Chris and I are on the road in France. We visit Françoise and Denis in Ardèche, and Françoise and I reminisce about when we were lost in the mountains in Georgia, surrounded by fog and bears…
We are on our way to our friend Paul’s. It’s just a 27km walk on the GR44D hiking route over the Cévennes mountains. Easy! So we happily (and stupidly) start the long hike at 1pm with only four hours of daylight left. This hike has striking similarities to the last time I walked, and got lost, in France: like before, I have a map that Françoise and Denis have printed out for me off the internet. And like before, we are armed with chocolate supplies, a compass, an inability to speak French, and far too much optimism.
The route is stunning, but STEEP, and we curse the fifteen books that we packed for this ‘relaxing’ holiday. As we stand on the top of the world, we sense that our destination is just a couple of peaks and a couple of valleys away…
The sun sets and the light fades and we quickly realise that our internet map really isn’t detailed enough. We know that we are high up on a mountain, but we don’t know which mountain. Darkness sets in. If you’ve never been lost on a mountain on a moonless night, believe me, it gets DARK! We have packed our rucksacks badly: we have no tent, no sleeping bags, barely any water…my torch dies and of course I have no spare batteries. Luckily, Chris’s torch that he bought for 20p in Palestine saves the day.
We stumble through the dense blackness. In the eery silence we suddenly make out a looming tower ahead of us. “What the hell is that?” I whisper. We creep through the pine trees to another clearing, this time with five tracks leading in different directions. We try the north track. Suddenly we hit a barrier, stating ‘NO ENTRY’. No entry? On the top of a mountain? There is also red and white tape tied again and again across the track. Someone really doesn’t want us to enter. In the eery silence, we duck under the barriers and stagger through the dark, barely able to make out our own feet. Suddenly, a potent stench fills the air. Chris shines his torch onto a massive container of toxic chemicals. A little further on, a car is parked. There’s a dog kennel, but no dog. We desperately try to see other signs of life, but can only make out the thick, black trees. Silence. “This is like a horror film,” Chris whispers. Huddling together, we retrace our steps and head back to the clearing with the five possible paths. We wonder whether we will catch pneumonia and whether we will have to share our chocolate rations with French wolves.
A few hours pass and, having tried all of the paths, we sit, exhausted. Suddenly, we hear a vehicle! Then we see headlights coming towards us. “Maybe it’s Françoise…” Chris says with hope in his voice. “How would Françoise know where we are? Even we don’t know where we are!” I reply. We flag down the van. Strangely, the couple in it don’t seem at all phased by two random walkers, flailing their arms in the dark, and who can’t string together a sentence of French. With big smiles they drop us off take us to within 5km of Paul’s, and we arrive about five hours later than planned, having walked almost 30km (if you count all of the kilometres walked when taking wrong-turnings!)
Unfortunately, I pay the price for weeks afterwards…I suffer from eye-muscle strain, caused by all the peering into the darkness, and for a few weeks afterwards I get intense bouts of diziness.
We celebrate the best pagan-buddhist-anarcho-atheist Christmas ever with Paul, and then head down to the south coast of France. Having hitchhiked the Cote d’Azur before, and having vowed NEVER to go near it again, I am shocked to discover the Calanques. They are France’s answer to Norway’s fjords, and despite being on the coast that is full of disgustingly rich yacht resorts, they are unspoilt by money and the nature is mostly wild. We walk for a few days, armed with an expensive but amazing map. As the sun sets, some walkers tell us that they are lost. I clutch my map proudly and say to Chris, “what silly hikers, lost as the night comes without a torch or a good map!”
****There are many great walks in les Calanques so we used Marseille as our base to sleep. My favourite Calanques are Sugiton and Morgiou, and the walk between the two is the best hike in the area, although VERY difficult in one place, so only walk this if you are able to, and not scared of heights. Calanque d’en Vau is the most dramatic, and has the most tourists, but is definitely worth the scramble down the rocks. Port Pin is small but stunning, too. By the time you reach Calanque de Port Miou you have, unfortunately, reached insanely rich Yachtie Land. I would advise you to walk no further!****
****Once again, France was a lot of fun to hitchhike in, with invites into family homes. It still rivals Finland as my favourite European country to hitchhike around! ****