Apart from the business of hiking, cooking and making camp each day, we’ll have a lot of mental space and freedom over 3 months on the GR1, and it’s good to have something to focus on and give extra purpose to our days. Not only that, but the GR1 is a great opportunity to spend lots of quality time outdoors in the environment, and on the way we’ll pass many things to interest us. As such, we have planned a number of mini projects for the trail which will make use of our existing knowledge, help us learn new skills, inspire us to be creative and, most importantly, help us maximise this gift of time and experience.
1. Recording the bird species and submitting to the European breeding bird atlas
Most countries have a ‘breeding bird atlas’, that is, a record of the birds breeding within 1km grid squares which cover the whole country. In countries like the UK, which has a long tradition of conservation and where there are a lot of birdwatchers, the coverage is usually pretty good, and there are records for most grid-squares. Other countries like Spain with a bigger land area and a lower density of recorders, do not have such good coverage. These bird atlases are very important indices for population change in birds, so submitting records of bird sightings is a useful contribution to conservation science.
Walking the GR1 will give us lots of access to a range of habitats and some remote, under-recorded areas, so it seems right that we use our ornithological skills to record what we see. This will be very little extra effort because Barry is always consciously or unconsciously bird-watching anyway, and carries a pair of binoculars when hiking as standard. To be more systematic, he’ll record things in a notebook (species, behaviour, habitat, weather) and take a GPS reading from the smartphone. Later-on the records can be submitted to the European bird atlas. Barry will be mainly responsible for this, but I’ll still help because sometimes I spot things that he misses!
2. Learning Spanish
I’ve picked up a smattering of Spanish by now, but there is a lot of room for improvement and scope to go beyond the basics. I find that the more I learn and am able to communicate, the more satisfying it is. On the GR11 last year I would ‘collect’ new vocabulary wherever we went- from signs, menus, papers, TV subtitles- and was able to ‘plug’ these words into a few key sentence structures, which gave a lot of flexibility to communicate. I mostly learned these key structures from a brilliant Spanish audio course I picked for just £1(!) on the discount shelf in a bookshop. The course is by a chap called Paul Noble and has been transformative for a language-learning pygmy like me. I have downloaded all 6 CD’s onto my MP3 player and can hike along and learn some Spanish as I go- now that’s smart use of time!
3. Photo-project: Abandoned villages along the GR1
Barry and I are both interested in Europe’s traditional rural landscapes, and walking is one of the best ways to explore them. Across Europe, farming systems evolved in balance with local topography and climate, which in turn shaped special landscapes rich in wildlife. This type of traditional farming, in balance with the local ecology, is called ‘High Nature Value Farming’. However, with rural depopulation, farmland is abandoned and the special ecology of these regions is now threatened. Spain has suffered (and continues to suffer) big rural depopulation, and the GR1 passes through a number of areas affected by this. The abandoned villages we’ll pass are reminders of a way of life which has often only recently disappeared, and this ‘feeling’ of life only having only just gone is very poignant. Barry read a book called ‘In Another World- Among Europe’s Dying Villages’ by Tim Pow this winter. It is a collection of various writings, interviews, poetry and photo’s from villages in Spain, Russia and elsewhere, and explores the forces at work behind village abandonment. This book, along with our own previous explorations in rural Spain, is what has helped to inspire us to do a small photo-project of the abandoned villages on the GR1.
4. Photo-project: Modern pilgrimage
The motivation behind modern pilgrimages is more diverse than in the past, and I find it fascinating that thousands of people each year walk hundreds of miles on the Spanish Caminos. It is also an ambition of mine to walk into the city of Santiago de Compostela and to arrive at the great cathedral with crowds of other pilgrims- to do this is to be part of long history of many thousands who have done so over the centuries. For this reason, extending the GR1 to Santiago is important to me, and choosing to walk-in on the quieter (and more rugged) Camino Primitivo balances the tranquility of rural Galicia with an authentic pilgrim Camino experience.
There is something abut the idea of pilgrimage that fires my imagination, so I want to record our experience on the Caminos with a specific photo-project of my own. We’ll probably swap to staying in Pilgrim Alberges (cheap dorms) for some of the final 2.5 weeks of the hike to really get a feel for it, and maybe we’ll be glad of some other pilgrim company by then also. While this photo project will probably start when we join the Camino Primitivo in Oviedo, our own ‘wild-pilgrimage’ will start from the very beginning of the GR1 on the shores of the Mediterranean. This is important because it is not the route taken that counts (be it an ‘official’ Camino or a GR trail), but the motivation behind why we walk and the spirit in which the whole journey is undertaken. We’ll hang our pilgrim scallop shells from our packs from the very beginning as a reminder for when things get a tough, or we get grumpy, to stop and just appreciate where we are and what we are doing.
5. GR1 ‘The Movie’ (well, maybe a you tube video…)
After watching some great amateur videos about long distance hiking, which seem capture the atmosphere and idealism of this way of travel, we have been inspired to create something ourselves. As a reality check this is only an amateur attempt using the ‘movie mode’ on our Sony RX100 camera and a small tripod. Other than recording our life and times along the GR1, we are are not sure yet what the overall focus will be and look forward to what themes emerge and how the footage represents the journey. Taking movie footage takes more thought and preparation than an average photo, but there also some opportunities to be creative and capture things in ways we have not been able to do before.
I am hoping to post some shorter clips up online (linked from the blog) on either YouTube or Vimeo, although I am still undecided which platform to use- there are pros and cons to both. After we get back, and all being well, we’ll have a go a putting the footage together with some photo-editing software to create a mini GR1 movie. This will be a new challenge that we can work on together and if nothing else it will be a great record for us to remember, and a new way to convey the experience to friends and family (if willing!) and to blog readers of course.
6. Blogging and photo journal
Well, it would be a bit strange if the bog itself was not included somewhere on this list! I started the blog for the GR11 precisely because it gives me a focus and purpose to cystallise our hiking experiences and thoughts about them. It is also a chance to share a way of travel and living that I am passionate about. Even though it can be time consuming, I enjoy blogging a lot, and this fundamentally, is what keeps me writing, posting as we make plans and eventually get out to hike. Over time a blog evolves and finds it’s niche, but I write what I enjoy and what interests me, and the comments and feedback I get from readers (either in general or about a particular post) is a boost that is always appreciated.
Our GR11 blogging in 2015 was hit by disaster on week 4 when our tablet went bang, putting the blog out of action for the rest of the hike. This was a major blow and the blog inevitably lost some momentum as I could only catch up weeks after we had actually finished. Blogging from a smartphone on the GR1 is going to be tricky (inserting pictures into WordPress on a 5″ screen is very fiddly for example), so I am figuring out how best to manage it. Although I am pleased with what we produced, the posts for the GR11 were sometimes a bit onerous to produce because of their length. This same format will not be feasible on the smartphone, so before we leave I’ll do a short post on my plans for blog posts and and the format they’ll likely take while we are on GR1.
7. Recording facilities for hiker-campers
As I’ve mentioned before, the new GR1 guidebook is focused on hikers who stay in hotels and eat in restaurants every night. For a lot of people considering a through-hike ( a continuous end-to-end hike), this mode of travel for 50+ days is not that viable and most would have to camp at least some of the time. This information gap for hiker-campers means there is some uncertainty for people wishing to hike this way, and lots of extra fiddly planning to do. The addition of a few extra details (such as info on shops, water points, camping supplies and campsites) would make all the difference. I will be making notes on these facilities as we go along and plan to submit them to the guidebook publisher/author for inclusion if they wish. Alternatively there may be some other way I can make the information available. It may be that the route is not really that suitable for hiker-campers (if so we’re in for a rough ride!), or that some sections are particularly difficult to camp in. This is certainly key information that, 1 week before departure, I would certainly like to have to hand.
8. Meditation practice
Back in February, Barry and I both went on a Zen Buddhist retreat in Wales. The retreat was the culmination of years of interest in meditation and Buddhism, specifically Zen. After lots of erratic attempts to meditate regularly, we both thought it was time to focus and develop our practice and understanding. The retreat was very inspiring, but the weeks since have been chaotic with all we have needed to do and remember, so not surprisingly the clarity of mind we found has been hard to retain. Once we leave the pre-trip planning behind however and head out on the trail, life will settle down and we’ll have time and space to build meditation into our daily hiking routine.
In the midst of our GR1 hike in May we will be joining in with a week of ‘connected practice’ with other members of the Western Chan Fellowship (the organisation with whom we did the retreat)*. The idea is that members of the Sangha (Buddhist Community) support each other in this week, albeit remotely, by all committing to practice a regular times. We can also be individually creative with how we choose to practice during that week and Barry and I have to give this more thought. Whatever we do, this week is an good incentive to really focus our efforts and minds.
So, those are our planned mini projects for the GR1. I hope most of them will get off the ground, although some may change or merge along the way. Having the time, freedom and health to walk through the springtime sierras on the GR1 is a real privilege, and one that I want us to make the most of. Some of the outputs from these projects will likely appear on the blog at some point so keep checking!
*Chan is form of Buddhism closely linked to Zen. Chan Buddhism evolved from traditional Mahayana Buddhism (which came to China from India) and mixed with Confucianism and Taoism in China itself. Chan made the leap to Japan and developed further into Zen, although the two still share many similarities, including a stripped-back simplicity and lack of ritual and dogma.