Sunday, July 29, 2012

GR 11 part 1

L'illa refuge
Connecting to the GR 11 had brought me into Spain but the trail would soon pass through Andorra. The weather was threatening to turn bad and I hurried to the first refuge. L'illa was a huge unmanned hut and a big group of hikers were sitting outside. Immediately I disliked them and was right. They were all cracking stupid jokes, smoking and mainly guarding their huge supply of beer cans that they were cooling in the water fountain. Inside the hut it didn't get better. A big group of Spanish hikers had arrived who now very noisily had lunch that mainly consisted of a bottle of wine each. No wonder the officials had placed a big trash can outside the hut that could be helicoptered out. It was full to the brim with beer cans and bottles. There was no tranquillity at this hut and the main target for local hikers seemed to get drunk.

When the weather cleared a bit I left wondering how far I would get. The weather forecast had been really bad predicting thunderstorms in the evening. All the ensuing huts were also full of merry hikers and so I hiked on and on despite black clouds in the sky. And then it started thundering and I realised I was in trouble. No campsites in this steep terrain. Luckily I had a guidebook for the GR 11 and that promised a shelter soon. I more or less ran down the trail hoping for the shelter to appear. Just minutes before the deluge started I saw it. Just in time!

The shelter was huge and nice but it had one big problem. It was meant to be a barbecue shelter and had a rough and uneven stone floor. Outside it was just pouring down flooding everything. It was one of those thunderstorms you don't survive dry in no matter what tent. When the rain let up a bit I checked the ground outside. Everything was still flooded and I had to face sleeping on the rough stone floor. To say it was uncomfortable is an understatement. At midnight I gave up and moved my tent outside. But as soon as I had settled in it started raining again. My tent was only sloppily set up in freestanding mode and would not withstand serious rain in this setup. Grudgingly I moved back into the shelter.. After about 1 hour of sleep I was woken up by loud techno music. Apparently some kids in the valley had decided to have some impromptu after hour techno party in an empty parking lot and noise travelled very far in the valley. At 7 am I gave up and packed. Not a minute to early as soon the first hikers appeared.

View over Encamp
Grumpily and tired I walked into Encamp in the valley. I was completely out of food and hungry on top of being tired. Things improved after a huge breakfast out of the local big supermarket. My French phonecard would not work here any more but then I discovered free wifi. At that point I decided to once be reasonable and stay. I walked into the first hotel and was surprised how cheap it was. I paid 43 Eur for a fantastic room, great AYCE dinner and breakfast buffet and free wifi. Having a rest day here had been a very wise decision. I had slept well, could repair my gear and update my blog. Life is good again!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Carcassonne to GR 11

Sunflower fields along the GR 7
My main problem now is that I am running out of time. There is so much to see and I have probably miscalculated the mileage but more on that in a separate post. Bottom line is that I have to take shorter routes than planned in order to be finished in time for my next adventure. Being an organised ex business woman I had already foreseen that possibility in the planning stage and prepared several alternative routes and I now took one of them. Instead of changing onto the GR 36 and meeting the GR 11 at Puigcerda I continued on the GR 7.

Along the Canal Midi
This first treated me with a nice albeit short walk along the Canal du Midi. I love canal walks. They are easy, flat and fast and remind me of my happy narrow boating times in the UK. Equally nice and fast was an ensuing walk on an old railway line. A couple of days out of Carcassonne I could already see the Pyrenees looming out of the horizon promising lower temperatures and a relief from the heat. Every day I camped at higher altitude and soon I would cross my first pass over 2,300 m, the highest point so far on this hike. The GR 7 had been quite easy so far and I expected a smooth run to the GR 11 on the Spanish side. Again I was awfully wrong.

I was approaching my first high Pyrenean pass in the evening expecting a quick hop over and a camp on the other side. But I could not see any feasible way to cross the mountains... The GR was routed over a huge steep boulder field and then an incredibly steep trail up to the pass. Not being the most sure footed hiker I hate boulder fields, especially when being alone and late in the evening. But somehow I made it to the top only to find the next surprise. The GR 7 had been re routed and the marked trail did not coincide with neither my GPS track nor my map. Should I bushwhack or follow the trail and hope for the best? Bushwhacking in this steep terrain seemed like suicide and so I decided to follow the markings that luckily brought me down the right valley and to decent camp sites.

The same thing happened the next day. What looked like a nice and easy walk along a stream turned out to be a boulder hopping disaster. 4 km took me 2,5 hours and I felt like Mahoosuk Notch revisited. Again I was way behind schedule. I went through dramatic mood swings: one moment I was overwhelmed with joy and happiness because the mountain scenery was so incredibly beautiful... and then I stumbled across the next boulder field thinking that I should just quit this route instead of risking injury and death by boulder hopping. Part of my misery stemmed from the fact that I just had a sketchy map instead of a decent guidebook with descriptions and times. Things would be better on the GR 11 for which I had detailed maps and a good guidebook. But I still had to get there and this would be tricky.

My French map only showed French trails and there was a gap of about 5 km between the GR 7 and the GR 11. Normally not a problem, in the worst case you just bushwhack. But after nearly killing myself on several boulder fields bushwhacking was out of question for me. Either there was a trail or I would have to walk a long detour. But none of my maps or people I asked could confirm if there was a trail or not. I decided to walk into Porte Puymorens, buy food and try to find a good map. Good plan, but it didn't work as Porte Puymorens had a train station but no shop whatsoever... In my frustration I hopped on the next train to la Tour, the train terminus and border town to Spain. A newspaper booth in the over dimensioned train station brought the answer to my trail question. According to a recent map there was a connecting trail between the GR 7 and 11, called GR 107. Good news since all the GRs are waymarked. I even found a small supermarket and thus fortified I took the bus back. The bus dropped me in a thunder storm that quickly passed.

To my big surprise there weren't any boulder fields on my next ascent, only cows. I am a bit cow phobic and these beasts did have horns! We eyed each other suspiciously and then danced around each other. But where would I camp in cow country? I am horribly afraid of being trampled on in my sleep by cows. Luckily there was a shepherd's hut in the middle of all those cow pastures where I spent my last night in France. And the next morning everything went according to plan. Up a pass and yes, there was the GR 107 that eventually brought me into Spain and onto the GR 11. One last surprise worth mentioning: during all my 1 1/2 month in France I had not met any French person who volunteered to speak English with me, bit on my last two days I met two French hikers who chatted with me in fluent English. And on my very last day in France the young train conductor sold me a ticket in fluent English.. There is hope!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cevennes to Carcassonne

This stretch has been the most tedious in whole France! Why? First of all because it was hot, hot, hot. As I had already noticed before hiking in Southern France in the height of summer is not really the smartest idea. Most of this stretch is way below 1,000 m and the sun was relentless. The only thing that brought a little bit of relief was the wind, although it was of a strange kind. One minute you are caught in a strong gust that nearly rips your tent apart - and then there is nothing for a quarter of an hour. No constant subtle breeze but unpredictable gusts.

The trail wasn't really exciting. There was a lot of road walking which is unusual. So far I have encountered much less road walking in France than on comparable trails in Germany. But now all of a sudden there are long stretches on country roads. Not really bad as there is hardly any traffic on these roads but painful for your feet especially when your shoes are falling apart and there is no more padding left... But the other alternative if not much better: if you are not routed on country roads you have to fight your way through heavily overgrown trails. Not many people hike this stretch of the GR 7 and therefore the trails are not very well maintained. Especially troublesome are blackberry bushes that stick to everything and are a real problem if you are carrying a delicate Silnylon backpack. At least I am reminded of why gaiters are really useful... the rest of my legs is full of cuts and scratches. And the damn blackberries aren't even ripe yet!

Apricot tree
Which brings me to a more positive topic: fruit on the trail! Apricots are ripe now and an apricot tree is one of my favourite sights along the trail! But now I have discovered the peach trees and it is difficult to day which is better. But eating sun warm juicy fruit is one of the best experiences for a hungry hiker. I am also passing an endless amounts of vineyards but the grapes are far from ripe. But maybe by the time I get to Spain?...

The villages along the trail are quite interesting as well. I hit Lodeve right at the one night when they had a big music festival going on. As soon I realised that I gave up all hopes of a nice Nero day in a gite: of course everything was fully booked and I met a desperate pilgrim who couldn't find any accommodation. Thank God for my tent! Whereas she had to take a long expensive ride to an even more expensive hotel I just hiked on and pitched my tent in the next forest.
Camping in an orchard

Camping has become rather difficult and rather uncomfortable. The ground is rock hard with stones everywhere. And of course all the vegetation is only out there to stick needles into you. On my last night I encountered even more adversaries: I had left my underpants outside the tent to dry them. In the morning I just grabbed them and just wanted to put them on - when about 20 huge ants fell out and scurried away all over my tent and inside my sleeping bag. After that incident I was awake.

Lamalou Les Bains was a lovely spa town with gorgeous old villas - and plenty of reconvalescents. Every other person on the street was missing a limb or had terrible burns. I was most happy about the Lidl supermarket and bought way to much chocolate that only melts in the sun.

I couldn't wait to get to Carcassonne where I had two resupply packages. But would they really be there? I had never used poste restante in France before and it had been rather difficult to find out if and how it works. Therefore I was rather nervous when I entered the main post office and asked for my poste restante. The clerk took my passport and disappeared - only to reappear without any package. No mail under my name. My heart plummeted. Luckily I asked him specifically for parcels now. That seemed to be a different matter and he disappeared a second time - and reappeared with one parcel. That was at least a start. I told him that there should be two parcels and he disappeared a third time - and reappeared with my second parcel. Now I was a happy hiker again, especially since I was also able to buy maps for the next section in the bookstore nearby.

Carcassonne
As I had not been able to find a CS host in Carcassonne I had booked myself into the youth hostel and there my luck continued. Despite holiday season I had a dorm room for myself. I decided to splurge on the hostel washing machine instead of hand washing my clothes but the machine was broke and did not spin. I told the receptionist who did not believe me but put on a second washing cycle for free. Didn't work either. She finally washed them a third time in the staff only machine and I guess my dirty hiker clothes really deserved the three washes.

Carcassonne is a really beautiful mediaeval city, but I was hot and tired. I decided to spend a rest day mostly lying on my bed and thoroughly enjoyed it. I even found a bottle of wine on the hostel's few food shelf. I have to make a mental note to take more rest days! I still managed to mail stuff away, do my resupply and replace broken gear. Tomorrow I will head out again and I will probably be levitating along the trail in my new shoes...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cevennes

Cirque de Navacelles
I left Les Vans refreshed and with repaired gear. I had bought a cheap cell foam sleeping pad because my Thermarest had delaminated and I needed some more padding in my sleep than a flat Thermarest. I had also bought Superglue and had glued the soles back onto my shoes. That still didn't provide soft padding for my feet but at least I wasn't collecting grass any more with my soles when walking through a meadow. Of course a long ascent was waiting for me out of Les Vans but it brought a nice change. Once above 1,000 m I was back in real trees instead of shrubs and that meant shade and that brought tolerable temperatures. The Cevennes go up to 1,500 m and high up there I was actually a bit chilly at night, not much, but enough to put on a sweater for breakfast. And after all that heat that felt great!

The Cevennes are donkey country and I don't know whether Robert Louis Stevenson started it or whether he just made it fashionable. In any case he once travelled across the Cevennes on a donkey called Modestine and wrote a book about it aptly called "Travels with a donkey". This book must have been real popular, at least the French named the GR 70 which runs across the Cevennes "Stevenson Trail". I had hiked the GR 70 several years ago and therefore I had now chosen a different route which coincided with the GR 70 only for a couple of hundred metres.

Still there were plenty of donkeys and horses. Interestingly enough no one was riding on them. The humans were walking next to their four legged friends which made me wonder why they had even bothered to rent them in the first place. To my big surprise I even saw a donkey INSIDE a National Park information centre and none of the staff seemed to mind. Everyone was walking around the donkey which looked a bit lost between book shelves and tourists but at least it didn't leave any smelly souvenirs on the floor.

River Tarn
I was also surprised how much water I encountered in the Cevennes as I was expecting another water shortage. But I even ended up swimming in the river Tarn! Although this turned out to be more difficult than expected. First I had to wait for a family to leave. But whenever I started to undress to go skinny dipping some tourists showed up and took endless pictures of the river and the old bridge. I wanted to avoid them taking pictures of me instead.... But the refreshing swim was definitely worth the wait.

Cirque de Navacelles
In the end the Cevennes surprised me with a spectacular view: the Cirque de Navacelles which I can only describe as France's mini Grand Canyon. A relatively tiny river has carved a deep canyon into the mountains and right in a river bend is the little, but heavily touristed village of Navacelles. A winding road makes the village accessible by car and therefore the huge amounts of tourists. But the further away you hike along the canyon the less tourists... and the GR 7 follows the canyon for several hours. I was just happy that I didn't have to camp in here as everything was steep and rocky.

I had really enjoyed hiking in the pleasant temperatures of the Cevennes, the well marked trails and the great scenery. There are several trails criss crossing the Cevennes making it an ideal destination for loop trips, too.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ardeche

The mountains were lower now but the hiking no less demanding especially due to the hot weather. When planning this route I had realised that hiking in Southern France in the height of summer might not be the best idea but there was not much choice - and now I was sufferings the consequences. I felt like back on the Arizona Trail! Only the trail was easier to hike on the AZT!

Ardeche Gorge
This area between the Rhone and the Cevennes mountains is dominated by the gorges of the Ardeche and several other rivers. This is holiday adventure trip country. Along the roads dozens of boat rental places and camp grounds are lined up. Tourists are everywhere, but of course this is high season now. Strangely enough it is mostly Belgian and Dutch tourists here instead of my fellow German compatriots. After 2 days of frying in the hot sun my mood was dropping. It did not help that my shoes are slowly disintegrating and my Thermarest sleeping pad is delaminating. This is about the eighth or ninth sleeping pad flat is delaminating in my long outdoor career. It is always exchanged for free under warranty but the whole exchange procedure is a pain in the butt. In this recent case I had to find out that Thermarest is almost non existent in France and therefore no chance for an easy exchange en route. I mail ordered one in Germany and although I could have it shipped directly to France this was not an option because I only have a Poste Restante address. Only German mail could be used for shipment but most online shops use different couriers... therefore the sleeping pad had to go to my German "trail manager" who has now forwarded it to France.

Difficult camping
A couple of days ago it dawned on me that I had made another mistake again: not taking enough rest days and this was the main reason why I was getting so grumpy. My birthday was approaching and I decided to stay the night before in a gite d'etape, a cheap hiker accommodation. But when I arrived in the little village all sweaty and tired the gite was nowhere to be found. Even the locals did not have a clue. And therefore I realised at 7 pm that I would have to hike another 6 km before I would be able to find a decent camp spot. But I gritted my teeth and voila, right before it got dark I found a nice spit high above a very scenic river gorge. This was a very nice surprise as camping has become rather difficult recently. The ground here is extremely rocky, sloping and the vegetation is mostly macchia shrubland, an impenetrable dense vegetation where everything is prickly and thorny. My legs are full of scratches and cuts from looking for stealth campsites.

But sometimes you are lucky and you find old farm house ruins in the middle of nowhere. There usually is flat ground, often terraces made for agriculture and off you are really lucky, there of am old orchard. Very often I am feasting now on some kind of little prunes and apricots. Wayside free fruit is definitely one of the advantages of hiking in Europe. But that night I came to the conclusion that I urgently needed a rest day, especially since the next day would be my birthday. In the morning I slept in, hiked 7 km in the burning sun and made it to the tourist office in Les Vans. I asked for the local gite d'etape but was told that it was closed. Oh no, I did not want to hike on on the relentless sun. But I was lucky: the lady found me a decent hotel even with a swimming pool and because of my birthday I didn't mind the splurge. After a wonderful shower I even treated myself with a lunch in a restaurant - and then spent the rest of my birthday lying in my nice soft hotel bed not doing anything. Wonderful!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Vercors

My next rest stop was Grenoble and luckily I didn't have to worry about finding a CS host there... because I had already found one months ago. When I was all doing research for this trip I had come across a CS host who was offering help specifically to hikers. I had contacted him back then asking him for advice on my route through the Vercors. And now I would stay with him. Jack even met me right on the trail in order to show me a shortcut to his lovely apartment with a great view into the mountains. He had already bought the next topo guide for me as well as some resupplies. We went through the maps together and he showed me another shortcut through the Vercors. But best of all he had a telephone flat rate with which I could call land lines all over the world for free... As Jack went teaching the next day I spent hours on the phone connecting with old friends and solving a lot of organizational problems.


It was incredibly hot in Grenoble and the only thing I did for sightseeing was a visit to the art museum because they had air conditioning there... But I loved Grenoble, especially thanks to my fantastic host Jack. Therefore I left at the very last minute not looking forward to an almost 1,800 m straight climb out of Grenoble which I decided to split in half. Still I had to climb 1,000 in the afternoon and read very happy when I found a campsite at dusk. The Vercors is really beautiful but I want to day first that by now I was a bit tired of the constant steep ups and downs and the difficult rocky terrain. Yes, the scenery was great, but I felt that I wanted to do a bit more progress. Since the Vosges I had been struggling with difficult terrain and now I wanted something easy - and the Vercors is anything but easy...

A rare water source
One big problem is water...or the lack of it. 1,000 m ascents are made much more difficulty when you have to carry 4 l of water and still sweat like a pig. On my second day in the Vercors I hiked on the parklike high plateau. Very scenic - and very hot... I made it to the spring much later than expected with not a single drop of water left. But I knew from the guidebook and from Jack that the spring would be there and running and I was not worried. A couple of hundred metres from the spring were several spring fed troughs but not a single cow in sight. I was so happy about the cool water that I decided to have dinner right at the spring, something I hardly ever do. I am usually cooking in my tent at the end of the day. I had just begun to eat when I heard bells approaching and I immediately started to worry. I quickly packed up all my stuff that was lying around and then I saw them: hundreds of sheep galloping down the mountains. The ground was shaking under their hooves and I felt like witnessing a stampede. Luckily the sheep were all ignoring me. They were just after the water troughs and passed me with a distance of 100 m. I already thought that I was out of danger when a wild looking black beast came running straight towards me: the sheep dog. I grabbed my trekking poles ready to defend my life - when the dog just sat down beside me happily washing its tail... Finally the shepherd approached who turned out to be a young shepherdess. Despite my basic French I learnt from her that she and her dog were looking after this herd of 1,500 sheep! I also learnt that the sheep were locked up at night being an electric fence because of the wolves in the area who had so many sheep to eat that I should not worry about myself... I didn't and slept very well that night.

The weather forecast got the next day was very bad and I gave up on the shortcut. Instead I opted for a longer, but safer and lower route. But first of all I had to deal south another sheep problem. As soon as I was approaching the next shepherd's hut a huge herd was moving. And as soon as the sheep dog noticed me he made it very clear that I should stay out of the way. He did not bark out jump up on me, he just blocked my way. And the blood spots on his fur told me that I better obeyed...As soon as the herd had passed I was free to go again. I learnt from the shepherd that this was a famous Patous, the typical sheep dog in this region that looks like a huge wolf with a sheep fur.

My rescue in the rain
The rest of the day was pretty horrible: first I hiked in almost total white out that was at least blocking out the sight of ugly ski lifts, then I was having lunch in a road tunnel to escape the drizzle and the rest of the day I hiked in constant rain. I was shooting for a cabane, a free shelter and was positively surprised when I found an open forestry hut before that. I was so soaking wet that I was just happy to be out of the rain. I did not only stay the night, but the whole morning as the rain continued to fall. And I was so happy to have opted for that longer route that allowed me to wait out the train in a nice and cosy shelter. I only briefly panicked in the morning when angry dog barking came closer. Out there on the pouring rain was a guy mushing 10 huskies. The world is full of surprises...

Next day brought me into Die and a resupply and I had hoped that all the steep climbs would be over - but my hopes were in vain. Although the mountains were lower now I seemed to climb all the time. My shoes are almost destroyed from the rocky terrain and the summer heat does not help either. For three more days I struggled up every mountain in the Vercors, but eventually, one week after I had left Grenoble, I crossed the Rhone again and was out of the Vercors.

Don't get me wrong: the Vercors is a great hiking area. Great scenery especially on the high plateau, very well marked trails and plenty of lovely cities and villages. Only problem is the lack of water - and my lack of enthusiasm for daily 1,500 m elevation gains...