Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A Walk to the Water - The Film

Jake (to the right of the photo) spent some time producing this special array of video diaries, scenic footage and photographs, accompanied by some splendid songs. Click on the link above the photograph and follow our adventure as it happened. The film is presented on Jake's photography page for those interested in exploring further.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Time to Reflect

Four weeks after our toes felt the Mediterranean Sea I sat at my desk, glancing every now and then through the sash window in my room. It was drizzling. Surrounding me were piles of books, diaries, notes and photographs from our trip. I was in a particularly decisive mood and had spent several hours gleaning as many facts and figures from the materials in front of me as was possible. As my bottom began to numb from the hard wooden chair I deemed it time to stop. So, here are the results.

·         Days – 130, beginning April 14th 2013, ending August 21st 2013.
·         Overall distance walked - 2,842.9km (as the crow flies, Bristol to Menton is 1000km).
·         Steps taken – Danny; 5 million, Jake; 5.1 million (because his legs are one centimeter shorter than mine).
·         Number of countries – 8; England, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland and Italy.
·         Total ascent and descent – 60,000 metres, that’s nearly 7 Everest’s!
·         Tick tally (combined) – 195 (Jake; 117, Danny; 78 - only counted if imbedded beneath the skin. Number of ticks found on bodies likely to be quadruple the figure).
·         Highest point - Col de L’iseran, 2770m.
·         Hottest day – 38 degrees centigrade.
·         Greatest distance covered in a day – 42kms.
·         Blisters tally – 3 – unbelievably Jake had no blisters, the three were mine.
·         Accommodation – 70% camping, 25% hotels/Bed and Breakfasts, 5% donated shelter.
·         Average daily distance - 21.8 (24.1km excluding rest days).
·         Enjoyment ratings (out of 10) – Highest 9.5, lowest 2, average 6.3, mode 7.
·         Painkillers – Jake; every day for headaches, Danny; 3 for headaches.
·         Number of scroggin (trail mix) components – 47.
·         Number of falls (all the way to the ground) – Jake 7, Danny, 3.
·         Number of fellow walkers who joined us for a section – 14.
·         Wettest country – Belgium.
·         Largest city – Bristol (432, 000), closely followed by Antwerp(en) (408, 000).
·         Capital cities – Luxembourg City.

The rain was still toppling from the sullen sky, and as I stood to get a closer look I was reminded of the dull ache that remained across the sole of my feet; would it ever fade?  


Sunday, 25 August 2013

Sospel to Menton - Day One Hundred and Twenty-nine to One Hundred and Thirty

We packed our bags for the last time in the dim pre-dawn light and left Sospel. As the boulangerie ovens burnt strong, the leaves of the plane trees played with the warm Mediterranean breeze.

Once above the town, we ate a box of Chocolate Noisettes and watched the sun ripple across the terracotta roof tiles. The path climbed by elderberry, apple, blackberry and plum, then fell into a deep forest of holly, pine and beech, clad with hugging ivy. Mountains gave way to hills. We picked lavender and margerets and strung them to our packs before reaching our final col. Six million steps after leaving our front door we sat on the grass and looked down onto the Mediterranean sea. We were still 1,000 metres above sea level, a fact felt as we slipped down the rocky path towards Menton. To the east was the Italian coastline, and to the west lay Monaco; the grandeur of Monte Carlo rolled into the sea where million dollar yachts left wakes of wealth.

'Menton, 1hr', read a sign. We began to run, a suggestion of the track gradient, but more notably our excitement. Houses began to appear and soon we were catching glimpses of azure through the alleyways. We emerged onto the Promenade Reine Astrid and made for a crested moon of beach, small and stoney, where the waves met our toes. As the water lapped over my shoulders I felt weightless.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

St Etienne to Sospel - Day One-Hundred and Twenty to One-Hundred and Twenty Nine

As Jake's stomach cramps faded and his bowels fortified, the baton of illness once more was passed back to me. We had ran out of both toilet paper and Imodium, a recipe, I assure, for disaster. Via various tenuous links, Jake had miraculously acquired a connection in the local hospital, where an angel was waiting for him with eight sachets of magic powder.

On our second day in St Etienne we ambled amongst the market stalls, taking the rare opportunity to buy fruit and vegetables, which we ate as we poured over the forty-first, and final, map of our journey.

Eagerness saw us find the path as morning broke. We climbed zigzags to the modern ski town of Auron, where we sat on a bench amongst a host of music-blaring shops and eateries: Free Style, Point Break and my personal favourite, The White Grouse Pub. I ate far too many banana flavoured sweets as our feet took us briskly away from Auron and over the Col De Bianon. Derelict stone farmhouses, filled with lavender, rose bushes and untamed raspberries, led us down to the village of Roya, where children played in the dirt, and grass and clothes hung from drooping washing lines. We set up camp by a bustling torrent. I picked grass seeds from my socks, noting how the previously mundane had become, dare I say it, habitually enjoyable.

Jake had spent the night sharing his pillow with a beautifully green caterpillar that stretched lethargically when we woke. It was the 14th August and our granddad's eightieth birthday. Ted, undeniably, was our inspiration. We discussed his feats whilst steadily ascending to the Col De Collette, where a possible view of the Mediterranean Sea was scarpered by a thick haze. A flock of sheep jangled in the valley below, diverging into lines, like a drop of paint blown through a straw.

The day was beginning to draw to an end, when we bumped into 'Spiritual', a character we had met several times over the previous two weeks. He held out a hand and offered me a stone, more specifically a piece of dolomitic limestone from the Hanging Valley in which we had just passed through. ''It's for the heart'', he gestured. Having snapped our toothbrushes in half several months earlier in a bid to reduce weight, it was difficult for me to drop the weighty stone into my side pocket, but I figured an unhealthy heart would be heavier. We pitched in a dry river gully, which, as the thunderstorm hit, became rather more wet, provoking the ridiculous visual of me scaling the steep forest slope with a tent over my head in the drizzling rain in search of flat ground.

The village of Raure, perched precariously onto the forested walls of La Vallee de la Tinee, was magical, not only for its thirst-quenching lavoir, but for its friendly locals, its loaded flower boxes and its shuttered windows. Deep in the valley's trough I felt a wave of nostalgia for England - oak, apple trees and blackberries - but was soon reminded that home was far from close by, as trees of fig, cherry, olive and pomegranate bowed across the path.

St Dalmas proved to be one of the most poignant junctions of our journey thus far; we were to diverge away from the GR5, a path that we had been treading for a quarter of a year, and instead join the GR52, a more raw and rugged path, that took us back northwards. After a night camped amongst bilberry and juniper shrubs, labyrinthed by deer tracks, our route swung to the east. Mushrooms of all shapes and sizes  began to appear, some like cups of cappuccino on stalks, others like flattened peaches, and one species, whose purple concave hats made me think, quite awfully, of an inverted baboon's bottom. We diverted briefly from the GR52, stepping foot in Italy, courtesy of the Col De Fenestre, then the following morning broke through the Pas De Mont Colombe, a shoulder-wide gap in the ridgeline, 2,500 metres up, that revealed a show of radiance as beams of hazy light shot across the valley like an asymmetric kaleidoscope.

We passed a lake drifting with ice, a proud bouquetin and a young German boy who sang 'Survivor', by Destiny's Child, at the top of his voice. Who could blame him? As we climbed through the Baisse De Valmosque, I noted my hunger. Our bodies were craving 5,000 calories a day, but were only getting 2,000. With relish, we ate jam sandwiches whilst looking down into the Vallee De Merveilles, our wildest scene yet. Huge chunks of angled rock, like piles of lego, dusted purple, green and red, lay on the valley slopes.

Our final night of wild camping was spent on a col swamped with mist and cloud. By morning the skies had cleared and we watched the sun rise over the eastern Alps. A daddy long-legs strode across a tangle of brambles. The walk to Sospel took us down to 350 metres, the closest we had been to sea level in five weeks.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Modane to St Etienne De Tinee - Day One Hundred and Eleven to Day One Hundred and Twenty

The Bee Gees played whilst I brushed my teeth in front of a mirror. My lips had cracked from the sun and wind, and on my chin sat a bird's nest of hair. We left Modane up a steep, needled path, appreciative of the fading sound of the town. I noted Jake's composed, regulated breathing compared to my open mouthed, gormless expression, which allowed air to come and go as it pleased, and flies, for that matter. Just past the tiny hamlet of Les Herviors, whose gardens were coloured with pastel-yellow foxgloves, Jake ground to a halt. The vaseline applied earlier in the day had done little to reduce the friction between thighs and berries (if you know what I mean). Thus, in an act of experimental desperation, Jake found himself taping something other than his toes. For those interested, it seemed to do the trick and, yes, we have applied for a patent on the design. We gained 1,200 metres then ate jam sandwiches whilst watching a cyclist undress to his tan lines, before washing himself with devoted enthusiasm for what must have been half an hour. We left the splashing gentleman, soon cresting the Col de la Vallee Etroite, where a more rugged, scree dominated view took our eyes. An old lady stepped by as we rested, "Bon journo". This, it seemed, was an Italian valley. That night we slept by a flume of cascading water over quartzite.

In the days that followed we pushed south through forests of larch, windswept cols and prairies thick with tussocks of grass, like the manes of a hundred sleeping lions. On the Col de la Lauze we looked west through a frame of two mountains. Crows flew the valley, doubling their numbers with shadows that matched their owners' acrobatics. Through a particularly clement valley my unintentional weight loss programme finally got to me as the map case, which used to fit snuggly between my arm and body, slid out for the umpteenth time. "Fucking map", I raged at the inanimate object that, to be fair, took the critique on board like a true professional.

Our Modane food supplies were running low - we squashed breadcrumbs between thumb and fingers and dipped the unconsolidated structure into a pot of jam before rushing it mouthwards. Our arrival, therefore, into the medieval town of Briancon, which boasted both ancient forts and not-so-ancient supermarkets, was all the more welcome. We ambled the bunting -clad, cobbled streets and then checked into the wonderfully cheap Pension de Ramparts, where a sign forbidding eating in the room was contradicted impressively with the provision of our own kettle and microwave. When I returned from the shop, Jake revealed, through words as opposed to the more visual option of physical matter, that he had been vomiting. He spent the day in bed and the following day in considerable discomfort as we crossed over the Col de Ayes. In fact, it was not until we dropped our bags on the south side of the Col that Jake finally showed a smile following a mountain -splitting trump. "I have been waiting five hours for that!".

We had been promised bad weather by a "meteo" report slapped on the window of a closed Office D'Tourisme. The prediction came to fruition as we rounded a bulbous crest to strong winds that blew the hat off my head. White dust swirlled across the path from the crumbling Ravine De Ruin Blanche below and conifers slouched at their bases, as the gale played their woodwork like an eerie orchestra of pipes. When the rain came it didn't stop for a day and a night.

I unzipped the tent the following morning to valley walls awash with bands of cloud. A lack of resupply points over the following one hundred kilometres left our packs filled with four days' worth of food. To accompany, Jake was still carrying the heavy weight of illness. We were thus grateful for the magnificient Ubaye Valley and the Parc Nationale De Mercantor that distracted our tired minds. We swam, as bare as the day we were born, in the turquoise Lac D'agnel, where unsuspecting walkers diverted their eyes. A golden eagle soared and the chamois scrambled along the scree.

With just ten days of our walk remaining, we lay inside the tent, pitched (with permission) on the grass of a cemetery. Starring at the tent ceiling I began characterised our bed-sharing insects. Zany Zac appreciated personal space, Nostalgic Nigella lived forever in the past and Timid Tina had joined a dating agency in a bid to improve her self-confidence. As I drifted off to sleep I heard Jake blasphemise firmly at Tina; her new found confidence had put her dangerously close to a hand not afraid to swot.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Landry to Modane - Day One Hundred and Six to One Hundred and Ten

I grappled at the tent door in total darkness, terrified that death was upon us. The trampling grew louder and my panic stronger. Finally, the zip unlodged from its buckle. Below in the valley the lights of Landry glimmered and I realised that the dozen or so charging giraffes, that had somehow found themselves in the depths of the French Alps, were, in fact, not going to crush every bone in my body.

When morning came Jake and I packed up our gear and descended down the steep forest path into Landry, where we bought pains au chocolat and found the train station. Tumbleweed rolled by as a hot wind blew through the tracks, making my eyes water. At 12.10, the rails rattled and a dusty, old train ground to a halt. The doors bounced open and there stood Phil, bearded and beaming. We pushed out of town, fuelled by Golden Delicious apples, and soon joined the Tonturin River where Phil stopped to look at an ant, "This could be a long trip", Jake steered Phil's way. We continued climbing as the sky grew ominous. "Are you not scared of the storm?", one lady questioned after we informed her of our intentions to camp. The Nant Puters waterfall tumbled from a limestone overhang, its waters transformed into mist before reaching the rocks below. We camped opposite, sharing stories late into the night. It must have been after 9.00 p.m. by the time our heads hit the pillow.

The thunder and lightning came at 4.00 a.m. "You all right, Phil?" Predicting good weather, Phil had opted to sleep outside. Through the pelting rain I heard a muffled response, "Yeah". Several hours later I pulled open the tent door to reveal a suction-packed Phil. He had spent the night in what can only be described as a giant, orange plastic bag, which clung to his body, puddled with rainwater. The temperature had dropped thirty degrees from the previous day. Winding through boulders that surrounded D'Entre Le Lac, I watched as mountain spires came and went through the wind and rain. We reached a refuge where a Frenchman pointed through the cloud, "The pass is that way". As my bones chilled to the marrow, I acknowledged for the first time in one hundred and six days, that shorts were perhaps the wrong attire. After just three hours of hiking we arrived in the walker-despised town of Tignes Le Lac, bought a hot chocolate then checked into a cheap hotel. An unjustifiable fify five euros was spent on a lavish salad which we prepared then ate with a bottle of Old Nick rum, a sickly sweet spirit that pushed conversation inevitably towards romance.

We left Tignes swiftly, soon finding ourselves on rugged terrain, where horses roamed and marmots called. The Col De L'Iseran signalled the highest point of our entire walk (2,770 metres). Despite the extensive sweet stand, the moment was anticlimatic and we made our way down the southern route, glimpsing a baby marmot as it wobbled out of its burrow. By late afternoon our feet were ready to rest. We resupplied in the quaint town of Bessans, where a wood-carved fawn rode a serpent in the town centre, then pitched our tent amongst hazel. Cows jangled and the L'Arc Riviere rumbled, water over stone.

The following day our path led us further down the valley. Phil's glowing sunburn, which resided most seriously upon his ankles, thighs, arms and hands, had forced him to wear his only long sleeve top, a thick hoodie, no doubt uncomfortable on a day where the temperature gauge sat above thirty degrees. A market strang out along the main street of Lanflevillard. We bought a melon each and ate it with jam sandwiches, a new lunch time recipe, by the town lavoir.

The first of August signified the final month of our walk to the water. It was a chill morning and dew sat on the grass and in the contours of Phil's body. Jake and I watched as the sun shone through the trees on the cliff top above our pitch. Through squinted eyes, the rays curled with my lashes, forming a catherine wheel frozen in time.

Since the beginning of the week I had noticed a transformation from alpine to mediterranean; vegetation dried, heat radiated and crickets clicked. Modane, Phil's parting town, was a relatively uninspiring place. Perhaps most entertaining was a 'sign of distances'. Monaco (just a few kilometres from Menton) sat 250 kilometres from Modane. Our route would take us over twice this distance. Phil's initial plan of sleeping in a park in Lyon whilst waiting for a bus was altered when he learnt of an earlier departure. He left as the sun dipped behind the mountains.

In the five days that he was with us, Phil walked 107 kilometres (that's about 125,000 steps), ascended 4,600 metres and descended much the same, gained first degree burns on thirty per cent of his body, clocked a dozen hairy stumbles, and inflicted some sort of abrasion on each and every toe. His greatest distance covered in a day was 35 kilometres which, without training, was quite frankly rather impressive. The highest temperature in which he walked was 35 degrees celsius and the lowest 5. Phil had one shower and one bath, both on the same day.

Jake and I sat by our tent in the dusk light. A well tanned man, with grey hair and a proud belly, stepped from his Challenger campervan in Speedoes that used to fit. He poured pasta through a plastic colander by a tree, then returned to his van. "I guess you get to an age when you just don't care," Jake uttered, as a warm wind blew.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Le Brevent to Mont Chavin - Days Hundred and One to One Hundred and Five

The Casios sounded at 5.00 a.m. We packed in the pre-dawn light under the watchful eye of Le Brevent, a mysterious and rugged ridgeline destined to meet the souls of our boots. We rejoined the path whose fringes bobbed with globe flowers, orchids and cotton grass, still sleepy from their night under the stars. Climbing steadily, I watched the sun lick the skyline before taking whole mountain faces captive under an amber glow. A marmot printed the snow with busy feet and chamoix clashed horns on the cliff edge with envy-provoking sure footedness. We reached the Col De Brevent, at 2,525 metres, suddenly feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Mont Blanc sat on the other side of the valley as close as ever, streaming with glaciers and icy torrents. From the Col, we took a dramatically wrong turn, an act which consequently found us clinging to the mountainside with any limb that could offer purchase.

My state of illness and Jake's nurse-like inclination resulted in a day of rest at Les Houches. I became wonderfully well acquainted with the wall opposite the toilet, whose artex, painted white, spun and swirled like a snowstorm. I stretched my legs once, a pointless exercise in which I chased two flies around the room with my hat. They outwitted and outnimbled my efforts, leaving me, eventually, with nothing more than a stubbed toe. Meanwhile, on a trip to the pharmacy, Jake had been forced to 'charade' my symptoms to the lady behind the counter. Now if that's not love...

Once again, a day of rest had proven to be iconised by boredom and feet that tingled to walk. It was thus a relief to be back on the path, where we climbed to De Voza, perhaps the most infrastructured Col in the Alps, where climbers, hikers and day trippers congregated and the Mont Blanc train chugged. A man in a tight t-shirt approached us as we sat under the shade of a tree, asking us for directions for the Mont Blanc summit. 'Not sure, we aren't going that way.' He responded 'Why not? It's much more fun'. As he walked away, none the wiser, Jake mumbled under his breath, 'Probably would if I wasn't shit scared of heights'. At that, we ambled off down a gentle gradient, passing Le Hoches, the birth place of Alexis Bouvend, the chap who discovered Neptune, before arriving at a campsite in Le Pontet where we paid 14 euros to have footballs kicked at our tent by a gaggle of excitable children who would not, I predicted in my rage, make the French national team.

For the past two days our route had coincided with the world renowned Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB), a six to ten day hike that circumnavigated the mountain. Its extreme popularity saw us join a stream of hikers who pushed and pulled up the track, like a sweaty Slinky. At the Col De Bonhomme we sat on the rocks and ate soggy Ryvita that we had found in the campsite in Le Pontet. We gladly peeled away from the TMB route just after lunch and were slung onto the distinctive ridgeline of Tete De Gitte, whose magnificent, steep slopes were subtly contrasted by the pretty flowers that rooted the soil and rocks. Jake stepped slowly and cautiously along the precipice, as vertigo pulled his mind over the edge. Far ahead, on the ridge, I caught sight of a tiny Irish flag, billowing on the pack of a blue t-shirted body. We caught up with Kevin in the Gitte at Plan de la Lai, who informed us that the high temperatures would continue, before pressing on through slabs of limestone that jutted from the earth like slanted gravestones, one hundred metres high. We pitched at the bottom of a boggy slate fall, amongst alder scrub, with a westerly view over Lac de Roselend.

'Thirty six minutes, that's how long it takes to pack our lives away', Jake said, as we pulled our bags over our shoulders, on a morning that left my nose cold to the touch. Scarves of water drapped the mountain sides, their turbidity rendering them pure white. At the Col de Bossens, 2,469 metres, a family threw snowballs and slabs of ice lay with crumpled edges, like the curve of a child's paper fan. The L'Ornente river led us south, streaming with oxygen that plagued my bones with contentment. At one point we stood beneath an ice cave carved out by the river, whose dimpled ceiling and walls dripped with meltwater, collapse seemingly imminent.

Mont Chavin sat high on the valley side. A beautiful campsite gave us a view over the Italian Alps and Landry, a town in which we would meet Phil, a friend from England who attracted adventure. For the first time in a week I was able to eat again. We prepared a refreshing salad which we ate whilst looking south. The thermostat read 38 degrees Celsius.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Nyon to Le Brevent - Day Ninety-three to One Hundred

Our time in Nyon was thoroughly indulgent. We wined, dined and slept like kings, courtesy of our grandparents, Ted and Joan, who gifted us with travel tales from their past, as the Lac Leman waters lapped and violin strings were caressed. Whilst visiting an exhibition in the Chateau de Place, named Sicilian Summer, I lost Jake, Ted and Joan briefly, only to find them circling a map of Sicily; perhaps it was genetics that had led Jake and I through Western Europe.

We crossed the lake waters and landed at Yvoire, a medieval town bustling with lethargic tourists. Jake and I were delighted to see that postcard prices had dropped to a more wallet-comfortable 40 cents per piece, as opposed to the Swiss cards which cost the equivalent of two bowls of walkers' risotto.

We left our grandparents and the life of static living (albeit only two days) with increased waist sizes and a hard-to-rid anxiety that had been brewing for weeks. From Thonon-Les-Bains we ducked into an area of forest just south of the town. The thunder rumbled and then the rain came. Ted (the tent, not our grandfather) shows his age as drips dotted our sleeping bags.

The extra two centimetres of sole that lined our new boots seemed to be taking its toll on Jake, who was recording an uncharacteristically a large number of trips. By the time we reached the Dranse valley, it was clear that the Alps were upon us, or us upon them rather.

The peaks were high, the valleys low and the clouds ominous.  At 1,600 metres we recorded our highest camp of the trip, sleeping under a fir tree on the slopes of Mt Baron.

The morning brought blue skies, revealing the jagged ridgeline of the Dent d’Oche that had deluded us one-day prior. Its gnarly peaks clawed at the low sun. But, it was a stiff climb to Tete de Faux that took my breath away; we brushed passed purple bells and globe flowers to a budging crest that dropped steeply away, only to rise with a vengeance one kilometre on in the form of pine and high pasture.  The white of vertical limestone cliffs rose beyond. The scene evolved onward, with serrated ridgelines leading on to the horizon, where hundreds of snow-capped peaks met the sky. Mt Blanc, iconic as ever, felt the comfort of a single cloud that hugged its summit.

On our route to La Chapelle d’Abondance, we encountered a host of alpine animals that posed in positions too good to be true; a chamois silhouetted in the Col de la Case de Oche, a herd of bouquetin high on the ridgeline above the Col de Pavis, and the soaring, outstretched wings of  an eagle. Following a brisk lunch stop, we began to ascend a mystery valley. The day had been busy with weekenders, but the close weather induced a feeling of solitude, which proved to be the creation of an embarrassing faux pas. A particularly strenuous step led to the release of a walker's trump from within my underpants.  I looked ahead to a family lunching just metres in front of me. We all knew, but nothing was said.

A night indoors saw us leave Chapelle d’Abondance in high spirits. Jake sang Matt Costa songs, whilst the impeccable smell of the outdoors swamped my olfactory senses. Not long into the day, we met Kevin, who wore blue. He was hiking the Alps section of the GR5. We joined steps with the Irishman, hearing magnificent relays of his adventurous life. Kevin’s love of the outdoors also allowed us to finally understand the rules of the Tour de France, which had, until said conversation, been highly speculated on by Jake and I.  The remainder of the day, according to the map, was high open pastures and rock, thus we were forced to stop early and pitch on a grassy hillside amongst scattered conifers. After watching a shield bug patter about the tent ceiling, I began to feel sick. I woke in the depths of the night and bolted out of the tent to release an impressive projectile from both mouth and bottom.  The pleasure was all mine, however, as the night sky twinkled with excellence.

I was sick again as we re-joined the path at sunrise. On an exhausting day of 37 kms through the Alps, on which I ate next to nothing, we passed through a wealth of spectacular geological features, which blurred by like a monotonous cityscape through the window of a speeding car. Jake's stomach too began to cramp, but he relented in hydrating me and found a splendid camping spot just beyond Samoens.

We woke, on day 100, and celebrated with a breakfast much the same as always, save for the addition of six, in-season apricots.  A deep gorge, cut out by the flow of various milky torrents, guided us up an energy-sapping 1,800-metre ascent, until we reached the Collet d’Anterne. The path ran steadily through an abundance of wild flowers that carpeted the boulder-strewn Collet. To the east, the monstrous Tete a l’Ane swept into the distance, its profundity recognised by Jake, who labelled it as, 'the best cliff face I have ever seen.'  A dainty tornado of butterflies corkscrewed about a warm stone and a marmot nibbled the sweet shoots close to its burrow.  The rain came as we chipped through blankets of icy snow to reach the Col d'Anterne, with water dripping from our jacket hoods. The mountains sounded their presence with deep groans of thunder. Ahead we could see the relatively flat crest of  Le Brevent - which we would be climbing the following day - and towering at twice the height beyond, the peak of Mt Blanc. We slept in a flat of grass, seasoned with purple orchards and margarets. At 1.00 a.m. the tent door was unzipped. The precarious clouds had given way to clear skies. The full moon sat just above Mt Blanc du Tacul, the Aiguille du Midi and Mt Blanc itself. A butterfly landed on the open door, silhouetted in the moonbeams, proboscis curled and antenna flickering.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Grande Ballon to Nyon - Day Eighty to Ninety-Three

With the aid of our thirty-fifth map, we descended the Grande Ballon through grass and meadows. A shepherd led his goats with a whistle down the tourist road as we munched on a pain au chocolat, bought several days prior. On arriving into Thann, where we passed the magnificent church of Sainte Thiebaut, I pushed its weighty door open and stepped inside. The deep, flat tone of the organ resonated through my bones as the tea lights flickered.

Jake and I had decided that a rest day was required. We thus booked ourselves into the cryptically named Hotel de France, bought a truck load of food, whose calories would kill a large badger, and kicked back into a thrilling game of televised football.

The following morning I stirred with a headache, quite likely to have been the repercussions of the two beers I had sunk the night before. My boots sat by the door looking up at me, 'When are we going?' - the feeling was reciprocated.

On the last day of June we left Thann, feeling decidedly out of sorts. We had lost our rhythm and Jake's feet had softened to the consistency of prediluted jelly, not good for a long distance hiker. However, despite the atrocities induced by our day of rest, the day was rescued by, arguably, the best sandwiches ever created, which we ate on Vogelstein Rocks, a spectacular viewpoint which looked south at the dwindling mountains of the Vosges. Passed clumps of wild mint and strawberries, our route took us through a landscape shaped by glaciers. A few paces shy of the Ballon D'Alsace, we pitched our tent in amongst hungry mosquitoes then cowered inside to finish a box of chocolate biscuits.

We left the Vosges mountains on our eightieth day, pursing our long broken shadows through open beech. The day was warm and the skies strewn with bumbling clouds. On one overhead inspection, we noted a wisp of cloud streaked with the sun's spectrum. Totally absorbed in the wondrous nature that surrounded us, I found myself crashing back to reality as we rounded a corner to an expansive lake, an artificial beach boomeranged the southern shore, its sand brimming with near nude bodies of all shapes and sizes. Feeling horribly out of place, we marched through the scene at pace, inadvertently glimpsing body parts that I had long forgotten existed.

For several days the heat of the day had been building, until it reached the point where we were leaving wet footprints in the scalding black tarmac. So when the nimbus came rolling in, we knew a storm was imminent. The thunder rumbled and the rain poured for two days. Insult was surely added to injury as I somewhat ironically missed the waymarker whilst checking the map, thus sending us hopelessly in the wrong direction. On the second night of rain we treated ourselves to a room at Hotel Bienvenue in St Hippolyte. Whilst Jake literally poured water from his boots, I nursed the chafing that had flared up on my 'you know whats', with a heavy dose of soothing Vaseline.

The gargantuan breakfast hindered rather than helped our progress out of St Hippolyte, through out-skirting fields dripping with morning dew. On inspecting a rather splendid calcium waterfall, we bumped in to Janique and Gabrielle, a pair of boisterous Frenchmen, recently retired, on an eighteen day hike through the Jura mountains. We slipped our way up and down the stream riddled path, through gorges lush with ferns and vines; a weathered marker stone signalled our arrival into Switzerland. Following the border stones south, I actively walked on the left hand side of the path in order to absorb as much of Switzerland as possible. Insightful observations revealed that it was much the same as France.

Stone kicking frequented our days; long curling shots that stayed on the track sparked praise, whilst stones in the gutter would be jeered. Late on Thursday afternoon I was so immersed in a reverie that I walked head on into a fallen pine that bridged the path. I stumbled backwards and spent the remainder of the day feeling half drunk.

After a night in our first gite d'etape (dormitory style walkers' accommodation), we left the village of Fesser Viller in thick mist. Fence posts traversed the pastures through the breath-taking translucence. Soon we were swallowed by the forest where the light show continued as streaks of sun cut through the pines and droplet-decorated spider webs clung to every surface. On reaching Goumois, the sun had burnt through the mist and the days of rain were forgotten. The river Doubs led us south, undulating through a gorge thick in beech, hazel and pine. Every surface held a sponge of moss, like emerald snow. The gorge made me think of Wind of the Willows on steroids, with a twist of Lord of the Rings, and a handful of the limestone islands of South East Asia. Whilst making our way through house-sized boulders, Jake anxiously revealed a concern, 'My bottom is definitely getting saggier, I think the weight of my pack is pushing it downwards.'

We climbed the Escelles De La Mort, stairs of death, which needless to say were less morbid than insinuated, before arriving at a wooden shelter, or abri, in which we lit a fire whose smoke was used to mask the smell of our hanging clothes.

We saw a kingfisher in the morning, then shed our clothes for a swim in the icy waters of the Doubs, an act which encouraged the retraction of certain body parts. Incidentally it was one of these retracted body parts on which Jake recorded his one hundredth and his largest tick since leaving Bristol.

We brushed past pincushion thistles and swathes of buttercups, then pitched the tent in a pretty forest at Sur La Roche. That night I was reminded of the perils of fizzy cola bottles as a tiny crystal of citric sugar unlodged itself from the main body of the bottle, falling neatly into my left eye. The pain was outstanding.

The bark of a deer woke us so we rose early and ate a breakfast of tinned ravioli, overlooking valleys whose troughs were filled with mist. Later in the day an old tractor distracted us as we once again missed our turnoff. Two hours later we found the path and were quickly rewarded with our first Chamois sighting, a sort of mountain goat iconic of the Jura.

The blue skies continued as we walked the forty kilometres to Malbuissons. Along the way we admired Joux Castle, which stood proudly upon its hill overlooking La Cluse. It was here that we met Mark, a Dutch chap, hiking the GR5. We walked the rest of the day with Mark, sharing stories and comparing gear. Malbuissons was our chosen meeting point with Brenda, a dear friend from Australia who was eager to meet us on the trail. We sat in a terraced bar for a short while until a white Peugot swung into the car park across the way, bridging two spaces with tires that seemed keen to rebel against the notion of parallel parking. As conversation turned magnificently uncensored, Lea, who worked in the hotel opposite, and who had recognised our lack of accommodation at such a late hour, offered to house us for the night. In fact, it was for the next four days that we shared company with Lea and her family, who radiated kindness, love and laughter. The family, comprising Mauricette, Christine, Iris, Sylvio, Madeleine (or Mamie) and of course Lea, pampered us with splendid food, including a fondue made from Comte cheese, a product of the cows' milk produced on their farm. We visited Orlans, a quaint Juran town, swam in a Swiss lake, and watched the sun sink down over the forest-crested mountains that swept our peripherals. Brenda's departure was, as always, both dramatic and saddening, and included a small child dropping a ceramic ashtray from a window which narrowly missed Brenda's head.

After a sizable lunch, and the opening twenty minutes of The Lion King, in French, we bid farewell to the family and left Malbuissons in the company of Lea and her dog, Charlie (Lea's intrigue had led her to accept our invitation to walk the thirty kilometres to La Source de la Doubs.)

Charlie led us through hamlets and pastures until we reached a forest at the base of La Morond, where we set up camp. With a bottle of rose and a hip flask of cognac, the sun was put to bed over fields of cut grass, ready to be baled.

The next day we climbed the out of season ski fields, plastered with gentians and giant daisies, or margarets as we learnt. From Mont d'Or we could see the snow peaked summit of Mont Blanc above a string of cloud. The tough day of hiking was rounded off with a visit to the local pizzeria in Mouthe, a nearby town. Jake and I ate snails before raising our glasses to Lea and her family, the most wonderful of hosts. Within the next three days the Juran mountains petered out, giving way to flatter terrain. In St Cergue we played boules with the locals, in which the France beat England 11-3.

On a hot, humid day Jake and I stepped onto the shores of Lac Leman, greeted by our grandparents. With two mountain ranges conquered, we looked south towards our third and final traverse. Over seven hundred kilometres of the largest mountains in Europe stood between us and the Mediterranean Sea.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Abresviller to Le Grand Ballon - Day Sixty-seven to Eighty

We left Abreschviller having met two wonderfully benevolent couples, Don and Hazel, and Dick and Anneka, whom we talked fondly of as we climbed for seven hundred metres in 30 degrees centigrade heat, with water rations of just four litres between us for two days on the path. Through eyes stinging with sweat, I noticed the welcome injection of purple foxgloves and small white butterflies. The viewpoint at Belle Roche revealed the vastness of the Vosges mountains, as the tree-blanketed peaks staggered on to the horizon. That night we camped at the foot of La Donan, a distinctive summit that had been in our sights for over a week. The following day we woke at 4.00 a.m. to catch the sunrise, but on reaching the temples at the top of La Donan we received views of just a few metres as we were swamped with thick mist. Walking east for three days, Jake found himself at the wrong end of several unfortunate events, including the resurfacing of a back problem, a head first tumble into a ditch, and a punch in the face from his own fist as he tried to pull his pack on at speed. The trail mix, or sproggin, had gradually transitioned away from a healthy nut, raisin and banana chip mix to a high energy bag of jellies and boiled sweets. The sugar had clearly gone to Jake’s head; as I crunched into a sherbet grenadine (like sherbet lemon but grenadine flavoured) he shook his head, stating, “You know something is wrong with the world when people are biting sherbet grenadines and not sucking them”. Our woes are all relative, as they say.

We emerged from the Vosges forest to the east looking out over the staggering expanse of the Alsace plains, scarred by the Rhine which meandered through a dappling of towns and villages. We dropped rapidly into the pleasant town of Barr whose surroundings were combed with vineyards. Hiking south once more, we were gifted with two more trail angel generosities. The first, a bowl of salade vert, offered to us by Piret, a French lady who seemed keen to keep our vitamin levels up. The second, a bout of delightful conversation, coffee and cake, courtesy of Peter and Barb, a Canadian couple that we met as we were leaving Andlau.
Ascending back into the heart of the mountains, we spent the day bypassing castles and cyclists whose attire left little to the imagination. Appropriately, we spent the night next to Chateau de L’Ordenbourg, whose crumbled walls overlooked a mesmerising nightscape of village lights.

As Mid Summer’s Day faded into the past, we followed a rising and dipping path, studded with wartime relics - rusted wire and metal prongs jutted from the tussocks that bounced with orchids, purple and yellow.
From Le Hanneck, we saw snow on the nearby mountains, the same moment as a conversation with a pair of French ladies spurred the one with the twig in her hair to describe our French as ‘tres bien’. This most certainly, a gross overstatement. A steep descent saw us step out at Lac Fischboedle. From its mysterious waters, one hundred-metre valley walls shot skywards. On one flank a waterfall spilt from the crest in slow motion, its waters absorbed by the conifers below. On the opposite wall a boulder slide toppled into the lake. I clambered upon it whilst watching fish leap and swifts swoop. Ted the tent was propped up at the base of the falls. Waking early, our legs took us down nature’s own cobbled street and into Mitlach. With next to no food in our packs, our hopes of finding a small shop had added emphasis. Alas, a shop there wasn’t and so began the boulangerie ambush. We bought five baguettes, eight pain au chocolat, a loaf of bread and six pastries to last us the two days that would see us into Thann. We lugged the carbohydrates out of town, stopping at a viewpoint to catch our breath. As I photographed Jake looking down at Mitlach de Haut, my bag slowly rolled from the bench I had placed it on and continued on down the hill. Panic went to my head. I flung the camera to the floor and darted down the slope after the bag, finally leaping on the orange ball before it disappeared over the edge. Despite my sodden clothes, I was relieved to escape without becoming an entrant of the Darwin Awards.

The weather was dynamic, to say the least. One minute a lashing of cold wind and rain swung in from the west, next, the sun would poke its guilty face out from behind monstrous looking cumulus nimbus, causing the grass to steam. As mid afternoon came, the mist cleared once more to unveil Le Grand Ballon, the tallest mountain in the Vosges. After winding up the northern flank, we summited at 1,424 metres as another tranche of weather came in. Having camped just down from the peak, we rose the following morning to the most anticipated view of the walk so far. On the horizon stood the Alps and Mont Blanc. A sea of cloud, tinted orange by the low sun, immersed the Alsace Plains. In three weeks time we would be at the foothills of the Alps. Suddenly our venture had a purpose that could be seen, and with each day that passed, our purpose would become increasingly vivid.

The Alsace


Seed fall.

 Yanik and Gabrielle, our pace makers

In the Abri

Lea, mauricette and the family at La Grande Oye

La Dent de Volion

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Luxembourg City to Abreschviller - Day fifty one - sixty six

After a hashed-up map resupply, solely the blame of the Luxembourg City postal service, of course, Jake and I were back on the path. With a refreshed supply of cartographical literature and bags filled with condiments, abducted from the hotel breakfast buffet.  On our way out of the city we stopped at AS Adventure, a huge outdoor shop, where I bought walking poles for the hills that were soon to bend our knees. Raffaele, a hairy gent who ran though the specs of the walking aids, was so delighted that their were young people outdoors that he slipped two boxes of Compeed (blister protection) into Jake's bag, telling him to “just smile” as he walked out.  He did, and we were not arrested.

We traipsed up a dirt track brimming with heavy-duty machinery, making the most of the fast growing pines. On one occasion a truck hammered past. As the dust settled, the familiar red and white of the GR way markers came into focus; this symbolised our return to the French countryside.

Whilst in Fonty we bought arguably the most refreshing drink ever consumed; peach Fanta. We drank the chemicals on a crumbling wall, spilling with small purple flowers and backed with tall grass.

Our first few days in France were studded with small villages and towns, whose stunted streets were clad with houses coated with jasmine, wisteria and ivy. In one small village, to my delight, a leathery skinned man with stubble and a more managed mustache, stepped out from a Boulangerie with a baguette under his arm. I desired a beret to be flung headwords, but alas.

On Saturday 08 June we walked 42 Kilometres with packs budging, near splitting at their seams.  After getting lost, we finally found ourselves back on the map. I celebrated by buying, and eating, a whole round of Camembert, which saturated my body with fat. That night we welcomed a sleep away from the trees, after several consecutive pitches in conifer forest. Dominique, the drummer of Fisc, a French 80’s rock and roll band, allowed us a spot in his field overlooking vineyards and forests. The following day I woke to a crippling back pain and an outrageous thunderstorm. Jake dragged me, and all of our gear, up the street, into the 1500’s village of Jussy. Eliane, Dominique’s sister, and her son, Pitou, homed us for close to two days. We ate freshly made food almost continually, whilst learning much about the history and culture of the Lorraine region. Eliane and Pitou stood at their doorway as we bid them goodbye, reacquainting ourselves, somewhat gingerly, with the south leading path.

The mosquitoes were prolific, feasting on any skin that was left uncovered, making wee stops a particularly unsatisfying event.  Further down the track, Jake gifted me with another fantastic fall, seeing both feet flung skywards and finishing with a hearty splat onto the mud below.

On our 60th day of walking, I pulled up once more with a bolting pain in the small of my back. I walked like a chameleon, as Jake took my bag. He reminded me of a pack horse (save for the stark difference of him tucking his shirt into his underwear).

The following day saw my back strengthen, as the hills grew stronger. We passed alongside potato fields ordered with blackthorn, who’s fallen blossom painted the path white and pink. Red deer, dragonflies of emerald and azure, stoats and kites frequented our view.  We picked cherries and wild strawberries, which we ate at lunch, with the never tiring baguette and sausage, on a grassy verge beside the track.

Using a 1:2500 IGN map, printed before we were born, we skirted the northern fringes of Nancy, arriving in Liverdum just before the rain came.  We spent the evening speaking to two German brothers, who were on a two-year walking adventure of Europe and Northern Africa. At dusk the clouds transformed- pink, purple and rainbowed – the old town of Liverdum lit romantically on the hills below.

Nights in the forest had taught Jake and I several things: there is little better to fall asleep to than the sound of birdsong; roe dear wake up early and noisily, and finally, a bag check before departure is wise, as fermenting slugs, left to pool at the base of a bag, certainly tantalize the gag reflex. 

We stopped by four metal silos, just after the hamlet of Fleur Fontaine. An old lady tended to her vegetable patch and a small girl rode her bike.  We had walked 1,392 kilometres and had 1,392 kilometres to go. The insignificance of the location added to the poignancy, as too did the jam sandwiches. 

Looking eastwards we began to see the undulations of the Vosges Mountains. As each day passed, their peaks grew stronger and our excitement heightened. We woke at sunrise and ran to the Etanges  de Lordre, seeing amber waters splashing with hungry catfish and unfortunate pond skaters.  The white stalks, iconic of the area, stood tall and the moorhens busy.  That afternoon we leapt into the waters of la Petit Etanges and absorbed the bliss. We spent the evening surrounded by men, whose wine-filled bellies hung over minuscule Speedos.

On a roasting hot Tuesday, the foothills of the Vosges Mountains finally greeted our worn-out boots.