Mountain Realisation

26th August 2018

Still on the banks of the fast flowing Gave de Gavarnie ou de Pau, possibly near Saligos, that being a commune in the Hautes-Pyrénées department of the Occitane region of southwestern France.

I was wrong, as per yesterday’s post, predicting that the ‘only road’ in this area into the heart of the mountains would be quiet in the early morning as, this morning, it was anything but.

Even before daybreak there was already plenty of activity on it but after a walk with Amy along both banks of the river we, nevertheless, struck out south for bread and broad horizons.

To walk both sides of the river involved crossing a bouncy footpath suspension bridge which must be amazing ‘fun’ when a crocodile of ramblers yomp across it! Amy, bless her feted feet, was no more sure about crossing it than I was and traversed it’s entire length in both directions practically slithering along on her belly.

A pretty fair walk, much better than I’d anticipated - and then back in the Jeep and down a slightly less busy road than earlier to the nearby town of Luz Saint Sauveur where there was a particularly shoddy and mouth-wateringly expensive Carrefour Market store and where I bought only a freshly baked baguette.

In the short time I was inside the store the world on two wheels started passing by outside on ‘the road’ and they, in their multitude, were also heading south!

Now, when I think of cycling I usually conjure up a gentle image of my mother when I was a small boy riding her sensible and sturdy sit-up-and-beg bike, complete with metal mudguards, a fully enclosed metal chain guard, three speed Sturmey Archer gears,butterfly handlebars with strong all steel brake levers and connecting rods, a wicker basket, a double ring bell and a funny kind of plastic head scarf thingy that went over a section of the rear wheel and mudguard to ensure her stockings didn’t get splashed!

She used her bike to sedately cycle a couple of miles to the nearest village store that sold bread, groceries, household stuff and her all important Kensitas fags.

Bicycles and the art of cycling have both certainly come a very long way since those austere post war years. I genuinely applaud the innovative advances made in cycling technology and sincerely wish more of us made use of it as a means of daily transportation but how did today’s business of biking all get so weird?

Here in France its nearly 100% a macho man thing. It’s not enough to peddle your super hi-tec machine along bike friendly roads where cars are obliged by law to give the cyclist a lot of room when overtaking you have to propel it with all the grim determination and painful vigour you can summon - as if you were trying to outpace a huge dam that just broke free behind you - sometimes alone but mostly as a member of a gang of riders.

I’ve already made more than enough snide remarks about men in tights and bright red shoes recently but it does seem to me that this cycling lark, here in France, is very much a tribal thing, complete with it’s outrageous look-at-me dress code, whose primary aim is to display for all who care to see what powerful hunks of testosterone fuelled primate Frenchmen are.

I don’t know how many bikes were out on the road in this morning’s ‘gang’ heading south but we have to be talking thousands. The pavements were literally lined with faithful tribal supporters comprised of older chaps and women of all ages to applaud and loudly cheer the champions on.

So many bikes going in the direction I wanted to take meant a rethink to today’s plan to venture deeper into the Parc National.

So, in true Tumbleweed fashion we let fate blow us up the only alternative road that wasn’t going to clogged with braggarts on bikes - and it was a road that only went to a very small place called Vizos (pop 37) where we parked the Jeep and set out on foot to explore.

By pure chance we quickly found an utterly deserted, if somewhat precipitous, footpath that led up an adjacent mountain and so we took it. Two very hard hours later I found myself breaking out of the densely wooded lower reaches of Soum de Nere onto a sunny ridge directly overlooking the town of Luz Saint Sauveur with a good view of the mountain opposite.

Looking out from a ridge at about 200m from Soum de Nere - pic doesn't even begin to convey the grandeur of it all up there......

The peak of Soum de Nere is 2394 metres and I guess we were about two thirds to three quarters the way up but a) I was tired and b) I could clearly hear sheep bells a-tinkaling nearby and didn’t have enough puff left to go chasing Amy if she decided they would make ideal playmates for today.

I was a bit gutted not to get right to the top but the return journey back the way we came proved it was a good decision. About halfway down my legs started to turn to jelly and by the time we finally got to the bottom it felt as if the soles of my shoes were fashioned from the rounded base of one of those dolls that you can’t knock over. Walking was getting really quite tricky and it was a really most disquieting experience I have to say.

The walk was three hours in total, two hours up and one hour down. We routinely did five hour walks in the Sierra Nevada last winter so today was a wakeup call illustrating to me just how much I have gone to seed in the intervening period!

Or, perhaps, just getting older?!

Whatever the reason I was well whacked by the time I thankfully lowered my backside in the driver’s seat of the Jeep. Amy looked a bit frazzled too but in her defence she had probably just done the same distance as me X seven with all her excited back and forths and comings and goings!

By now it was lunchtime and I’d come to realise looking down from my earlier high vantage point that we were in the midst of money here. Every property belongs to someone who is not remotely worried about the price of bread and there is a helluva lot of such property tucked away in every possible enclave.

My guess is we are only going to find more of the same this side of the Spanish border - maybe even there too - and finding places to ‘wild camp’ amongst the well-heeled is never an easy task. Yesterday’s stop over was a lucky find indeed and so I have taken the line of least resistance and simply returned there today.

As I write, I haven’t quite made my mind up what we will do tomorrow. I will need provisions which are far too expensive to source locally - so, it’s either a long drive south, probably into Spain to leave all the effluence of affluence behind, or go back to Lourdes and either find a different way into the mountains in the hope they are less touristy or plot a new destination entirely.

I’ll sleep on it!

Chasse Centrale

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