Beginning the Adventure of a Lifetime.
” I’ve had the GR10 in the back of my mind for about 6 years and now I’m actually doing it!”
Leaving home was crazy. Unlike when I left for Adelaide last year, I wasn’t too scared, that’s the benefit of travelling with friends’, the burden is shared; you know there’ll be someone there. But when it actually came to getting on the train to London Victoria, I got a bit of a rush. I’ve had the GR10 in the back of my mind for about 6 years and now I’m actually doing it!
I met Craig at Stanstead and we stayed at a relatively over priced hotel, ordered a pizza from the other side of the motorway and grabbed as much sleep as possible.
After a relatively stressful airport dash we made the plane and landed in Bilbao, which is a ridiculously underrated city that I wish I had more time to explore with my camera. We then got a 3 hour train to Hendaye, just across the French border, and walked to our campsite. We had a bit of a shock with the 37 degree heat, but hoped it’d cool. For now my worries about not bringing enough warm sleeping stuff have ebbed away. Had our first corned beef/quinoa/lentil meal. It does the job, but I think my taste buds have post-traumatic-stress-disorder. They’ll come round.
The first day was a bit of a shock to the system. Craig said right away that this was going to be nothing like Australia for me. He was right. Australia had very little ascent, here we’re doing 49,000m. Australia was heading into Autumn, here it’s the beginning of summer and already roasting. I stayed in lots of towns in Australia, here we’re getting used to camping far away from civilisation (partly for cost and partly to avoid the heat). But there are benefits here. Company is a great thing to have, even if we’re not talking or 200m away, having people to share it with makes the experience more enjoyable, and also feel safer. The Pyrenees are far more culturally saturated than the coast of Australia too.
“Such a massive build up, getting everyone together, telling everyone I was doing this, buying all the equipment, getting here, and now I was going to have to at least sit out for a week with stitches.”
I did get a big shock on our first ascent though. Wow. In this heat, this stuff is hard. I was feeling pretty crap when we got to the top of a mere 400m hill, walking up wishing I was at home, in bed, doing nothing, but knowing it was hard to go back anyway. At the top things were fine… Until walking down I fell, having distracted myself in conversation slipped on gravel, and cut my knee wide and deep. Sat on a verge, blood seeping down my leg with Craig cleaning it, I felt ridiculous. Such a massive build up, getting everyone together, telling everyone I was doing this, buying all the equipment, getting here, and now I was going to have to at least sit out for a week with stitches. Luckily it turned out I was a hypochondriac and am in fact totally fine. We pushed on further than the guidebook said by a few km, which is a pattern that would continue, and camped with an amazing bottle of Rosé gifted to us by a girl whose car we broke into (let Fiona explain).
The next day started with a stiff ascent up the rest of the hill we camped on, then down into Sare, a little Basque town with pain au chocolate (which are called chocolatines here and nothing else), and a charcuterie where we got some amazing cheese. Then it got hot, real hot. For the first time in my life I wished I had a sun hat. After maybe 90 minutes in the sun we camped out alongside a river for a siesta and a paddle to cool off. A few hours later we got moving and reached Ainhoa. It was still too hot, and although the guidebook told us to stop there, we wanted to get up the next ascent. So after another siesta we headed up.
I soon realised my weaknesses with hiking. I don’t usually train stamina, more explosive strength for hockey, so I can shoot up the first 1km of a hill quickly, then stop for a rest for 30 seconds, then 800m, then 500m, then 200, then I need a 5 minute break and start again. Craig however, has the ability to keep a good pace and just continue straight on up, it’s quite impressive really. Fiona keeps a relatively slow pace but stays steady. Her feet have been hurting a bit which may be slowing her.
Once at the top, taking photos of vultures, we met a Belgian girl called Ailse who was camping out after looking for a hunter’s cabin and giving up.
A few hours later we spied said cabin and headed for it. We found it inhabited with two French/ Basque musicians, in the area to play at a 40km race in the mountains tomorrow (who would want to run at 2pm in the Summer here is beyond me?), and they turned out to be the most generous people I’ve ever met. They shared beer, wine, fondue, Parma ham, chorizo, cake and, more importantly, music. Sitting at the top of a near-mountain, watching the stars and far away city lights, listening to a trumpeter and saxophonist play ‘The Salmon’ and ‘I speak Basque so why don’t you?’ (These cannot be found on YouTube sadly) as well as ‘O’ Flower of Scotland’, whilst stuffed full with amazing food is possibly the most content I have ever felt.
The next morning, after stupidly not giving our new friends our contact info, we left and climbed another hill. While descending we passed a group of boys around 18 years old, the last of whom I recognised. At the call of his name, Rob, the kid a few years below me from school, turned around. By some stroke of coincidence we’d bumped into my old school’s Gold Duke of Edinburgh expedition, crazy eh?
After getting lost twice and a seriously steep descent, we ended up boiling into Bidarray at 2pm in about 36 degree heat to find everything but a restaurant closed for Jean Baptiste’s death day. We were thus forced to eat Cote de Boeuf. Literally forced. We didn’t enjoy a bit of it… And then bumped into a couple of my old teachers and Jake, who I also went to school with. So far, a ridiculous day.
“…I finally got up it in 2.5 hours of what can only be described as complete and utter ‘not fun’.”
Again, we were eager to get more than the guide book said done and after a chat with an Australian retiree named John who’s doing the GR10 second time round, we left for the steepest climb yet. 1,000m in 5km is pretty crazy, and was incredibly hard. Again using my stop-start method, I finally got up it in 2.5 hours of what can only be described as complete and utter ‘not fun’. By the time we got looking for a suggested wild camp stop we were all pretty grumpy, so we ate and went to sleep all the while complaining about midges.
Day 4 was the first time I woke up and didn’t want to move. Again a benefit of being with other people is that this simply isn’t an option, everyone has the responsibility to get going and we all rely on each other to be complete. We were decidedly glad that we had done the climb the day before however, because the cloud was down and visibility was poor. In the end we had appreciated the views yesterday. After a walk through woods and clouds and another steep descent, we got into St. Etienne, a small town, again pretty much closed, being a Sunday and all. Pre-planning. Pre-planning is key. So after another forced meal, this time pizza, we carried on; Fiona getting slower and slower, but refusing to talk about it. Within 2 hours we stopped for a lovely siesta next to a cowshed and waited for the weather to cool. Another 2 hours on and we were at the peak of Monhoa, our fourth mountain now. After realising that within another 2 hours there was a bar…with beer, we scrapped camping wild and pretty much ran down the grassy slopes into Lasse, 2km out of St. Jean pied du Port, where we were due for a rest day. After a beer we looked at Fiona’s feet, which are in terrible shape. We were now happily in a campsite on our rest day, a day early, but at the cost of Fiona’s skin, which is relatively important. Turns out that after wearing in her boots she changed the insoles…
We’ve been here two days now after discovering that some of her blisters are infected. Craig and I are getting serious cabin fever and it looks like she’s going to have to wait a few days to a week to let them heal. For the sake of the whole team Fiona is going to get a bus and meet us in 5 days, because if we stay much longer, we’ll want to kill each other. There’s is very little to do here. Craig and I have been filling our time with swimming in rivers and doing a few workouts on our Monkii Bars (basically a portable gym), but we need to keep walking.
Lessons from week 1:
A. Watch where you walk
B. The French/ Basque are amazing people
C. Walking up mountains is made considerably more difficult with heat and added weight.
D. If you have a problem, tell the team.
E. Cheese/ wine are simply better in France.