Thursday, 12 August 2010

The last push

Well here goes for the final push then, the last 6 days walking, then the trip home!!

Sunday 25th July: Vernet les Baines, waiting for La Poste!

Hot and sunny. Absolute luxury - I got up at 9.15 am and went down to make coffee. The lady in the next bed was up and offered me proper coffee which I duly accepted, then went off to town to get some Chocolatines for breakfast and bought a french stick for lunch. I spent the morning sussing out the route I had to take to get back on the GR10 and got back to the gite around lunchtime. I lazed around for the rest of the day and prepared for the last 6 days. I ate in the Italian restaurant again in the evening.
Monday 26th July: Vernet les Baines to Refuge Du Cortalets
It was overcast and grey, good walking weather. It was very cold at the refuge, the last high spot over 2000m (2150). I got up at 7.30 am and packed ready for the off. I wondered up to La Poste at 8.50 to find a queue, which I got to the front of about 9.10. the assistant went off to check and returned to tell me there was nothing for me. Rats, a wasted day and no phone from tomorrow. I gave the lady my home address and asked her to forward it when it did arrive. (It was home when I got there and was postmarked as being received at Vernet on 22nd!!!!!). As I was about to disappear to high altitudes again with probably no signal for a couple of days I stopped to phone Liz with the news and asked her to contact Henry to cascade the news. I was still not sure when I would finish but asked her to book me a flight for the following Sunday (the same one Henry had been on a week earlier). I then set off with trepidation. The route to the GR was an ordinary footpath so I suspected it would not be waymarked. In the event it was for a while marked with orange paint until a track junction, and at the start indicated the refuge at 2hr 55min. It was 10.10 by this time. I arrived at the refuge Bonne Aqueil after 2hrs 45min and soon found the GR10 on a wide track. It turned off soon after and as usual went up in a big way although it was not too strenuous. Either that or I was fitter. I climbed up near the pic de Joffre and could see low cloud about, it also got very cold, last thing I wanted. The path connected with a track which descended to the refuge so I followed this. There were a lot of people about including families as the refuge was accessible by road and was the start point for a trail up to the summit of Canigou, the main mountain hereabouts. I booked in for demi pension but there was no access to rooms or showers until 5pm. I got very cold sat on the terrace where I ate my lunch, so changed into warmer clothes and went into the bar area. I managed to get a text from Les but not enough signal for a conversation. At five I was shown to my room which had 2 beds in but no one else came in. I tried the phone again in the bar and got through to Liz OK and got all my flight details which she had managed to arrange. I felt quite isolated later as I realised I would not be able to phone anybody in the morning. I sussed out the route for the morning and decided to try for a biggy, over 20 miles, combining two days into one. This would mean a Friday finish and more time to relax before heading off to Toulouse and my flight home. I then went in for the meal. The place was heaving and I was allocated a space on a small table tacked on the end of a long one. The delivery of the meal was impressive given how crowded it was and I was given individual portions of everything which was actually enough for about 3 people. It was soup, followed by beef casserole, nice but a bit bland. The people next to me handed me their casserole so I had some and then my casserole arrived. I was stuffed. Still to come was the cheese course and then Chocolate mousse. A father and daughter arrived late and sat at my table and we chatted at length. The daughter was doing a fine art degree and had just finished a placement working in an art gallery in Bond Street, London. I retired after 10pm, late for me but with only 4 days left if things went according to plan. I was very apprehensive as I knew I was being a bit ambitious.
Tuesday 27th July: Refuge Du Cortalets to Mines de Batere to Arles-sur-Tech
It was hot and sunny. The guide book day finished at the mines but I pressed on. Unfortunately it was so hot that I stopped at Arles rather than going onto the next Gite D'Etape, my original intention. I had a self service Petit Dejuner as soon as it opened at 7.30 and was on the trail by 8.15. I walked around the building, the sun was shining and in the distance was being reflected off ......The Mediterranean yippee, my first sighting. It certainly gave me a boost. The walking was good all day, clear paths and well waymarked. I lunched at the Mines at 1.15pm and pressed on towards Arles sur Tech. I decided that if I got there before 4.30 I would press on. It started quite well but got very steep and torturous for a while. In the distance I could see what I thought was a scout camp with bell tents etc. However the path descended down into the centre of an extended 'Rainbow Camp' complete with yurts, benders and tepees. Several residents approached me to join them and enjoy the karma man, its cool. One lady kept offering me a shower and most of them appeared to be on another planet, gently floating along with inane grins. I pressed on rather nervously. As I descended into Arles a met three young French youths heading for Hendaye, Bon courage was exchanged both ways! I got into Arles at 4.45, exhausted with the intense heat so I sought out the Hotel Glycines and booked in. After showering etc I went out and bought more lunch supplies and sussed out the next days route. I found it and a sign indicating that it was 10 hours to the refuge I wanted to get to, which was the one past where I had hoped to get today. I resolved to give it a go the next day and still finish on the Friday. Returning to the hotel I went to dinner which was good. I checked my phone and found that although there was plenty of signal, I only had SOS use. Good to know I can summon help I thought. As I was leaving an English family, the Webbs, came in, mum, dad and two sons. I said hello and went to bed.
Wednesday 28th July: Arles sur Tech to Moulin De La Pallette plus a bit and back again.
Very hot and sunny am, some cloud pm. The above is an indication that I didn't achieve all I wanted again, but in the event I am glad things turned out as they did. Had breakfast at 7.30 and got reception to phone and book me into the Las Illas Hostel, which I was hoping to get to. I set off at 8am. It was good until nearly at Moulin when I missed a turn and pratted around for half an hour or more, before refinding the route. I got to the Eco gite at Moulin at 11am and as it was so hot, stopped for an iced drink and a chat. I intended taking a short cut from here. The owners were fantastic, it was a really friendly place and we were soon on first name terms. The owner told me that someone had left the place the previous Tuesday with a party but had gone on at a water stop and not been seen again. Helicopters etc had been searching for him. He also told me that the shortcut passed through a hippy commune. The people were OK but there were dogs about so it was better to steer clear of any buildings. I left there at 11.30 and an hour or so later arrived at the commune. It was deserted. There was washing on clothes lines, childrens toys in a sandpit, a complete, very brief brown bikini drying beside a pool, but no sign of any people. The path was indistinct and every route seemed to lead to a hut or garden or building. There were 2 dogs down beside one building. After scrambling around for a considerable time without finding the way out I decided to cut my losses and head back to Moulin de Palette and resign myself to a Saturday finish, the original plan. I arrived back at the Gite about 1.30 the same time as the English family and was welcomed like a long lost friend. I was given a twin bedded room but had to abandon it later as it became overrun with ants! I transferred to the dormatory with everyone else. The owners phoned the hostel at Las Illas for me and transferred my reservation to the following day. Shortly after this another English guy, Gordon appeared and some french people, a threesome I had met before at Siguer and Cortalets,and a couple from Roscoff. The Webb family were doing Arles to Banyuls and the rest of us had done the whole lot in one go or over a period of years and hoped to finish on Saturday. The people running the Gite and their two very young daughters were wonderful and we had an absolutly amazing organic, and apart from the starter, vegetarian meal. We were in hysterics when the pastry from the final course tart proved so hard that Silas, the youngest of the Webb family, buckled his spoon trying to eat it. Over dinner I discussed my day with the Webbs and agreed to venture to the commune again to seek the way through. There was now only 70Km left!! Please call into this gite if you are ever around the area, the people are great and the facilities superb.
Thursday 29th July: Moulin de la Palette to Las Illas.
It was overcast most of the day but very hot and sunny later. We had a 6.30 breakfast and after a round of photo's set off at 7am. The way through the commune actually went down beside the dogs and the main building which was why I didn't find it. There was still no sign of any people. Steph Webb was not too good on the ups and had frequent stops but we still made good time. They intended to veer off the GR and take a trip into Spain, a less clear route but with less ups. We got to the Col Cerda in about 1hr 45mins, , still an hour quicker than the GR route, but were soon passed by Gordon and the French trio. I struck out on my own after this . It was a relatively easy walk but through woods so not much to see. The French couple overtook me on a downhill bit and I stopped for lunch at a track junction near the Col dels Cireres (1015m). I left there and found the french couple 5 minutes up the track having their lunch too. (They fell asleep and didn't finish until quite late). Descending through the woods the path emerged onto a road which I had to follow for 4km to Las Illas, a boring, tiring and hot stretch. I arrived at the Hostel to find the Webbs already there. I had an orange and Perrier and went to my room to shower. Looking out of the window later I was hailed by Hosea. He and Andy had just arrived and were staying at the Gite down the road. I went down and we enjoyed another drink together and arranged to share a table with Gordon as well at the hostel. We discussed all finishing together on Saturday. They had separated from William at Arles sur Tech apparently. Although I didn't know it, it was the last time I saw Hosea. We all retired about 10pm.
Friday 30th July: Las Illas to Chalet de L'Albere (Col de L'Oullat)
Very hot and sunny all day. Had breakfast about 7.15 and were off on the trail at 8am, with the Webbs and Gordon followed soon after although he quickly passed us. Progress was good and we got to Le Perthus around mid day. This is a major tax haven shopping centre for the French. The main road straddles the border and Spanish taxes are considerably less than French so there were loads of people on booze cruises etc. We dived into a restaurant and had a cooked lunch for a change. We then shopped for lunch for the following day and got back on the trail at about 1.30pm. The route here differed considerably from the maps and guide books and although we followed ballises all the time it was quite difficult and much longer than published. we got dangerously low on water but eventually found the water point at St Martin. Steph handed round the Kendall Mint Cake at this point. The ups started once again and I decided to head on alone to the refuge as time was pressing on. The landscape was very arid, it was very hot and I could see a col ahead so felt quite relieved. Unfortunately the GR veered off through some woods and meandered around until it eventually found the Chalet. The French were already there, as was Gordon (on the internet,) and Andy. He left before Hosea that morning and got lost. He thought that Hosea probably overtook him at that time and, not finding him at the Chalet headed straight onto a cabane, another hour or so on the trail. We never saw him again! I booked in, showered and made my brief entry into this blog before sitting down to a very jolly dinner session. The view from the terrace was one of the best we had seen and numerous photos were taking as the sun set ever lower and the colours changed. There were now the 3 French people, the French couple, and Andy, Gordon and me scheduled to finish the GR10 the next day, with the Webb family to finish their four day trek. We arranged to all meet by the GR10 ceramic wall plaque on the Marie at 4pm for an English tea complete with cucumber sandwiches!! I bought a t shirt with GR10 references on it, the first we had seen and there was just a great atmosphere there. The food was superb and a great deal of wine consumed. We all piled into the dorm for our last night of communal living.
Saturday 31st July: Chalet de l'Albere to Banyuls-sur-Mer The last day!!!!!
Blisteringly hot and sunny. Alarms went off at 6 am and we were up, packed and in the dining room for breakfast for 6.30. Unfortunately it was only me, Andy and Henry and the waitress wouldn't bring anything untill the Webb family and Gordon arrived. Breakfast was 7.10. However we set off at 7.30. We overtook the Webbs and the French couple who had left just before us and headed for the Pic Neoullous, where there was a radio transmitter. We ended up with all of us up there for a round of photo's then, as if someone fired a starting pistol we all set off. Gordon and Andy set the pace and as the French later said, you 3 set off at an incredible pace as if you were rocket propelled. The sun was hot as soon as it hit us, but the terrain was not too bad so we were able to keep up the fast pace. Andy had arranged to meet his mum and dad on the beach at 1pm. We stopped for elevenses when we had a clear view of Banyuls, the atmosphere was great but the GR10 still had a few stings in the tail to dampen our enthusiasm. We descended fairly steeply down a long ridge (over 1600m of descent today). this took us to a track which descended to a road, whilst on it we were passed by 4 cyclist and met a party of about 20 people going in the opposite direction. When we hit the road we were dismayed to find that the ballises took us up into the hills again and through the Col de Llagastera. A mere blimp said Andy! The descent was not too bad on a track untill we came to a road, but once again we left the road and plunged into countryside. A ballise directed us off the track, onto a path going down through scrubland. That was the last Ballise we saw for a while as we battled with near vertical crumbly slopes through scrubland in blistering heat. The path twice met 1.5m high walls which we had to jump down before we eventually emerged onto a dirt track or road. We followed this until we met a tarmac road and realised we had come out about 2km further down than we should have. We trudged up the road and just as we found the waymarks again Andy's phone rang. It was his dad, he was at the other end of the track we were going down and within minutes he met us. At the bottom of the track was a road and railway bridge, Banyuls sur mer, it was just 2pm. It took us a quarter of an hour to reach the beach during which time I had given Andy's dad my camera with a request for some pictures as I/we walked into the sea. I did not stop, I dropped my Leki poles and just walked right in the water at 2.15. A crowd of holiday makers gave us a round of applause and we all took our boots off and went paddling. What a sense of euphoria. Andy's mum and dad then broke out the champagne and I broke my 11 month abstention with a beaker. Seemed a bit churlish not to. Mum then produced several slices of pizza and we realised how hungry we were. It was great walking with Andy and Gordon, thanks very much mates, the whole thing may be forever in my memory, but the comradeship and wonderful people I met will stand out above it all. Thanks for the companionship in the good times and the encouragement in the bad. Anyone fancy doing it again???
I went off to find the tourist office for a hotel and to get train times, Gordon to phone his wife and Andy to see his parents, the fellowship ended, .....well not quite. I booked into the Canal hotel, cleaned up and went to the railway station to get my ticket for the 8am train to Toulouse on Sunday morning. After that it was nearly 4 so I wondered to the Marie and found the French at the ceramic plaque. We all did the photo bit and then went to a bar for a drink. Andy lent me his phone so I could phone Liz to tell her I had finished and to ask her to phone Henry to get the news spread. See you at bristol tomorrow I said. Eventually the Webbs arrived, having run out of water. They and the French trio were staying at a smart hotel so we were all booked in for an 8.30 evening meal to celebrate, all 11 of us. Unfortunately Andy, who had joined us in the bar was leaving to go back to his parents holiday gite some distance away. Back in my hotel I sorted myself out and with Gordon set off for the meal. It was drinks outside first and getting on for 9pm before we went in to eat. The meal was first class, with full silver service etc. Copius quantities of wine were consumed by all but me. Banyuls is known for its speciality wines so there was the round of aperitifs, followed by the sweet wines at the end, followed by anything else! After the meal I walked back to the Canal with Gordon and the couple from Roscoff, getting in about midnight.
During the course of this epic journey, 48 days walking over 60 days I had learnt a lot about myself, having had lots of time to think alone. The Gr10 actually becomes a living thing, you talk to it, it talks back, you argue with it and it argues back, but it always wins the arguement! I could not have done it without the support of those around me, in particular, Henry, (and Kaye Savory, a rambler friend who encouraged him to come out), Liz at home for arranging things as well as making encouraging noises. Also Mary and Phillip Lenaghan of the Hotel le Chantilley in Cauterets who convinced me to carry on after Les dropped out and even sponsored me. (A brill hotel if you are ever in Cauterets).
Sunday 1st August: Banyuls-sur-Mer to Bridgwater
I had to catch an 8am train so was up early and set off for the station via the Boulangerie where I bought 3 pain au chocolate for breakfast. The train was on time and nearly empty and I soon found my reserved seat. It filled gradually as we progressed through Perpingnon, Narbonne, Carcassonne etc. A young girl sat next to me and took out an enormous make up bag and proceeded to use its contents. What a difference in life styles I thought. She then saw my GR10 book and engaged me in conversation. She had been with a friend and summitted Canigou!! sleeping under canvas (I had used Gite D'etapes!) I felt quite humbled, the make up bag had been in her friends car for a week! I arrived at Toulouse, bought a roll and made my way to the coach station where I got the coach to the airport. I was well early. Checking in my luggage at the earliest opportunity I discovered it weighed 16 Kilo. that means I was carrying 18.5 kilo with water first thing in the mornings. I went to the designated gate and waited, and waited and waited. About 20 mins before boarding they switched us to another gate where we were told the flight was delayed by 45 minutes. When we eventually got on the plane we were told there was an air traffic control delay of at least one and a half hours, but we couldn't get in the queue until we were ready for take off. I was thinking of Liz who was driving up from Sidmouth Festival to pick me up at 1755. In the event we got in at 8pm and I was greeted by my mum, sister and brother in law holding a large welcome home banner, Les, Dave and Gill Lowry, Henry and Liz. Now my family new nothing of Liz so when she turned up with Henry they thought she was a bit old for him!! Dave and Gill did the introductions but I had some explaining to do!! Well we got home and Liz produced a bottle of champagne and mum etc went home afterwards. Henry produced a superb meal and thus the 'Heavy Breathing on the GR10' venture ended. Twelve months in the planning, 2 months in the execution but the rest of my life in the recounting.
That about wraps it up mes amis. I hope you have found it entertaining and who knows I might just get it together as a book! Oh by the way, Clare Penney has asked me to do Lands End to John O'Groats next summer, singing and making music along the way.........

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