Monthly Archives: January 2010

BIKES ON DYKES – cycling Zeeland, Netherlands

Visitors to Holland are quickly taught the rule – don’t stand chatting in the bike lane. So it’s a surprise when in the cycling paradise of Zeeland we come across Dutch premier Jan Pieter Balkenende and his retinue doing just that, blocking our progress across the Eastern Schelde dam. Sleek black limousines are parked on the path by the ‘bikes only’ sign.

‘The prime minister of South Korea is visiting,’ a driver tells us. ‘We’re showing him our dykes.’

Ah, fair enough. Everybody should see these dykes. As sea levels rise, the world will have much to learn from the Zeelanders. My wife and I came here to ride through the idyllic countryside, past the old windmills and through the ancient towns and villages, but we’re finding the modern engineering just as impressive.

The residents of this chain of flat islands have had a love/hate relationship with the sea for centuries. In good times, the sea provided the wealth that made a town like Middelburg one of the most important trading centres of renaissance Europe. In bad times, when dykes were breached by warfare or sea surges, Zeeland has literally and tragically gone under.

We start our tour in Middelburg, a splendid medieval city on the island of Walchers. I say ‘medieval’, though few buildings survived the German fire bombing in 1940. A remarkable reconstruction effort has made the town look old and beautiful again. The mighty clock tower Lange Jan (Tall John) erected in the time of William of Orange, dominates Middelburg, while below it the 12th century abbey has been converted to a museum. The modern art in the temporary exhibition leaves us a little bewildered, but the sun shines in a lovely abbey courtyard, and we enjoy a coffee and a local Zeeuwse bolus, a doughnut-like scroll with apple and cinnamon to sweeten the glug.
Middelburg
Next morning we roll down beside the canal to Middelburg’s competitor, Vlissingen. By reputation it’s a no-nonsense business centre, less touristy than Middelburg. We particularly enjoy the Maritime MuZEEum. As well as a good coverage of early and modern seafaring it shows a short film (in English) telling of Zeeland’s tragedy during WWII. As Allied forces closed in on the German troops occupying Middleburg, the dykes came down and the sea came in. Those who escaped with their lives lost their homes, livestock and livelihoods.

We wind our way north along the coastal villages, now popular seaside resorts. Bulldozers continuously reinforce the dunes along the North Sea, while behind them forests have been planted and wetlands developed. Thousands of wading birds are breeding and hundreds of Zeelanders and tourists are out cycling and walking.

We come to the magnificent Delta Works, where we meet the aforementioned heads of state. A remarkable system of dams and floodgates keeps the sea at bay, allowing it to flow through when it’s behaving itself and keeping it out when it looks dangerous.

Eastern Schelde Dam

The Delta Works are not only impressive, they’re also beautiful. The road swoops evenly towards a perfectly regular row of blocks and arches stretching into the distance. Floodgates, each forty metres wide, let the sea slosh through below. Road signs are bright royal blue, boom gates red and white, and soaring above us are rows of modern white windmills, silently generating power. Somebody very efficient is in control in Zeeland, and we find it reassuring.

I was interested to read (in Alain de Botton’s book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work) that the picture postcard windmills of old were often condemned as ugly industrial blots on the landscape, until Golden Age painters like Jacob van Ruysdael pointed out their charm. Maybe in 300 years’ time there’ll be a preservation society fighting to save a few elegant white specimens from our primitive age of electricity.

When the cavalcade of dignitaries moves on, we ride across the dam behind it. We’re on the ‘Strijd Tegen Water’ (‘Fight Against Water) cycle route. It leads us around sea walls and through lovely Zierikzee to Ouwerkerk, now a neat little village, with cropped trees and manicured gardens. It’s hard to imagine that on the night of February 1, 1953, this was the scene of the Netherlands’ greatest natural disaster.

When a massive storm burst the dyke, the ocean rushed in. Over 1800 people and 182,000 animals drowned. Fifty thousand homes were destroyed and for the next eight months high tides washed over the island, covering everything in a thick layer of sand.

The event is remembered in the nearby Watersnoodmuseum, or ‘Water Emergency Museum’. Housed in the massive ‘caissons’, concrete bins that eventually dammed the breach, it gives an excellent explanation (in English and Dutch) of the disaster, moving eye witness accounts and an inspiring summary of the clean-up and subsequent engineering works, designed to ensure that it never happens again.

The final section of the museum, opened just the day before our visit, looks into the future. In times of climate change, the world may well look for ideas in an efficiently organised country where more than half the population already lives below sea level.

As we enthusiastically sign the visitors’ book we notice the names on the previous page – J.P. Balkenende and Mr Han Seung-Soo. We assume their messages (illegible to us, especially the one in Korean) say they enjoyed Zeeland as much as we did.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Trains run every hour from Amsterdam to Middelburg. The trip takes about 2.5 hours and costs EUR26.30 one way.

Staying there: B&B de Kaepstander in Middelburg has doubles for EUR67. See kaepstander.nl. Numerous other accommodation options are on vvvzeeland.nl

Further information: Entry to the Maritiem MuZEEum costs EUR8, and the Waternoodsmuseum EUR6. See muZEEum.nl and vvvzeeland.nl.

9 Comments

Filed under Budget travel, Cycle touring, Cycling, Holland, travel photography, Travel- Europe

EUROPE’S BIGGEST STREET PARTY? – Queen’s Day, Holland


If you’re a party animal or a bargain hunter, try to be in the Netherlands on April 30th. If you’re not, arrange to be somewhere else. Each year on Koninginnedag or ‘Queen’s Day’, it’s as if the entire Dutch nation dresses in the royal colour orange and paints the town red.

Officially Koninginnedag celebrates the queen’s birthday, though it was former queen Juliana, not present monarch Beatrix, who was born on April 30th. It doesn’t matter, because although Queen Bea probably enjoys a quiet glass of champers with her feet up at the end of the day, overwhelmingly this is a people’s party. All the city fathers do is relax laws restricting street trading for 24 hours, and the enterprising Dutch community does the rest.

On Koninginnedag it’s open slather for garage or car boot sales, there are street performers and micro-profiteers on every corner, and every cafe has an outside terrace in full swing, with live music pulling in the customers.

We start our day with an early morning trip to the world’s biggest garage sale, along Amsterdam’s wide Apollolaan (‘Apollo Lane’). Anybody with a collection of Abba vinyl, a pair of antique skis or a souvenir tribal mask from Uganda is out there trying to sell it. The Apollolaan is one of Amsterdam’s best addresses, so we expect this flea market will sell a superior class of fleas, although these days would-be merchants flock from all over town to flog stuff here.

We’re in the market for a child’s travel cot and locate one within minutes. It’s a terrific bargain, but how are we going to transport it back to our accommodation? On Koninginnedag many roads are blocked to cars and the trams are not so much running as crowd surfing, inching through the packed streets with the bells ringing constantly. Oh well, they call them ‘carry cots’, so that’s what we do. It’s a long walk, but there’s plenty to see along the way.

Vendors, many having staked out a pitch the night before, try to outdo each other in attracting punters’ attention by wearing the most outrageous orange costume or silly orange hat. There are orange wigs, cowboy hats and feather boas, and inflatable orange crowns, cheeses, and windmills to be worn as headgear. If you haven’t brought one with you, don’t worry – someone else will sell you one.

Suitably stupidly attired in orange t-shirts with absurd inflatables on our heads, it’s off to the famous Vondelpark in the centre of town. The park is traditionally devoted to kids’ activities on Koninginnendag. Under the shady trees, kids try to sell their surplus Buzz Lightyears and Teletubbies videos to the hordes shuffling past. Every child who’s ever learned a tune on the violin or keyboard is out busking, some of them displaying precocious ability. Others show less talent, but still get money for effort and looking cute.

Kids who can dance and kids who can’t put on the CD player and strut their stuff on a sheet of orange plastic. They run coconut shies, or brace themselves to have eggs thrown in their faces, or sell cookies and orange juice (with a shot of vodka if you want it – Dutch liquor licencing laws are very relaxed on Koninginnedag). There are inventive games of chance, like betting on whether the beetle on a modified ouija board will crawl to the picture of George W. Bush, Barack Obama or Osama bin Laden.

Our vote for most original and entertaining event goes to ‘Amsterdam’s Cheapest Skydiving’. For a small fee kids can put on goggles and be strapped into a chair with a large bunch of balloons attached to it. Three young attendants then give the customer a simulated near-death experience. One blows air into the client’s face through a tube, another shakes the chair around in a way calculated to resemble turbulence, while a third scrolls hand-painted pictures first of sky, then of rapidly approaching ground in front of the daredevil’s eyes. Is there any better thrill to be had for a euro?

We take a break for a quick look at the telly to see how the rest of the country is celebrating. Each year the royal family visits different towns in their kingdom and residents turn out in force to entertain their Royal Highnesses with a series of displays and performances, none more than a couple of minutes long.

The Dutch royals pride themselves on their informal relationship with their subjects. Queen Beatrix and her family walk around the chosen town, shaking thousands of hands, filing past displays of pottery by handicapped artists, and stopping to join a bongo drum band of local schoolkids. They slip into a church for a brief organ recital and a concert by a local opera singer, then outside Crown Prince Willem Alexander and his popular, glamorous wife Maxima strap on roller-blades and skate with the locals, occasioning warm applause.

In the late afternoon there’s one more excursion we need to make, into Amsterdam’s canal belt. Spring has already sprung, and we’re unusually lucky to have fine weather. Amsterdam looks even more lovely than usual with the trees wearing their new green growth, and the river of orange-clad humanity flowing underneath.

The canals are packed with boats and the boats are packed with orange partygoers, waving enthusiastically to other orange people on the bridges. The Heineken is flowing freely and the volume dial of every sound system is turned up to 11.

At night the party crowd move on to the Museumplein behind the Rijksmuseum, where the bands play into the night and the orange crowd rocks on.

All in all, it’s a right royal day, a day of the people, for the people and by the people, the only major cost to the state being the cleanup afterwards. This being scrupulously hygienic Holland, cleaning anything is handled with amazing efficiency. By the time we walk back through the Vondelpark in the evening, the garbology team has done its job, and you’d hardly know there’s been a party there.

TRIP NOTES:

STAYING THERE: For numerous accommodation options, see http://www.amsterdam.info
Recommended are: Quentin Arrive – Budget double from EUR70 ($140). http://www.quentinhotels.net. Tulips B&B, opposite Vondelpark – rooms from EUR80 http://www.hostelsamsterdam.com, ’t Hotel rooms from EUR145-220. http://www.thotel.nl

FURTHER INFORMATION: http://www.amsterdam.info or http://www.iamsterdam.com Koninginnedag is free (not counting food, drink and carry cot).

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

10 Comments

Filed under Budget travel, Holland, Travel, Travel- Europe

PERE LACHAISE CEMETERY, PARIS – celebrity grave-spotting

Oscar Wilde's tomb

I didn’t kiss Oscar Wilde. He’d already been kissed enough. We found him in Paris’s Pere Lachaise cemetery, lying under a large block of sandstone, enigmatically carved by Jacob Epstein. His grave was covered with lipstick and messages scrawled with felt pens; ‘Je t’aime’,  ‘Merci pour tous’ and ‘L’importanza d’essere Oscar!’

Maybe Wilde would have been flattered by the attention, but one contribution, ‘Dennis and Flavia was here from Brazil’, suggested that not all his visitors were true theatre lovers. Kissing his stone must be listed in some tourist guide as one of  ‘Ten Things You Must Do in Paris’.

Pere Lachaise cemetery

When it first opened in 1804, Parisians thought Pere Lachaise was too far out of town for grieving families to visit. Even after a publicity campaign, involving moving Moliere and La Fontaine out there to pull in new customers, it continued to struggle for business. But when Balzac laid characters from his novels to rest in Pere Lachaise, tourists went looking for the graves of fictional heroes, and soon real people wanted to RIP there too. Now it’s home to Balzac himself, to Proust, Piaf, Seurat, Rossini, Chopin, Bizet, Delacroix, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin and Jim Morrison. Their neighbour is the very quiet Marcel Marceau.

Each year Pere Lachaise attracts many thousands of visitors, maps in hand, sniffing around its 70,000 graves, looking for their favourite dead people. The cemetery is popular, but at 44 hectares it’s the biggest park in Paris, so it’s anything but crowded. The dead may be a little cramped, but there’s plenty of room for those of us still living to wander along the cobblestone paths, or to sit under the giant chestnut trees and reflect on what this life and death business is all about.

We had to share our James Douglas Morrison moment with a couple of other Doors fans, though there was no queue for tickets. We’d read that he was the celebrity most visitors come to see, but we found him tucked away behind a little fence, his grave adorned with last week’s drooping roses and a bunch of plastic flowers.

Edith Piaf is also a little off the path, opposite Modigliani. She has a marble slab, a crucifix and an urn marked simply ‘EP’. Poignantly, Piaf shares her grave with her two-year-old son, Marcel Dupont. And more plastic flowers.

There were bunches of them on the Auschwitz monument too, along with a hand-written note, in French, which read, ‘What horror! It is a disgrace to see these faded, artificial flowers as a memorial to these people. One hopes the caretakers clean them up soon!’

Tending Chopin's graveWe could only agree. If you’re seriously devoted to the departed, you should go to some trouble, as a man was doing for Chopin, carefully arranging cut flowers in vases. Someone had planted and tended a lovely bed of purple irises on Charlie Chaplin’s family tomb. Leaving plastic flowers seems to say, ‘We know we should think of you more often, but we have busy lives. So here’s something to keep you going while we’re off enjoying ourselves.’

Other graves are falling into disrepair, the owners having moved on, leaving no forwarding address. On some mossy tombstones, authorities had posted bossy equivalents of abandoned vehicle notices, to the effect that (as far as our inadequate French could decipher) – ‘This grave appears untended. It will be demolished unless someone comes to claim it.’
When we’d found everyone we’d heard of in Pere Lachaise, we moved on to the Montmartre Cemetery. The entrance is overshadowed by an ugly iron bridge, but inside is an oasis in a particularly crowded part of Paris. Less beautiful than Pere Lachaise it may be, but the brochure was gratuit, which immediately made us well disposed towards it.

Here lie Stendhal, Delibes and Offenbach, as well as Mme Weber, inventor of the can-can, and Alphonsine ‘La Dame Aux Camelias’ Plessis. Francois Truffaut’s grave was a triumph of art direction; simple marble adorned with a tiny jar of fresh red and orange roses.

Tombs can often be pretentious or just plain kitsch. Inscriptions try to say too much and end up being pompous or trite. Tomb designers are seldom artists of the same calibre as the famous departed. There are exceptions; there’s a lovely statue of a little girl on Gustave Guillaumet’s grave and Nijinsky’s final resting place bears a delicate bronze of the dancer in character and thoughtful pose.

We met an English couple, confused by a concrete box with a black metal door labelled Famille de Gas. ‘We thought it was a gas meter,’ they said. We didn’t know Degas was a pen name either. Or should that be a ‘nom de pastel’?Foucault's pendulum, Pantheon

Across the Seine, serious honouring of dead heroes happens in the Pantheon. Suspended under the dome, Foucault’s pendulum swings inexorably back and forth, illustrating the rotation of the earth. In the crypt below, the “Grand Hommes” of the French Republic are buried. Victor Hugo is there, Voltaire and the Curies too, and Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola were moved there from Montmartre. Most moving we found the memorial to the resistance leader Jean Moulin, killed by the Nazis.

Finally, in the Hotel des Invalides is the grandest tomb of them all. For 8 euros, including the audio guide, visitors can wander around the massive marble coffin containing whatever is left of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon's coffin

Celebrity grave-spotting was a diverting way to pass a couple of days in Paris, yet compared to the contributions many of these people made in their lifetimes, they don’t have a lot to add in death. We spared a thought for them as we stood by their resting places, but we’ve really been closer to them when listening to La Vie en Rose or Carmen or reading Pere Goriot or The Happy Prince. Seurat’s paintings are considerably more beautiful than his tomb.

Sitting and thinking under a spreading chestnut tree, it all fell into place for me. Life is short and you’re a long time dead. An impressive grave can squeeze a few more drops out of your celebrity, but if you hope to achieve anything in this world, it’s best to do it while you’re still alive.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Literary history, Paris, Travel, Travel- Europe

WHANGANUI RIVER – canoeing in New Zealand

Photo (c) Jack Marsden-Mayer

They call me a random canoeist, even before they’ve seen my erratic paddling. ‘Random’ means I’ve arrived without a partner and the guiding company has assigned me to share a canoe with a random stranger, Emma from Scotland. We’re both beginners, with plenty of ignorance to pool, and there’s a three-day, 80km river trip to Pipiriki ahead. This will be a steep learning curve.

Dave from Wades’ Landing Outdoors makes it sound easy. ‘You could chuck an empty canoe in the Whanganui River and it would end up at Pipiriki. It’s only people make things complicated.’ In other words, he’ll get his canoe back whatever. Call me fussy, but I’m hoping to arrive with the canoe underneath and two random canoeists high and mostly dry on top.

The Whanganui River starts life on the slopes of Mt Tongariro, in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island, then winds down to the sea. Once an important waterway for Maori people and settler farmers, it is now popular with canoeists. It is still remote, though. It takes the best part of an hour in Dave’s truck to get from the nearest town, National Park, over the rough road to our launching place at Whakahoro.

Once there, our clothes, cooking gear and sleeping bags are stowed in plastic barrels, along with enough food to last a week and enough decent Hawkes Bay wine to get us through a couple of nights. Cameras are handy in sealed ‘dry bags’, ready to be pulled out at scenic points.

But first we need to practice this paddling business. Dave pushes us off into the swirling water, muddied and swelled by recent rain, and we’re on our way. For the next few hours we random paddlers zigzag awkwardly across the river, sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards, making ungainly circles as we’re caught in invisible whirlpools and eddies. We bubble over patches of choppy water, our knuckles white on the paddles. We strain our eyes for telltale ‘V’ shapes on the surface ahead, which Dave has warned us signify hidden obstacles or rapids. Other paddlers, less random than us, steer neatly past and disappear round the bends.
Eventually we realize that, in spite of already making every mistake possible, we haven’t gone overboard. So we relax and pull out the cameras. It is truly fabulous landscape. The steep mossy cliffs lining the Whanganui’s banks remind me of Peter Dombrovskis’s iconic photo from Tasmania’s Save the Franklin campaign. The river is lined with dense forest of tree ferns, rimu trees and rata vines, with beech trees dominating the higher slopes. Numerous waterfalls gush, trickle or pound into the river below.

On flat stretches, the only sounds are the gentle lap of randomly co-ordinated paddle strokes, and the musical calls of the glossy black tui birds that dart from the foliage to circle above us.

The river does all the hard work, whirling us downstream at about 8-10 kilometres an hour. We’ve soon completed the first 37.5km and bump into a muddy landing below John Coull Hut, where some 20 canoes are already moored. This Department of Conservation hut has no showers, but it does have gas stoves, pit toilets and bunk beds. Hut accommodation is on a first come, first served basis, but latecomers can pitch tents on the nearby campground.

John Coull mooring

Enthusiastic volunteer wardens, retired teacher Brian Laing and his farmer brother Murray, help with unloading gear, provide weather forecasts (cloudy, sunny, chance of rain) and remember everybody’s name. Over hearty food and heartier drinks, we meet some of our fellow travellers – youth leaders Drew and Amy from Canada, Danish scientists Dorte and Sune with their two young boys, and a friendly group of 50-something Kiwis who meet up each year for an active adventure.

Someone tries fishing in the river, and there’s a moment of great excitement when the small eel he’s hooked is suddenly eaten by a monster eel as he reels it in. As night falls, bats flit in the trees and kiwis call across the river. Well, according to Brian and Murray they’re kiwis and who am I to argue?

The next day’s paddling seems easier, and is broken by a welcome chance to get out of the canoe and walk an easy 90 minute round trip to the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’.

Bridge to Nowhere

It’s an impressive concrete span over a gorge, a relic of the time this was farmland, before being declared National Park.
At Tieke Kainga Hut a large totem pole reminds us that this area is sacred to the Maori people. Each bend in the river had a guardian spirit controlling its mauri (life force) and in quiet moments it’s as if we can still feel them.

By the third day, twelve hours of paddling have made Emma and me considerably less random and we’re almost travelling in straight lines. We welcome the appearance of a few rapids to give a frisson of excitement. Occasional jetboats bringing day-trippers up the river show we’re nearing civilization, and we feel justifiably smug about our achievement compared to their wussy mechanized transport.

Too soon we make a neat bump-free landing at Pipiriki, where Dave is waiting with the truck. New Zealand lost the rugby while we were away, apparently. There was a cabinet reshuffle. A celebrity marriage is on the rocks. The stock market is down again. Who cares? I’d rather be paddling randomly.

The writer was the guest of Visit Ruapehu, Wades Landing Outdoors, The Powderhorn Chateau and Tranz Scenic railways.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Train from Auckland to National Park or Okahune takes just over six hours and costs NZD99 one way. http://www.railnewzealand.com

Staying there: The Powderhorn Chateau, Ohakune has double rooms from NZD198 http://www.powderhorn.co.nz. Adventure Lodge, National Park, has dorms from NZD30 p.p. adventurenationalpark.co.nz

Further information: 3 day canoe hire from Wades Landing Outdoors, including all equipment and transfers costs from NZD150 p.p. See whanganui.co.nz. For other guiding companies and activities in the area see visitruapehu.com

First published Sun-Herald, Sydney

4 Comments

Filed under New Zealand, Travel

TOUR DE MONT BLANC – the Swiss section

Col d'Emaney We turned back here - icy snow, steep drops, weather closing in

We’re in a bit of trouble on our hike, high on Switzerland’s Col d’Emaney. It’s blowing a gale and there’s frozen snow on a treacherously steep slope. My Dutch companions are carrying ice axes, but I’m not roping myself to anyone who learned their mountaineering below sea level in Amsterdam.

My own mountaineering skills are non-existent, and a ledge above a 500metre drop is not a good place for my first lesson. To my relief, we decide to turn back. It takes us two cold wet hours to slog down through mist and snow to the Auberge de Salanfe.

Now what? This is just the second day of a planned eight-day trek. The idea was to cross two high cols, then connect up with the classic Tour de Mont Blanc route and follow it through to Italy. But we’ve come in June, too early in the season, and the bad weather and snow are still around. Are we stuck?

Not yet. In Switzerland everything is brilliantly organised for walkers who strike problems in the Alps. The Swiss understand mountains of course; the only flat bits of this country are lakes.

We drink chocolat chaud in the auberge while the manager of the establishment rings a friend who has a van. He’ll meet us in the village, an hour’s walk down the mountain, and drive us to the station at Les Marecottes.

The plan goes like Swiss clockwork. At 16.18 precisely we board the little red Mont Blanc Express, and take a short but spectacular train ride towards Chamonix, along rails clinging to the cliffs above a deep ravine. Our carriage has windows in the roof so we can admire the mighty peaks and waterfalls above us.

We disembark at Finhaut and walk again, this time below the snowline, three horizontal kilometres and three quarters of a vertical one, and still arrive at Restaurant du Barrage d’Emosson in time for a beer by the lake, dinner and an early night. Great!

Next morning the weather has really closed in and our second high col is also likely to be impassable. No problem; there’s always a Plan B in Switzerland. We descend to a road and cross the French border. Nobody checks our passports, but there’s a shop selling essential hiking equipment – Toblerone chocolate and Swiss army knives. And cuckoo clocks, in case anyone needs a wake-up call tomorrow.
.
Once in France we down a café au lait in Argentieres, then climb up to a small yellow sign on a post – ‘TMB’. We’ve made it to the Tour de Mont Blanc. Italy, here we come!

The full circuit of Europe’s highest range is some 170km long and takes about 60 hours of walking. Most people do it in 8-12 days. It passes through the French and Italian Alps, but we’re doing the stretch across the Valais region of Switzerland, then looping back to Ozieres.

It’s staggeringly beautiful terrain – or is that my pack making me stagger? We plough knee-deep through fields of wildflowers. We wind through dark pine forests beside gushing streams. We clamber up rocky trails and emerge on ridges over 2000metres high, surrounded by snow-capped peaks.

From time to time we drop down and enter villages, each with a picturesque little chapel, old chalets with firewood stacked high outside them and meticulously tended gardens. We fill our water bottles at the icy springs that pour into log troughs.

On the high slopes, some small farms have set up tables and chairs, and Monsieur et Madame offer café et gateaux to a steady stream of passing walkers. The Tour de Mont Blanc is popular.

We meet an English high school group, a party of Aussies with a guide, and an American fitness freak jogging through the snow in his sneakers. ‘I’m gonna run (puff!) the whole route in (puff!) three days (puff!) Travel light. Just carryin’ a credit card (puff!) Have a good one, buddy!’ At lunchtime we find he’s stopped to tell the same story to everyone in our party – he’ll need a fourth day to do his bragging.

The track is generally well made and the TMB isn’t a danger to life, though occasionally to limb. Anyone in reasonable shape can manage the walk, but there are some steep rocky sections and we climb and/or descend 1000-1500m most days. Think of a two kilometre-long staircase and you get the idea.

Tent camping along the way is possible, though we opt to stay in the numerous small hotels and auberges, usually taking demi-pension, which includes a basic but hearty breakfast and dinner. Booking is necessary in the summer (July-October) and some places may be closed at other times.

We usually sleep in the communal dormitories, which we find comfortable enough for people as tired as we are. Our budget for the lot, including too much beer and local Fendant (white) and Dole (red) wine is 100 francs a day.

Fortunately the weather clears as our week goes on and by the time we reach the highest cols we have brilliant sunshine. The masochists among us (self not included) sometimes take ‘variants’, crossing alpine routes to make the trip more challenging. They’re heroes when they arrive alive and even the professional guides of other groups consult them about snow conditions up top.

Near the Col de Ferret

But we’re all tough guys after a few days in our boots, so we scorn the cable car that takes wimps up the Col de Balme. Instead we walk up the track in record time, only to be confronted by a pack of daredevil mountain bikers racing down in helmets and full body armour.

My mates get to laugh at me once more, when they find me hiding in the bushes while two young bulls block the bridge I need to cross. Okay, maybe they were cows. I only checked the horns and they looked like the fighting sort.

From the terrace of our hotel in La Fouly we watch the sun set behind the glaciers. Then next morning we leave our heavy gear behind and take a day walk up to the magnificent Grand Col de Ferret, 2500 metres high. The sun has softened the snow, so there are none of the ice problems we met earlier in the week.

Two steps across the col, my mobile rings. It’s the phone company, welcoming me to Italy and reminding me of their cheap rates. I take up the offer and call Sydney to tell my wife I’m in a very beautiful and very wild place, but not to worry – civilisation isn’t far away.

Another day over! (almost)

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Train from Geneva to Orsieres costs about EUR35 one way.
Those planning to walk the full Tour de Mont Blanc usually take the bus or train to Chamonix. Cost one way is from EUR25.

When to go: The walking season in the Valais is generally July-October. At other times it’s wise to check whether your planned accommodation will be open and what the snow conditions will be like.

Reading: The Tour of Mont Blanc (Mountain Walking) by Kev Reynolds.
Pub. Cicerone

Website:
Free, downloadable maps and information on hiking in the Valais area, including the Tour de Mont Blanc, is on the website: http://www.valais.ch/pdf_doc/Touren_2006.pdf
This gives a number of alternative routes, with details of elevation and approximate time required to walk each leg.

Guiding:
Various companies offer guided and self-guided tours of Mont Blanc (none track-tested by your Sun-Herald correspondent). They include:

http://www.wildernesstravel.com/itins/tmb.html

http://www.distantjourneys.com/travel-self-guided/sg_tMB.html

Equipment: The weather in the Alps can change very quickly any time of year. Good footwear and wet weather gear are essential.

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney.

3 Comments

Filed under Budget travel, Hiking, Switzerland, Travel, Travel- Europe

WORTH THE RISK? – the danger of loving mountains

In my mind I can see it all happening. I wish I couldn’t. On my last trip to Switzerland, I stood on a col on the Italian border, photographing Mont Dolent above me. A week later a Dutch mother watched as her husband, son and two daughters, roped together, fell to their deaths off that mountain.

The father, a doctor from the Netherlands, was an experienced alpinist and his children were 23, 20 and 16. The weather was fine, the route they took is not regarded as difficult and the fact that they were roped suggests they were taking care. I don’t know what went wrong, but I’m shocked and saddened rather than surprised. Dozens of people die on the Mont Blanc Range every year.

I wrote about walking the Tour de Mont Blanc in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper. With some bravado, I noted that the route was sometimes a danger to limb, but not to life. This is true. The main track is well trodden and safe in good weather. But there are numerous side routes like the one taken by the Dutch family, leading to mountain peaks, and it’s tempting to try them. I understand the feeling – everyone does that main track; let’s do something a bit more challenging. We’ll get a great sense of achievement and the view from the top will be awesome.

The mountains are dangerous, even for those of us who are not adrenalin junkies. I deplore idiot base-jumpers and solo climbers who are a menace not only to themselves, but also to rescuers. However, most victims of the alps would not regard themselves as daredevils. Most casualties are walkers and skiers, because those are by far the most popular activities there.

The friends I walk with are experienced in the mountains. We choose routes we think are within our capabilities, take the advice of locals, carry good equipment and are prepared to turn back if faced with a dangerous situation. Even so, it is hard to judge from a map or a guidebook what we will be safe for us. Routes that are easily traversed in good weather suddenly become life threatening in the rain. In a week of what should be routine alpine walking, we regularly have at least one moment that could be somebody’s last. Others may find this exhilarating; I hate such incidents, and they crop up very quickly and unexpectedly.

Climbing the Grand Col de Ferret in June was quite demanding enough for our group, meaning that it was a slog through soft snow, but it was perfectly safe. Then two of my companions decided to take a side path along the snow-strewn track to the Petit Col, the point from which the Dutch walkers started their fatal climb. I declined to go with them, though I felt rather timid for doing so.

Track to Petit Col de Ferret. Mont Dolent behind.


I didn’t like the look of a small patch of snow, maybe twenty metres wide, above a steep slope. I’m not at all confident on such terrain. Anyone who slipped there would end up in the valley half a kilometre below. I tend to think in worst-case scenarios. To their credit, my companions never pressure me to do anything I feel uncomfortable about, so I stayed behind.

Fortunately my friends made the crossing safely and returned whooping with enthusiasm. I was very relieved to see them again and regretted that I hadn’t had the nerve to go too. ‘The slope wasn’t as steep as you think, Richard,’ they said. ‘You just watch your feet and don’t look down. Great view from the other side.’ For confident walkers like them, probably there was minimal danger. I know that my fear makes a slip more likely.

But why not walk along the valley? We’d still see the mountains, and they’re nearly as impressive viewed from below. If we want a panoramic vista, there are lookouts with safety railings we could drive to in the car. Why do we take any risks at all?

First, we walk the alpine routes because we enjoy the physical activity. We love the challenge of pushing our middle-aged bodies some way towards their limits. We feel that time is running out, and that we better do some tough climbs this year because our knees may not manage them next year. If the sign says it will take three hours to reach the top, we put our heads down and try to make it in two and a half, just to prove to ourselves that we’re still clinging to better-than-average fitness.

We find remote spots more beautiful than those accessible by road or cable car. We like being alone in the world, and it is less satisfying to reach a col with a revolving restaurant and a parking area on top. Even meeting groups of other walkers takes the edge off our sense of achievement. But those less-travelled paths are less well maintained and some of the most spectacular routes have no track at all.

There are few better experiences than making a beautiful walk in the company of friends, and ending each day very tired, knowing you’ve seen sights that few others see, done something which many are not capable of doing, and that you’ve earned a drink, a good meal and a lie down.

It will be dreadfully small consolation to that poor Dutch woman that her family died ‘doing what they loved’. They were doing things that didn’t need to be done, and it has cost them their lives. But their lives were surely enriched by their love of adventures in those mountains.

Even if we could protect ourselves from all risks, life might be longer, but it would be less worth living. It’s a matter of balance.

2 Comments

Filed under Hiking, Travel- Europe