Happy New Year! I’d like to say thanks one more time to everyone who donated to the MS Society Conwy branch in 2017. After the first leg of the walk was finished last year I had the good fortune of giving a talk to the branch members. It was lovely to meet them all and it’s clear the money donated will be put to good use. The Society does so much to enhance the lives of those living with MS in North Wales.
The Pyrenees presentation seemed to be received well which was a relief. Although I’ve only just seen some photos taken on the day and I had no idea how much I resembled the marmot included in one of my slides. There were a few questions from the audience such as “don’t you think it would have been best to buy good boots before you left?” and “do you think you’re parents were paying Pierre and Joelle to keep an eye on you?”. None of which I had good answers to.
It would be a lie to say that planning for the next leg of this walk is well underway. All I really know is the following:
– I’ve got 440 miles left to do
– I’ll be doing some more of it in 2018
– Paul won’t be joining me again this year because he’s decided to upgrade his and Heathers relationship from lovers to permanent lovers in writing with rings and everything!
Anyway, thanks again. See you later in the year.
I’ve made it to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and unfortunately this will be my last stop of 2017. Weirdly, it’s fourteen miles further than I had tentatively planned to do. And in total I’ve achieved roughly eighty miles. Just imagine how far I could have gone without the boots breaking and a day of illness! Not far. My rucksacks killing me.
Myself, Mum, Dad and the MS Society would like to thank everyone who has donated so far. At time of writing we have reached £645 which is great! It will be put to good use for sure. Looking forward to seeing the parents again. Apparently, mums begun a large research project to find out who that blonde girl was who owned a horse across the street 25 years ago (mentioned on day 2). To be honest I probably dreamt her up. Thanks again and if you haven’t donated yet, please do!
Also special thanks to Heather, Sarah and Paul (and sometimes Mark) for spell-checking these posts every evening!
Today was spent in the clouds. Literally darling. Sometimes the cloud would clear slightly though and I’d be privy to a gorgeous spectacle of other clouds drifting with mountain peaks fading into view.
I didn’t see anyone aside from one farmer and a gang of twenty teenage lads in assorted football kits. And I saw both of those at the same time. Farmer walking in one direction lads in the other. They surprised me on a narrow mountain side path. I don’t know how, one of the lads was blaring a Ricky Martin song from a portable speaker. Each one of them filed past me saying “Bonjour!”. This was quite a bizarre sight at around 700m high. I have no idea what the farmer made of it all.
The day continued without much disturbance. Just me. In a cloud. Hiking higher and higher. Aside from the occasional sound of Enrique Iglesias in the distance, (presumably the lads were having a gyrating pop party on a peak somewhere as the sound now appeared to be behind me) there was nothing but the odd squawk from an eagle and clanging of a bulls bell. I reached 920m high even though I had no intention of going that high, not sure what happened. Seven hours and fourteen miles later I reached Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
It’s time to celebrate. After showering I stumble into a riverside bar. There’s an old record player in the corner. The song is mesmerising…
Side swipe to cheesy sitcom montage! (Song still playing)
First up, it’s Murray and Ange! Murray pauses from urinating on a fern with Jeff to give a one handed wave over his shoulder, cheesy sitcom smile and all. Ange, smiling, rolls her eyes and crosses her arms playfully.
Next up! It’s that guy from the first Gite who fixed Jeff’s boots. He kindly takes a moment from jamming some other poor souls boots into a vice to wave and wink, smiling his face off! Thanks guy.
Back to the bar: I’m so distracted by the record I ask a waiter what it is? “La fin de l’été by Bridget Bardot” says the waiter.
Back to montage!
Jeff’s laughing as Robere pauses from grabbing his belly and shouting “GROSS DINNER” to give an enthusiastic wave and smile. Oh how we laughed.
Then it’s Jean-Pierre and Jöelle’s turn. After shaking my hand in a gentlemanly Bogart fashion and saying “bonne chance” in the dimly lit pub in Bidarray, Pierre turns to the camera and simply smiles. Jöelle waves lovingly and gives the audience a hug. Those guys, I can’t praise them enough, they were so very friendly and helpful.
Back to the bar. The waiter is asking for my order. But I start shimmying, conversation can’t be held, not with this sultry sexy sound in my ears. I stand up and move from a shimmy to a kind of Macarena fist movement around my ankles, occasionally throwing my arms towards the ceiling. The waiter walks away. I continue my dance towards the record player… the needle climbing over every elevated challenge it encountered (metaphors ey, great aren’t they) each coarse rotation leading towards it’s end. There was something scary about it but something very attractive, my imagination runs wild picturing a Bardot like character understanding and joining in with my new ankle orientated dance. We dance in the sunlit remote villages, mountain tops and mossy forests of the week just past. But there isn’t time for this, who is she anyway? This is my dance. Now with my face literally centimetres from the record, my ears consuming every little vibration, the enticing foreign sound fizzles and stops! And for a few seconds there is just crackling. But Bardot doesn’t let me down, it was as though she knew I hadn’t a clue what she had been singing about this whole time. Before the needle slips off and clunks to a satisfying end she whispers softly in English “see you next year, you smelly git”.
There’s a centuries old saying in the real mountainy parts of the Pyrenees that goes something like this: “if those sheep bells ain’t a ringin then you can shaw bet ya butt there’s a bear in that mist! Ho’damn! There’s a bear fo sho!”**
Awake and packed before the pub staff had moved a croissant, I said fond farewells as my usual petite dejeuner was served with a solitary sock. They’d looked after me wonderfully and even done my washing. I felt like a new man.
Jean-Pierre and Jöelle emailed me back last night, they were now on the other side of I’Parala and the other peaks I had to do today. They warned that it was difficult and dangerous and they’d imagine even more so if the weather’s bad.
So, despite the mistakes of days past such as falling off a mountain, almost poisoning myself and spelling Jöelle’s name wrong in two different ways repeatedly for the past six days – I was ready to go! With my new boots on I trudged up and up, and up, and up… and up. Yesterday I had found it difficult to walk up the pub stairs and lower myself onto the toilet seat every ten minutes. Today was a different a story. Slowly the sounds of village life dissipated, I heard for the last time the loud clanging of Bidarray village church bells, specially designed to summon the cats throughout the valley to parade themselves and feast on the remains of human lunch.
I made new mountain friends, Laurence and Elise a young couple from Bordeaux. The thought of getting their names down on the blog before I knew how to spell them spurred me on. I stormed ahead, each step a step towards boasting and bragging later.
Of course, until the rain storm hit. I’m pretty sure these were the mountains I saw my last thunderstorm form over. So, after a while of walking along a cliff edge roughly 800m high in the pouring rain and cloud, living in fear that I would be the first lightning strike, I abandoned my belongings and sat in the rain looking fixedly in the direction the clouds had come from. After a while the sun started to poke through. It was beautiful, the peaks of other mountains appearing above the clouds. My phone died so there were no pictures. I turned to see Laurence (god I hope that’s his name) standing next to my hiking sticks. It was time to continue.
We ascended and descended various peaks all lined up along a cliff edge. Sometimes in cloud, sometimes in sunshine. When I was walking along the cliff edge in cloud I couldn’t see how far there was to fall, when the sun arrived I was mesmerised by the beauty below and also felt a bit sick. It was like walking along the spine of a humongous curled up dragon. Here, more than anywhere else so far, I was aware that the Pyrenees had formed between 80 to 20 million years ago as an island called Spain and Portugal crashed into France.***
I reached the peak of I’Parla around noon I think. Beyond it, there were a few more peaks and one solitary forest on this largely barren high up land. Trudging through the forest I came across many caves. This gave me the willies. If I was a bear I’d live here. High up, away from humans and close to sheep. Around 300 sheep are killed by bears each year in the Pyrenees. I wonder if the sheep fear us, or bears more?
My queries were soon to be answered. On the other side of the forest I once again found myself in cloud. Trudging on I stopped to adjust my stupidly heavy rucksack. After a few seconds I realised I was surrounded by sheep. Some were shadows in the cloud, many were facing me, scraggy, with bells dangling below their necks. I hadn’t heard any bells so it came as quite a shock to be surround by thirty sheep or so. One sheep’s face stood out more than the rest, the leader of this renegade pack, staring fixedly at me. She chewed. Her bell clanged slightly. She raised a hoof and stopped it before it clanged again, all the while staring at me in the eyes. I thought sheep were friendly creatures but the eyes of this high priestess of woolly mountain bandits said other wise. No words were said but the message was clear… your kind have abandoned us up here, up here of all places! The place where lightning is made! And the place of bears. And to boot you have tied fucking bells around our necks to help the bears find us. It’s like a sick unfair version of hunger games! No. You, are not welcome here.****
The rest of the walk was delightful but strenuous, it has been the most spectacularly gorgeous scenery I have seen yet. I ascended 1300m today and walked 12 miles. My tent is pitched behind a distillery. I am in a biker bar watching Basque ready steady cook.
*There are no bears in this post, only bear puns and the ghostly thoughts of bears.
**This is entirely made up.
***Yes. This is from Wikipedia.
****Some of this is made up.
Today’s post will be very short. I woke up in the night feeling very ill. Why? Who knows. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is some kind of aftershock from ‘thunder Tuesday’ – as it shall henceforth be known. As a result I have stayed in Bidarray one more day. I was a day ahead of schedule after ’18 mile Monday’ so if I leave first thing in the morning and get over that 1000m high mountain, which has been in the clouds most of the day, then I can still reach my goal!
There really isn’t much to report other than the staff being slightly bemused that I’m still here. When I’ve not been asleep I’ve been hanging around with the pub cats, they have come to respect me, as much as one can respect a strange limping golum like creature with glasses who keeps stroking you. I’ve learnt all their tricks for food scavenging which may come in handy if I have to stay here any longer. I had a dream that Aziz Ansari and I were best friends and we spent the whole day chasing and shouting at another version of myself who didn’t want to be friends with either of us.
That is all. Here’s some nice Biddarray pics (there’s worse places to be stuck).
My French is getting better!
Like an ITV screen writer used to writing for high octane shows such as broadchurch and ant and dec’s Saturday night takeaway but now relegated to writing for Doc Martin, I spent my morning feverishly trying to invent dramatic storylines to project onto village life.
Biddarray is a gorgeous small mountain town. Unlike the hedonistic hills of Ohlette and Hendaye, full of teenagers buzzing around on mopeds and nonchalantly smoking whilst asking me questions about my tent, Biddarray has a considerably slower pace.
By noon I had slowed down too and was able to enjoy life without adrenaline inducing mountain drama. At 12:30 the most exciting thing to happen to me all day occurred. I had a half hour conversation with an eighty-something year old lady in a fabulous shiny flower patterned jacket, knitted jamiroquai hat and very cool sunglasses (she took the sunglasses off for the photo). Despite both of us being unable to understand what the other was saying we still managed to non-stop chit-chat whilst waiting for our train. When I showed her my GR10 guidebook she flipped through the pages, pointing at photos of lakes and mountains and reciting their names. She had seemingly visited them all. I wish I could have understood more. I’m not sure why but we laughed a lot. She had a childlike glee about her and I bet her stories would have been as impressive as her dress sense.
Other highlights from the last twenty four hours include a dinner time reunion with Robere (from Sare), my last meal with Göel and Pierre who wished me “bonne chance” as they departed. As I was sat in the centre of town drinking most of yesterday I helped Robere and a few other hikers find their gites. I’ve also had a fantastiqúe taxi journey with a Basque taxi driver who showed me his ‘pelota’ glove. All the towns I’ve been to here have pelota stadiums and he’s playing in his own village this evening. I bought new boots for my 1000m high hike tomorrow! Murray and Ange have also made a last minute appearance. I feel like I’m in the movie Casablanca, everybody passes through here at some point, now PLAY IT AGAIN SAM! We caught up on tales from the mountains before they hurried back to their hotel, thunder rumbling above once again.
One of the best things about the pub I’m staying in is that it has gel de douche (shower gel). Like duct tape on a broken boot helping to pick up dead leaves and branches – shower gel has helped me pick up a few more friends than usual… Gel de bon ami.
Got a message from Heather yesterday:
“You took a tent you didn’t need, but no soap…”
Always nice to hear from her.
If at any point you get bored in this post just skip to the last paragraph, that’s where things start really heating up! Ohhhh yeah.
Farm life was wonderful. The farmers wife was full of life and whilst eating the huge portions she served us we watched pigs, ducks, chickens and bulls meander through the farm courtyard. Before packing my rucksack and using the farmers duct tape on my boots I walked around and looked down into the valley. It wasn’t there. The whole valley was obscured by a layer of cloud. Ainhoa, Sare and Ohlette, all my previous stops would be having a cloudy day. But because I was living 600m high I was having a lovely sunny morning. This made me feel even more aloof than usual and I hurriedly gathered my things to venture up the next mountain. Ha! I chuckled to myself, what would the valley people be up to now? Who cares! I can’t see them! I was alive I was hiking up my next mountain, each step taking me higher and higher into my new fabulous life.
Look at that photo. Look at past Jeff’s smug face, hiding his smug smirk from the little valley people below. They couldn’t see it anyway mate! They’re under the clouds and you’re in this magical sunny land where nothing goes wrong! Past Jeff is a fool, a mountain idiot. This is one of many photos I took as I slowly but happily ascended Férme Esteban’s neighbouring mountain.
The thought did occur to me that this is usually how most of my days start, really well, followed by a fuck up that leads to some hilarious though dangerous escapade. But honestly I did not think today would be like that… Today was just a short six mile jaunt in the mountains. Plus the mountains looked achievable in the morning before any thunder storms arrived. Because thunder storms arrive in the afternoon, dems the rules. Nothing to worry about. I might even camp in Biddarray (the next village) because today will be soooo nice and pleasant with nothing stressful involved at all… you see where I’m going with this right?
After taking roughly three hundred photos of fluffy clouds in the valleys below I started to realise that some of the clouds were getting higher. Not only that but there was the rumble of thunder and it was getting louder.
Stood outside a cow shed on a mountain pinnacle, a cloud hit me. Within seconds it went from sunny delight to foggy nightmare. The next GR10 marking I saw pointed over a cliff edge, to the left of it was an almost cliff made of fern, gorse bushes and fallen rocks. I looked at the map and my guidebook which said ‘this bit might be quite difficult with a rucksack’ – cheers mate. Thunder cracked above me. ‘This isn’t possible, I can’t get down that!’ I thought. The clouds below cleared for a few seconds and guess who I saw below? Tiny versions of Göel and Pierre! I shouted down into the slim crevasse until they looked up. They shouted back ‘SLOWLY’! If I had not seen them and if the thunder hadn’t been so loud, I would not have considered doing what I did next.
Down the rubble and fern mountain face I went. One slippery step at a time I fell into cracks and holes hidden by weeds and slippery fern. My progress was slow. The heavy rucksack really came into its own – from lurching me forward with all its weight towards certain death to getting it’s straps trapped in crevices forcing me to slip and slide on my arse until it broke free. This was perfect break your leg or ankle territory. And here I was, in a thunderstorm, lightning occasionally lighting everything around me, with two metal hiking sticks. Oh, and now my right boot decided to fall apart.
I caused a few mini land slides, one resulting in a hiking stick getting stuck under a boulder. I managed to remove it only to realise my foot was resting on a skull. I fell and clambered further over the horse skeleton, the only way I could reassure myself was by talking… to myself. In calmer moments I managed to count the seconds between thunder sound and lightning flash, the lowest was six (the safe zone is thirty).
I lost all sense of time and I’ll cut a long story short. The correct thing to do in a mountain thunder storm is to put your rain coat on, distance yourself from any metal belongings or trees and wait it out in the rain. Not, throw yourself off a mountain.
Covered in bruises and cuts, my legs ache and give way frequently after that shock filled hour(s?). The storm passed and I dried with the mountain, the fallen rain on my path turning into a steamy mist in front of me. I came across G&P sat on a river bank drying out, Göel was also a bit shaken but they had actually managed to find the GR10 path instead of using the cliff I clambered down.
I am staying in a beautiful pub with a lovely bedroom. Sometimes beautiful women walk past in flowing dresses. What a large spectrum of emotions and feelings today has been filled with. I might stay here forever, grow some tomatoes, start a family. That’s as sexy as this post gets.
I had a fabulous evening in Sare. My campsite was gorgeous, set amongst lush green hills. Only, I didn’t camp. They had a gite and the rain and thunder were sweeping the valley thick and fast. It was the easy option and I took it. I shared a 6 bed room with one old man called Robere, also hiking. You’d probably be right in wanting to ask me things like ‘why are you carrying that tent if you’re never gonna use it?‘ And ‘when are you going to actually act like an adventurer and sleep outside?‘. You’d be right to ask those questions, but it doesn’t mean I’ll like you for it or that I’ll answer them, so obnoxious, why don’t you come out ere then!?!
Though if you’re after adventurer action then this is the post for you! I’m currently on a farm after walking 18 miles into the thunder mountains instead of 10. Things got a little dicey on the way. Where the rucksacks haven’t destroyed my shoulders the bugs have eaten away at them. My left foot’s little toe is mostly blister. The boots are falling apart again. But interestingly this farm is on the border of Spain. The owners, back during WW2 used to help people escape the country. Given what I’ve just been through, I cannot imagine how dangerous that would have been anyway but also – during winter!?
This might be a long post (sorry) but I thought the best way to explain today’s adventure would be through an ignorant and possibly offensive (there’s a lot of basic toilet humour) list of ways to communicate in the mountains. As this is so long I may not post tomorrow. First up! It’s language itself:
We all use language in some way. Here in the Basque Country, most people speak three languages, none of them English. The spoken word can be really useful when trying to express how you feel. For example when an insect starts nibbling at your delicious elbow and you use your new favourite French swear word ‘merde’ repeatedly as you bat it out of your skin. Only to turn a corner and see you’ve interrupted an outdoor family breakfast, kids an all.
If words don’t work try gesticulating! When I walked past a farmer with Pierre and Jóel the other day they shouted something to him. Based on the gestures I think this is how the conversation went:
J&P: “Wow those are big tomatoes!”
Farmer: “this is Basque Country! If you think these are big you should see my balls!”
Thus affirming the old mountain saying ‘if you’ve got GROSS TOMATS you’re sperm must be incredible!’.
Art can be a great way to portray the feeling of a place. It would appear the Basque people have excelled at conveying mountain life in the art that decorates their streets and restaurants. I walked through 10 miles of beautiful valley life today. Here the mountain rivers trickle together and gently pool under quaint village bridges. It was so peaceful and beautiful I began to wonder if Harrís or Heather had been meddling with my reality again. As if to confirm my suspicions I spied a farmer in bright blue trousers, checked shirt, and dark navy bonnet. Staring across his land stoically, his strong old frame was the epitome of the bold cubist style depictions I’ve seen everywhere I go in the Basque Country. It was postcard perfect. When I finally reached Ainhoa I picked up a postcard with a photo cover which could have easily been the same man. Weird. It was all too perfect. ‘This isn’t what the readers want!‘ I thought. ‘They want adventure!!‘. So I finished my delicious meal, drank my beer and headed into the mountains! I estimated it would only take me three hours to get to a good spot and I definitely had enough water for that! I was wrong on both matters.
4. Food & symbolism:
Like most places in the world both food and symbolism are important in the Basque Country. I’ve come to realise food won’t be a problem here, everything has been delicious and there’s usually four courses. As for symbolism, there is a symbol with four circles swirling around each other which is used frequently in this region of the Basque Country. The first time I saw this symbol was on a toilet lid. I have since learnt it does not represent a flushing toilet. Also as I exited Ainhoa and climbed 500m of my first mountain this afternoon, I came across Jesus in statue form. Him and two other guys were nailed to the usual wooden crosses. This symbolism obviously carries a lot of meaning all over the world. Then a police car parked up next to me and the coppers inside started to eat their lunch looking out at the view. Which just goes to show – one persons lunch spot is another’s place of connection to an omnipresent celestial being. I’d already had lunch so on I shuffled.
Talking about sport always gets you places. Unfortunately I know nothing about sport. In the Basque they love rugby and a sport unique to this area called ‘pelota’ which is similar to squash. The town of Sare appeared to be built around very old mini stadiums for ‘pelota’. Like a clarsy barstard I ate a takeaway pizza in one of them last night. It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve had so far, no joke.
Only one more after this I promise! The whole time I’ve been walking through this region the hills have literally been alive with the sound of bells (and sometimes gunfire). I recently learnt that the farmers here attach bells to all livestock including sheep, bulls and horses – these are the most polite horses I have ever met, they have calmly stepped out of my way on narrow forest paths to let me pass.
7. Bodily liquids:
You get the idea. Sweat is bad and it stops people communicating with you. What you really need to watch out for is when you stop sweating because you’ve run out of water on a sun baked mountain, unsure of how far the next town is, mouth dry and cracking, skin burning, all alone aside from the bulls. If you do find yourself in that situation and you come across a stream, don’t whatever you do, use that moment to start a science experiment involving antibacterial wipes and chlorine dioxide from your rucksack in an attempt to purify the water. If my experience is anything to go by it will result in a water bottle full of something resembling absynthe.
Luckily I did not drink it, I limped around the corner to find a farm house where I found Göel (finally learnt how to spell her name) and Pierre drinking beer and handing me one! I couldn’t believe it. I had been 5 minutes away for about half an hour trying to purify water! The farmer has since explained that the water in that stream is probably safe anyway. Pierre being the guy he is, even arranged my room for the night with the farmer. These guys, its the second time they’ve appeared just at the right moment. Spooky.
I walked eighteen miles in nine hours today and one elastic band is holding my boots together. Since I’ve been on the farm I’ve been in three thunder storms and eaten six courses of delicious farm food.
I decided not to take my current host up on the offer of using his spare pair of speedos in his swimming pool. This is not a comment on his hygiene or character. The stocky tanned man (who’s name I cannot remember) was full of a rambunctious zeal for life. If he wasn’t rummaging through his pamplemousse or throwing things at his chickens he would be wrestling with his children or fixing my boots. The delicious meal I ate last night was also cooked by his wife and him. I did not use his speedos because they were too big.
This nameless man described the symptoms my broken boots were suffering from as ‘le crocodile’. A few minutes later I watched one of his children launch themselves into his piscene clutching an inflatable crocodile. Well that was a boring story wasn’t it? Sorry, after only one day in the mountains domestic life has started to seem strange. When this kid got out of the pool though I saw he was wearing normal day-to-day boxers! I wanted to yell “WHY CANT I JUST WEAR MY BOXERS!?” to my new Dad.
Anyway off I went with strict instructions not to wear my boots for one day. All I really knew about the day ahead was that it would be shorter than yesterday. It would also be shorter than Pierre and Jóels plans for the day. I was heading for a village called ‘Sare’ and they were doing twice the distance to a place called ‘Ainhoa’. There’s a part of me that felt disappointed in myself. Those guys are grandparents (oldest grandchild 20!). But then I started walking, my rucksack extra heavy with boots and full water bottles. The GR10 didn’t take it easy on me, first task – climb 600m! It would appear that yesterday I had descended almost to sea level again so this was the climb back into the mountains.
The whole time I’ve been on this walk, even from the second I left Hendaye a pointy mountain has been visible. It’s extra pointy because humans have built something on top of it and then put loads of antenna on top of that. My 600m climb brought me to a mountain cul-de-sac which gave me the option to hike to the top of the pointy bit. I now know this mountain to be called LARRUN or la Rhune. It also occurred to me that it is very similar to Snowdon, there is even a train going to the top! So that building must be a cafe. I shunned civilisation like a man of the wild in a desperate attempt to cover up the fact that I was already limping and sweating profusely.
From that height, looking out back towards the coast, I was reminded of my home, North Wales. It felt almost like I was flying over the smaller hills below. When I was a child I used to have a re-occurring dream. The dream included me and the blonde girl across the road (who I had a crush on and owned a horse). She would be flying a spitfire and I’d be operating a huge mechanical T-Rex. Together we would soar and stomp across North Wales. The view from half way up la Rhune brought the memory of that dream back. Then I remembered I was alone, in pain, I stank and flies kept on landing my nose.
Hobbling down the other side of la Rhune my feet rejoiced to be free of those comfy boots for the day and into these rubbery blister inflicting sandals. But there was to be no footwear swapping, that guy back there had said so. I trusted him.
I walked into the green lush valley which must have been alight with lightening the night before. Most hikers try to get their walking done during the morning because the thunder comes in the afternoon. This should be a good first night in the tent. What a magical place. On the way to my campsite I got distracted in the old mountain town of Sare. Today’s walk was only 5 hours, a welcome relief. I’m sat outside a restaurant, drinking bob’s beer and eating sausages in the usual delicious red basque sauce. It’s made from espellete peppers apparently unique to the French basque region don’t ya know!
I’m still yet to find my campsite. Mainly because I’m still sat down drinking. The weather has flittered between sunny and heavy rain several times. No one has batted an eyelid about it. Sometimes the children whilst playing, grab big leaves off the trees to use them as umbrellas then drink the water from them afterwards. The mountains are a craggy shadow all around us.
Better find that campsite, the thunder’s arrived!
I am so tired. Many parts of me hurt. The stars are out. Lightning in the next valley is silhouetting the ominous mountains surrounding my new home.
This morning I woke to Ed Harrís from the Truman Show open shirted making me four breakfasts. Over fruit bowls, chocolate-cinnamon porridge and toast with spreads we talked of our lives. I had intended to leave at seven but it was dark, wise Harrís explained this is because time and light work differently here – France. Half way through breakfast three he dropped in that he had lived in New York for seven years. Discussing NYC in the 80s went on for far too long so I left at eight. At least the sun had come up.
In the restaurant the night before a waiter related to the owner in some way explained that the GR10 route actually starts in his restaurant! It seemed strange that such a route would start in a place with murals depicting tacky visions of Ancient Greece. But a little tipsy I did the first kilometre of the GR10 staggering along the harbour of Hendaye.
Skipping last nights jaunt this morning meant I could head straight for the mountains. Glimpsing them between faux medieval high rise flats they looked just as intimidating as yesterday. But I was full of excitement, I was heading into the wild! It wasn’t long before I found myself in rolling hills, farms either side and far off mountains peaking through clouds. Ed told me my walk today should only take six hours and my guide book confirmed his wise words. So why would I doubt anything Ed has told me?
I turned into what must have been my second field and looked up the lane. Then walking towards me was a man with a dog. He’s wearing camouflage, odd! What’s that in his hand? Oh look! A fucking rifle! A mixture of thoughts went through my mind as the man side stepped into another field and shot what I presume was a bird. I couldn’t decide what was more annoying, this guy shooting stuff, or the image of Heathers smug face reading about it.
Anyway we politely waved at each other as he searched for a carcass and I decided to have a wee. As I exited my chosen wee spot I bumped into a lovely Australian couple. If I had to guess I’d say they were in their 60s. Their names were Murray and Ange. We exchanged pleasantries and it turned out we were doing the same route! At this point I was already sweating and smelling a lot. So we had a good laugh about that and I slimed my way up the next hill ahead of them.
Cue montage of Jeff merrily following his route, stumbling across farms, waving at farmers maybe even slipping in the occasional ‘Bonjour!’. Then hilariously slipping on his own sweat. The music could be something bubbly by Bridget Bardot with the occasional COCKADOODLEDO from the farms. Ya know, to emphasise this is the rural provincial bit before shit gets real beary. The clip ends with Jeff reaching to undo his flies in a lay-by.
Me: “Oh hey Murray and Ange! I knew I’d see you again soon.”
Murray: “Don’t be embarrassed Jeff we all need to piss.”
Life continued as such for quite some time. Heading higher and deeper into the Pyrenees. These are just the foot hills really before the big ol mountains in days to come. This did not detract from their beauty and for me they were still tough work. Each new hill I climbed either alone or with my Australian urine friends was surrounded by gorgeous mountainous views. As we skirted the edge of Spain ascending a 600m hill we formed new friendships. Their names were Jean-Pierre and Jóel from Brittany.
It was on this mountain that I started to feel ‘well shit’. The morning clouds had dispersed making way for a sweltering midday sun. The weight of the rucksack taking its toll. Every other breath started to fill with obscenities, cursing my life choices. The scenery around me was breathtaking and occasionally sparkled as I blew the sweat out of my moustache. Then. My left boot fell apart.
On that baking mountain crescent I unpacked my replacement walking sandals (thanks Jonny for the tip) and chucked my boots into my rucksack. This added a crippling weight to my climb. Non fun.
Murray and Ange left my side at Venta Elisalde which is a restaurant in a fake town high up in the mountains. It was quite a surprise to come across. I made a number of friends in the restaurant including a group of teenagers. At one point one of them said ‘enchenté’, this is one of the few French words I do know. I leaned in towards him and shook his hand with a sweaty grip “enchente” I replied. I think he thought I was a little too pleased to meet him. Our waitress lent me some duct tape to fix my boots. I thought I wasn’t far from my destination, (a gite in Olhette) I was wrong. Many forests, rivers and mountains later Jóel and Pierre re-entered my life at just the right moment.
This is so annoying but I’m going to have to summarise from here as there’s too much to write about and I am exhausted. Jóel and Pierre have become good walking companions. Teaching me French as we walk. Now my boots are in a vice in the gite owners shed. He also lent me some of his speedos for the swimming pool and took great pleasure in showing me the pamplemouse (grapefruit) he is growing. I’ve been cooked an incredible meal and shared it with no less than 8 French people. Everyone seems embarrassed that they can’t speak much English which is hilarious because there’s three languages I could try and use here – French, Spanish and Basque and guess what, I know none of them! What a chump. The walk was incredible but it was 15 miles and took 9 hours.
This pic goes out to the Miles family.
The Atlantic Ocean and a French Ed Harris have calmed me down, I am very grateful. So now I can write! As always, it’s best to start at the beginning…
The old London street cat named Rusty showed no emotion as I waved goodbye to my hosts – Paul and Heather. Rusty’s seen things you people wouldn’t believe and he’s certainly no stranger to sentiments of departure echoing down his street. “Don’t die!” yelled Paul and “don’t describe me as the devil again!” screamed Heather. Would it have killed Rusty to meow something? Anything?! He merely blinked and slowly turned to face the shadows underneath his favourite car.
To simply call Paul and Heather ‘Hosts’ is a bit unfair. When Heathers not busy rustling around in Paul’s beard they’re actually my really good friends. Oh and they also happen to be lovers. For the past few months they’ve let me live in Paul’s office in north east London. Luckily his office is also in his flat so I’ve had easy access to both friendship and a shower the whole time. A situation which is likely to be in stark contrast with the next eleven days of my life. Giving P&H a mention here is important because if it wasn’t for them this trip would have been much more difficult. Why? Well, buying all the walking bits and bobs such as GPS trackers, sun hats, special pants and choccy bars hasn’t been cheap! And thankfully all Paul and Heather wanted in return for shelter was permission to analyse me psychologically and milk. Given that they are not entitled to any royalties from the fortunes I may eventually make from this blog it’s a pretty good deal really! So anyway after one frantic trip to weird Westfieldworld to pick up a few extra bits which I’d forgotten (special pants) – I waved goodbye to my calcium rich ‘hosts’ and trudged off towards the Pyrenees via the rucksack discriminating London tube.
It wasn’t until my Ryanair flight hit a bit of turbulence that panic really set in. But the imagery that filled my minds eye and had me gripping the arm rests wasn’t that of a crash landing. At first it was just the thought “this is actually happening, I’m going to be trekking into the Pyrenees alone in the morning!”. Then came a flood of other thoughts. You see over the past eight months or so my friends, family and acquaintances have all reacted differently to my Pyrenean plan. Some shrug it off “no biggy Jeff! Can you stop banging on about it”. Others, well others eyes widen and jaws drop as they slowly release the word “wwhhhhyyyy?”. Some just role their eyes. And others like to reel off anecdotal words of warning smugly as they watch me try and keep my calm. For example about three weeks ago I was informed there are bears in the Pyrenees! That’s right. Fucking bears. But the website was already built soooo here we are! And sat on that flight I started to have daymares about bears, sweating heavily as lottery tickets and perfumes were waved in my face.
Even on the the train to the airport Heather had sent a concerned and caring message along the lines of “my sister has a friend who lives there and she says it’s hunting season so you should wear fluorescent clothing incase someone shoots you and you die horribly!”. I have no fluorescent clothing.
So you see, it was with a panic stricken face that I rang the doorbell of my air bnb in Hendaye. Thankfully the ringing was answered by a very calming French version of Ed Harris from the Truman Show. Which begs the questions… am I actually in an enclosed fake reality TV show and potentially about to hit the walls of my allowed reality? Does me just writing that last question make me an arrogant arse? What’s Heather got to do with it? Was her last message a last ditch attempt to stop me discovering the truth? Does Paul know?
Anyway Ed sat me down after showing me how the toilet flushed and reassured me “that is nonsense, I have walked these mountains many a time, please tell Heather and all her relatives and their friends that you do not need fluorescent clothing in the Pyrenees. Hunting doesn’t really begin until October!”. Oh Ed.
Now I’m sat in an old French casino overlooking a dark sea drinking wine as a lighthouse occasionally shines in my direction. I’ve already used all kinds of French words, such as ‘Bonjour’ and ‘merde’ (got lost a couple of times) get me! There are depictions of muscly French farmers and hikers literally with the world on their back everywhere. The mountains are visible from the town. They are dark and enshrined in ominous clouds.
All that’s left to be said is the adventure starts tomorrow at 6:45 when Ed cooks me breakfast and hopefully provides a hug.
My planning is nowhere near as organised as that picture makes out, in fact it’s just stock photography I chose in desperation. The website may finally be live and being shared with you – the great unwashed – but this in no way reflects how prepared I am. Gosh, judging by the amount of effort put into this blog so far I bet you just cannot wait for it to really get started! Ey!?
In the meantime it may be best to clear up a few things. I have been asked the following questions regularly whilst trying to brag about this adventure. Just incase you have the same questions as the others here are the answers:
Q: When do you start?
A: I fly over to Hendaye on the 25th August and I start walking on the 26th.
Q: Is the Pyrenees in South America?
A: No. I am not being that adventurous, the Pyrenees is the mountain range dividing France and Spain. To begin with I will mostly be on the GR10 route which is on the French side.
Q: Do you know what you’re doing Jeff?
A: If you mean ‘am I an experienced hiker’ then the answer is a solid – meh, kind of probably not really. So if you’re an experienced hiker and have any tips relating to the Pyrenees please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org. But I’m sure I’ll ok be anyway RIGHT? If you mean have I planned in detail what route I am doing, how far I will walk each day, where I will sleep etc… then the answer is a solid – NO, not yet.
Q: How far is this walk?
A: As mentioned above the finer details are still being worked out and maps are still being bought BUT the GR10 route is roughly 850km or 520miles long. Yeah I know, why am I doing this again?