Tick-ety boo

Friday 10 June
I slept badly again because of foot pain and as I packed away the tent it started to rain. I went to the post office and sent home 2.5 kg of mountain clothing and equipment, then went to the pharmacy. I stood in the middle of the shop whilst a kindly middle aged woman inspected me and removed two more ticks. She reassured me that I didn’t have scabies and sold me a tick remover and tick repellent from the veterinary section at the back of the pharmacy.
I walked to the station with every intention of going to Foix. Unfortunately the industrial action meant I had to catch a bus.
The journey gave me the opportunity to research the GR10 some more and decided to return to the mountains to finish as the weather reports are all favourable and the snow line should be high enough now according to meteo. The prospect of finishing within the next two weeks despite walking shorter distances filled me with hope, but will there be snow?

Hobble

Thursday 9 June
Broke camp in record time and set off along the ridge. It was a bright, crisp morning and the views from the ridge to the mountain were picture book.  I saw a red squirrel in the woods, noticeably smaller than the English (American) ones back home. During the descent I noticed my third tick bite and resolved to take doxycycline just in case.
Today was the last chance for the GR78 and it was redeeming itself noticeably so far. The path soon came to an Edwardian park in Bagnères complete with joggers, elderly ladies promenading and a women’s group learning how to use walking poles. A cleaner lent on her mop watching them bemused.
I grabbed a second breakfast in Bagnères and strode on along through some woods where I surprised a deer in the long grass. The woods opened out at an ideal picnic spot by a restaurant which was the perfect spot for some lunch.
I descended through some woods crossing two small streams on single log bridges. I passed more farms and again saw kites following the tractors bailing hay. It was starting to get late but I pressed on aware that the next town had two campsites. The foot pain was again starting to become extreme.
At this point I timidly stuck my thumb out and started to hitch. I grew in confidence and soon was staring down the drivers with thumb firmly in the air. A mother and her teenage daughter took me to the top of the hill and shortly after that a young french man and his sister took me to Cape Vern. I resolved to pick up hitch hikers from now on. I hobbled into the campsite – not without noticing signs to the train station.
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Holy water

Tuesday 7 June
Janice had forewarned me about the snoring and I was grateful for the earplugs that she supplied, but it wasn’t a bad nights sleep and it was warm and dry. It was another early start and Janice and John headed off in the direction of Santiago. Setting off, I soon came to Bétharram which was the Lourdes of its day. I spent some time looking around the impressive church there and admiring the fountain, which despite its alleged healing properties featured a warning sign stating that the water was not drinkable. I ignored it.
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The path followed the river as it meandered down the valley and the water was in full flow with the snow melt from the mountains on the horizon. They were still snow capped so I had probably made the right decision to move into the foothills. Despite John drawing a map, his sunglasses weren’t where he said. The path continued through some woods and I was grateful for the shade. I came across an impressive male stag beetle by the path. Then about two kilometres outside Lourdes I spotted John’s sunglasses case at the top of the hill on a log, a spot where they must have rested yesterday. Maybe miracles do happen in Lourdes.
Lourdes is a fascinating place where a religion based on love and altruism is commercialised on an industrial scale. The neon signs flash and point out where you can buy every conceivable religious mass produced trinket from the plastic to the wooden and metal. If you are in the market for a glittery, light-up, glow in the dark Virgin Mary, then Lourdes is the destination for you. I wondered what Bernadette the humble shepherdess would make of it today.
I spent some time wondering along the alley of lighted candles and taking the waters before using the free WiFi at the tourist office to find a campsite.
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Notre Dame du Rosaire de Lourdes
Wednesday 8 June
It was a good campsite but I pitched too near the main road so rather than the usual bird song it was the noise of traffic this morning that awoke me. I set off for the post office to send John his glasses. It would appear that post offices are the same the world over. Quiet places of queuing people nervously asking how to send parcels or withdraw pensions. The lady behind the counter could have easily been the same as those in England.
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Looking down over Lourdes from Pic du Je.
I continued through Lourdes which improved as it stretched east past the town hall and gardens to the base of the funicular railway. I could not resist one more mountain and so ascended Pic du Jeur. I shared the front cabin with a brightly leather clad man of about my age and his BMX. At the top is a world class racing track to the bottom.
Although not a huge mountain at 900 meters the 360 degree view was impressive despite a little heat haze. I watched as a paraglider took off from the side to share the thermals with the buzzards soaring above.
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It was a good descent down and a pleasure to have a muddy rocky path with mountain views once more. I descended slowly, meeting up with the GR78 in the woods at the foot of the mountain. True to form it soon became a path of tarmac and this continued over two long hills with a major diversion around some water works. It was a long hot day, hard on the feet. Eventually I pitched the tent on the hill overlooking Bagnères de Bigorre by the hunters cabin. I watched the sunset on the mountain side and the horses eating in the meadow yards from the tent. I was already missing the mountains and the pain in my feet kept me awake that night but the clear sky meant I had an uninterrupted view of the stars, planets and a satellite passing over head.
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A change of tack

Monday 6 June
“I am a fool who with his longing for love and tenderness runs up cold mountains.”
– Reinhold Messner
I met two English bikers at the campsite, to whom I had lent a corkscrew last night. They had no set itinerary but thought they might just bike through the mountains and down to Girona. The serendipity appealed. This lifted me a little from my own thoughts of simply racing to the coast and made me think about my options at this point.
Sophie back at base had thoughtfully put together a new route for me which used an old pilgrims path, the GR78, following it northeast where it would meet the Cathar trail and then onto the coast at Narbonne.
I picked up my now fully charged phone which the campsite owner, a white bearded grandfather, had kindly charged for me overnight and set off for the town square and a bus from Laruns. There was plenty of time to kill until the bus so I grabbed some groceries, a phone adaptor, bread, breakfast, camping gaz from the hardware store, dried sausage from the butcher and some tins of cassoulet. The rucksack, Beast, was now ridiculously heavy .
With time still to spare I explored the Museum of the Pyrenees where I ticked off all the animals that I had managed to see and even get a souvenir T-shirt.
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The bus north cost all of two euros and I got off at Aurudy. Two stops too early it transpired, but the walk up through the village (why is it always up?) was picturesque.
I started to walk following the GR78, the Camino de Santiago but heading east, down through the woods. Shortly after this I came across an enormous cart horse who was blocking the track. We managed to negotiate my safe passage with some friendly pats on the nose.
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The path soon became tarmac and wound through a succession of pretty, medieval but similar villages. St Columba for example dates back to the 1100’s. The Camino seems to be easy walking, usually tarmac straight and flat. The trails are preserved as UNESCO sites of historic importance. This reminded me of the M2 motorway in Kent which runs along the old Pilgrims Way from Rochester to Canterbury – but it doesn’t make it a footpath.
Every village and many strategic points are now marked with crosses and crucifixes and I was grateful for those villages that had not turned their fountains into fire hydrants and the heat today reached 30 degrees. I was very much in rural France with farming much in evidence. Some of the lanes were clearly ancient and laid with cobbles, and I passed several ruins of monasteries and churches.
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As the afternoon wore on the thunder rolled all around, often behind or to the front of me. I stopped to shelter under a tree by the church in Asson when a small portly man in his underpants, who clearly had a dental phobia, thew open a window shutter and asked me if I was looking for the communal gîte. I wasn’t.
Two hundred yards later the skies opened and the surprisingly warm rain water came flooding down in torrents. I retraced my steps and sheepishly asked the small man, Lawrence, about the offer of the gîte . After a bit of grumbling about not telephoning ahead, he dressed himself and in the pouring rain took me round to the lady who had the key. I thanked him profusely and paid the lady ten euros as I didn’t have a pilgrims card to stamp.
That night I shared a small room in the gite with Janice and John,  two Catholic pilgrims from Melbourne, Australia who had just come west from from Lourdes. He was a retired accountant. We chatted about a good many things and exchanged tips on accommodation, blisters and food – all the important things for long distance walkers. John had left his sunglasses at their last lunch stop and I promised to look out for them the next day.

The Fall

Saturday 4th June

I broke camp and it wasn’t long before I was pursued up the path by a herd of cows off to their summer pastures. It was to be a day of hurrying and feeling that I couldn’t stop. There were more stunning views when I eventually got to the top, passing a cabana (mountain hut) on the way by a divergence of the GR10, which in hindsight I should have returned to. I continued along the contour again passing many gorgeous flowers of every colour and shape and another field of marmots.

The snow started to thicken here shortly and I foolishly climbed around it. Not easy with a full 15kg rucksack on. I then had to take my boots off to ford a fast flowing stream but still I pressed on. I headed up through the snow field conscious of the large nimbus clouds coming over the mountain range behind me. I kept going and with sun fully out I started to see pink as didn’t have sun glasses on. Too late I realised that with my shadow in front of me at midday, I was headed up a south face and the north face was likely to be worse. It was. Much, much worse.

As I crested the top at 2700 m I realised my mistake as thick snow lay everywhere. Then the clouds and fog descended and for the second time I was in a white out. This was to prove far worse than the last time. I followed the GPS and headed from dark shape in the mist to the next dark shape that would loom out as I slowly and painfully descended. I was zig-zagging and changing my single walking pole from hand to hand trying to remember to keep it on the upper most side of the slope.

Suddenly my feet gave way and down I went tobogganing on my backside and rucksack. thundering downwards, I managed to roll onto my front and dig my hands into the snow but that did nothing to reduce my speed. I didn’t have an ice axe. I rolled over onto to my back and lay there, plummeting down, thinking my last words in this world are going to be SHIIIIIT. Finally I did manage to dig my feet in and came to stop shortly before the Lac d’Angles – otherwise they may have changed the name to Lac d’Anglais.

Luckily nothing was broken or lost and by some amazing coincidence I was still on the right path albeit I had descended 700 metres in a matter of minutes.  In my shorts I was freezing, wet through and my hands were burning with the cold. My mouth was cracked and sore.

I decided to press on and look for somewhere warm to get changed. Bizarrely out of the fog I heard dogs barking and met three young French army cadets and their young Alsatian puppies camped on an island of grass in the snow. We exchanged snow news (which wasn’t good news in this case) and I pressed on down, anxious to get out of the cloud and my cold, damp clothes. Following a welcome, brief sunny period, to add insult to injury it began to rain. I passed a shepherd’s hut but decided to not go in as it looked damp.  An hour later I arrived at dreary, deserted Gabas. I pressed on for Eaux-Bonnes but camped half way at the base of the funicular.

Tomorrow I will have to make some tough decisions about the next steps to the coast.

The next chapter

Wednesday 1 June

There wasn’t much open in Lescun except for a hotel, a bar and the épicerie  which Maud and David were proud to announce was opening tomorrow. The Herbergements du Pic d’Anie was hunting lodge themed and oddly quaint. I enjoyed the comfy bed and homely food; vegetable soup, a sort of duck shepherd’s pie, crème brûlée and wine. I spent the afternoon chatting to a retired English couple in the bar in town. We talked about our children and our divorces and essentially put the world to rights over a beer. They hadn’t had the best holiday with the fuel strikes.

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My own holiday plans also seem to be somewhat thwarted by snow. I thought perhaps heading to the warmer side of the Pyrenees and the GR11 might have a higher snow line. I was later proved to be disastrously wrong.

Lescun is the site of a famous battle on 7th September 1794. The 5th battalion of Bearnais and Luscon volunteers of 950 men women and children held out against 9000 Spanish, including the famous Gardes Wallonnes. Despite surprise attacks, killed 900 soldiers, captured 450 and lost only 100 soldiers themselves.

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After breakfast on the terrace and gathering supplies from the épiscerie, I headed south for the GR11 across a mountain pass. Again it was incredibly beautiful and as usual I ate lunch at the top where not only had a refugio been constructed out of stone but so had a table and chairs. I met a French couple at the ridge and then descended to the other side where I saw some huge marmots.

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Descended slowly and stayed at the refuge at the start of the GR11.

Thursday 2nd June

Having managed to fill the refuge with smoke from the fire and cut my scalp on the bunk bed I set off again. It’s surprising how much a scalp laceration will bleed.

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The Gr11 climbed slowly into the mountains along a long straight track from the valley floor to another refuge at the head of a hidden valley marked by Neolithic burial mounds, wild flowers and marmots. One less timid marmot just sat on the path and we watched each other for a while before he ducked back into his burrow.

After crossing the lost valley I had lunch above a beautiful lake  with eagles soaring overhead and lizards playing around my rucksack. However a wrong turn down brought me into Candanchu late. Candanchu was an eerily deserted ski resort but the auberge on the Spanish border was open, comfortable and did hearty and wholesome meals. I shared a dormitory with an American couple who were doing a circle of the lakes and met a South African couple also on the GR11. They had decided to bypass the next few days by taking the train.

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I however decided to head back to GR10 “Chris” crossing the Pyrenees to try and avoid the highest peaks and snow. It was disappointing to not cover much ground eastward but things seen in the crisscrossing have more than made up for it.

I saw a few dead dung beetles on the path today. I guess they don’t live long because their diet is shit.

Friday 3rd June

Another long but excellent day. A plentiful auberge breakfast of bread, cheese, muffin, hot chocolate, coffee, yoghurt, bread and jam meant heading off at pace past the ski lifts and deserted ski hotel complex. I ascended along a river and up to lake which mirrored the mountains perfectly.

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I crossed the snowfield confidently as the sun was shining and felt exhilarated when I reached the top. I was rewarded with spectacular panoramic views and with my crampons on made good time down the snow to another lake with good views all around. Descended to another beautiful valley which had noticeably more people than I was used to seeing. After a good solid lunch by the river of sausage and cake, I experimented with bathing my feet in the river and changing my socks. I think it helped as my feet were less sore and blister free that night.

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It clearly was a popular valley as shortly after rejoining GR10 I came across a car park being built…Big Yellow Taxi!

Along the next Tarmac section an adder was sleeping by the side of the road. I met a fisherman briefly in the valley who asked what the speed of the rivers were like for trout. He passed me later on having changed and despite carrying all his gear, he had decided to head up into the next valley. The path builders had thoughtfully put a hand rail up for the next precipitous section. This seemed to heighten my own acrophobia and I trod very gingerly until I crossed the gorge which was in full flood down the canyon. I decided to camp in the woods.

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Three, four

Day three

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Well, I am not surprised, especially if like my new found foes they wear bells and try to trample your tent in the middle of the night. I wasn’t sure what was causing the racket at first; the distant clanging like wind chimes soon became louder and louder accompanied by sounds of munching grass. Loud shouts, banging, wolf noises (yes I know) did nothing. Luckily, a half naked Englishman waving a torch around like a demented lighthouse did scare them away.

Water was in short supply on this leg, to the extent that I mopped the moisture from the tent with a neck scarf and squeezed it into my mouth. I wished I remembered to tie a bag around a tree branch. Luckily there was water at next village  so I filled up here and also bought a spare plastic bottle. I was grateful for bringing the walking pole when I was chased by three angry dogs in the village.

Most people in this area seem to be speaking Basque and prefer Spanish or English to French (which I speak competently). It’s not only the panoramas that make the view beautiful. I am passing more and more wild flowers growing in abundance including purple orchids. I imagined the Victorian botanists collecting these specimens of alpine plants that we all take for granted now in garden centres. Here they grow in abundance – it’s magnificent.

Sadly there was no accommodation in Larun as one hotel was shut for repairs and the owner of the other was in hospital, so I spent another night in the wild on the ridge above town.

Day four
My route today was a long section of walking on Tarmac but also through some beautiful misty woods. The days often start with mist in the morning and then blazing sun by elevenses, and the clouds come back in the afternoon.

I had to remove a tick from my leg after pushing through bracken but I was relieved there were no signs it had started to bite or of infection.Neolithic stone circles and burial mounds added interest to yet more hills.

I have happened across Neolithic stone circles and burial mounds which added interest to yet more hills today.

The HRP in places uses roads, tracks and small footpaths but is often just a vague concept route which is impossible to follow without a map or GPS. Today it crossed the very well marked French section of the pilgrim’s Camino, although I was heading in the opposite direction. As a result I passed many clean and fresh smelling pilgrims (well, much fresher than me). It was a little like the Canterbury Tales with pilgrims of all ages, sizes and groupings all heading in the same direction. I tried to imagine each of their stories and reasons for Camino as I passed them all. There is even a plaque to one Francis Barthe who sadly died on the Camino.

At the top of the hill was a solar and wind-powered SOS phone, although in my current state water would have been more useful. I pressed on.

After passing a Spanish family who stopped their car to chat and advise me to visit the nearby caves, I soon came to a shepherd’s hut which made a pleasant lavender scented spot to spend the night.

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