In September 2021, I thru-hiked the GR20 in Corsica. This is a section-by-section account of my experiences. You can read part 1 here.
Section 6: Castel de Vergio to Manganu refuge
“SHIT!” I scream. “WE NEED TO MOVE! QUICK!!!”
We all leap up, half-terrified, half-excited, as a helicopter hovers just metres above our heads, about to land on the helipad where we’re eating our dinner. We grab everything and run, the wind from its rotor blades threatening to sweep us off the mountain. Seconds later, the pilot takes off again, laughing at us. A practise landing.
I’m with my trail family: Arthur and Alek (the father and son from Poland), Rob and Andy (both from England), and Vica and Remy (friends hiking together from Poland and Belgium). We’ve had an easy day of hiking, arriving at Manganu refuge, with its perfectly-placed helipad, early in the afternoon. We laze at Manganu’s rockpools as the campsite quickly fills up: there’s literally hundreds of hikers here, most of whom are either hobbling, or have a knee bandage on.
We spend the evening downing bottles of cheap Corsican wine on the helipad, friendships growing as we laugh and drink the night away. The stars come out in their thousands.
“That’s the bear,” Andy says, pointing to Cassiopeia. “And that’s the pan,” he continues, pointing at The Plough. Astronomy is clearly Andy’s strong point.
“NO. THAT’S THE PLOUGH,” I adamantly say.
“IT’S THE PAN. Tell me it doesn’t look like a saucepan!”
He’s got a point.
As hundreds of other hikers sleep, I lay on the helipad with my friends, gazing up at the thousands of stars, shivering from the cold, but blissfully happy. This is a magical night.
Section 7: Manganu refuge to Petra Piana refuge
Today is one of the GR20’s typical epic mountain days, starting with the usual long climb up to a saddle, with an astounding view of two icy blue lakes below. Then, of course, there’s a traverse of a ridge line, followed by scrambling, including using a chain to get down a steep gully.
I’m a bit too cocky, passing countless other hikers and skipping over the difficult terrain easily. I take my eye off the trail as I check messages on my phone. Suddenly I collapse in a heap on the ground, twisting my ankle, my phone crashing onto a rock. That’ll teach me to look at my phone when I am in the most magical place on Earth.
I get up, surprised that my phone isn’t broken and shocked that I can still walk fine. It starts raining as I boulder-hop around the mountain. I overtake more hikers and begin the steep descent down to Petra Piana.
I arrive at the refuge before lunchtime, picking the most epic spot of the whole campsite for my tent. As the afternoon wears on, my ankle seizes up, and I can no longer walk. Rob helps me to hobble to my tent, where we spend the rest of the evening. I’m gutted: it’s going to be me getting a helicopter down off the mountain next!
As night approaches, Rob continually moans that he’s feeling ill. I have little sympathy: after all, he can still walk, unlike me. After about an hour of hearing him constantly sighing, I politely suggest that he goes back to his own tent to feel sorry for himself.
An hour later, I’m suddenly hit by waves of nausea. I spend the whole night wide awake, trying not to throw up: after all, I can’t actually get out of my tent because of my twisted ankle.
A guy in the tent next door to me spends the whole night vomiting.
Section 8: Petra Piana refuge to l’Onda refuge
Morning comes and I’m exhausted. I’ve managed not to vomit all over my sleeping bag, though. Andy cheerily tells me that Rob is feeling better and that they’re packing their tents up to leave. Meanwhile, Arthur tells me that Alek is also quite ill, but well enough to hike.
I start crying. I am too sick to walk, and my ankle is still feeling tender. I need to take a day off, but there’s no way in hell I want to be left alone on this mountain of vomit. And so I pack my tent, take some ibuprofen, and hike with my friends, walking painstakingly slowly down the steep mountainside. Vica is just as slow as me: she’s battered her body on this hike, and her knee has swollen to double its usual size. Sheer determination keeps her walking: if I had her injuries, I would have quit long ago.
Together we all walk through a pine forest, stopping to rest at a stunning, deep blue rockpool. Andy has the time of his life, jumping into the water from the rocks, while me and Vica soothe our injuries in the icy cold water.
As we stop at the bergeries de Tolla for a break, everyone insists that a Coca-Cola will make my nausea go away. It only makes me feel worse.
The final climb up through the woods to the refuge de l’Onda is too much for me, and I take lots of breaks as other hikers speed past me. Rob stays with me, walking at my pace, resting with me. He has a knack of making me laugh even though I’m feeling like death.
It’s a shock to arrive at l’Onda refuge. The whole place looks like a farmyard, and our tents are packed like sardines into a tiny enclosed pen.
We find out that lots of hikers have also been sick. Everyone’s quick to blame the staff at the refuges, or the food they’re serving, or the state of the water sources. But no-one wants to look at themselves. Clearly the actual issue is our own hygiene: there’s hundreds of us here, all using the same toilets, the same taps, no-one washing their hands with soap after they’ve had a shit. We only have ourselves to blame as the mountains fill with vomit.
Section 9: l’Onda refuge to Vizzavona
I have been dreading today. We will finally reach Vizzavona, a village that marks the halfway point of the GR20. For hikers who want to only walk half of the trail, this is their exit point. Reaching Vizzavona will mean that I have to say goodbye to Rob, Andy, Vica and Remy, who are all leaving. Only me, Alek and Arthur will walk the GR20 in its entirety.
Knowing that it’s our last day together, we all hike at the same pace, enjoying each other’s company. Of course, there’s a long, steep climb, followed by an equally steep descent. Then we hike through woodland and bathe in rock pools: enjoying the sunshine and the last of each other’s company. Even so, we arrive in Vizzavona far too soon.
We have grand plans to have a celebratory dinner in Vizzavona, but these plans are scuppered when we find out that the restaurant is closed. Instead, we huddle together on a picnic bench, cooking tinned ratatouille on camping stoves as it shits it down with heavy rain. A massive anti-climax to end what has been an incredible nine days on the trail.
I’m tired and tearful. I go for a long walk alone, trying to make sense of the emotions I’m feeling. I don’t want my friends to leave. It’s too soon to say goodbye. Please, don’t let any of this end.
Section 10: Vizzavona to bergeries de Capannelle
It’s emotional saying goodbye to Vica as I leave Vizzavona. We make promises that we’ll see each other soon, that I’ll come to Poland. Meanwhile, Rob, Andy and Remy – who are also leaving the trail here – have a few hours to kill before they get their train, so decide that they’re going to walk some of the next section with us.
As we hike together up through beech forest, I notice how the terrain has changed. Rugged mountains have been replaced by green mossy woods, covered in ferns.
We reach bocca Palmente. On one side are the jagged mountains we have spent the last nine days scrambling over, and on the other side are forest-covered mountains yet to be walked: at least for me, Alek and Arthur. We sit up there for an hour, our last time together as a group. Rob, Andy and Remy savour their last views of the mountains, reflecting on their epic trip. I savour my last minutes in their company, fighting back tears.
Finally, it’s time to say goodbye, and me, Alek and Arthur continue alone. Seven has now become three. The trail is suddenly silent without Andy’s northern-English voice nattering non-stop. I’m feeling completely dejected as we traverse the forested mountainside, unable to take in the beauty of the trail. On top of this, most of the other hikers I have recognised each day have also disappeared. Old faces have been replaced by new ones: people who are only walking the south section. I don’t like the change.
We arrive at bergeries de Capannelle just before a giant thunderstorm hits. We cram inside the cafe as it shits it down. To our delight, the bergeries also sells pizza! This is just what we need, and our spirits are lifted as we sit inside, protected from the rain. A cat comes and sits on my lap, and finally I feel grateful again. Grateful to still be on the trail. Grateful to be with Alek and Arthur, who are father and son but who are fast feeling like my own family.
Until now, I have had thoughts of doubling up sections and finishing the trail before Alek and Arthur. But these thoughts now go out of the window. We’ve been together since day one, and I want to see the GR20 through to the end with them. This is now mine, Alek and Arthur’s adventure.
To be continued…
Follow me on Instagram