Maized as a Rook! - as they say in east Devon

24th August 2018

[Near] Barlest (pop 258 in 2009) - a commune in the Hautes-Pyrénées department of the Occitane region of southwestern France

A perfectly peaceful night at Vic-en-Bigorre but still feeling a little warm due to high humidity - nothing like the sultry heat of previous nights though and I finally enjoyed a better night’s sleep than of late.

We were surrounded by tall maize so I was intrigued when I noticed Amy intently watching a wild boar emerge from the corn at dusk to take a drink from an irrigation ditch. A smart piggy, that one, as it must have worked out hunters don’t ordinarily pursue their quarry through fields of tall maize.

Amy enjoyed our morning walk far more than I did as she was busily in and out of the maize and the adjacent irrigation channels sniffling and snuffling about whereas all I got was a repetitive hike along green lanes enclosed and enveloped by sheer walls of tall green corn plants on either side.

Backtracked a few km into Vic-en-Bigorre after the walk and made a visit to what is probably the best Leclerc supermarket I have ever been in. Not a large store, but big enough and the quality of the fresh food was outstanding. The boulangier selection was particularly tempting and I could easily have blown today’s food budget in that department alone. As it was I managed to exercise severe restraint and limited myself to a packet of four small rolled vanilla pancakes for tomorrow’s breakfast with my coffee!

Not only was the produce exceptionally good it was all beautifully and attractively presented, every single member of staff was extremely friendly and despite such dedicated attention to detail the prices were extremely reasonable - well, for France, anyway!

I bought a two-pack of toothbrushes that was priced on the shelf at €1.17 but on checking the till receipt as I unloaded them into the Jeep I saw that I had been charged €3.28 for them. So, I returned into the store and in my best Franglaise managed to obtain a refund of €2.11.

Now, I realise that getting a partial refund on a pair of toothbrushes might not sound like an Earth shattering event to you but, not only was the man who dealt with me the very epitome of etiquette, it was not so very long ago that the very idea of attempting such a conversation in French, albeit my piss-poor patois version of it, would have had me breaking into a cold sweat.

Accordingly, I was feeling rather chuffed with myself as Amy and I drove away from the store to resume our journey in the general direction of Lourdes.

And what an aMAIZEing journey that was, too.

We drove almost all of yesterday through maize fields and today was more of the same again. TBH I was beginning to get more than a bit fed up of driving along claustrophobic corridors of corn so was mightily pleased to see the Pyrénées appear upon the southern horizon at about 10:30 am. The sky was generally a bit grey this morning and it wasn’t apparent until the mid morning sun started to burn through the grey a bit that those dark shadows ahead were not moody clouds but actually rather splendid looking mountains.

To drive north/south for a total of (say) six hours at 80km/hour through more-or-less continuous corn is one helluva lot of maize. I can only hope that next year’s crop will be something entirely different although I’d be prepared to bet my last Euro it won’t be.

I have to come clean with you and admit I’m no great lover of farmers for far too many reason to go into right now but as I saw km after km of this mono-crop being lavishly irrigated my enmity towards them was refuelled anew. Farming today is all about making short-term money and bugger the long term consequences. I couldn’t help but wonder how much Monsanto (now taken over by Bayer, I understand) genetically modified seed was sown (or will have to be sown in the future) to produce such a singularly uniform, disease free crop and what the long term outcome of mankind dropping a lighted match in nature’s barn will be?!

At one point on this morning’s drive I felt the need for a second walk with Amy and pulled over onto a very large area of mown grass running parallel with a side road. It turned out to be a lengthy landing strip for light aircraft, complete with windsock and white painted runway marker stones - though who uses it is a complete mystery to me as there is no sign of human habitation for many kms - and the road itself eventually lead to a landfill site.

Basically, it was a fenced and gated area with lots of official signs from the prefecture warning the public of all the dire consequences of unauthorised entry so, curiosity spiked, we wandered in and took a look! It appeared to be a landfill site for mainly hardcore and soil which was really just a steep natural escarpment overlooking a decent stretch of forest. Trucks, presumably, simply backup to the leading edge and literally empty their contents out on top of the forest!

All quite unbelievable, really - a case of for-east meets waste, perhaps?!

The onward journey south towards Lourdes took us to a little place called Ger where we crossed the A64 motorway intending to make a due south beeline to the mountains. However, signs warning us of ‘death upon entry’ into an extensive open militarised area helped make the decision to take a slightly different route south via Pontacq, a pleasant hunkered-down sort of town pretty much in the last bit of plateau before the Pyrénées rise up majestically out of the flat fields.

This particular morning in Pontacq was a bit hectic though as a large bicycle touring group was passing through all aided and abetted by stewarts directing traffic, multiple motorbike outriders and scores of gendarmerie in busy blue vans. The French sure do take their cycling seriously, gives the men a good excuse to wear tights instead of pants and bright red shoes in public I guess!

Not far out of Pontacq we turned off the main road and quickly found ourselves climbing steeply through a forested area (makes a welcome change from maize!) and have pulled over onto a nice quiet spot just within the forest at the point where a sign proclaims the road ahead is open to agricultural vehicles only.

It’s a good spot to overnight at but soon after we pulled up we heard several loud gunshot retorts fairly close by. Last weekend's fireworks seem to have unnerved Amy where loud bangs are concerned and she really wasn’t too happy about them.

That was just before lunch and shooting always stops at that time of day for the intrepid hunters to scoff some food and wine(!) so it soon went quiet but, the question is will it resume this evening - or, potentially worse, in the early morning half light?

At the moment we are here:

Google Maps
Latitude : 43.14319 (43° 8′ 35.48″ N)
Longitude : -0.11247 (0° 6′ 44.89″ W)
accuracy of signal : 9 m

but may move on before tonight depending on how it goes this afternoon and evening.

It’s currently raining on and off and the temps fallen dramatically to 17 (quite a shock to the system after recent days and nights) so that may help to keep the hunters indoors for a time.

Lourdes is pretty close now, an easy run first thing in the morning I suspect and beyond are the mountains. My experience vis-a-vis hunters in the Spanish Sierra Nevada last winter teaches me to expect hunters in the Pyrénées too but I have high hopes for the Parc National, a bit further south, as one assumes hunting is not permitted.

Below, is an extract from Wikipedia about the place:

The park was created in 1967 as a natural heritage site without barriers or fences where animals are totally free. Devoted to preserving biodiversity and landscapes, as well as studying wildlife and plant species, the park is home to 70 different species of mammals.

And hopefully no bloody maize either!

Sleepless in Murderville

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