Friday, August 30, 2013

Pyrenees Mountain Hazards - Ticks

Ticks. What are they? Why are they dangerous? How can they be safely removed?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Freedom Trail 2013 Diary

In July 2013 a group of Dutch hikers completed the Freedom Trail with me. There were two sisters Lizzie and Hanneke and their partners Marcel and Roel. They called themselves Dos which in Dutch means old strugglers or old suckers. At the end of each day the group would remember what had happened and Lizzie would write it down. Here is an honest account of what it is like to complete the Freedom Trail/Chemin de la Liberté.

Dos in the Pyrenees
Preview: Monday 15th July 2013. Preview: Monday 15th July 2013

Saint-Girons-La ferme de Jeanne
17.00 hrs
Weather: It is very hot today, hardly any wind, thunder in the evening, but far away

Today we will meet Paul Williams, our guide. We have packed our rucksac, and are ready to go after months of preparation.
We are a bit nervous and anxious.We shake hands.
Months we have prepared ourselves for this trip, talked and read about it. Trained our body’s and sharpened our minds.
It was really going to happen: no, we didn’t have any questions.
Paul showed us the 6 day weatherforecast: it was going to rain! Just a matter of mindset, he told us.
Outside it is getting a bit darker: the clouds are coming in. Just a matter of mindset….
Paul gives us the plan for the Freedom Trail July 2013: day 3 and 4 are changed: it is simply not possible to walk the original trail, there is too much snow. But he will take us to Spain and with that promise we say goodbye.
Tomorrow at 8 we’ll meet at the Pont du Fer.
That night we dream about mountains and the Atlantic Ocean.

Now walking back down this mountain
with the strength of a turning tide
The wind so soft at my skin
the sun so hot upon my side
Looking out at this happiness
I searched for between the sheets
Feeling blind, to realise
All I was searching for was me
Oh all I was searching for was me

Keep your head up, keep your heart strong
Keep your mind set, keep your hair long
Keep your head up, keep your heart strong
Keep your mind set in your ways
Keep your heart strong

Song: Ben Howard

Day 1: Tuesday 16th July 2013
Saint- Girons to Aunac; 23 km + 1100 m of ascent
How: pick up from hotel for transfer to St Girons
Time: 8.00 – 18.00

Notes: Low level walk. What you need on Freedom Trail will have to be carried, You will need a packed lunch. Will now not be able to leave a change of clothes in transfer vehicle.

Weather: The sun shines till 3 o’clock, then heavy rain, with hail and thunder.

Le Pont du Fer in the morning: Paul is waiting for us. He takes some pictures and the Trail is on.
Through beechwoods, grassy tracks, bramble-strewn paths we try to find a rhythm to walk in.
Paul stops every hour to have a drink and a rest: and we need it.
Hanneke is the first of us who falls over: she hurts her forehead and for us all it is a moment to realize that we have to concentrate: every step we make has to be controlled.
In the small village of La Riviere d’Alos we stop for lunch near the stream and a lovely old church where we can fill our waterbottles. Its warm and we feel tired.
But up again: a steep climb brings us into a silent, impressive forest.
This day would be a low level walk! If this is a low level walk, how would the other days look ?
We are worried: these are just hills, what about the mountains?
We stop at the barn where the nineteen year old mountain guide Louis Barreau was trapped and killed by the Nazis in 1943.
It’s a quiet lovely place with grassy slopes full of flowers.
For us it is a moment to remember that once there was a time when things were different.
Lizzie picks flowers from the nearby meadow and puts them on the memorial. 
On we go, the descent is an easy walk and we feel confident and strong.
At 3pm it starts raining heavily, followed by thunder.
There is no place to hide and Paul walks on and so do we, but some of us are very scared.
At 18.00 we arrive at Aunac: a lovely gite, just for the five of us. With a shower and dry clothes we feel like kings and queens.
The food is lovely and the ambiance warm and welcome: after 2 bottles of red wine it’s still raining but we couldn’t care less.
The newspaper of yesterday in our soaked shoes and off to bed.

Well, there's a bridge and there's a river
That I still must cross
As I'm going on my journey
Oh, I might be lost

And there's a road I have to follow
A place I have to go
But no one told me just how to get there
But when I get there I'll know
'Cause I'm taking it...

Step by step
Bit by bit
Stone by stone
Brick by brick

Song: Whitney Houston

Day 2: Wednesday 17th July 2013
Aunac to Cabane de Subera; 16 km + 960 m of ascent
How: Walk
Time: 8.00 – 16.00

Notes: Food will not be a BBQ. You are happy to carry your own sleeping bags. Tents will be available as backup accommodation.

Weather: Cloudy, wet, sun is shining untill 3 PM. Heavy rain and thunder(again)

We woke up in the middle of the night: the donkeys were calling each other.
It’s a strange unknown sound in the dark.
We get up at 6.30, trying to have our breakfast at 7.00.
But we had too much wine yesterday and some of us have a headache.
We start with a long descent towards the river: we feel tired and need time to find the rhythm of walking. The path is slippery and full of stones and Roel misses a stone or two and falls over.
He will fall again and again this day.
The track is steap and leads us through the beech woods. We already have used up our 30 minutes complaining, so let’s hope the day will not be too hard?!
At lunch time we reach the Col de la Core at 1395 meter and have lunch between the cows.
It is by far the funniest lunch we had: the cows are curious and try to see what’s on our bread.
The woman who is looking after the cows is very friendly and asks us where we are going.
Her face looks worried when Paul tells her what our plans are. O my God! What is lying ahead of us?
But Paul seems very confident, so why worry?

It’s a two hour hike to La Cabane de Subera, passing first of all the unoccupied Cabane de Luzurs (where a murder was committed some years ago when a drug-crazed hippy stabbed his equally drug-crazed girlfriend to death).
On we go, seeing the Black Merens horses and various excellent views: we have our Sound of Music moment: the hills are alive ( and indeed they are)
We climb and we descend, climb and descend….our feet keep on walking and we move on. And it’s hard…

At 15.00 the sky darkens and soon we have to look for our raingear: the rain falls heavily and there is thunder and lightning. Well, you may say I was really scared.
Never hide under a tree, we were told, but nevertheless, we did.
The mountain refuge of Subera is a small cabane, one half for the shepherd, the other for the hikers.
At that moment at least four of us were blisfully happy seeing the Cabane in the valley.

In the Cabane are bunkbeds, a table, benches and a fireplace. We have to share it with a French family but it all goes in great harmony. The rain has stopped and we enjoy our simple but nutritious meal, outside the Cabane.
Two of us are going to sleep in the tent, the others in the Cabane.
When the rain starts falling again it’s warm and cosy in ‘the Little House on the Prairie’.

And this old road is rough and ruined
So many dangers along the way
So many burdens might fall upon me
So many troubles that I have to face
But I won't let my spirit fail me
But I won't let my spirit go
Until I get to my destination
I'm gonna take it slow
Because I'm taking it...
Song: Whitney Houston

Day 3: Thursday 18th July 2013
Cabane de Subera – Etang d’Areau; 18 km + 1244m of ascent
How: Walk
Time: 7.50-18.30

Notes: Tents provided. Camping at Etang d’Areau would lengthen the day but shorten the next.

Weather: Sunny and warm, rain and thunder at 15.00 pm.

Some of us get up at 6.00 and see a beautiful sunrise. After a very quick breakfast we have to become a berger for an hour and place the salt for the cows on the big rocks surrounding us.
We leave at 7.50 and down it goes, through the grass, passing some cows with their calves and a not-very- interested bull.
The temperature is nice and we enjoy the nature and the mountains.
This day has 4 phases, Paul tells us.
At phase 1 we enter a forest , very green and very humid. The path is rocky and we have to concentrate: the stones are slippery and everywhere we see and hear water.
The river beneath us is wild: wonder what will happen when you fall into it?!
No time to consider that: we have to cross a waterfall: heavy stuff!
In the poem Ithaka, written by Kafavis there is written that you don’t have to fear the creapy monsters on your journey. You won’t meet the Cyclops and Laistrygones, unless you take them with you in your own head.
Our heads are full of them!
With a lot of help we manage. After a descent of 3 hours we are down. End of phase 1.
Phase 2 goes on at the other side of the river, up and down and up to a beautiful cascade.
But after lunch the legs become heavy and the minds are giving up: it’s enough!
Paul gives us a break and while the ladies look at the black Merens horses, the beautiful waterfalls everywhere, Paul is showing the men where we are and where to go.
Drink a lot of water, drink, drink, drink: that is what we should do. We drink.
It helps: the legs are going again and up it goes: up and up and up.
No time to think, just look carefully where to put the feet and the stick. We must go on, phase 3 just started.
Paul is making a track, promising us that it will get better. And again: we have to trust him: the road leaves you no choice: you can’t go back and you can’t go sideways. You don’t have to think or hope that the hills will help you or the grass or the flowers. We simply had to move on.

What is the philosophy of a mountain? There is one, and there is another one: nothing to do about it.

At 3 pm it starts raining, with far away thunder….and when we reach Col de la Pause the sun is out again and we have our Hills are alive moment.
No Pause at the Col, phase 4 is still to be done.
Lord, if there is still another mountain
Another mountain yet to climb
Lord, if there’s still another mountain
Don’t make it quite as high this time

And there we go again,another hill ( or must I speak of a mountain) to be done.
Up to 1895 meters.
At the lake we can rest at the patio of a cabane. The meal is sober, the view is magnificent!
The tents are close to the lake and at 21.15 we say goodnight to the mountains.

Pourtant, que la montagne est belle, comment peut-on s'imaginer
En voyant un vol d'hirondelles, que l'automne vient d'arriver ?
Avec leurs mains dessus leurs têtes
Ils avaient monté des murettes jusqu'au sommet de la colline
Qu'importent les jours, les années

Song: Jean Trenet

Day 4: Friday 19th July 2013
Etang d’Areau- Sorpe; 22 km + 720m of ascent
How: Walk and taxi
Time: 7.30 – 17.00

Notes: Freedom! Will have to cross some snow patches to get an across the border.
Accommodation used last year is no longer available. Longer walk now required as Sorpe is further down the valley. Taxi?

Weather:Fresh in the morning, sunny and warm later. No rain, no thunder!!!

We get up at 6.00. The night was long, cold and windy in the tent and some of us are pleased to get up and moving.
It’s a cold and crisp morning and the warm tea and chocolate croissants taste lovely.
We leave at 7.30 up the mountain to reach the border.

I remember and old song:
'The bear went over the mountain
To see what he could see
The other side of the mountain
Was all that he could see.'

The sun comes up over the mountains and the view is magnificent. We feel small and humble but eager to reach the Spanish border.
At 9.20 we are there!!! 2260 meters: Port d’Aula: the border.
It is a very special and emotional moment and we take our time to enjoy it.
How must it have been for those who tried to escape form the war?

Now we have to descend in Spain, through the meadows, between the horses and cows and we stop at a little cabane, overlooking the valley.
Paul tells us to say goodbye to the mountains: it’s a mixed feeling: happy and sad, all together.
The landscape changes: herbs, wild flowers and trees. At the river we have lunch and fill our bottles with fresh water and
I came to the conclusion that all I need in life is a pair of good shoes,a faithfull stick and clear water.

On the road along the river we walk to Alos and Isil where we have a lovely cup of Spanish coffee, beer and icecream.How lovely it all tastes!
Actually everything went smoothly today. We were all tired but without any problems we reached Spain!
And Isil was very nice: a little square, an old bridge and a lovely terrace! I couldn’t believe we were in Spain.
A taxi takes us to the B&B in Sorpe where the bed is warm and soft and the meal is fresh and lovely.

Pourtant, que la montagne est belle, comment peut-on s'imaginer
En voyant un vol d'hirondelles, que l'automne vient d'arriver ?

Deux chèvres et puis quelques moutons
Une année bonne et l'autre non, et sans vacances, et sans sorties
Les filles veulent aller au bal
Il n'y a rien de plus normal que de vouloir vivre sa vie
Leur vie, ils seront flics ou fonctionnaires
De quoi attendre sans s'en faire que l'heure de la retraite sonne
Il faut savoir ce que l'on aime
Et rentrer dans son HLM, manger du poulet aux hormones

Pourtant, que la montagne est belle, comment peut-on s'imaginer
En voyant un vol d'hirondelles, que l'automne vient d'arriver ?
Jean Trenet

Day 5: Saturday 20th July 2013
Sorpe-Esterri d’Aneu: 8km + 0m of ascent
How: Walk

Time: 8.45-11.45

Notes: Transfer may take longer if the main road from Spain into France is still closed. If it is, then have to take to detour through Andorra.

Weather: Sunny all day.

Up at 6.30 and after a lovely breakfast we leave in a taxi back to Isil to pick up our trail to the final destination: Esterri.
Roel has fixed his shoes with tape § the sole is coming away from the upper.
We pass through Boren, a small and lovely village and leave the concrete road and up again: a lovely, winding path full of flowers and herbs: up and down again. We don’t mind but enjoy it thoroughly: the views are super, the weather is lovely and we feel so strong.
When we reach Esterri we have to cross an old bridge: we are there!!!
This is a very special moment, we all realize.
In the church we light a candle and say thank you for keeping us safe!

The little bus brings us back to France. The road is fixed and at 17.15 we reach the Pont du Fer.
A last photo and farewell to Paul.
The Freedom Trail has come to an end.

The days after were filled with emotions and memories: looking at the photos we start to realize that our trail has been very special to us.
It was all about companionship: working together, helping and supporting each other.

What is the philosophy of the mountain:
Look around
I will overcome
Once you go up, you will also go down
Find beauty, be still.

Thanks to Paul, our guide, who showed us the beauty of the mountains, who guided us through difficulties and who supported us in sunshine and rain, who showed us not to fear, but to keep the faith.
Who showed great care for the mountains and for us.
It has been a real adventure and we shall never forget.
Thank you so much!

Roel van de Meulen and Hanneke Peters
Marcel Oonk and Lizzie Peters
July 2013

Friday, August 16, 2013

Smugglers in the Night

In World War II the 'passeurs' - the men and women that helped Jews, downed allied aircrew and young French men who did not want to do forced labour, escape to Spain along ascape lines like the Freedom Trail, were often smugglers. Smugglers were ideal because they knew the mountains well and were skilled in staying one step ahead of the security forces.

Smugglers still exist and smuggling goods across the Pyrenees is still going on today. Differing tax levels lead to price differentials in different countries. When the countries are seperated by a common border 'leakage' of goods across the border from the low price to the high price country is possible and a strong financial incentive exists to smuggle.

Cigarettes in Spain are half the price of cigarettes in France. A 20kg sack of cigarettes smuggled into France from Spain can make you 1500 euros on the black market. Customs teams have people on the gound in the mountains attempting to stop the trafficking.

The Bear Facts II

Originally published in The Connexion newspaper July 2013

Freedom Trail In The Press