Mad dogs & Englishmen

… go out in the mid-day sun. According to Noel Coward, that is. Well it must be catching. A goodly number of Italians, some quite young but many of “a certain age”, take to the hills on a regular basis. I was invited to join one such group by a German friend who does regular hikes, and foolishly I accepted. How hard can it be?

Quite hard, as it happens. This walk was over the border in France, in the Mercantour National Park that covers a sizeable area in the Maritime Alps. It was billed as a walk of about 6 hours and my friend, having been on a previous one, reckoned it would cover about 10km. “That’s fine”, I thought; “I take the dog on a 5km walk most evenings and it only takes an hour or so. This one must be full of rest stops.”

I should have read the fine print, as it were, which mentioned a total ascent and descent of 800m. That’s around half a mile vertically and turns a stroll into a serious climb. That and the fact that summer has arrived, with temperatures even high in the mountains approaching 30°C in the middle of the day. Oh, and by the way it wasn’t 10km; it was 20km. That makes a bit of a difference, but nobody thought to mention it (to me at least).

So I packed what I thought would be necessary and drove down to the meeting point at Olivetta, on the edge of Italy, where I met the rest of the group. 18 of us in total; 2 Germans, 1 Englishman (with mad dog) and the rest Italians. Ages mostly 50+, one or two being well into their 70s if I’m any judge. We piled into six 4x4s and headed over to France; along to Breil-sur-Roya then up into the National Park. We had to cover about 5km of steep unsurfaced track before even reaching the starting point for the walk; this was great fun and at last provided me with an excellent excuse for having recently bought a second-hand 4×4. That’s my Fiat Sedici in the middle of the photo.

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We set off, leaving the track and taking to a footpath, almost immediately coming across some fallen trees on a particularly steep slope. This caused some difficulty for one or two of the more elderly and less agile of the group but eventually we got past the obstructions and continued on and up.

There’s no doubting the area is spectacular. The cars were parked at about 1100m and the highest point of the trek was around 1900m. This high you’re above most of the view, with only a few peaks higher than yourself. In winter of course the whole area is deep in snow, but in June it’s Alpine meadow, with lush grass and plentiful wild flowers. At one point while traversing a 45° slope I heard a thumping noise and turned just in time to see the back end of a large Chamois disappearing down the mountainside. How they travel at such speed without breaking something I cannot fathom.

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I should mention that it’s probably 40 years since I attempted anything of this magnitude, and although reasonably fit it may not have been the wisest thing to do such a long walk, at high altitude and in blazing sunshine, without trying a couple of shorter ones first. I carried a litre of water, plus another half-litre or so for Buffy, but it was nowhere near enough and I was rationing both of us long before the end. My equipment was pretty pathetic compared to all the seasoned walkers, apart from my boots; an excellent pair of Clarks I’ve had for only 20 years or so. These, my leather Australian bush hat and my bargain basement girly rucksack set me apart from the others with their lightweight hiking boots and framed backpacks. But I’m English so I’m allowed to be eccentric. I do plan a trip to the outdoor products outlet shop up at Limone Piemonte for a bit of retail therapy before the next walk.

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It took us about 4 hours to reach the highest point. We couldn’t actually get to the top as planned because it was ringed with an electric fence to keep sheep in. And we were warned that the farmers’ dogs are half-tamed wolves with a high level of aggression towards anything that isn’t a sheep, but particularly towards small dogs. And people. So we skirted that bit.

We stopped for lunch by the side of the track that was to be our route all the way back down to the cars. These tracks were constructed in centuries past by local warlords with an insatiable desire for conquest, a ready supply of peasants and mules and little interest in workplace safety. The whole area is apparently riddled with tunnels and bunkers and is in fact the southern end of the Maginot Line. It’s also about the only interesting part of Europe you can take a 4×4 off-road in summer and very popular with German off-roaders who aren’t allowed to do that kind of thing at home, though we didn’t encounter any vehicles at all.

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I had at least had the foresight to bring an adequate lunch for myself and another for Buffy, though I needn’t have bothered about the latter, who was far more interested in scrounging from the other walkers. However, my preparations were as nothing compared to that of the Italians, whose rucksacks disgorged not only lunch but home-made biscuits and cakes, wine, grappa and even ground coffee with a Moka coffee maker and a Camping Gaz stove to boil the water. It takes more than a 7-hour trek to separate an Italian from his after-lunch grappa and real coffee.

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After an hour for lunch we set off on the long descent. The sun was still blazing but the sky over nearby mountains was developing an interesting purple hue and rumbles of thunder accompanied us intermittently all the way back. When it rains you have little time between the first large drops and a downpour with a complete lack of visibility, so we hurried along, unwilling to partake in that particular delight. As it happened we were lucky. A few drops had fallen on the cars while we were away but none reached us.

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So that was it. Nothing more left except to pile back into the cars and make our way back to the bar in Olivetta for a round of Panaché (shandy) before heading home to a welcome shower. A day later all I have is a few aches but surprisingly no blisters, just a memory of a challenging but enjoyable day out with some really nice people. Will I do it again? Quite likely, but only after the above-mentioned shopping trip.

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