‘We Don’t Need Maps’.

Well this week has been interesting.

We’ve had hard days, harder days, and some really hard days. Well not exactly. We’ve had days that, a few weeks ago we would have found hard, but we can now do with ease. We’ve also had days that were just crazy hard, on the body and mind.

‘It took us a while but we realised we’d been taken for idiots by the politics of the GR10.’

We set out from Luz in pretty high spirits, the weather threatened to rain but we were confident we’d get to camp before it. A nice, short and easy climb out of Luz, with only a few stops for Craig to re duct-tape his boot. I’m sure Craig will explain the situation with his boot, put simply: his boot is broken and needs fixing or replacing, but as a point of principle/comedy, he wants to try and get his boots to Banyuls… I’m unconvinced. After a surprisingly short time we arrived in Baregès, the next town along, and the end of the day in the guidebook, but of course we were going to push on.
What was meant to be a massive ascent turned out to be nice and meandering, which left me anxious because the easier the beginning of a 800m ascent, the harder the end of it. About 8km later, we still hadn’t climbed anywhere near what we should have. We stopped for lunch and to have a good look at the guidebook. It took us a while but we realised we’d been taken for idiots by the politics of the GR10.
Politics and walking you say? The last time I’d heard about the two together was when MPs tried to look good by walking to parliament promoting green and healthy living whilst followed by their media vans. But yes, the GR10 has a political backstory, mainly tourism. Sections of the trail attract hundreds if not thousands of visitors each year and those visitors get hungry, thirsty, and sleepy (our intake of chocolatines can vouch for that), so if the GR misses out a town or village, that village understandably feels a bit pants, and bakers by the dozen lose customers. So there is the GR10c. Also probably an a, b and various others; routes that diverge slightly from the main one (although marked with the same red and white signs) meander through villages and meet back up with it later, making everyone happy.
Well, not everyone. In this circumstance there were three rather disgruntled, hot and tired Brits who had followed the GR10c out of Luz without knowing, reached Bagneres, where they then met up with the GR10 proper, only heading the wrong way, back to Luz. In other words we had just stopped 2 km short of walking in a 20km circle. It didn’t stop there. Of course, to get back to where we had been, we needed to go back another 8km. Now, it’s obvious we quite like walking. I mean, we are spending 8 weeks doing it, and even at home we usually walk most places. To uni, to the shops, I’m a waiter so I walk lots. But it isn’t very often you walk 8km somewhere, to sit down for 10 minutes and walk 8km back the exact same way, to sit down for another 10minutes. So nearly 4 hours after leaving Bagneres, we had returned.

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Once there, (it was now 4pm) we had a ‘discussion’ about what our next move was going to be. Fi and I were keen just to cut our loses and stay at a campsite in Bagneres, Craig was adamant that wasn’t an option and we had to make up for our screw up. The executive decision was made to have a coke and chill and decide in an hour. An hour later I’d changed my mind and Fi was on the fence. We were having a crap day, why not just make it a wee bit more crap and make tomorrow easier? So we pushed on, looking to get to a Caban (a public hut that hikers shelter in), before the rain hit. Sadly we didn’t quite make it (Craig had to talk me into stopping) but we did find a spot to camp and hunkered down for a big storm which tested the limits of our tents. The 20km we’d meant to do that day turned into 34km in 7 ¾ hours, our longest day, for now.

Our wild camp spot

Our wild camp spot

The next morning was a stiff one, with quite a large ascent, we were all showing signs of fatigue from the day before, but once reaching the end of the day by the guide book, we again decided to persevere on. My thinking on this is that our bodies can handle a lot more beatings than our minds at this stage, and it’s better to get to somewhere we can relax sooner, and worry about sore legs later, which is exactly what we did. After another 30km+ day, this time in 8 ½ hours, we staggered into Vielle, a small village absolutely shut down this Sunday eve. Our plan was to wild camp on some Rugby pitches and head off again in the morning. Craig and Fiona wandered off to find a few beers while I hung around the village square talking on the phone. My evening plan payed off when a local woman, Maiwenn, came over with a handful of berries which for me and had a chat. Turns out she’d dropped her boyfriend in Hendaye a few days ago to start the GR10 himself. She then offered any help she could give, especially use of her shower if I needed it (still unsure whether she was guessing or could tell it’d been a sweaty few days). She pointed out her house and said to come knocking if there was anything she could do. About 5 minutes later Craig called, they smugly told me about the beers they were having and asked me to clean up everything from dinner. I ate the last of the berries I’d saved for them and went to accept the offer of hygiene. You know you’re out of your comfort zone when you choose a shower over beer. I went and knocked and had the first steaming hot shower with proper soap and shampoo in 3 weeks.

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Stood lording over Vielle

When Craig and Fi returned, slightly wobbly, we went to find our camping spot for the night, which turned out to be in a marquee that had been pitched on the playing fields, much easier and less visible than pitching tents.

We woke up and got out quite quickly, aware that we were probably in school playing fields on a Monday morning. About 5 minutes after leaving we passed a group of about 50 school kids heading that way in rugby kit, a lucky escape. We shopped and had planned to find a cafe only to discover that the only one was back the way we’d come about 500m. Fi and I still wanted to go but Craig didn’t, and made it clear that it wasn’t an option. I snapped, I was annoyed with the lack of discussion, and lost my temper. To be honest, it’s not our first argument, and definitely won’t be our last. Luckily we both realise that we’re tired and stressed. In the last 48 hours we’d walked over various mountains and 60km, spending the majority of our time uncomfortably. People get pissy. Also, the right decision was to move on before it got too hot so I’ll accept his point. We did also stop for an apple juice a bit further on.
A short but steep day followed, passing a few towns and finally reaching Germ, where we had planned to stop. Upon finding that the campsite cost €8.50 each, Craig again wanted to push on, but Fi and I put our feet down and kept them there. Tonight we were going to have showers, swim, use the Internet and chill. Also there was a small market selling cheap saucisson and cheese. I’m personally proud with munching my way through 2 whole saucissons and a half kilo of cheese.
The cheese and meat slowed me down quite a bit the next day, at first. Today we were headed to Lac d’Oo, somewhere I’d been looking forward to seeing for weeks, a beautiful lake with massive waterfalls, about 1,600m above sea level. I’d envisioned swimming and camping nearby. Sadly, it was not to be. The name of the game this week was ‘wrong way’. This time possibly worse than before, though not as far, we took the wrong route up our initial steep ascent and went up 300m over 45 minutes, to come back down and up another 250m. I wanted to blame Craig but that’s easy to do because he’s always in front. I can’t just assume he’s gone the right way, and I missed that lack of route markers too.

‘Every other time we’ve passed people on the trail, everyone says bonjour and you say it back; whether walking on flat or climbing a rock face, you say bonjour.’

So 550m up later and about 90 minutes behind schedule, we dropped 1,000m down into a small roadside restaurant just below Lac d’Oo, filled with tourists. By this point my knees are killing me. My pack is ridiculously heavy with cameras, chargers and my iPad, all to record this journey, so I was really slow and shaky coming down.
After a couple of ice creams we followed the tourist trail up to the Lac. One thing I noticed today, people are far less open and nice to passers by when there are more of them. Every other time we’ve passed people on the trail, everyone says bonjour and you say it back; whether walking on flat or climbing a rock face, you say bonjour. Here, with more people, it’s like kindness is diluted. Far fewer people say hi, and some even look like they’re having an awful time, be it with their families, or friends, about 1 in 5 looked like they were actively trying to have a bad day. I was reminded of 7am tube journeys in London. Some people looked offended when I panted a greeting to them. Ah well, cups of tea and that.
Once finally at the lake, actually in the time the guide book set out for us (we were usually an hour or so faster), this place I’d waited 20 days to see, a thing of beauty I’d read and heard about for years, it began to rain, and there was no where to camp… Just wasn’t our day.

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Craig and I admiring the ‘Lac’

As people ran past us to get to the restaurant/refuge by the lake, which was about to make a ridiculous amount of money from the fast approaching storm, we headed up the 700m ascent to a possible chance of a campsite. It was a steep, rocky ascent, made worse by what shortly became an outright downpour, in which we were the only people heading upwards, too far committed/saturated to turn back. Luckily, just as the rain turned into a constant wall of water pouring from the sky, Craig found a cave, and we all sheltered and changed clothes for lunch, which was 3 hours late. We’d done 500m of the 700 and were planning to make a dash for it once it dried up a bit.

A rare photo of the three of us.

By the time the storm showed signs of passing, our cave was beginning to drip and fill up with water. It was time to leave. Sadly it takes time to put on wet clothes and the rain had started again by the time we left. We’d been walking about 7 hours by this point and done 2,000m ascent, far higher than anything prescribed in the guidebook. To make things worse, when we reached the top there was nothing but rock face, absolutely nowhere to camp. We had no choice but to push on through the rain, up another 500m and about 8km more, to Superbagneres, a ski resort. Ridiculously slow and wet we carried on (Craig still didn’t slow, I don’t know how his legs work, but he should donate them to science). When I peaked the final climb I felt delirious. Soaking wet, cold and unable to feel my legs I just laughed. We still had 4km and 600m to descend. But, at long long last, 30km and 10hours after leaving Germ on a sunny morning, we staggered into an unattended chairlift office, ate, and pretty much passed out.
4 days, and a ridiculous amount of walking later we’re in Luchon, just before the halfway point. Luchon is a large town in which I’ve found Vietnamese coffee and cheap pastries and today we’re going to sit in a spa and relax, without any judgement being passed.

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Tomorrow, we start the Ariege; a 15 day section which is deemed the hardest part of this trek. This is partly because of the lack of shops, meaning we need to carry 6 days of food at a time, and partly because of the long days. However, in the last 2 weeks we’ve faced at least 5 days harder than anything prescribed, and battled through it. In the last 3 weeks we’ve walked farther than the average person does in 4 months, and climbed the equivalent of Everest 3 times. I personally feel a mixture or anticipation and slight invincibility.