could do that would please him, anywhere where we could go – even if far away from here. No to both. Would he like to go home? Yes. So while he slept during the night, I typed away to my amazing travel agent, Gary Woodland from Andrew Jones Travel. Meanwhile, the gardien from our refuge (Gîte Le petit Phoque) had driven us down to the bus stop so we could check everything out and make sure we had the timetable right, an incredibly kind gesture. By 5 a.m. there was an email from Gary. Please confirm quickly. I have Bruce on a plane out of Geneva in two days’ time. Cost for change, $85. How amazing is that? Confirmed immediately, of course. By the time Bruce woke up, I could tell him the new plan. We’d catch a bus to Chamonix and he would be nice and near Geneva to fly out.

It was a bit stormy up top.
Thus, next morning off we set on his homeward journey. Sad to change my goals? Only a little. As said at the start, they were always subservient to other, higher ones. The really sad part is that I presume that is it, our last ever trip. He was ill at ease the whole time, even in England, and his is a degenerative illness, so that is the end of a chapter in our lives: travelling together. We have travelled the world together since we were teenagers. He was always a great adventurer, keen to see new places, discover new things, and fit and strong enough to carry out the most bizarre of plans. Now this disease has corroded his spirit and left him in a state where travel no longer pleases.
Another sad part of abandoning the GR5 (as opposed to abandoning travelling with my husband) was saying ‘Goodbye’ to all the lovely new friends I’d made already along the track, people who would continue on without me. We said our fond farewells, and, funnily, they thanked me for what I do for my husband. This is excessively rare for me – so rare it made me cry. Living with us for three days, they could see how things were.
The next stage of my journey, and your next lot of photos, will be from Chamonix.

FRANCE GR5 2015 Chamonix to Modane.

Scene from the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme (Day 1, evening)

I want to write stories, giving you an idea of life on one of these trails rather than a day by day account of where I went, and I have done that below the itinerary that follows. However, I know that I have found other people’s itineraries helpful when planning, so I will give you mine before I paint my pictures. My route is not the official GR5, as the exceptionally helpful assistant in the visitors’ centre at the entry to the Vanoise National Park advised that GR55 was nicer than GR5, and that the route she then offered was even nicer  – she said to stick as high as it’s possible to do whilst traversing the park; this would be challenging but worth it. How right she was! In my mind, I kept offering her thanks as each new delight was exposed. You’ll need a good map to convert what I say to a route – but trying to do the GR5 without one would be madness. I carried both paper maps (IGN’s Carte de randonees 1, 2 and 3 [1:50,000] and the randoneur’s “Bible”, the official GR5 book in French that contains maps, a route description, and expected splits so you can plan your stages appropriately.

Along the route next morning, day 2.
Day 1. 19 July Chamonix to Les Contamines by public transport, having already walked this section last time, and thence to the refuge du Croix du Bonhomme. (3 hrs 11 mins). The public transport part took a very long time indeed, so we didn’t get started until around 3pm, so we had to push it hard to make it to the refuge in time to order dinner. After a yummy cake on arrival, we had a delicious dinner of pea soup, then Boeuf Bourginion with cheesy polenta, and choc cake for desert. At last my hunger was appeased.
Day 2.
 20 July Refuge du Croix du Bonhomme to refuge de la Balme (5 hrs 37 walking). This day was was not of any particular photographic merit until the mid afternoon, when near the hut, when it became photographically splendid. My lens, however, was dirty, and I got too much flare. I have to go back to do this place justice. The food here was also wonderful, and going back will not be any kind of hardship. For dinner we had nettle soup (yum), penne carbonara and a delicious cake that was so good I got the recipe, but it was so rich (I realised, once I had read the ingredients), I have been reluctant to make it. 
Day 321 July Refuge de la Balme to refuge Pont de Rosuel. This was an exhaustingly hot day. I’ve never felt the heat so badly, but the river was too cold for swimming. Rested in the shade for several hours, as walking was impossible in that heat.
This was not a photographically appealing day at all. I took two images, neither of which was good, but the exercise got us into the fabulous Parc de la Vanoise. The refuge was modern and very comfortable, with excellent food and good books to browse through.

Day 4, the Refuge du Col de Palet as seen from above and beyond on my route to climb other things in the area after arrival.
Day 4. 22 July Refuge Pont de Rosuel to refuge du Col de Palet. This was an annoyingly short day – I was there by 10 a.m. – but I had agreed to stop here.
After I secured my bed, I climbed Point de Palet and other interesting lumps and bumps before descending for lunch, by which time the glorious day had clouded right over. I met a lovely man on the mountain, and we came back down singing together. His wife, sitting down there waiting for him, had fun listening. I joined them for lunch.

Day 4: the Point de Palet – a fun little climb.
Day 5
, 23 July Refuge du Col de Palet to Refuge de la Leisse – possibly even more annoyingly short; I was getting restless, but I wanted to spend a night at each of these wonderful, high locations.
 I was disturbingly near the end of my book. This refuge was also a family farm, so I had fun observing the way it worked.

Evening scene at Refuge de la Leisse. Day 5

This is the refuge that evening, and please don’t accuse me of overcooking my image. The sky really was like that, and I was delighted to see it on my screen after taking it. On the computer, however, it seems as if I’ve just been turning on some red function.
Long after that colour and deep into the night, my new friend, Mathilde and I watched the stars come out. It was such a wonderful evening, and great to share it with her.
Day 6. 24 July Refuge de la Leisse to the refuge Col de Vanoise. This, too, was a very short day – only 2 hrs 15 – but this col was so beautiful the time there was well spent. This was maybe my favourite refuge, but they were all so lovely it’s hard to be sure.

Leaving the valley below the refuge.

Nearing the Col de la Vanoise

Flowers everywhere

This photo took over an hour in the making. I had to lie down in the pasture, pretending to be a blade of grass and being exceptionally still and quiet, hoping a marmot would come by, lured by the smell of a crust of bread I had placed there. I think this one is very old, as he was silly enough to be fooled. This is not a zoom lens – quite the opposite. We were up close and cuddly.

In the evening, we had a truly fabulous storm. Oh boy was I glad of the comfort, security and safety of the hut! It was a really wild one. After it had finished, shafts of light would break through the clouds to light up sections of the mountains. There was a lot of damage done by this deluge, and several bridges collapsed, inter alia. My route for the morrow became impossible.

Day 7. 25 July Refuge Col de Vanoise to Refuge de la Valette. This was possibly also, normally, a short day, but I turned it into a 4 hrs 15 one by dropping and rising 1400 ms extra – not to be silly, but because the bridge on my chosen route had been washed away in the storm. I had to go right down to the valley floor and rise up again, as this was the only way of safely crossing the very flooded stream. Even that route on this day was full of hazards. When I say “flood”, I really mean it: it was exciting.

Mist on arrival

Sunset that night
Day 8. 26 July Refuge de la Valette to Refuge de Fond d’Aussois. I had been warned often that this day was hard and long and confusing, and that I may not make it. It was harder and longer than any of the other days, and certainly had its confusions, but the ten hours on the trail I had been promised was five hours fifteen in reality, so bear in mind that the parameters for this day probably lie somewhere in between these times. Julian took even less time than I did (which would have been less again had he not got lost). Two other guys maintain it took ten hours of consistently strong “marching”, with only a single twenty minute break for lunch. Choose your own time.

Julien leaves, nice and early, I was not quite that organised.

Friendly day-trippers I met along the way. These people come up from the valley floor.

Day 9. 27 July Final day. Refuge de Fond d’Aussois to Modane, and then bus and train back to Chamonix in time for a celebration dinner. My photos from this day are record shots only.

First Story. “Refuge de la Leisse”
I round the corner, knowing from the elapsed time on my watch that I should see the refuge where I’ll spend the night around this bend: the place of my fate and fortune for the next twenty hours. There it is, perched on the hillside. Having never researched these refuges beforehand, I always have an element of surprise on arrival, and, because of that, excitement. Will it be comfy or crowded? Will the people be friendly or aloof? I am greeted by three teenagers, eager to help the family business and obliging with attempts at English when my meagre French doesn’t quite convey my meaning. They break off carting food to the two horses to show me around.
In the Col

Combining our best efforts we manage to communicate. I am shown a tiny wooden building (outhouse dimensions) which is my shower should I require it. It has cold water, and is free, the boy proudly tells me. Below me is an equally tiny shed, a toilet apparently, which I will need to walk to during the night should I need it. For exactly this purpose I carry a headtorch. I’m fine.
The sleeping room, which contains an inordinate number of bunks smashed in on top of each other, is also wooden, and is very dark. The only light comes from a hole in the door at the far end. I am told that the darkest bed, bed number 48, is mine. I say I don’t like it; can’t I choose? I want light. He says people don’t choose. I ask why not and he can’t think of a good reason other than that’s the way it’s done, and, realising that is not an adequate justification for anything, acquiesces, and lets me have my bed near the light.

Leaving the refuge at the Col Vanoise (day 7).
Outside, the family is back, attending to the horses; an array of hens and chickens cluck around me as I plomp myself at a table in the sun. Ducks are dozing in the shade of the Salle à manger. I am in a verdant green bowl of grass and flowers, encircled by towering eroded mountains; there is a stream far below, which I intend to explore later, but the wildflowers have a greater claim on my attention. Clouds are gathering around the tops; we may have another storm this afternoon (which will once more ruin my chance of a beautiful sunset to photograph). The wind is picking up force, so I think I’m right.
While I sat with the dirty dish of my crêpe au fromage et jambon before me, staring at the peaceful scene, two parties of walkers from last night’s hut came through. We greeted each other but also said farewell, as they are going further. I have played hare and tortoise with these friendly people who have dubbed me The Singing One “celui qui chante”. They are lovely, but now our paths have parted, which is always the sad but eventual way of the mountains.

Arriving at the Refuge de la Valette (day 7)
It is time to explore the stream and flowers and to photograph before this storm breaks. Even in the time it has taken to type this, the clouds have taken on a much more defined shape and colour. Also, since sitting here in a random couch placed out in the sun, conveniently positioned to give me a vista of the valley, I was offered dessert, and ordered and ate the standby sweet of the savoie and haute savoie: fromage blanc aux myrtilles. This one was not as good as the norm, but the myrtilles are the nearest thing I’m going to be offered to fruit in a region where fruit and vegetables need to arrive either by donkey (the most common method) or by helicopter (prohibitively expensive). Right now I am hearing the teenagers giving the four walkers who have just entered the same spiel I got. These are no disenchanted, alienated, anomy-specialists here, but a contributing part of the family, and exercising their responsibility as such with élan. 

Now it is several hours later. The tiny hut is filling up to an alarming degree as walkers continue to trickle in from the variety of possible directions, some looking fresh, others exhausted. Ones I recognise from previous huts greet me and we exchange stories of the route. Others, travelling in reverse directions to ours, tell us of what is to come. 

Morning breaks at la Valette

After dinner, there was not much time before sunset. I couldn’t see many possibilities for a good shot, so just climbed a hill to sit in a hollow out of the wind and watch whatever was going to happen, without any particular photographic ideas in mind. Luckily for me, when drama began, I discovered I had pleasing foreground interest, and was satisfied with my results. I returned to the hut, thinking everything was finished, only to discover that the sky behind the refuge was turning pink. I looked at my result on the screen and let out a whoop of joy. Others from the hut came scurrying up to me. “Montrez- moi s’il vous plait”. Suddenly I had new friends. It was all too beautiful to go to bed. The others turned in, but Mathilde and I stood there together as the sickle moon and stars became brighter and the sky turned to ink. The moisture in the air condensed to clouds in the valley below.
Uncharacteristically, I needed the toilet twice during the night. The first time was at midnight. To my amazement, the clouds had risen, and mist enfolded me as I mooched my way over the terrain to the tiny building that served my needs. At 4 a.m., on the other hand, the clouds had gone, the moon had sunk just below the horizon, leaving a mild glow as residue, and the stars were shining. The mountains around were dark silhouettes in the sparkler sky. I stood on the balcony, leaning on the railing, admiring.

Soon enough after leaving next day, I caught three friends whose route had run parallel to mine for a while, but now it was time to say a sad goodbye. Our paths would diverge forever around the next corner. Life in the mountains is full of these warming yet temporary meetings of kindred spirits. We gave the standard French double kiss and bid farewell, each promising to write. Parting is always such sweet sorrow, a microcosm of life. On I continued alone, in song, rising up to the next Col where I would be greeted by plentiful flowers, a quiet, rippling stream and countless marmots.
In fact, as it turned out, our paths did cross one last time. In the Col, I decided to climb an extra little something off to the side. On my return, I found a little bunch of flowers attached to my pack. I knew the donors. When I passed them for the really last time, we hugged warmly. It’s amazing how small gestures can fill you with such a glowing feeling of human connectedness. Bring on the next hut.

Second Story. Last full day.
I look out the refuge window – another huge one – and watch the colourful ants (daytrippers) scurrying in busy lines, disappearing down the valley to the towns way below, and as I watch I reflect on another wonderful day – beginning with a wonderful sunrise and clear skies. For the first three and a quarter hours, I descended, traversed and then climbed again, on a path with fabulous views – a narrow path, kind of contouring and dropping in turn along a steep spur. Even more dominating in my thoughts were the myriad clear, cascading streams and the multiplicity of flowers. It was very green and colourful.
Today was typical of randoneur life. I had made new friends sharing dinner the night before, but had to leave them as our routes diverged. Julian, whom I had met yesterday, and I were the only ones doing our route, and he had left before me, promising to write. I set out alone. A few hundred metres along my way, however, I heard my name being called, but decided I couldn’t be hearing that, or that some other Louise was being summoned. Eventually I turned around. There outside the dortoir was the artist I’d had dinner with, calling to wish me a happy day as I departed. I waved and with a smile continued past “marmot rock”. The drop to the valley was monstrous: rocky shapes stood out in stark relief. The sun blessed the tops of the surrounding mountains with its warmth and light. The plants I passed were frozen. I wondered if Julian had noticed.
An hour or so passed by – during which time I had actually seen Julian, he’d made a wrong turn in a very confusing section, and was now hurrying along to make up lost time.
Before I say this next bit, I must stress that we were in a highly remote area of a foreign national park, and that I had now farewelled every friend I had made, all of whom were heading in different directions to me. It was now time to climb the Col d’Aussois, which undertaking the sign said would take 2.5 hours. Given how hot and now tired I was, I couldn’t count on my usual trick of halving the numbers.
Up I went. There ahead was a colourful group, snacking on a rock. There was a man waving at me. Yes, I know this group. “Bonjour encore, encore, encore,” I called, and they called the same back (the multiple encores being a joke we shared, as I kept passing them , but then stopping to climb an extra this or that, and so passing them again). I very willingly shed my pack to tighten my plait and chat with them, and work out how on earth it was we were seeing one another again.
Up I climbed again, lost in a world of rock and heat and sweat, moiling my way up the steep slope. “Louise,” I hear yet again. This is getting funny. Again I ignore it. The call cannot be for me. Louder it comes and repeated. There is Mathilde, farewelled several days ago after the cute refuge de la Leisse. She was coming down while I ascended. We greeted with hugs and kisses, and once more sloughed off our packs to chat for a while and catch up on each other’s story of the journey, our individual pilgrimages south.
Off I set again, and at last the col was reached. It seemed to be the longest and steepest so far, but maybe it was just the heat of the day that gave that impression. I dumped the pack by the cairn in the pass and set off to climb to the Observation Point, a rocky spire that looked about ten minutes away. This was a real climb, and there were endless possible ways to “attack” it. Yet again, I hear “Louise” called. Yet again I ignore it. Yet again it is called repeatedly with increasing loudness. It was Julian. Unbelievable. What was he doing here? He explained. We chatted and then separated for the final time.
The rest of the journey was fairly quickly dispensed with – a steep descent lasting an hour that brought me to my chosen refuge for the night. Now I am sitting by the window smelling fabulous smells as the friendly staff members prepare dinner. If the rhubarb tart I had on arrival is any indication, it should be a memorable meal, which is fitting. Tonight is my last night of this (for me) three-stage journey from the north to the south of France on foot (GR5). How sad.


ENGLAND Cotswold Way 2011-2

Cotswold Way (+Heart of England, Monarch’s, Diamond, Gloucestershire, Macmillan, Windrush, and Wardens’ Ways).


The first time my husband got me onto British soil, he was virtually dragging me, kicking and struggling (well, a bit of hyperbole there). My image of this island was that it had wall-to-wall buildings, that you would never get away from the madding crowds and that the food would be egregious. And, to add insult to injury, the denizens spoke English. How boring is that!

I changed my mind very quickly, about nearly everything. England has never ceased to amaze me in that it can have the population that it does, yet still retain endless tracts of houseless land. Not only that, but the system of ancient rights of way means that you can walk on far more of that land than often seems the case here in Australia, where “Thou shalt not” seems written on every door and fence. Following these dotted lines on the map, you can spend whole days without encountering a single other soul if that’s what you choose.
Tonight I have gone through my Cotswold Way photos with a view to writing this article, and feel the most astonishing homesickness for that path that we enjoyed so much. It is not wilderness like our national parks might aspire to, but it is certainly not urbanised, and almost all of every day we wandered at our leisure through woods and fields, past domesticated and wild animals and magnificent gardens, monstrous trees that reeked of history, their beer-bellied girths and gigantically spreading canopies telling their own tale of longevity. Meanwhile, when we chose to, we could interact with friendly country people who seemed to share none of the rapacious ways of the twenty first century. We loved them.

Our route was utterly unorthodox, and designed by me to fit our needs. The first part was done in 2011, and followed the traditional Bath to Winchcombe part of the route as per the map. At this beautiful village (town?) we unfortunately had to stop as our time was finished and we had to fly home. But we were in love, and couldn’t wait to be back (2012) to complete what we had begun – except, because we love it so much, we didn’t want to finish it as soon as the map said we should (we had a mere two days left). In addition, we would leave a bag of weighty stuff at our second starting point (Winchcombe), so needed to finish where we started in order to pick it back up. I thus designed a big circle that continued on past the end of that route, and went clockwise in a huge loop that returned us eventually to Winchcombe. This joined up sections of all the Ways mentioned in the title, in the order in which they occur.

There is something pretty amazing about wandering along, and happening on an ancient fort 5500 years old (Crickley Hill); reading a sign that says the beech trees you’re passing through are some of the oldest in the UK. Meanwhile, Painswick’s churchyard dated to 1377, and the post office there was the oldest in the UK (1428). Belas Knap had a burial ground dated 2500BC. All this history thrilled us.

And then we come to the wonderful Sudeley Castle, which originally dates back to Ethelred, in the tenth Century. The present structure, however, is much newer – built in 1442. In 1535, Henry VIII visited the castle with Anne Boleyn. Of lesser interest to me was the fact that Katherine Parr (another of Henry’s wives) is buried there; at Sudeley Queen Elizabeth I was entertained 3 times, and in 1592 was given a spectacular three-day feast to celebrate the anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. You just roam around, absorbing all this history along with the heavenly smells and sights being emitted by the old world roses – Albas, Gallicas, Portlands and more – thinking yourself back to those ancient times and somehow becoming part of them while you are there.

Tiny villages with caramel-coloured dolls’ houses and roses growing up the walls, spilling over the gates, sneaking through gaps in the walls; clear streams with ducks that quack hello as you pass; lush pastures with inquisitive bovines that chew and moo to pass the time of day; little V, a lamb I took a particular fancy to – all these and more are the delights of the Cotswold Way.

And as for the food! Wow. We were fed like kings. Breakfasts where bowls of fresh berries and homemade yoghurt accompanied the cereal were perhaps my favourites. At lunch we usually just had some soup, as we’d eaten so well at the start of the day. Dinner we had fun trying out various pubs.
Unfortunately something that can’t be repeated is the fact that – totally by fluke – we were there for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. We didn’t even know it was on until all of a sudden we couldn’t get in anywhere. We never make bookings. For me walking and holidays mean you are FREE, and freedom means no arrangements, no deadlines, no script, no constraints. I’d prefer to sleep under a tree in the drizzle than be a puppet, dictated to by a rigid plan. This is all very nice, except that when the people who actually rule England decide that since the queen has been on the throne for sixty years the people should rejoice. That means the Brits are going to party big time, and there is NO room at the inn – or anywhere else. We walked from village to village trying to find a free place to sleep. It was really tricky, but we always turned up lucky in the end, and had some absolutely fabulous experiences along the way, but I don’t want to turn this blog into a thesis, so I’m going to tantalise you and leave it right here. I will only say that if they declare another party for her 65th, we’ll be there!!!!

Bay of Fires 2007 Jan

Bay of Fires Walk  30-31 Jan 2007

We wanted to do the Bay of Fires walk, but did not want to pay a fortune to do what we could do perfectly well without paying anybody to do for us. But!! How do you solve the problem of a left vehicle up north while the walkers finish down south? That bit we couldn’t quite solve. Some enterprising fisher[person needs to offer a kind of water-taxi service like they do in New Zealand.

And precisely because we couldn’t solve that problem any other way, we parked in the middle of this walk. On the first day, we went to the northern end and back with just our daypacks, and the second day, went to the southern end and back. We thus effectively did the walk twice, but without big backpacks, and without the transport problems. We have no objections to backpacks, but big objections to hitchhiking in a car-less environment. This way was much better. It was good to see everything from both northern and southern angles, and the water was so spectacular, it was great to prolong our exposure to its beauty.