Some time ago a friend mentioned in passing that he'd done the GR20. This particular friend, a teacher at Eton, had done it as a school expedition and it sounded fun, so I decided to look into doing it as a family holiday. Conscious that, at 12 and 14, my kids weren't getting any younger and that there were now only 5 or 6 more summers left to do this sort of thing I rashly went ahead and made the arrangements.
Well, we're nearly there. We've got all the kit, have checked and rechecked our rucksacks, and are ready to go. We depart tomorrow for London, staying in a hostel near St Pancras so that we can get the 0530 train to Paris and thence to Nice. I'll let you know how we get on in my next post...!
We arrived at 'The Clink' from Merstham at about 2100. The dorm was 'cosy' to say the least - 18 stacked cheek-by-jowl in a tiny room with various festival-goers' equipment strewn all over the floor. But it did the job and was only 5 minutes' walk away from St Pancras international where...
Wednesday 24 July 2013
We were awoken throughout the night by a fellow backpacker's alarm until finally our own went off at 0430 and we got ourselves ready to leave. A post-heatwave deluge dumped on us as we made our way to St Pancras on foot but we still got to the station in plenty of time to catch the 0530 train to Paris. All went smoothly except for the slight frustration of there not being any power sockets in our carriage. We arrived in Paris at just gone 0900, having managed to catch up on some sleep. A quick stop at a cafe for breakfast was followed by a sinking realisation that we'd missed our connecting train (departing from Gare de Lyon, not Gare de Nord as we had supposed). Anyway, after a long hot wait in a queue I managed to sweet talk the SNCF staff into issuing us with a replacement for our (non-refundable, non transferable) tickets and were on our way again to Nice...
The accommodation in Nice (Hotel Antares, opposite the station) was fantastic - clean, quiet and we had a room to ourselves. We made the final preparations to our kit, headed into town for a beer and then got our heads down.
We followed some other heavily laden backpackers into the centre of the town where the guy at the Tourist Information Office advised us that it would be cheaper to get the train to Calvi and then the (seasonal) bus onwards to Calenzana. We had to dash across town to catch the train, which turned out to be packed with tourists. But it was a glorious trip - hugging the coast and skirting around shimmering, emerald bays.
At Calvi we availed ourselves of the obligatory 'moules frites' and headed off to the beach to kill time whilst we waited for the 1930 bus to Calenzana.
From the beach we caught our first glimpse of the mountains that awaited us.
Saturday 27 July 2013
Having successfully caught the bus to Calenzana we set up camp and made preparations for the next day. We had elected to 'bivouac' to save weight and so spent the night under the stars. Many other campers (with the exception of a rather noisy school group) were GR20ers.From about 0500 the campsite was an explosion of activity with people wolfing down breakfast and sorting their kit. We left in the middle of the pack at 0700, feeling rather guilty that we hadn't set off earlier. The first hour was a long, hot slog uphill and I confess to a seed of doubt creeping in as to whether we'd be up to it ('it's too hot, my rucksack hurts, my legs are chaffing' etc.)We happened across a park ranger who was reassuring, checking that we had the requisite water and confirming that we were on the right track.
We had always planned to take the low level alternative on the first day, enabling us to skip a day and get ahead and so when the time came, shortly after meeting the ranger, we turned off the main GR20 track and onto the Tra Mare e Monti. This track turned out to be much flatter and shadier and we quickly started to make rapid progress. Our first significant stop of the day was on the banks of the La Figarella river where we all stripped off for a dip. Much refreshed, we walked on, with the heat building up significantly, to lunch at the Auberge de la Foret.The guidebook promised a range of supplies for self caterers, but there were none, so we treated ourselves to a rather expensive, but delicious nonetheless, meal in the restaurant. After lunch we decided to find a spot by a river to relax until the heat of the day had abated. We found a delightful spot nearby and relaxed by the water until 1700.
What followed turned out to be and extremely steep and hot 3 hour haul up to the Refuge de Carozzu. Even though we had replenished our water supplies at lunch we came perilously close to running out and emergency supplies of food had to be used as we neared the top to stave off 'bonking'. This was a tough climb by anyone's standards and we were very glad to spot the heliport, and thence the hut with its promise of food and a shower.It looked as though we were amongst the last to arrive so we wasted no time in ordering supper (omelettes and a meat/cheese platter), breakfast for the following day and a box of cous-cous each for the following day's lunch. After cleaning ourselves up we got into our sleeping bags and fell asleep immediately.
As seems to be routine on the GR20 we were awoken by people packing up and getting ready to go (or rather Jo was, who then took it upon herself to get the rest of us moving!)
We packed, had our pre-ordered breakfast and, just as the kids started arguing with each other, headed purposefully off up the track. Some 10 minutes later it became apparent that the track we were on (despite having the ubiquitous GR20 signs) bore no resemblance to the description in the guide book - we had gone the wrong way! We retraced our steps all the way back the the campsite, orientated ourselves (with the help of a useful sign that e hadn't spotted before!) and headed off again. Almost immediately the track became exciting - sheer slabs punctuated with chains for security at the most hazardous points, and a magnificent footbridge over a ravine.
We made good progress in the initial stages, all of us welcoming the interest and variety that the scrambling provided. We passed a French couple early in the walk and then saw them periodically again throughout the day.After some time we reached a lake, into which a group of young Frenchmen were jumping from a rock. Ruth immediately wanted to join them and, after some cajoling encouraged us all in.Ruth and Jo packed up quickly and forged on ahead up the steep 250m climb to the top, where a magnificent vista opened up. We all regrouped on the summit and, buoyed by the speed of our ascent, and feeling strong, elected to carry on without delay.
The route throughout was extremely well signed (despite the altitude and the seriousness of the undertaking there was no need for a map). Thus there is no real excuse for what happened next.Believing that the route descended immediately into the valley, and momentarily losing site if the official path, I forged onwards taking my own line - assuming that it would meet up with the main path a little further down. It did not, but having gone someway down I was reluctant to retrace my steps and so continued on, still in the hope of intersecting with the route in due course. The terrain quickly became precipitous and, as someone with a poor head for heights, I realised I was out of my depth! I called out to see if the others could hear me - nothing. What an idiot I had been. Thinking it best to cut my loses I trudged wearily back up the way I had come. Certain sections had been a lot easier going down that they were going up, and I gave myself a fright on more than one occasion. To my great relief I heard the others shouting, aided by some kind Frenchmen, and so add able to pick my way back to the main path. Feeling rather sheepish I joined the others and we continued on. The moral if the story? Follow the signs diligently!
Over the brow of another hill we came across Boca a i Stagni (2003m) from where, tantalisingly, we could clearly see the buildings at Haut Asco with their promise of water, food and a hot shower. It took us a good hour and thirty minutes to descend, on the very last of our water. When we arrived though the effort proved to have been worth it. There was a store stocking a range if provisions, a large communal dining area, hot showers and (luxury!) a relatively flat and grassy area on which to lay our sleeping bags. We cleaned our kit, reprovisioned, made friends with a local dog and went to bed.
It was a rough night sleeping under the stars, with the wind howling through the valley qnd keeping us awake. We dragged ourselves fro, our sleeping bqgs though and went into the refuge to make breakfast. As per usual people were setting off before us, but this ti,e we were rewarded for our morning slothfulness. Not long after we hqd sat down to breakfast the heavens opened, leaving all those who had departed early exposed to the full force of the elements. We were still warm and dry inside. Rather smugly we thanked our lucky stars.
Once the rain had abated, at about 0800, we headed off. The walk was a gentle and pleasant one up through a pine forest and then on to a gravel track rising up into the mountains with a mercifully forgiving gradient. We stopped for a snack by a patch of snow - marvelling that it was still there in late July and very much enjoying the cooler weather.We continued on up for a while before our luck began to change. It started raining, then thundering and so we took shelter in a little gap in the rocks. At one point we thought it had stopped enough to go on, but quickly turned on our heels and sought refuge again when the heavens opened.Fortunately we had brought with us a tarpaulin and a survival blanket so we made ourselves as comfortable as possible and prepared to sit out the storm. We periodically saw people passing us: always down, not up; always looking bedraggled and sorry for themselves. When it became clear we were going to be stranded for some time we ate lunch and the kids settled down watching 'Total Wipeout' on my iPhone, Having judiciously downloaded some programmes in the UK before we left.
After two and a half hours, and with the clouds still circling menacingly overhead, we reluctantly agreed that we'd have to beat a retreat back down to the Haut Asco refuge. As we started our descent we happened across a Norweigan couple who, like us, had be cowering under cover and waiting for the storm to blow over. They were keen to carry on and have a look, so we agreed to tag along with them. After 15/20 minutes of ascent though we came across a Frenchman who painted a very different picture of he situation. The cirque, he said, had become slippery, with torrents of water running across the chains. Realising that we were ill-equipped for the cold we decided again to descend to the safety of the Refuge D'Asco. The descent passed uneventfully and, typically, the weather brightened considerably, but we had made the right decision and lived to fight another day. Tonight we are installed in a bunk room in the refuge, have dried out our kit and aim to rise early and leave with the first wave of walkers at 0600 to make our second attempt...
Tuesday 30 July 2013
We did it! A very early rise meant we were up on the lip of the Cirque by just gone 0800. There were plenty of other people up there too - some extremely professional looking, others chancres like ourselves. We descended in the Cirque and quickly it became apparent what all the fuss was about - it is MASSIVE and VERY STEEP. Fortunately chains abound to help walkers, and those with a good head for heights (like the rest of my party!) have little difficulty. I found myself staring at the rock in front of me and studiously avoiding looking down. The presence of other people in a similar state of angst was an encouragement though.
Whilst in the cirque we happened across a French couple who we had seen on the Ferry and got talking to them. They are attempting to complete the whol route in 10-12 days, not the 15 that we have allocated. This got us all thinking about the opportunities for 'doubling up' stages and buying ourselves some time and/or a couple of days at the beach. Ruth was very keen to forge ahead, but the descent down from the lip of the cirque to the Auberge de Vallone was tough - huge boulders and very steep. The adults decided we had done enough for the day, particularly in view of the toll the walk has started to have on our knees! Descending the slopes without poles but with a big pack is not good news and we are now down to one set of poles between us, Jacob having lost a pair in yesterday's storm.
Our stopover tonight is rudimentary, but happens to be right next to a rather inviting mountain stream. Which we have rinsed out our clothes and had a refreshing dip. To Jo's delight there is also a (hot!) shower. Tomorrow, if we follow the guidebook looks like a relatively easy walk. If we're doing we'll at lunch there could be an option to get ahead and steal a march on our itinerary. We shall see...
Wednesday 31 July 2013
In the end we left late this morning, scuppering our chances of a double day. By the time we had had breakfast and packed up our stuff it was 0900, so we elected to take it easy. This was just as well - Ruth's dislike of the 'stale' breakfast bread meant she started the walk with little more than a bowl of hot chocolate inside her. Needless to say, within an hour she was 'bonking' and had to be revived with some emergency rations we still had in our bags left over from a stripped down 24hr military ration pack. She was somewhat better after this, but still slow, and still complaining about the gear and tired legs (in stark contrast to the previous day!) The walk was lovely - through a pine forest initially, and then up a steep and rocky incline to Refuge de Ciottulu. The refuge at Ciottulu was utterly delightful: panoramic views and excellent Corsican food. Jo and I even allowed ourselves a glass of wine as we sat in the sun, our feet throbbing.Ruth was much revived after lunch and we made light work of the descent, stopping for some time to splash about in the river Golo. We continued on down, passing the Bergeries de Radule and in to our overnight stop at the Hotel de Castel Vergio (momentarily getting lost on the way having swerved from the, always well signed, official route).Unfortunately because we arrived at the campsite at 2000hrs we were too late to pick up provisions from the camp shop. This meant (oh, the hardship!) we were forced to dine in the hotel, where we enjoyed a delightful meal of Corsican fare, blowing a day's worth of expedition funds in the process. On our arrival at the campsite we were warned by a very earnest young Frenchman about the presence of a fox on the site, and the need to be cautious with our food.
Tomorrow looks like a easy day, so we can have a slow start. We go to bed under the stars in a campsite bedevilled by a hungry and audacious fox...
Thursday 1 August 2013
Well the fox certainly was hungry and audacious! We were woken at about 0100 by the fox biting Jacob's ear. No one slept particularly well after that and I elected to stand guard, walking pole in hand, to make sure none of the foxes came back. I did see several more as the night wore on, and was grateful for being alert and ready to chase them away.
The guidebook told us today would be an easy day, but it turned out to be very hot and this, combined to our tiredness meant it was slow going. The paths, as ever were steep and bouldery and it was fiercely hot. The highlight of the day was passing by Lac du Ninu where an expansive area of mountain grassland opened up, grazed by horses. One if the horses took a distict (and slightly aggressive!) interest in our food as we ate our lunch, necessitating a move to safer, higher ground. The day progressed uneventfully but perfectly pleasantly marred only by the loss of our penknife which I had foolishly left by a busy water supply to dry only to find it had vanished when I returned to collect it.
We holed up for the night at the Refuge to Managu.
Friday 2 August 2013
Today's walk was a spectacular one, going to well over 2000m and with fabulous views of two mountain lakes way below us. We found our phones springing into life at this altitude, informing us of missed calls and allowing us to text Jo's sister with news of our progress.
In the evening we reached the refuge de Petra Piana, where there was a grassy, flat spot for our bivvy and the opportunity to buy fresh baguettes (albeit rationed to one per family!)
Saturday 3 August 2013
Today was billed as an easy day in the guidebook. The guidebook also made a big deal of the food at the Bergeries de Tolla so we made a bee line for them, planning to have lunch there before finishing off the day. In the event the Brgeries de Tolla seemed to sell very little so two disappointed children had to put up with a glass so squash and a very small selection of meats, cheeses and bread. The mood was lightened somewhat by some very randy dogs in the enclosure trying to get their wicked way with the resident on-heat bitch.
We raced on to complete the day at the Refuge de L'Onda.
The day started, after breakfast, with an immediate and seemingly never-ending climb up to Punta Murattello. When we arrived, faster than the guidebook told us we would, we were extremely sweaty and much in need of sustenance from our packs. There then began an equally lengthy, limb-jarring descent to Vizzavona. When we eventually arrived, shortly after 1400 we set about buying provisions, excited at the prospect of lower prices and wider choice that we hopes civilisation would bring. We were disappointed. On top of which, a few back-of-an-envelope calculations revealed we were likely to soon run out of money. I elected to go to Corte by train with the kids to get some more cash. We left by air conditioned carriage (very surreal!) and within 45 minutes or so were spirited back to civilisation, using the opportunity to stock up on provisions. When we got back Jo had set everything up for us and, back from the land of plenty, we ate like kings.
Monday 5 August 2013
A slow start to the day (we were amongst the last off the campsite at just gone 0800). After which we missed a vital turning and did a significant detour - not an auspicious start. Notheless we cracked on with the walk, ticking off the miles and still hoping to bag a 'double day' and do two stages back to back.We finished the first stage by 1400 in extremely hot conditions. The refuge had nice loos, hot showers and a cheap bar: we were sorely tempted to stay put. A French group we had made acuatance thought we were made. Nevertheless, we stuck to the plan and having had a good lunch set off into the heat again at just gone 1500. The guidebook said it would take us 4.5 hours - it was spot in. The stage was easy (flattish, through woodland) but it did seem to go on and on... We were all grateful to finally see the refuge hove into view and to be able to lay down our packs. We are now a day ahead again, giving us a little bit more time for relaxing at the coast before we return to the UK.
Tuesday 6 August 2013
It was a slow start again, though the refuge we slept in was good (hot showers etc.) We bivouacked on the tarp. last night next to the refuge - not much flat space to accommodate a family of four! We woke slowly with cappuccino and bread from the bar and were on the trail by 0800 - late by most of our starts.
The southern section of the route (beyond Vizzavona) has much greater tree cover so at least we were out of the sun to begin with today. A sharp ascent through alder trees and breaking it onto the mountainside onto an eroded and rocky/bouldery path we continued on up until we reached the Boca de Punta and along a track to the Refuge di Prati for a welcome drink of coke. We continued after this short stop conscious that we had many miles to cover yet. A rocky ridge provided panoramas of the coast and forested hillsides to the east.
We pressed on and began climbing up yet another rocky slope to the second of many boccas (cols) of the day. Typically the GR20 skirts around rather than over the peaks. After a time we arrived at a spot with supêr-sized boulders creating enough shade for a lunch spot. We continued through on and up and down and around until several crests and summits had been reached.
It was getting late and we still had three or so hours before we reached tonight's bivouac destination. After another food stop we then pressed on replenishing our water at a source just off route with an old refuge not in use.Ruth and Jacob spotted an old shed with plentiful supplies of coke and water.
Up and down again through an alder forest and onwards up just left of the crest. Finally the col was reached and we could summit and head on down. As we had left so late we had met no one on the trail today. Although we did catch a glimpse of a group ahead who were moving slowly with large packs on their backs. We quickly caught up with them and then spotted our refuge for he night way down in the valley. Wow! It was perched on the edge like an Andean village with tents scattered precariously around on small terraces.
The shop at the refuge turned out to be somewhat of an Alladin's cave. The Guardien had with all manner of supplies. I got carried away and ordered pasta plates for supper it was now 7.30 ish. We wolfed this down and soaked up the atmosphere and caught up with people we had not seen for a couple of days as we were back with others who had completed double days or old friends that we had not seen for a little while. Music was playing and the the site was bustling. We found small rocky patches to place our camping mats and made q makeshift shelter zith the tarp. Ruth was placed next to Dad to stop her rolling off the mountain!
There was just one loo and one shower - nice! Tim and I enjoyed some wine with supper and Ruth and Jacob iced tea. Tomorrow we will leave before 0830.
Wednesday 7 August 2013
We did indeed get going at a reasonable hour, completing a long but relatively flat walk to the Refuge Asinau. The highlight of the day was a two hour lunch break by a river for refreshment. The Refuge d'Asinau was somewhat of a disappointment after the lavish provisions available at the Refuge d'Uciolu the night before.
Thursday 8 August 2013
A brisk an easy walk and we've done it. Internet connection going down...!