Saturday, 19 October 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: Aubrac

My timing for Le Puy had been perfect. I waited out the cold days in my lovely room in the gite St Francois with central heating, got all my stuff done as good as possible under French circumstances (i.e. no decent outdoor shop) and spent a leisurely Sunday almost entirely in bed not doing anything. I left Le Puy Monday morning well rested and eager to be hiking again.

For three days I was now in the GR 65, the most famous French pilgrimage trail from Le Puy to Santiago. And despite the late season there were plenty of pilgrims on the way - quite a bit of a culture shock for me. For weeks now I had not seen any other hikers and now all of a sudden five and more hikers per day. In summer this must be a very busy trail. There are several gites in every village and the advertising for trail services is almost as bad as in Spain. Ads for hostels, taxis and food are stuck on signposts and trees. The tourist information in Le Puy hands out a 16 page service guide for the GR 65 for free in several languages. Now in off season all these services were quite handy. The weather still wasn't too good and it was nice to know that there is a gite every 5 km or so - although I didn't use any and camped. And had plenty of adventures this way....

A long day one brought me to the gorges of the river Allier - and a gorge is an obviously bad place for camping. Still I found a surprisingly nice flat piece of ground on a shelf above the river. Due to the acoustics in the gorge sound travelled far and I was kind of hassled by a techno outdoor party. Apparently some local kids had met in a parking lot nearby and were entertaining themselves with loud techno music from their car stereo. I could not see but only hear them and hopefully they hadn't noticed me at all.

Illuminated Romanesque church
At 7.30 pm the party was over. I heard car doors closing and cars driving away. Peace and quiet - but just that moment lights came on a shelf directly above my campsite. I felt uneasy because I could not locate were the lights came from. Had the cars moved and the party continued there? Were there people living there? An illuminated look out from were tourists could see directly into my tent? After an uncomfortable paranoid hour I luckily checked my map and found the obvious solution that I confirmed next morning: I had set up camp more or less directly 80 m under a Romanesque church that was illuminated at night but at this time of the year luckily nobody went sightseeing there after sunset.

Next night I ran into a new and totally unexpected problem. The map showed plenty of forest so I had assumed that camping would be easy. But here in this area the forest was almost completely fenced in. This wouldn't be a problem: I could easily climb the fence. But behind some of the fences there was cattle grazing.... I was totally surprised as you don't see very much cattle grazing in forest. To make things worse these "forest" meadows were so big that I could not always tell whether there was actually cattle in it or whether it was safe to camp there. Even checking for cow paddies wasn't a sure indicator. Of course it started to rain and and getting dark then - and still no unfenced forest in sight. I was starting to get a bit nervous when I saw a pine plantation. Surely they would not let cattle graze there - despite the fence.

I turned off the road onto a dirt track leading to the pine plantation and saw in the last daylight that there even was a piece of unfenced forest next to it. Exhausted I set up my tent there and even hid myself a bit although I never expected any one to come up there. When I packed up next morning I was in for two surprises: I first wondered about the movement in the pine plantation - which turned out to be at least 20 cows. Thank God I had not climbed that fence and camped there. When I had packed up and was doing my "morning business" I heard an engine. And for sure, that early in the morning someone - probably a farmer - came driving up the track. I stayed were I was and did not move. I did not want to explain to the land owner what I was doing here at 8 in the morning.... Luckily the farmer stopped a little but further up the track and I could sneak away undetected.

After 3 days of mostly rain eventually the sun came back and I enjoyed two days of glorious sunshine. I had now turned off the GR 65 and was on a patched together route South through the Aubrac. The trail called Tour des Monts Aubrac was a nice surprise and brought me through a piece of France were time seemed to have stood still. Lots of tiny little villages or clutters of stone houses, cobbled alleys and dry stone walls. And of course plenty of fences with cows behind them. I still found a campsite in an unfenced piece of forest - only to be woken up before sunrise by an early hunter who parked his car only 100 m away from my campsite. Luckily he shot something almost straight away (luckily not me) and disappeared quickly before noticing me.

Gorge du Tarn

Last night though was my biggest camping adventure. As the weather was very nice and a full moon I decided to do my first serious night hiking in this trip. At 20.30 I had finally arrived at the patch of forest where I wanted to camp - but again, everything was fenced off. I was in sheep country now but still I didn't want to camp with live stock. I walked along the fence hoping it would end but instead of ending it was just put down in one place. Someone had taken out two stakes and the fence wire was held down by two rocks so that a car could drive over. With the fence being open there could not be any cattle in the forest and I decided to camp there. I had just taken out my tent when I heard a car come up the track. This could not be true! I had been road walking for an hour with no car at all and now in the middle of the night someone came up a god forsaken dirt track - and stopped right at the fence opening.

Gorges du Tarn
A person got out and started working there only 50 metres away from me. I broke out cold sweat. What should I do? The farmer was so close I could be detected any minute especially since it was a full moon. Or should I switch on my headlamp and make myself known? But how would the farmer react to a non French speaking stranger who was doing God knows what on his meadow in the middle of the night? I could not expect a friendly reaction under these circumstances and just stayed in the dark until the farmer eventually left. I then walked over immediately to see what he had been doing and found out that he had reerected the fence. But why had he done it at night? I did not know but decided that this was not a good place to camp and left at once. Now I needed a new campsite which turned out to be a problem. All forest was either fenced in or impenetrable macchia. I was getting desperate as it was getting later and later. Eventually I walked back and found another side track leading to unfenced ground where I eventually pitched my tent. It was already 11 pm when all my camp chores were done and I lay down to sleep.

Gorge du Tarn
But not for long... At midnight I heard a car on the nearby road honking and honking. First I thought it to be some drunk kids in their way home but the car was going very slowly honking continually. Then I heard several people yelling and whistling and to make things worse the noise came towards me. I broke out in cold sweat again. Luckily I had hid myself very well between bushes and low trees 100 metres away from any track so it would be very difficult to discover me. But what frightened me most was that I did not know what was going on. Then it dawned in me: those people were moving sheep! They were whistling and yelling at the sheep dogs and the car pushing the sheep. This had probably also been the reason for the farmer shutting the fence. Only why they had to do this at midnight is a mystery to me. Eventually the noise grew fainter and fainter and finally even I felt asleep.

Ruins in the gorge
But this was to be a short night. I wanted to be hiking at sunrise to get into the next little village as quickly as possible. The weather forecast was very bad for  the night and I wanted to stay in a cheap place in the village to avoid the downpour. But before me lay the most spectacular stretch of this whole hike so far, the gorges du Tarn. The river Tarn had formed a French Grand Canyon here and the views from the plateau down into the river were breathtakingly beautiful. But the trail, Tour de Sauveterre, soon left the plateau and descended to avoid the rock formations. Halfway between the river and plateau level it contoured around offering one breathtaking view after another. The trail was in amazing good shape but it had probably been used for centuries as the were ruins of houses glued to the rock like birds' nests. And this wouldn't be Southern Europe if there wasn't a church, too. I took more pictures in two hours than I normally take in two weeks..

Le Rozier
I still made it into Le Rozier before the little tourist information closed and I needed help indeed. There were two gites in the little village but one was closed and the other one full with a group. Most of the hotels were closed for the season as was the Spar supermarket that is open only in July and August (unfortunately their website forgets to mention this little detail...). As the forecast predicted major downpours overnight and did not want to camp I had to settle for a very nice (but very expensive) B&B - only to see then to see that the forecast had changed from thunderstorm overnight to thunderstorm in the morning and I could have camped. Anyways, I did my shopping in a tiny village store and enjoyed a lazy afternoon in bed with free wifi. Now I only have to hike in the rain tomorrow....


craggy said...

Hi,I know that paranoia well,this summer I camped under a church clock,with a loud bell each hour,but had not noticed I was next to a public footpath,the warden turned up to"check I was ok"but said it was alright to stay the night.But if only I could relax from the start.regards Malcolm

German Tourist said...

Church bell is a good one. My worst experience so far was camping next to a bird scare in Japan that was going ask night long.