The Climber's Wife

The GR20 Part I

Posted on September 11, 2014

 

Corsica floats serenely in the Mediterranean between France and Italy, with the island of Sardinia to its immediate south. Along the centreline of the island rises a chain of mountains, falling away on both sides to fragrant marquis vegetation at lower elevation and thence to the sea. Inhabited since the Mesolithic era, it’s inhabitants have paid dearly for the strategic value of their island, having been invaded, attacked and or colonised by the Carthaginians, ancient Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Saracens, the Papacy, the Genovese, Barbary pirates, Pisans, the Spanish, a military Bank, the French and (during WWII) German and Italian axis troops. Nomadic shepherding was the way of life in Corsica until the late Middle Ages when various powers (notably the Genovese) encouraged land enclosure and the take up of sedentary farming. From this arose a landowning elite. Corsica’s nobility was known both for its poverty and it’s bloodthirstiness – the noble houses engaging in a series of vendettas that effectively ruined all of them. Vendettas, also became popular among those lower in the social strata and the populations of entire villages were decimated. Throughout history, Corsican men have been stereotyped as being violent, swaggeringly proud and overweening and of treating their women very poorly. Strict social norms prevailed until WWII (women seemingly bearing the brunt of the restrictions) but these collapsed with the influx of foreigners and mainland French who began to holiday and make homes on the island after this period. Today, while the island retains many elements of local culture (including two native languages) the island is culturally very similar to France. Although, having said that, I found the men to be a lot more like the Frenchmen I endured ten years ago than the reformed Frenchmen of 2014.

The GR20 is touted as being the hardest of the GRs: the “Grand Randonnes” – long, marked European walking trails. It winds its way almost the entire length of the island of Corsica (about 180km in total) and traverses a number of high mountain passes, many of which can be snow covered well into the short summer season.

In keeping with the success of earlier European walks with attractive, vivacious blondes, the GR20 plan was hatched with my delightful friend Dr Wonderland. I was pretty happy to have a doctor along in case anything went wrong and she expressed enthusiasm for pocket knife style emergency surgery. Oh goody.

We agreed that as we were starting out on the first day of the official walking season (1 June) and that as we didn’t have time to do the entire walk, we should only attempt the ‘easier’ second half of the trail – from Vizzavona south to Conca. The northern half would reputedly be much too covered in snow for safe and comfortable walking and we would likely need to re-route several times. The official GR20 website (unhelpfully, terribly slow and only available in French) says that booking accommodation in advance is mandatory and so we had reserved all of our accommodation (including a night off the trail at Zicavo) in advance.

This mandatory booking is unquestionably, a total pain. It means that if you have bad weather, injuries or just feel tired and need a rest day, you either have to stick with your bookings (which could mean foolishly exacerbating an injury, walking in unsafe conditions or re-routing) or stay put and loose all your future bookings (which are fully paid up). A ticket system (a la New Zealand) and better planning and co-ordination between the refuges could easily solve this problem.

In any event, Dr Wonderland and I were feeling both organised and optimistic as we flew into Bastia. We were picked up from the airport by our glamorous, flame haired AirB&B hostess. She and her incredibly cute son drove us into town to the studio apartment we had rented for two nights. After winding up the narrow staircase, tugging open the heavy wooden door and stepping through the green velvet stage curtains to our studio we were questioning our sanity regarding the whole walk thing – why on earth would one ever wish to leave this apartment? It was full of eclectic bibs and bobs, theatrical thingawhatsists, delightful curios, creature comforts and delightful design features (like the window frame door to the bathroom) all charmingly puzzled together. It was like living in a particularly clean and enjoyable circus tent (it turns out, of course, that our hostess was a circus performer).

The first afternoon was gloriously sunny and so we decided to have a mini exploration of the city. Bastia lies by the blue of the Mediterranean: it was founded by the seafaring and mercantile Genovese in 1380. It served as their colonial capital until, after various battles and endless political intrigue, they rather bizarrely assigned the island to the Office of St George, a powerful corporation with its own army, in 1453. The city was taken and retaken by various armies and factions during the course of Corsica’s turbulent and bloody history. Most recently, it was occupied by the Italians and then the Germans in the Second World War. It was the only Corsican town to suffer serious damage during the war, having been bombed by the Americans during the German occupation. Due to a military blunder, the worst of the bombing took place after the German retreat – killing civilians who were busy celebrating their liberation.

Today Bastia has a languid, romantically crumbling, almost piratical, Caribbean flavour. The stucco from the medieval and renaissance buildings has fallen in parts – exposing brick and stone. From the cracks and crannies verdant greenery tumbles in profusion. Vines grow high between the buildings, elegant tendrils trailing down towards the cobblestone streets. Trees cling improbably to ancient guttering and pipes. From the windows, plump-armed women lean out to gossip with passers-by or roll in their washing which flutters gaily in the glow of the late afternoon sun.

We woke the next morning to the excellent news that Dr Wonderland had passed her final exams for her specialisation. We celebrated with french toasted croissants topped with rich fruit and yogurt before heading out for a day at the beach, complete with sandwiches by the water and a glass of white in the warm afternoon sun. In the evening we returned to Bastia and went out to see the promised ‘spectacular’ at the citadel. We must have misunderstood the instructions as the citadel appears to be entirely bereft of any ‘spectaculars’. We were however well and truly compensated for our effort of leaving the comfort of the apartment when we ran into the hostesses son and his friend in the square. They took us on a tour of their favourite places in their quarter of the old town, complete with enthusiastic re-enactments of pirate stories, James Bond adventures, cat chases (and cuddle captures), visits to old trees (allegedly of astounding antiquity), ventures through old and spooky tunnels and forays into dark shadow filled gardens.

The following morning we said a sad goodbye to our lovely apartment but, excited by the next stage of the trip, rather jauntily headed off by train to Vizzavona, our start point for the GR20. Here it rapidly became apparent that our planning had not been as complete as we had earlier imagined it to be.

Investigating the tiny ‘village’ (really no more than the train station, two restaurants and a hotel) we suspected that we might not be able to acquire the four days of fresh food we had planned to purchase or the cash that Dr Wonderland needed for the rest of the trip (there being a complete lack of ATMS). Dr Wonderland looked up at the rain and also considered that perhaps there was a glove and pack-cover shaped hole in her ultra-light packing plan.

Not ones to panic unnecessarily, we returned to the train station and after studying the timetables calmly bought tickets for Corte (the nearest big town), relieved that there was still one more train out and one back that day. We went to the coffee shop to escape the downpour while waiting for the next train. While sipping our drinks we saw a train go past “Huh, that’s odd. Why is there a train at this time?”. Suffice to say that holiday makers are liable to forget what day of the week it is. Which can be problematic on a Sunday.

So we trudged off in the rain out to the main road to try and hitch a lift – figuring that we could still get the last train back (yes, we remembered to check the correct day’s timetable!). A number of cars whizzed unkindly past us but eventually a shiny new VW sedan stopped and an older couple gestured smilingly for us to jump in. Dr Wonderland (who, unknown to herself, had retained an awful lot more from her one year of university French than she thought she had) explained our situation. Ah, they were going home – only halfway to Corte – were we still interested? Of course!

The driver stopped at every bar along the way for his wife to run in to see if anyone could take us to Corte. It seemed that no one was going that way. So, despite of protests that soon someone would come along, they insisted on driving us all the way to Corte – at least a 40km round trip out of their way – and refused any petrol money. Thank you hitch hiking gods.

Laden with fresh food, extra socks (to serve as mittens), cash and large garbage bags (to serve as high-tech pack covers) we entered the train station, carrying our spoils in a santa sack of garbage bag and feeling kind of bad-ass.

Typically, we immediately met a smiling eyed and bearded young wanderer (complete with cow-skull roped to his pack) who probably had more bad-ass in one little finger than we could muster between us. He was a fascinating character who had been travelling for years with a tiny backpack and tent (and recently, the skull) and he appeared to shun such luxuries as cleanliness and warm food. He was also headed to Vizzavona and we volunteered to show him the way to the magical half ruined hotel on the forest edge, that we had espied earlier. Sure enough there was more than enough to keep the rain off and our new friend was extremely happy about the prospect of a dry night’s sleep.

The day ended with cannelloni (the only vegetarian option), a glass of wine and a perfect creme brûlée.

Day one of the actual walk dawned with perfect scrubbed blue skies, crisply outlining the previously invisible Mont d’Oro. We began the ‘hardest walk in Europe’ with a stroll through gorgeous tall green and silver forest: innumerable diamonds of water suspended on unfurled leaves. There were tiny white bells, buttercups, moss and ferns all straining freshly upwards to the dappled light.

We followed the upward slope through the forest and on reaching the first baby-sized summit enjoyed the panoramic views with some slices of cheese and green apple. We continued past Bergeres d’Alzeta, crossing two small streams. We paused somewhere near the Valle Longa with healthy appetites for a lunch of baguettes with lemon infused tuna, mayonnaise, tomato and rocket. The afternoon sky threatened rain but nothing eventuated and we reached the comfort of U Fugone at Capanelle (a small ski resort in the winter) without suffering a drop.

Dr Wonderland was bursting with excitement at the patch of snow visible up on the ski run. I am afraid that recent mountain walks had somewhat reduced the novelty value of small patches of snow for me and so I lazily waved her off to make her snowman and decided to have a hot shower. I had decided to forego deodorant on this walk figuring that I didn’t need the extra weight and as I’m not particularly smelly it wouldn’t bother me. I was wrong: there is a profound difference between not smelling very much and smelling at all. I borrowed Dr Wonderland’s until I came across a shop.

U Fugone has an excellent unisex bathroom for refuge guests (not open to campers, who must use the other facilities – probably less comfortable). The shower cubicles do however lack hooks or a shelf on which to put one’s garments and thus one should be prepared for any eyeful of middle aged German sausage in the change room. I ensured my modesty with the endlessly awesome silk robe.

The dinner was very tasty (including the very predictable omelette vegetarian dish) and we shared our table with some older Frenchmen who flirted outrageously with the blushing Doctor.

We woke to perfect blue skies and set off on the short days walk to Bocca di Verdi. The forests were mostly mature beeches and chestnuts, interspersed with pines – all thick and towering above us. The years of fallen pine needles and leaves gave the air a delicious rich fragrance and the earth a delightful bounce underfoot. The spreading branches dappled the strong sun and it was an absolute delight to spring long legged through the morning. We followed a sunny stream for quite a while until the urge to splash in the inviting, dancing brook overcame us – so off with the packs and clothes and giggling and gasping into the icy water. We dried off perched on rocks in the stream, sunning ourselves for a bubble and babble filled meditation.

The rest of the day’s walking was also quite easy – through fairy glades, flickering light filled forests, under quivering leaves and across rocky creeks. We had some chestnut cake for morning tea. It is a local speciality – the medieval Genovese overlords mandated the the subject Corsicans plant and cultivate the chestnut trees). For lunch we enjoyed crunchy, fresh salad wraps in a daisy filled meadow with views of imposing mountains all around. It was a glorious day of companionable walking.

Bocca di Verde is another private refuge, rather than an ‘official’ trail stop. The bunk house is quite basic but hot water is sometimes available in the shower block. The major selling point of de Verdi is the wonderful old timber restaurant complete with enormous open fire, ambience and wine. We retreated inside with the coming of the afternoon rain.

Our little vegetarian mouths salivated as the huge trays of Corsican pork steaks were slid in to cook on the fire and we were repenting of our decision to cook our own dinner. At about the moment these thoughts were dancing in our minds the local Lothario, cousin of the restaurant’s owner, invited us to share dinner with the staff. We accepted greedily. By the time the staff dinner was served we had enjoyed (or, to some extent, endured) about four hours of solid drinking and attention from our Lothario and his increasingly drunken cousin. The highlights included descriptions of Corsica in the autumn “luminous forests and hard crystal skies”, an initiation into local folk wisdom “life is too short to be small” and the general amusement that comes from conversing with a chain smoking, hand waving, bouffant haired caricature of French manhood. We were also invited to prepare the first course – some fresh caught local trout. Our frying of the delicacy was carefully and approvingly overseen by the fisherman himself. It was a very interesting evening.

We cautiously opened our eyes to day three of our walk and were surprised and pleased to find that we had somehow, miraculously, escaped a well deserved hangover. Buoyed by this unexpected boon we set off uphill towards Prati. The trail leaves the forest soon after de Verde. Taking a break on the slopes we met with two Frenchmen who shared with us some of their colossal stash of chocolate bars.

The final stretch towards the refuge is delightfully wild and exposed. We drank in the almost Scottish scenery and were buffeted by bracing mountain winds. From Refuge de Prati the GR20 winds its way even higher to the Punta della Cappella (2041m) and then along a series of ridges towards Refuge de Usciolu, which was where we were headed.

By the time we made the first summit, grey and black clouds had almost surrounded us – although we could still make out the silver grey of the sea far below us. The roar of thunder was awesome and I was intensely conscious of being nought but a mere speck on the side of the mountain. With incredible luck we seemed to pass right through and under the storm without ever feeling a drop of rain or seeing an uncomfortably close flash of lightning. The afternoon included quite a bit of walking over grey granite slabs and rock hopping and scrambling, so it would have been quite unpleasant and slippery in the rain.

The dark and cloudy sky deeply intensified the colours of the landscape. The giant troll’s teeth of upthrust granite gained a spectacular iridescence and the greens of the clinging slopes were brought to an incredible brightness, richness and vibrancy. Our luncheon view was particularly spectacular.

By the time we were negotiating the final descent (down never being my favourite direction anyway) I was quite tired. The path was terribly eroded and so people had created new paths, increasing the erosion. No effort had been made to address the problem, which I thought was a bit remiss – especially so close to the refuge.

At the refuge we met again the chocolate laden Frenchmen. They had neglected to book a tent space in advance and the guardian had told them that there was no room for them to pitch anywhere that night. They looked quite miserable at the prospect of a further five hour walk.

We were shown to our rent-a-tent and pointed in the direction of the cooking facilities and bathroom. The camper’s bathroom consists of two outdoor toilets (for over 70 people) and one ice cold shower. Surprisingly this seems to work reasonably well and there were no awful odours or long lines. My robe caused quite a stir, gaining cheers from irritating Frenchmen.

Despite the reasonably easy access to the GR20 – there are refuges to sleep in and buy supplies every night and none of the refuges are further than a days walk from a tarmac road – walkers seem to have the idea that they are in the utter wilderness and so things like robes and proper food constitute wild and frivolous luxuries. I was constantly amazed to see French walkers (not a nationality known for an indifference to food) heating up a packet soup to have for dinner, along with a few ancient dusty crackers.

Although, having said that, we had somehow inherited a mushroom packet soup and so cooked that up (topped with fresh mushrooms fried in garlic butter and wild herbs) as a first course. It was quite tasty and the heat (plus the dancing that accompanied the cooking) kept out some of the chill that attends cooking on a windswept hillside (the ‘kitchen’ consisted of a table in the open air topped with a two burner gas cooker – still better than lugging your own stove and gas canister around). The mushroom pasta main course was also quite delicious.

As the sun set gorgeously over the hills we were pleased to hear that the chocolate Frenchmen would be admitted to the refuge kitchen to sleep, after all. After a bit more vista gazing Dr Wonderland and I snuggled into our sleeping bags for a little torchlight reading before sleep. I had the joy of dipping into Dorothy Carrington’s ‘Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica’, which Dr Wonderland had insisted I buy for the walk, back in Bastia. As usual she was completely correct – I would have been bereft without a book and Granite Island is a particularly fascinating read.

Day four was to be a short and lazy stroll down the hill to the mountain hamlet of Zicavo. We had booked a night there in a little B&B and planned on having the next day off from walking to enjoy a rest and see something more of the island. We accordingly slept late and unhurriedly packed our bags in the deserted campground. We chatted with Sylva, who encouraged us to take the old path of the GR20 after our rest day as the newer path isn’t as scenic. Looking at the map I asked if the new path had been marked to increase traffic to the Refuge de Matalza, he responded “you said it, not me”.

Thanking him for the advice we sauntered off up to the Punta d’Usciolu. Walking along the ridge there was quite a bit of slab walking and rock scrambling, which continued as we began descending. I was quite grumpy after an extended period of this yucky descent and furious when my camera refused to take a photo of come particularly photogenic cows. Fortunately I remembered by training in time (thank you, The Climber) and stopped for an emergency snack. This dramatically improved my mood and the rest of the morning’s walk was a lot more enjoyable. This was followed by lunch in a wonderful open meadow where we lazed in the sun reading our books. Following the main GR20, we came to an absolutely beautiful and sunny creek crossing and decided that a little swim was in order. I even had a short meditation on a grassy tuffet. From the creek we followed the level trail along an achingly pretty green meadow to Bergeries de Pinettu. At the bergeries we stopped for a cold drink. From here it would be a simple stroll down the hill to Zicavo.

That was not exactly how it worked out. To begin with we couldn’t find the turn off to the village at all and ended up walking back and forth along the trail where we thought it should be. I eventually espied it when the Doctor had stopped to take a photo of some wildflowers. The sign was aged and decrepit. Not promising. Thereafter followed a four hour mission that involved treasure hunting for faded yellow markers through dark scrub, back and forwardsing along pig tracks, criss crossing creeks and frustrated consultation with our 1:50,000 map (much too small). Possibly the most ridiculous moment involved trying to find the yellow markers in a field of flowering yellow broom. By the time we had been walking downhill through a creek for half an hour we had convinced ourselves that we had somehow misread the map and that we would be doomed to bivvy in the forest which somehow seemed a hilarious prospect at the time. Fortunately our map reading skills were better than we gave ourselves credit for and we blessedly popped out onto the road. The resident pigs looked at us with mild interest.

We made Zicavo by dusk but foolishly followed the barman’s directions to our B&B, which led us to the very bottom of the village where a helpful woman told us to turn around and trudge all the way back up the hill. We finally reached le Paradis after dark. We were anticipating a rather grumpy hostess (we were about three hours late) and dreading the prospect of being sent to bed with no dinner. Lousie however gave us a hearty welcome and, after each zipping through a hot shower, set before us an even heartier dinner. We easily devoured three bowls of soup (each) and forsaking our principles wolfed down slabs of rabbit terrine (possibly the best example of it’s kind I have ever encountered) followed by zucchini stuffed with creamy saffron rice, a generous cheese platter and a whacking great serve of chestnut cake. We slept plump and happy between clean sheets that night.

Our rest day involved some pressing administrative tasks, a wander around the village, a huge salad lunch and a gorge under a very fine cherry tree. At dinner that night a friendly couple offered to drive us up to Refuge de Matalza to re-join the GR20 – avoiding the horrid path of yellow marker doom. From there we had decided to take the new GR20 path after all, having had quite enough of badly marked trails. After dinner Louise showed us all the charcuterie in her back shed. It was fascinating in a macabre sort of way.

Day five began with the drive up to Matalza. Here we set out with Jean-Michelle and Nathalie on the new GR20 path (they were doing a day circuit). After less than a kilometre we saw the potential turn off to join the old trail. It was just too tempting and so we waved goodbye to our new friends and began our navigation. We crossed an expanse of marquis, two rivers and a few little hills before gaining the reassurance of the red and white GR markers. We were pretty chuffed with ourselves. After crossing a delightful suspension bridge we followed the (thankfully well marked) trail uphill, headed for the summit for Mont Incudine. We had lunch on a promontory with incredible views of the lower mountains and the sea of clouds that were floating around them.

The summit was quite impressive, with expansive views of the granite mountains all below us. From there we had a seemingly endless downhill on fairly terrifying grey slabs. I was quite pleased with my lack of an emotional breakdown.

The refuge at Asinau was quite basic and the guardian was rather creepy. We were given a tent to set up which we later had to move to escape a pervasive odour of urine at the first pitch. The showers apparently had hot water earlier in the afternoon (a German girl spoke of massaging her legs with the hot water!) but by the time it was our turn they were frigid. I found the Doctor’s shrieks in response to the water quite amusing.

The following morning we were yet again among the last to leave. We decided to brave the alpine path, and so we set out that way for the Refuge de Paliri via Bavella. The path climbed up to the northern approach of the Aigulles (needles) de Bavella. Although steep and rocky, the path was fairly good and the views back down the valley and across to Mount Incudine were quite spectacular. We had a very enjoyable rest, with that view for morning tea. At our back was the tall form of the summit cliffs, which had an imposing and decidedly death choss appearance. We headed west around the needle to be further impressed by free standing, sculptural rocks. These grew twisted and smooth, upright from the ground, carved presumably by wind and rain from gorgeous red brown and caramel rocks. We stopped for lunch just under a particularly impressive specimen and, once nourished, were irrepressibly drawn to clamber up the rocks to sit, windswept, free and laughing on what felt like the roof of the Aigulles. It was incredible.

From here we anticipated a steep but short descent into Bavella. As it turned out, this was yet another afternoon where we cursed the 1:50,000 map. The path down to Bavella was in fact an epic adventure of lost trails, faint or overgrown markers, blank looks, sweat, aching calves, hot sun and screaming thighs. At one memorable point we came to a steep five metre boulder, protected by a chain and apparently part of the trail. We trundled over it (the brave Doctor leading the way), thanking what gods there be that we had both, one way or another, had quite a bit of practice with rock climbing. As we passed the boulder a group of haggardly tired middle aged people came towards us. One anxious woman whispered “is it hard from here?”: considering that they would have to go down the boulder, always worse than up, I suggested that after the next bit, the rest of the day would be easier. Which was both strictly true and a significant falsehood by omission.

After further frustrating navigation and tough terrain (including an accidental summit of a hill not named on our map) we finally began the true descent to Bavella. By this point my knees were killing from the steep, slippery descent and I think we had both had more than enough fun for one day. The last stretch of green, lush path was a welcome relief from the hot, stoney mountains.

In Bavella we turned to tiredly admire the view. As Dorothy Carrington so accurately put it the string of peaks is “…less suggestive of needles than a jawful of monsters teeth”. The mountains are cruelly impressive: jutting and soaring spires crowd together, spiking into the blue of the Corsican sky. We mere ants at the foot of the mountains gratefully retreated to the civility of a cafe and celebrated our arrival in the fleshpot of Bavella with espressos and pistachio ice creams. Possibly one of the greatest combinations ever discovered.

At last, with the greatest of difficulty we dragged ourselves from the cafe and, after pursuing the little convenience store (very little fresh food on offer) we took the path to Paliri. Comparatively, it was a very easy walk and we were led on by the beautiful wildflowers in cool green shaded ways, fresh with birdsong. At one turn I saw a grey hind leg flash out of view – was it a hare? The refuge was beyond a last turn through a field of ferns.

The Refuge de Paliri boasts both a refuge building and a stand alone bunk house and kitchen area. The showers had quite impressively cold water and incredibly unimpressive water pressure. Not an ideal combination, but a good conversation starter. We met a Corsican man, back for the holidays with a few colleagues from work. They had come from Conca and the terrain had already taken its toll – with his friends begging to end their three day trip early! We dined in style again that evening and slept in well deserved peace in a comfortable and dry tent.

The final morning of our walk began with a convivial breakfast with our new friends from the evening before. They had a quite incredible range of packaged snacks with them, although in keeping with my ongoing observations of French hiking food, none appeared to be particularly tasty.

The final day’s walk was reasonably short and easy and offered some truly lovely scenery, although subdued from the magnificence of the preceding day. The open skies, wide endless hills and rough brushed low flora put us in mind of Yorkshire or Scotland. We had stopped to admire some wildflowers when a flash of movement caught my eye. A Mouflon!! The entrancingly gazelle-like wild sheep, ancestor of those first brought to Corsica in the neolithic, was racing the wind down the fold of the hill. By some miracle I had my camera in hand and snapped him quickly then enjoyed the rest of his flight, fleet of hoof and wild into the distance.

I had thought that that glorious morning moment would be the highlight of the day. In fact, there were a few other contenders. The next piece of magic appeared around a bend late in the morning. We had passed through the gap at the Bocca Villaghello and came upon a spectacular rock garden. Gorgeous rock sculptures, from tens of metres tall down to smaller, intimate and exquisite pieces provided the perfect backdrop and cradle for an explosion of spring colour: the surprisingly robust purple of the wild lavender, white and pink rock roses, elegant flowering grasses in every permutation of green, a wave of grey curry plants, the pale yellow of fenouil, the bright canary of the native aster and the pretty mauve-pink faces of tiny wild carnations. We wandered smiling in this unexpected bower and lingered for morning tea to better enjoy it.

After a warm few hours of walking we were nearing the end of the trail and thinking about lunch when we rounded another magical bend and came upon a view of a series of waterfalls and swimming holes below us. As the sun was shining in a blue sky it seemed only appropriate to have a quick change behind a bush to join the other walkers who had suddenly appeared from nowhere and who were splashing around in the crystal cold water. After a lazy afternoon sunbathing on the rocks and floating in the clear ponds we regretfully left paradise and headed for Conca.

The trail had one last gift for us though: as we entered the first streets of the village Dr Wonderland espied a ginger kitten. Could life get any better?

Yes actually, it could. After a bit of wrangling we somehow acquired both ice-cream and a driver to take us to our B&B. We eventually wound our way up to Brelinga where Claude and her husband Patrick welcomed us with open arms and, holy of holies, a light filled bedroom and a steaming hot shower. Magically refreshed after a thorough scrub, we were taken down to Porto Vecchio to indulge in a slap up Corsican dinner. Porto Vecchio was originally a Roman port town and was re-colonised by the Genovese several times during the 1500′s. Malarial outbreaks from the marshy surrounds drove out the colonisers in each case. During WWII the Americans eradicated malaria in the area with a combination of spraying and drainage and today Porto Vecchio is a busy tourist hub. On the night we visited the pretty old town, complete with old stone church, pedestrian streets and charming alleys and twinkling with fairy lights, was magical.

After sleeping in the luxury of a real bed with real sheets, we woke to fresh homemade pastries and a selection of teas and the offer of espresso. We did justice to all of the above while drinking in the view of the sea from the sun drenched patio.

Celebrating the end of our hike, we decided to indulge in a shiny new hire car (Dr Wonderland drove, thank God). This gave us the va-va-vroom to explore the area over the next few days. We squealed like schoolgirls when we first saw the aquamarine perfection of the curve of Santa Giulia bay glittering before us and spent a delicious afternoon frolicking in the warm water and basking in the sun.

The citadel of Bonafacio, clinging to the white cliffs at the end of the island, was as impressive as the guidebooks promised and twice as pretty. The cliffs have been inhabited since 6570BC and numerous scholars have pointed out that the geography of the area, particularly the Goulet de Bonafacio, perfectly matches Homer’s description of the land of the Laestrygonians, so disastrously visited by Odysseus:

“When we reached the harbour we found it land-locked under steep cliffs, with a narrow entrance between two headlands. My captains took all their ships inside, and made them fast close to one another, for there was never so much as a breath of wind inside, but it was always dead calm. I kept my own ship outside, and moored it to a rock at the very end of the point; then I climbed a high rock to reconnoitre, but could see no sign neither of man nor cattle, only some smoke rising from the ground. So I sent two of my company with an attendant to find out what sort of people the inhabitants were…they found (Antiphates’) wife to be a giantess as huge as a mountain, and they were horrified at the sight of her. She at once called her husband Antiphates from the place of assembly, and forthwith he set about killing my men. He snatched up one of them, and began to make his dinner off him then and there, whereon the other two ran back to the ships as fast as ever they could. But Antiphates raised a hue and cry after them, and thousands of sturdy Laestrygonians sprang up from every quarter- ogres, not men. They threw vast rocks at us from the cliffs as though they had been mere stones, and I heard the horrid sound of the ships crunching up against one another, and the death cries of my men, as the Laestrygonians speared them like fishes and took them home to eat them. While they were thus killing my men within the harbour I drew my sword, cut the cable of my own ship, and told my men to row with alf their might if they too would not fare like the rest; so they laid out for their lives, and we were thankful enough when we got into open water out of reach of the rocks they hurled at us. As for the others there was not one of them left.”

Despite this ancient history, and some Roman occupation, the town of Bonafacio itself was ‘only’ founded in 828AD by Count Bonafacio of Tuscany. During the course of it’s turbulent history, the cliff top fortified town was ruled by Pisans, the Genovese, Turks and finally by the French. In recent decades the town has been the subject of much careful restoration and is now a very popular tourist destination. We enjoyed meandering through the curling streets lined with tall, clinging buildings but the highlight was the Escalier du Roi d’Aragon, a walkway around the cliffs below the town, said to have been built in one night in 1420 by the Aragonese who were besieging the town. In reality the steps pre-date the Aragonese but in any event they offer splendid views down into the brilliantly clear sea and out across to the white cliffs.

We also hired canoes off the beach at Piantarella and paddled out to Ile Piana and swam and sunbathed off our own private island. One evening we munched hot chips as the sunset over the horseshoe bay at Rondinaria and on another we enjoyed the delicious food and hospitality of our hosts. At the end of our stay we drove back up to Bastia, our Cyndi Lauper theme song blaring from the radio and happy tears rolling down our cheeks. It was a very very enjoyable way to end ‘the toughest walk in Europe’: except that I hadn’t yet finished. I had got an email from another doctor (one I had met back in Kalymnos) and we’d come up with a plan to take on the first half of the GR20…

Terradets

Posted on August 9, 2014

Near Lake Terradets in Catalunya, northern Spain, there are a number of worthwhile crags and a fabulous camping spot. The Climber and I wound our way up to the area from Margalef in late spring and camped a few days in the Cellar’s train station carpark.

Here we met up with Mark-from-the-carpark, a muscle bound Englishman with the cheekiest smile ever seen outside of a toddler’s playgroup. He and the Climber had a terrible effect on each other’s humour, the conversation swiftly devolving to puns concerning defecation. Fortunately these were delivered in amusing accents, as they had for some unknown reason both developed gay German designer personas.

The car park is one of the most convenient that we have stayed in. There is a little Refugi and cafe by the train station, run by friendly people who have two even friendlier dogs, one with quite astoundingly bright blue eyes. We met the dogs individually over a few days – the first on Mark-from-the-carpark’s birthday and the second on mine. So we called them both Birthday Dog (we have very creative minds).

If you buy your morning coffee from the cafe, there is no problem in using the bathroom as you require and you can even enjoy a hot shower for €5 (I splashed out – pun intended – once while we were there). Excitingly, outside the Refugi there is a very large cherry tree which, when I visited, was absolutely dripping in enormous, shiny, ruby red cherries. They tasted as good as they looked and despite what could be considered as excessive consumption, I suffered no major ill effects.

Perhaps even more excitingly (at least over four seasons) the old train station (there is also a new one where the train currently stops) is abandoned (or perhaps in the middle of a very slow refurbishment). So the covered platforms are free and perfect for yoga, meditation or just sitting around outside, safe from the rain or sun. I enjoyed a few lovely yoga sessions there – looking out to the trees of the forest with silver rain pattering down on the leaves.

There are a few places to climb nearby. We went first to Paret de les Bagasses. The walk-in crosses the river (a gorgeous, raging torrent of milky blue glacial run-off) on a picturesque stone bridge, before leading you over some slabs (bit yucky) and up to the train line. Walking along the train line to the right before taking the climbers path to the crag is illegal and potentially very deadly. Which is why we teleported ourselves to the crag. If you were going to walk it would be sensible to move swiftly and to keep an ear out and an eye on rail vibrations for approaching trains. The easy climbs in the area were a little bit grey-slab-of-doom and I wasn’t particularly motivated to get on them. The looming black clouds also didn’t inspire me. Nevertheless I gave it a go and it was then that I heard the most remarkable sounds: sounds of peace, harmony, safety and compassion. Mark-from-the-carpark is, in fact, the Jesus of climbing instruction (this is if Jesus got really buff and trimmed his hair and beard…and wore 5.10…and didn’t have the full plethora of miracle working powers…you know what I mean). His first miracle was to talk me to the top of a route without me crying, the second miracle was to get me to do it again, this time in the rain. Yes, I was somehow talked up a horrible grey, WET, slab of doom. Told you he was the Jesus of climbing instruction.

That was something of an early birthday present for me. The actual birthday involved serenading joggers with my uke (“yes they run, they run, oh they run quite fast in their short shorts”) while picnicking on champagne and fresh cherries by the lake, which was busy mirroring the snow capped mountains. A night sleeping in the exceptional comfort of the Hotel Terradets, following a slightly inebriated jam at the railway cafe, rounded off a brilliant day.

The main attraction at Terradets is the impressive Bruges crag. It is possible to walk from the train station car park – you walk along the lake, across a bridge and then follow the lake on the opposite shore towards the power station thing. Part of the walk takes you through some stone galleries, which are spooky and quite impressive on foot. You then take the ladder up some rocks to your left (or the dog trail, which looks like a death trap) and then follow the climber’s trail up to the huge over hanging crag. The cliff line is very impressive and has a lot of routes in the 7b to 8b range. The Climber entertained himself for about two weeks in total and was in no great hurry to leave.

He was however in something of a hurry the day he pulled a rope through a fixed draw, whipping my hand in the process (after a day of diligent belaying). I gained an impressive rope shaped bruise and abrasion but nothing was broken and I heroically refrained from milking the incident more than was absolutely necessary.

The Climber had in fact himself been the victim of an unfortunate event (albeit one that didn’t leave an impressive bruise). He had bought himself a new pair of runner and a pair of flip flops and was very distressed to wake one morning to find that one of the new runners was missing from his shoe pile under the van. A Spanish girl from a neighbouring van had woken to find that she had lost a whole pair and was hunting around the campsite muttering darkly about thieving foxes. Mark-from-the-carpark concurred that foxes had recently stolen some of his dirty climbing clothes, presumably with which to line their dens. Poor foxes. The Climber spent the morning snuffling around and managed to locate one of the Spanish girl’s shoes…overall, rather unsatisfactory. The next night we were careful to ensure that all goods were safely stowed inside before we went to sleep. Unfortunately, one of the Climber’s new flip flops must have fallen out as he was closing the door and he awoke to find himself yet again bereft of footwear. At that moment I was very glad that I was not a fox.

Here ended the tale of the Terradets fox, so far as I was concerned. However, after I had gone to Corsica, the Climber left his remaining footwear as bait and spent the night peering out the van window waiting for the fox. Somewhere in the deep of night the culprit struck and a gleeful Climber yanked back the door to see — a pair a bright blue eyes.

Lake at Terradets

Cabaces

Posted on July 9, 2014

Cabacés is a pretty little Catalan village nestled in the folds of the Monstant range. It features the delightful winding streets, timeless public water fountains, tall church tower and vine trellised warm stone buildings so common in the area. Els Solans is the nearest crag and its grey red rock dominates the village from above.

The travelling dirt bag climber and accompanying wife will find pleasant free overnight van parking either just before the footbridge up to the crag (a little lopsided for perfect slumber) or about two minutes before the village, as one approaches from La Viella Baixa. The later was our preference. There is plenty of flat parking and some shady trees a little way off the main road, making for a very enjoyable campsite. Others obviously also think so and we saw the usual evidence in the form of litter and toilet paper – if you must poop, bury the evidence and make sure you take your wee papers and other rubbish with you to dispose of thoughtfully.

Just on from the campsite is a singing little stream, bursting with frogs, wildflowers and a rush of sparking water. The road fords this stream and the ford creates a wonderful fresh water pool that is perfect for an icy swim or a laze in the sun. I was sorely in need of a hair wash and carted pots of water off away from the watercourse for a (slightly painfully) refreshing clean up. It was worth it.

To get to El Solans we parked by the footbridge mentioned earlier. This bridge spans a quite amazingly deep and narrow chasm, out of which the tips various trees protrude. Fortunately the fruit on the richly overburdened fig trees weren’t yet ripe or I would have been tempted to try my first bridge swing in order to greedily snatch at them. – wheeeeee! gobble gobble -

The walk up the hill offers some pretty views of both Cabaces and La Viella Baixa as well as some merry wildflowers and the ubiquitous Catalan-nasty-pointy-scratchy-plant (not its botanical name). The last 50-100 metres of the path is a bit steep and unpleasant underfoot but not particularly scary, even for wimps like the present author.

The guidebook promised a wealth of easy (3-5+) and more challenging (7b-8b+) routes all on “generally excellent rock”. Unfortunately almost all the easy routes have been stripped of hangers, presumably to equip other routes, as the stripped routes looked quite solid – although perhaps safety problems would be more apparent higher up. Nevertheless I tried a few of the remaining easy-ish routes and despite my paralysing fear and general hatred of the experience, I can report that the rock is indeed excellent. It is quite strange to climb on, being made of a conglomerate of little pebbles seemingly concreted together. Pockets are offered where the pebbles have fallen out and sweaty little fingers will quickly learn that frantically scrabbling around will result in the identification of a suitable hold…usually.

The Climber ticked off most of the higher grade climbs and reported “surprisingly hard fused-conglomerate” and some “unconsolidated sandstone-y conglomerate” (perhaps not the official geological terminology). The fused conglomerate provided enjoyable looking climbing (some fancy dance-y moves) while the sandstone rubbish had an unnerving tendency to fall off onto the horrified belayer.

Cabacés is nevertheless a worthwhile climbing destination if you are in the area. There was quite enough rock to keep us entertained for a few days and the scenery really is superb. We also had the place entirely to ourselves, which made a pleasant change from the hustle of places like Siurana and Margalef.

P.S If you are a big meat eater (and only then) would I recommend that you try the Catalan Salad at the bar in Cabacés It is very interesting.

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What to pack for Annapurna Base Camp

Posted on April 4, 2014

There are heaps of packing guides available online, but this is what worked for me. You could certainly do this trek with a lot less stuff (or less technical stuff) but you run the risk of being sunburnt/windburnt/freezing/wet/carrying an inordinately heavy bag etc. That is not how I roll.

Equipment:
- Backpack with rain cover
- Camel back and a one litre and a 400ml Nalgene water bottle. The smaller water bottle wasn’t really necessary but I did find it handy in juggling water purification. Having a Nalgene (or other heat proof bottle) means that you have have a hot water bottle at night and pre-prepared first purified litre of water each morning.
- Gently worn in walking shoes or boots
- Sleeping bag (I borrowed The Climber’s and it was very warm but insanely heavy – if I didn’t have a porter I would have just taken my 2.5 season and worn more clothes to bed)
- Walking poles (yes, you look like an oversized praying mantis but this trek is ideal for poles – no undergrowth to get in the way and endless stairs for which the knee joints will appreciate a bit of assistance)
- Space blanket (for emergencies)
- Pocket knife
- Head torch
- Climbing tape (for preventing blisters, fixing things and making finger puppets)
- She pee (quite useful in very cold conditions, do practice at home while wearing long johns and trousers).
- Trail mix and chocolate (be prepared to share what you bring, private snacking in a group is very rude)
- Sunglasses (I had cheap but polarised ones. They were completely inadequate and the snow gave me a blinding headache in about three seconds flat. I then managed to loose them before the three days of hot sunny walking back in the hills. Buy fancy snow/water sport ones and don’t loose them).
- Three dry bags – one for your extra warm layers, one for clothes and one for smelly things (like damp socks). Plastic bags also work but I have turned into a gear junkie.
- Camera

Toiletries:
- Two rolls toilet paper (good to have extra for digestive emergencies and it’s lightweight and the size prevents you packing extra stuff you don’t need).
- Hand sanitiser
- Shampoo and conditioner decanted into little travel containers (I used these as body wash and clothes wash as well).
- Face wash decanted into tiny travel container (in my view shampoo inadequately removes sunscreen from the face).
- Sunscreen (if you are coming from Australia buy at home, they only sell the useless European stuff in Nepal, as far as I can tell).
- SPF lipbalm (I only had the useless European stuff and so smothered my lips in sunscreen during the day and only used the lipbalm at night.
- Travel sized toothpaste and toothbrush
- Deodorant (I actually wouldn’t bother bringing any on my next walk. I am not a smelly person and it’s fairly heavy. Stinky types should consider the olfactory comfort of others before making their decision).
- Tiny tub Clinique SPF moisturiser and travel mascara (obviously totally unnecessary, but worthwhile luxuries for those who can no longer afford to get their eyelashes tinted regularly and who have an aversion to having a leather face).
- Arnica oil decanted into a little travel container (completely awesome for a daily leg massage).
- Spare contact lenses and liquid and pair spectacles (for those with mole-like eyesight)
- Bag for all of these things

Drugs:
- Poo stoppers and anti-bacterials (I had a combination The Travel Doctor gave me)
- Anti-nausea drugs (didn’t have any but REALLY wished that I did)
- Water purification tablets (cheap to buy in Nepal). You can buy boiled water pretty much everywhere, which should be safe to drink, but I prefer to be doubly sure and also use purification tablets. The tablets themselves (like iodine) are ineffective in nuking cryptosporidium, which can however be fixed by keeping water at a rolling boil for a minute. Buying bottled water is environmental vandalism and not actually possible at high altitude.
- Diamox. I didn’t bring any, but it is an option. I suffered mild altitude sickness – headache and nausea – at 4000 metres but acclimatised within six hours. I also saw a very buff and fit guy vomit all over himself and pass out at 2855 metres. Contrary to the immovable belief of my challenging fellow trekker, his fruit salad had little to do with his blacking out and you most definitely can be adversely effected at any altitude over 2000 metres. Dehydration, alcohol and exertion make it worse.

Clothes:
It is seriously rude to bare your shoulders and legs in Nepal (this goes for men and women). It is also unnecessary – long lightweight trousers and a t.shirt or shirt will provide you with sun protection and are reasonably cool on hot days. In terms of technical performance, generally speaking, cotton is rotten. It is heavy and when wet it is bloody cold. Wool, silk and that magic quick dry stuff is what you want.
- Four pairs woollen socks (this is excessive but guess who had warm dry feet everyday?)
- Two pairs ice breaker long johns and one top (I meant to bring two tops). One set is probably enough but it is quite reassuring to have a clean dry set for sleeping and emergencies.
- Three pairs lacy underwear (they dry quickly) and one pair boring black briefs to wear with a t.shirt for the soak in the hot springs. You really should wear long tights but there are limits to my cultural sensitivity: at least I wasn’t in a thong bikini like the Germans. Gentlemen may prefer fewer pairs of underwear, with greater coverage.
- Two singlet tops with built-in bras (I wore the ice breaker top over these everyday). Gentlemen and sweaty ladies may prefer t.shirts or quick dry shirts.
- Long sleeved, lightweight sun shirt – preferably silk as that can also provide warmth in a layering system on other days, as necessary. I didn’t have one and wished I did on the last few hot days, I would quite like to get one made with excessively long arms that can also provide sun protection for the hands.
- Sun Hat. I forgot to bring a sunhat. I am a moron. A cap style hat or visor in combination with a wide light scarf for the head and neck is what I would recommend: rock that Lawrence of Arabia look.
- Pair of quick dry trousers (you could bring a spare pair but I don’t think it’s really necessary)
- Wool jumper
- Down jacket
- Wooly hat
- Warm gloves
- Waterproof mittens (or just one pair of waterproof gloves – I prefer the combo as I don’t appear to have any circulation to my fingers)
- Rain jacket
- Buff style (the loop thing) wool scarf – awesome for sunshade, warmth etc etc
- Silk robe (preferably calf length but anything over the knee is ok) and decent/thickish cotton hand towel. This combination is HIGHLY recommended. Much easier than trying to get changed in the fairly icky and wet bathrooms or carrying a towel that is big enough to provide even a modicum of modesty.
- Flip flops for the bathroom and evenings
- Warm Japanese style socks (with the separate big toe so you can wear them comfortably with flip flops). I didn’t have these – I had down hut booties which were completely awesome but also completely unnecessary. Japanese socks are much smaller and you don’t have to keep swapping to flip flops to visit the toilet.
- Loose trousers or skirt for the evenings. I brought a pair of cotton harem style pants for $1.70 in Kathmandu and wore them over the top of clean long johns. These are particularly unflattering and break my-non cotton rule…but come on…$1.70!

Annapurna Base Camp Trek

Posted on April 4, 2014

I had a couple of weeks to spare in Nepal before my yoga class started and so decided to go on a trek. The yoga course is in Pokhara, making trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area the easiest option. I decided to go with an organised group for a few reasons. Foremost of these is that I am a lazy sod and found the idea of someone else carrying my sleeping bag and spare clothes extremely appealing. This is especially so as our GR20 trip is coming up and I thought it would be a good idea to get in a bit of leg strengthening hill climbing without an injury inducing heavy pack. I was also pretty keen to hang out with some Nepalese women and some friendly other trekkers. I was also a bit concerned about my route finding ability and had general woman-walking-alone type concerns.

In retrospect, the chance to spend some time and have fun with the guides and assistants was the main advantage of this approach. They were absolutely lovely and I learnt a lot about socio-cultural-gender related stuff from them as well as a smattering of Nepalese. I also quite liked having someone hold my hair back for me while I vomited my guts up for days on end. At the other end of the spectrum, the only other trekker in my group had what is politely termed a ‘challenging personality’ and had I been alone, I would have adjusted my itinerary accordingly.

In relation to my other reasons for having a guide and porters: the route finding was incredibly simple (although bad conditions in the snow could conceivably make this more challenging), I would have no particular safety concerns about walking by myself in these areas and the terrain wasn’t difficult enough to justify not carrying my own pack. In terms of general safety you’re very rarely actually alone, there is always someone just ahead or behind you, but of course normal precautions apply. General mountain safety awareness is required (i.e. don’t linger when crossing avalanches!) and on the snow days it would be sensible to tag along with some other people. Unless you don’t like asking for weather and other local advice as you go or you have a guide who is competent in mountain rescue (almost none of the trekking guides are and they don’t carry ropes or anything likely to be particularly helpful in fishing you out of an ice crevasse) there is no real safety advantage. Having said that, it was absolutely delightful to have someone holding out a helping hand whenever it could conceivably be needed. I carried the porter’s packs for an hour or so each day (which included their stuff as well as mine) for the purposes of getting a bit more of a workout on the walk. I could definitely have managed my own pack for the full trek. On the other hand, it was really quite delightful to not have to: even after a six hour day of steep walking I felt fine. A quick DIY massage each night prevented much in the way of lingering stiffness and I had no actual soreness at all. Of course, for the masochists out there (I am looking at you Roboslov), this kind of comfort is a disadvantage. You kind can carry some extra bricks in your pack if it makes you happy.

It was also good to know that I was providing relatively easy and well remunerated work in a country where people (women especially) usually get paid very little for often difficult or, indeed, dangerous work.

I tipped about 15% of the cost of the trek and even split three ways that alone is about the same as a rural primary school teacher gets paid in a month or a cleaner gets paid in about 50 days. Note that tipping in Nepal is more of less the same as in Australia – as in, you don’t need to and it’s not really expected. But it is a nice thing to do you when you get exceptional service.

On our first day we squashed into a jeep for the drive to Nayapul. I celebrated our departure with a pre-drive vomit followed by a celebratory arrival vomit. An auspicious beginning. I was profoundly grateful to only be carrying my day pack and that it was only a short (four hour walk) to our guest house. However, had I been well, this would have been an overly short day of walking as were a number of other days on our trek. Our schedule allowed for a day or so of ‘harder’ walking followed by short easy days. I personally prefer longer/harder days followed by total rest days but of course, everyone is different.

We traipsed through very pretty terraced farmland complete with lazy buffalo and nonchalant cows. I celebrated our arrival in the village of Hille in my traditional manner and then watched a thrilling hail storm from the comfort of my bed. My guide was very kind and sympathetic and delightfully mothering. Dinner was a non-event.

The following morning I had some plain pancakes and then promptly regurgitated them. This was followed by the allegedly fool proof folk remedy of a cup of Coca Cola with salt, administered by my ever watchful guide. I felt a surprisingly improvement thereafter.

The way to Ghorepani was paved with an unbelievable number of stone stairs. These were quite beautifully and carefully crafted and there were stone resting benches every so often in turns in the path. Incredibly, these stone paths and stairs more or less continued all the way to the snow line – six days ahead. Apparently each village is responsible for their section and intermittently everyone gets out to make necessary repairs. After a few hours of walking I had a lunch consisting of three small boiled potatoes. This was possibly the best meal I have ever had.

In terms of ongoing nutrition, despite finickity eating, obsessive soap hand washing and liberal applications of hand sanitiser, I estimate that about one in four meals on the first week of the trek stayed inside my body long enough to provide any kind of sustenance. Nevertheless, by drinking a minimum of three litres of water per day (plus ginger tea, gastrolight and the occasional dose of coke and salt) I quite easily managed to keep going. I might have been in a bit of a pickle if it had gone on much longer than a week though. Most guest houses had more of less the same menu: pancakes, porridge or eggs for breakfast and then noodles, soups, sad pastas and dhal bhat for dinner. Dhal bhat is of course the Nepalese national dish, combining a dhal soup and bhat (rice) with a bit of vegetable curry and some spicy pickle. I have eaten quite a lot of it now, in towns, guest hoses, home stays etc and can say that while almost inevitably tasty, it is never truly delicious. It’s just kind of too bland and texturally boring: even when it is ‘spicy’ it’s just chilli-hot, not many-spices-that-combine-to-make-your-mouth-melt-in-ecstasy hot. On the other hand, if you are ever going to order a plate of boiled vegetables, this is the place. No matter what the vegetable combination, it is always cooked to perfection and the vegetables themselves are pow! boom! type fresh and flavoursome.

The afternoon’s walking was in the blooming rhododendron forests. I had read about these and in my mind’s eye they were going to be scenes of particularly large rhododendron bushes, crowding onto the path. No. They were actual trees, not bushes, and they were HUGE. As in, really very big for trees, let alone the bushes I was expecting. The flowers were concentrated on the top of the canopy, with a few dripping down on railing branches. Fortunately, due to the steepness of the terrain, you could really enjoy the dazzling pink and red flowers in the canopy. I loved it.

The Ghorepani guest house was quite comfortable and had a wood heater in the dinning room. I had an enjoyable chat with some Dutch girls and with one of the assistants who was delighted to find that her guide husband was at the same guest house with his tour group.

All of the guest houses were basic but comfortable. Until the snow line many of them had dazzling displays of garden flowers. In little gardens or squashed into every probable (and improbable) container you were greeted by bright pink and red geraniums, amber marigolds, red lilies, roses of every imaginable colour, occasional flamboyant orchids and hydrangeas just coming into leaf. The bedrooms were fairly austere: the norm was a small cell-like room with two beds with firm foam mattresses and a pillow each. Blankets were supplied as necessary. All were reasonably clean and all lacked sufficient hanging hooks. Some alleviated the prison vibe with walls painted Miss Piggie pink or a rainbow of other happy hues. These were, predictably enough, my favourites. Most guest houses had a toilet room with a squat toilet (occasionally a western style one) and a shower room with some kind of warmish bathing option. All were supporting various interesting life forms (ranging from ordinary grouting mould to mushrooms, lizards and a very bright green lichen) and flip flops were essential. Probably best not to look to closely if you are squeamish about these sorts of things: although I know a certain Tasmanian who would have been fascinated by it all.

Early the next morning we set out to climb Poon Hill, aiming to arrive in time to see the sunrise. The view as the sun gradually lit up the mountains was absolutely magnificent. The Climber would have hated sharing it with the zillion brightly jacketed other tourists but I quite enjoyed the party atmosphere as well as the tea station at the top. I’ll confess though that I would have happily swapped both the tourists and the tea for a snuggle in my Climber’s awkwardly huge puffer jacket.

On the way down the hill I saw a number of hugely tall blooming magnolias as well as some more flower drenched rhododendrons. These both continued intermittently all the way to Tadapani and provided a delicious thrill every time I saw one. The walk took us along a ridge for some time that provided quite inspiring views of the snow capped himals. On the ridge I had a chat with a rather overweight American who was seriously struggling up the comparatively easy incline. At a guess I’d say he was carrying about 30-40 extra kilos. He was sweating like an oinker and huffing and puffing with every step. Even given height and build differences, I figure the extra effort would be the same as me carrying a 25 kilo pack but without the fun of taking the damn thing off at the end of the day. He said that his Himalayan exercise regime: (insert broad American drawl) “Sure beats the stairmaster at the gym”. He had an insanely happy grin on his face. I thought he was pretty awesome.

I was sick again in the evening but this was made up for with the most incredible breakfast view you can imagine (and a quite tasty pancake). The ice cream mountains put a bouncy skip in my step from the moment I got out of bed. On the way to Chomrong through the mossy forest we saw a tiny little grey bird with an enormous crest, yellow fantails, a pompous looking black and white woodpecker, a very attractive electric blue bird and a gorgeous red and green warbler.

Somewhat incredibly we also passed a number of yaks – including some calves!

They are very rarely kept at such low altitude and were a delightful surprise. We walked along the rushing river for some time, until it slowed and spread. Here, stone cairns had been built all across the water as memorials. Resuming our walk, the air became progressively heavier with water until at last the rain and tiny hail began. It was quite refreshing, in its way.

Over dinner I chatted again with our team as well as the Dutch girls (their contingent having shrunk due to injury and illness to just two), a delightful older couple from the USA and a rather opinionated Brazilian whose lobe stretching earrings were a target of uncontrolled curiosity among the Nepalese. At this altitude (2170 metres) it was quite chilly at night and the unheated guest houses are quite cool (only a few degrees warmer than outside). The North Americans and Northern Europeans seemed to suffer the most and complained of aching cold. It turns out that a childhood and university years in Canberra (home of cool weather, crappy building standards and completely useless/non existent heating systems) gives one comparative super-powers of indoor cold weather endurance. Pro tip: there is nothing wrong with wearing two sets of thermals, downie, beanie and gloves to the dinner table.

The next day we walked through gorgeous bamboo forests on the way to the aptly named village of Bamboo, where we rested for lunch. We crossed a few very scenic swinging bridges (fortunately, many of them very new and reasonably confidence inspiring) and from one I saw the electric blue bird again (the females are black). From a hill I also spotted the smaller (and brighter blue) sapphire flycatcher hopping around in some trees. We spent the night in Dovan where the Dutch girls were warned by an elderly compatriot of fresh avalanches before the Base Camp. Great.

By day six we had more or less become one group (with the Dutch girls and their guide) which made for quite fun walking. We were all quickly named by Miss Monkey (one of the assistants) and Donkey, Butterfly, Chicken and Mieow (guess who that was!?) enjoyed lots of singing, laughing and shouting on our short walk to Durali. We passed through dripping green forests and crossed in front of some beautiful and faintly Scottish waterfalls just before the village. That night we had a completely unsafe gas heater under our dining table (basically just a massive open cooking flame) and played Uno, ‘less than five’ at cards and the ever-popular spoon game.

The next morning we began the ascent to Machhapuchhare Base Camp (MBC). There were some gorgeous mountain views as we started and the river we crossed was breathtakingly beautiful. The snow was thick on the ground and the dark bamboo against the white of the snow was particularly striking. It was quite icy underfoot to begin with and I appreciated not having to carry a heavy pack and the availability of a helping hand and a giggle whenever I wanted it. We quickly crossed a few avalanche fields and stopped for a long lunch and incredible views in the sunshine at MBC. While we were there we heard the awful crack and boom of an avalanche somewhere in the distance. A hundred winged prayers must have gone skywards with that sound.

By the end of lunch I had a pulsing headache from the bright snow, and or the altitude. Nevertheless, after some discussion, we decided to head upwards to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). Note: this was fairly stupid. As the saying goes “never take a headache higher”. If I had been by myself I would have stayed the night at MBC, just to be on the safe side, and added a day to my trip. By the time we had walked up in the snow to ABC I felt wretched. I’ve never walked more than a few feet in snow before and it took a while to get used to it – my flailing around used up a lot more energy than necessary and my headache now also included some fairly acute nausea. On the upside, we walked into the cloud, which was a seriously eerie, strange and amazing experience. The snow muffles any surrounding sound and all you can see are your feet and white all around and above and through you. It would be terrifying without an obvious path.

The welcome sign to ABC rather unexpectedly popped up at us out of the cloud and we gratefully made our way to the guest house. Neither my headache or nausea were improved by the evil smelling open gas heaters in the dining room but luckily, by the time it was getting dark, I felt quite a bit better and felt reasonably happy about my decision to not turn around and walk back down. By morning I felt fine but the headache returned after spending the morning out in the snow watching the incredible sunrise. El cheapo sunglasses clearly need replacing with something a bit more protective.

But wow, it was beautiful. The folds of the mountains mean that ABC feels like it is laying in a little hollow completely surrounded by the soaring mountains. You really understand what they mean about mountains being the cathedrals of nature. Completely awe inspiring.

View from Annapurna Base Camp

View from Annapurna Base Camp

Before breakfast I had time for two hours or so of enraptured gazing and happy snapping as the light crept over the mountain tops and the soft blues and pinks and greys of grainy dawn were blazed by illuminating fingers of dazzling white. I also spent a serene and uplifting half hour meditating on my own perfectly placed and sun warmed stone in a sea of snow.

It was magical.

Having finally acclimatised, I would have preferred to have spent another night at ABC for the opportunity just to indulge in a bit more mountain gazing, snow yoga and meditation.

Nevertheless, the walk back down to MBC was really enjoyable. It was a perfectly blue morning and while the mountains gloried in the sun we threw snowballs and made snow angels and skied in our shoes and laughed and giggled and generally had a fabulous time. We paused for a cup of tea at MBC before continuing towards Deurali.

On crossing the avalanche field we had some problems with the challenging personality in our group who refused to follow the well trodden path and instead tried to cross on a path of her own design. Don’t do this. Only our frantic waving prevented her tumbling over an ice cliff and it seriously slowed down our crossing. The necessity for speed was amply illustrated when I looked upwards to see snow and rock starting to fall towards us. I would like to have helpfully shouted ‘Avalanche!’ at this point but the less articulate ‘Faaaaarkallllaaanche!!!!!!’ came out in a strangled scream. Fortunately, combined with my horrified expression and pointing finger, this was more than enough to motivate our group into a swift trot and, pausing once there was no more snow above me (falling or otherwise) I saw that the avalanche was thankfully only very small and that we should all be quite safe. The now frenzied challenging one raced past me shouting ‘be smart! don’t stop for them!’. Nothing uplifts the soul quite like the beauty of human charity.

Between Durali and Dovan there was a significant new avalanche fall – perhaps the one we had heard the afternoon previously. The many porters and trekkers who make the passing each day had already made a good pathway and we scooted across as quickly as was safely possible. I shiver to imagine being the first person to edge across.

We paused to enjoy a snug lunch as the rain fell outside and the resumed walk in the light hail was again quite enjoyable in its own way (I fully appreciated my rain jacket and change of socks though!). The bamboo forest was even prettier than it seemed on the way up and we delighted in the fecund dripping green, the slanting sunlight, bird calls and occasional butterflies. We walked right under a family of gambolling monkeys (Grey Rangurs perhaps?) which, for monkeys, were quite cute.

Actually, cuteness is one of several reasons (the others being less crowding and more flowers) to visit Nepal in March rather than the true high season (October). March is the Himalayan spring and we must have encountered hundreds of incredibly cute baby animals: tiny chicks, puppies, goat kids, buffalo, cattle and yak calves, foals but, sadly, no kittens.

The next day’s walk to Jhinudanda was very hot and I cleverly remembered to apply sunscreen on my face, neck and hands. Pity I neglected my wrists, which were pink for several days afterwards. We passed many porters who were carrying quite insane loads – weighing as much as or even more than the porters themselves. Apparently most of these were in aid of camping trips for tourists. One older man I met at a rest stop had a huge dent in his head from years of carrying these ridiculous loads. If you couldn’t happily carry it on the flat I don’t think you should be asking someone to carry it uphill, especially when you are paying next to nothing.

From Jhinudana those with animal names walked down to the hot springs. On the way we passed some absolutely luscious white orchids, dripping from trees and rocks. It was delightful to relax enjoy the view of the river and it’s huge smooth boulders and white tumbling water from the comfort of the warm baths. The mouthful of rum and coke was also surprisingly enjoyable. After a good long soak we walked back up, spotting more orchids, a jungle fowl and a few quail.

Dinner was tasty and involved being mesmerised by Indian T.V soaps. I could so easily become addicted.

Day ten of our walk dawned bright and sunny and I draped all available scraps of fabric across my pink wrists and over my head. We left the Dutch girls at a fork in the road, as they turned down towards their lift to Pokhara. We ambled on, stopping at all the shady places, rising up through terraced farms. At one point we came across a perfect ferny gully – cool and shady and green. We were also lucky enough to spot a couple of Ospreys circling quite low. I wouldn’t want to be the mouse they were hunting.

Our guesthouse in Ghandruk was comparatively fancy (I got a towel!) and after lunch there we visited the local museum and I hugely enjoyed dressing up in traditional Garung costume (lots of draped red fabrics and huge jewellery) and having a dance. $1.15 well spent. We also walked to see the old end of the village. The houses are absolutely gorgeous – wattle and daub style with beautifully carved wooden windows and roof trusses and slate tile roofs. There is a steep hill behind the village as as you climb it there is a spectacular view of the village and, on a clear day, of the mountains. It is also an ideal place to play mimic games with the ant sized girls in the village: try not to tumble down the stairs while attempting a triangle pose.

The next day’s walk to Landruk was steep down to the river crossing and then equally steep back up the other side. Fortunately we were in delightful green shade for almost all of this and it made for a very pleasant morning. The afternoon was not nearly as enjoyable as a road has recently been put through most of the way to Tolka. Obviously, this development is very helpful for local residents (jeeps and tractors can now access the whole area) but walking for hours on a dusty unshaded road in the midday sun just isn’t that much fun, no matter how hard you concentrate on enjoying the scenery.

Eventually we stepped off the road into the cool delicious Eden of the forest and the well remembered stone paths took us to Tolka and an afternoon on the lawn with tea and card games.

As it was our last night I treated myself to two pots of Masala tea and we shared the end of my chocolate supply. Living it large!

On our final morning there was a steep but slow walk down through the farmland to Phedi and a short drive to Pokhara. I spent an afternoon luxuriating in the comforts of civilisation (taking my clothes to the laundromat and ordering a birthday cake for Butterfly – told you I live large) before a very tasty final dinner with the group.

Overall, I hugely enjoyed the experience and can’t recommend hiking in the area highly enough. The scenery is absolutely magnificent and the trails easy to find and well maintained. There are comfortable guest houses along the whole route and the cheap, tasty and nutritious restaurant food means that, unless you are on a very tight budget, you don’t have to carry anything except your water, sleeping bag, clothes and personal items. Being in a group meant that I had a very comfortable and easy introduction to the region and I really did value the time spent with my lovely guide and assistants. However, if I knew earlier what I know now about the low level of physical and cultural difficulty of the trek, I would have preferred to spend a few days having Nepali lessons with a female tutor in lazy Pokhara and then to have done the trek by myself, hooking up with other independent groups for the snow days. Although I am very lazy, I’m not quite lazy enough to enjoy not carrying a pack and having arrangements made for me more than I enjoy the feeling of satisfaction and the freedom you get from walking independently.