“I know you never intended to be in this world, but you’re in it all the same, so why not get started immediately, I mean, belonging to it. There is so much to admire, to weep over and to write music or poems about”. – Mary Oliver (from ‘Zodiac’)
Days 15-20 (Vall D’Ora – St Llorenc- Cambrils- Oliana- Masia Messanes).
Total Km hiked: 332
View from the ridge above Cambrils, looking west towards the landscapes we’ll be walking.
As you know by now, loads of other pics from week 3 on http://www.Instagram.com/wildpilgrims or the feed on the blog homepage.
After 2 weeks meadering across the coastal plain, the GR1 got serious this week, throwing in some long days of tough ascent and logistical issues with water and food re-supply. We were rewarded initially for these difficulties with the drama of limestone canyons, great views of the Pyrenees and some wildlife highlights, but towards the end of the week things had got on top of us a bit and we took some evasive action! Oh yes, and there were the dogs, plenty of crazy, voiciferous canines, and one special one in the form of ‘Cadi’.
After ascending the front-ranges of the Sierra de Cadi on Day 14, the spectacular and complex geology at its heart was revealed. Before us on our route to St Llorenc de Morunys lie great sinuous canyons interspersed with folded, tilted limestone crests, it was nearly impossible to see how the GR1 would make its way through. The Sierra de Cadi and the Sierra de Guara (coming up later), are the exterior ranges of the main Pyrenean chain, running approximately parallel, but separated by a great basin-like valley. As such, they were formed as part of the same geological upheaval as the Pyrenees, where tectonic movements crumpled the floors of great lakes, leaving the folded, jumbled geology we see today. Having gained so much height, we were also rewarded with clear views across to the Pyrenees-high winds blowing snow from the summits-and with this, the excitement of finally entering wilder country.
Although approaching mid-April, the season is still early, and ascending into the higher sierras put things back further. So far on this hike the weather has been more of a challenge than anticipated. The bright April sun, which gets us sweating on long ascents, is soon rendered thin and insubstantial on the passes as the wind cuts through our clothing. The mornings in the canyons can be bitterly cold too- we hike in our down jackets, hats and gloves until we reach the first sunlight- which can be mid morning or later if the canyon or valley is deep. This combination of heat, cold and wind has been tiring and we look forward to more temperate days and warm evenings…although we realise already that managing the heat will be a big factor on this walk as we go into May and June and hit the plains of Navarra.
In last week’s post, I mentioned dogs as one of the few negative aspects of the GR1 so far. This did not improve much in week 3 as each house or farm we approached seemed to have at least one crazy barker in residence. It seems to be the culture to have dogs guarding ones house here, sometimes up to five or six, and when we hike past they go into a frenzy. Most are chained, but some are loose and throw themselves at the fences…and some fences have holes in them! So far on thr GR1 we have encountered intimidating situations with dogs most days. Nothing bad has happened, but some incidents have been a bit scary and needed confidence to deal with. The worst times are on remote farms where dogs can be loose and just run out on us from nowhere. One one occasion, distracted by a barker on a chain, we literally had to retreat with our trekking poles held up in surrender as a massive St Bernard came striding out of a barn beside us. He did not even have to bark at us, the sheer weight of his presence drove us back! We have strategies to cope, like always keeping a lookout behind and talking loudly to warn dogs of our approach, but it still adds a bit of spice to the walking as we never quite know what to expect. A hiking pole waved around menacingly helps!
Most situations are fine in the end, but some places seem to quite happy to scare innocent hikers sh*tless. On day 14, we were trying to avoid a dog barking in caged area, when a crazy beast came around the corner and went for us. His chain stopped him, but between the caged dog and the one on the chain there was maybe 3 foot width to walk on the trail, it got our hearts racing for sure- I shouted a few choice expletives at the house hoping the owners might hear our disgust. For walkers with a fear of dogs I think these first sections of the GR1 would be too stressful to be enjoyable, which is a shame as the route has much to offer.
If we were getting a little frazzled by dogs, an encounter on Day 15 reminded us how much we love them also. Hiking past a lonely old chapel in the hills late in the afternoon, a black head popped out of the doorway, followed by a sleek body, long legs and very waggly tail. The dog (a Labrador cross) was so playful and happy as she followed us up-trail through the forest for more than an hour (we thought she’d turn back any minute). By 6pm we were making camp near the pass and the dog was still with us, despite efforts to shoo her away back home. Next morning as I got out of the tent, a black head lifted from the grass 20ft away, the dog had made a nest and stayed with us overnight.
We were increasingly worried about where she came from, and as she leapt happily to start hiking with us again, we had visions of her following us to Santiago, so attached did she seem. We named her ‘Cadi’ temporarily (after the sierras) as it suited her. Within 5min of starting that morning, two big dogs from a farm spotted us and started racing over the fields, barking…even Barry started running that time….we certainly have a love/hate relationship with dogs on the GR1. Down the mountain to St Llorenc that morning Cadi was a joyful trail companion with boundless energy. We were still wondering what to do about her when we reached the bottom (over 8km from where we’d found her), when Cadi was recognised by her owner, a lady who ran a hotel next to the trail. The dog had probably followed hikers up the day before and was clever enough to latch on to us to show her the way down. And her real name was ‘Cati’…were we pretty close!
Apart from our dog travails, the GR1 delivered some classic wildlife sightings in week 3. The great cliffs which dominate the southern edge of the Sierra de Cadi and the canyon walls at its heart, have delivered birds of prey, including the charismatic Lammergier and endangered Egyptian vulture. A particular highlight was watching the synchronous flight display of Egyptian vultures over our tent in the blaze of late sunlight. On day 17 towards evening, we were looking for a quiet campsite on terraces below towering cliffs, when we suddenly heard a low, hollow ‘boo’…an Eagle owl! We needed no further encouragement to camp right there, and that evening watched Lammergiers, vultures (Egyptian and Griffon), Peregrine falcons and flocks of choughs circling from the crags. Barry even spotted the Eagle owl sitting plumply on a shadowy ledge. Later as we lost the sun, it grew cool and we sat and practised some meditation to the sound of cuckoos and the ‘cronk cronk’ of ravens. By dusk the sky was layered pink and purple with cloud, the plains stretched out misty-blue to the south, lights of houses twinkled in the foothills and further out still were the synchronous flashing lights of turning windmills. Just as I was dozing off (on the unearthly luxury of my NeoAir matress), I heart a scuffle of hooves, ‘go boar’ I shouted, and with an indignant sounding grunt, it ambled off into the shrubbery.
On Day 18 it really felt like we were making progress as we hiked west below a great escarpment of cliffs to our right and with far-seeing view to the plains on our left. For nearly 10 days we bad been able to see a strange and distant mountain range to the south, an isolated massif with serrated peaks like shark fins. Now it was satisfying to see this range slowly sliding away east, like a giant ocean liner over the rolling waves of sierras. Day 18 was not a long day (17km) or so, but it seemed hard, and by the time we arrived in the tiny village of Cambrils I could hike no more. We took refuge in bar ‘La Casanova’ and I stared gloomily at a taxidermied boars head as Barry ordered a cola. I was not sure I had the energy or will to find a campsite that night, and as if he read my thoughts, Barry magically suggested asking the price of a room! It had been less than 48hrs since our last hotel, but sometimes you just have to listen to what you need. 30min later we were lying in bed, eating chocolate biscuits and watching David Attenborough, it was so good to be out of the wind and the glary sun. We’d been living outside for nearly three weeks and I needed four walls around me and nothing to think about, to just close down all but essential functions and rest.
Feeling refreshed from our night in the Casanova, we ascended to a high ridge on Day 19, where swallows dipped around us over swathes of wild daffodils. Gaining the ridge opened up a huge tract of sierras and canyons to the west, which the GR1 would lead us through in the coming days and weeks. Looking at this prospect was a little intimidating but also exciting…we would cross that landscape, travel through its interstices, observe the details, in a way only walking allows us to do. Throw wild-camping into the equation and we will become intimately acquainted with it- we’ll taste it’s rivers, hear the sounds of night-time, see the rocks glow with the first and last rays of the sun.
The desire to plunge into these landscapes, to see the details is, for me, the fulfilment of an incurable curiosity, coupled with a fear that I might miss something, some hidden wonderland (of which there are many) of rock, forest and river. It is seeking to satisfy my imagination about what I dream might be over the next ridge or turn in the valley. Too many times I have felt to be an observer, guiltily staring from a car or train window, wondering what it would be like to be ‘out there’. Hiking as we are is partly an attempt to remedy this and avoid regret, regret that I never put enough effort in to know and experience.
From the ridge we began a long and tiring descent on loose-gravel trails (I fell over twice, although in quite a ladylike fashion…), to the town of Oliana. Oliana was an important stop for us as we needed to re-supply with food for a remote 4 day section of trail. Despite the weight however, food was not the problem, water was. The logistics of the GR1 on some sections is challenging for hiker-campers, and the 70km bit between Oliana and Ager is probably one of the trickiest. There are few settlements, no shops and a lot of uncertainty about water availability (mostly on the last 50km stretch). It is ironic that we are not in the high mountains, as on the GR11, but in some ways the GR1 can feel more remote. The route runs through isolated and depopulated countryside, what roads there are may only see a couple of cars a day and we almost never see other hikers.
We left Oliana already heavy with food, and my mind was heavier still, worrying about where and if we’d find water in the days ahead. There were some streams marked on the map, but experience thus far told us they could not be relied on. Some were seasonal and dry this time of year (only running during summer storms), others were polluted with sewage or agricultural run off. Day 20 was a toughie, another section with nearly 1000m of climb in heat and with over-heavy packs.
The GR1 has the same amount of total ascent as the GR11 (40,000m), albeit stretched over a longer distance, but week 3 certainly packed it in. Another difference between the GR1 and GR11 is that the latter nearly always rewarded big climbs with stunning mountain vistas (both on the ascent and at the top). The GR1 sometimes rewards, but often climbs are up through forest trails and there may or may not be a view at the end (I expect this will improve as we get in the Sierra de Guara). One factor for us in the Sierra de Cadi ‘Natural Park’ in particular was the extensive areas of Scots pine plantations, the result of insensitive, homogenous forestry practice (20-30 years ago), which blankets even the most remote and craggy places. These forests hold little wildlife and long sections climbing or ascending through these were rather tedious.
By day 20, we’d had a run of tough days with limited rewards, and by the time we reached the remote farmhouse of Masia Messanes about 25km in, we were knackered. I found the prospect of the next two days (each with 1000m ascent and one of 1700m descent), hauling kgs of food and up to 6kg of water each, quite disheartening. Over a supersized bocadillo and shandy (yes the farm serves food and has rooms), we took stock. I was exhausted from the heat and weight and dreaded the prospect of the next 50km with the terrain, weight and water issues. We are doing this to enjoy it afterall! Unheard of for us we took a room for the 3rd time in 6 days, I lay still and dog-tired for hours conflicted about what to do. Breaking our continuity (albeit only 2 days worth) was a mental obstacle, but physically and mentally I needed a break. Barry, level-headed, supportive and flexible as always made the decision easy for me. Next morning the owner was going down to town at 7:30, she would drop us at the bus station and we’d get a bus to Ager.
I am learning to stop holding myself so harshly to account, to stop feeling guilty about things like missing 2 days in a 1000 mile hike. Sometimes letting go and realising the need to stop, or just take it easier can be harder (but ultimately wiser) than doggedly carrying on. I have a way to go on this on, it is a very personal challenge, but in practical terms it did us a lot of good. Rather than slogging and getting grumpy for 2 days we are back on the trail more refreshed, lighter in mind (and rucksack!), and the GR1 has rewarded us with some super (world class) walking…but more about that in week 4. Sucess on this walk is not about distance as such (although this creates a sense of purpose to carry-on), it is about balancing effort with reward, a balance that we constantly review- it is afterall about the quality of experience. In week 3 we had to re-set the balance, and it left us better motivated and refreshed to continue our GR1 journey.
The next post from Week 4 sees us complete our journey across Catalonia and enter the ‘kingdom’ of Aragon, our favourite region of Spain. There is much to look forward too in terms of landscape and abandoned villages, not to mention our first re-supply box from home and a new sleeping bag…….
Barry also plans a blog post on the birds of the GR1 a bit later.