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It’s hard to believe that the Tour du Mont Blanc is supposed to be one of the most popular multi-day treks in Europe. No one I talk to has ever heard of it! Maybe I’m not running in the proper circles. I don’t know many people that own trekking poles.
Anyway, this ten day hike was a chance to catch up with one of my oldest and dearest friends and her lovely husband and to see some awe-inspiring scenery to boot. We met in Switzerland and set out for ~144kms through three countries. We stayed in mountain refuges – fully functional dorm accommodation with night-time meal included. Hiking on the West coast of Canada (where I grew up) is a different breed altogether. Up in the alps one feels quite civilized. You can shower almost every night! We also stopped though a few towns along the way so we were able to pick up supplies as needed, and to celebrate milestones and new countries with a pint, or a wee bit of fois gras.
This is quite a tramp and it doesn’t take all that long to get into the swing of things even if you’re not that much of a long distance hiker. One of my favourite moments occurred on the second day in. I think we were en route to the Grand Col Ferret (2537m) which marks the border between Switzerland and Italy. We were slugging up yet another summit, sweat and sunscreen pouring into our eyes, sun blaring down on us, packs digging into our backs. My good friend Diana casually looks at me, and with a resigned but somewhat enthusiastic smile says, “mhh, and to think…we could have been sailing in the Mediterranean right now!”
I’m fairly certain I stopped dead. “Pardon me??” …confused laughter escaping my parched and sun-burnt lips.
Answering with a casual chuckle and a shrug of the shoulders, “oh yeah, didn’t we tell you? If we hadn’t done this hike we were going to charter a boat and sail around the Med for two weeks.”
As my jaw dropped, she added proudly: “Jeff and I are both Skippers.” Broad smile. My uncontrollable laughter was a reaction to the altitude, I’m sure.
The Mediterranean aside, this was a fantastic journey and although it was many weeks later that any of could fully enjoy cheese or sausage (after eating them every day on the trail), the scenery was enough to put one in one’s place.
We worked really hard through heat, rain, wind and even snow…. and we met some great people too. It was an amazing experience but I won’t hesitate to volunteer as a deck hand on our next vacation together.
The Swiss experience cannot be complete without an up-close and personal glimpse of the mystical, magical Matterhorn. Luckily you don’t have to be a mountaineer to appreciate the astounding beauty of the (second) highest mountain in the Swiss Alps. It’s obvious that this 4478m monolith has indeed caught the attention of the world … there is a chocolate bar based on it’s shape. Do you know which one?
We arrived in Zermatt, the small village at the base of the Matterhorn, early in the day. The train was full but not uncomfortable. There were less young people than I thought there would be, but then I considered how expensive Zermatt must be (picture Whistler in a really expensive country and you’ve got the idea), and then I understood that although it’s a very popular place, it’s not necessarily on the “backpacking circuit”.
With the money we were saving by camping and bringing our own groceries, well we could maybe pick up some souvenirs… I had my eye on one of the watches in the stores selling for $42,000 and change.
So we found our camp spot and it was as basic as they come. Actually it was sort of just a field…maybe even more like a yard, with a fence around it. The sign “Camp Ground” actually had 5 stars engraved on the bottom, yet NONE of them were filled in. Our accommodation was “no star”!! It was perfect enough. We set off to explore. There are dozens of hikes from Zermatt. We pointed ourselves upward and walked for a couple of hours. How we enjoyed the graceful views of the Matterhorn in the dying daylight; the sun hitting the surrounding peaks and glaciers was exactly perfect.
The second day we set off early. With our nice strong, dark café warming our tummies, we sprung off the dark, cool valley floor and climbed until we found sunlight in which to eat our morning feast. Glaciers and mountains, wooly sheep, small derelict cabins, and the sound of roosters announcing another day (and helicopters starting their scenic tours) were a great accompaniment to our bread and cheese. We completed the 18km circuit of the Höhenweg Höhbalmen in about six hours.
The trail was quite busy, but we had some spectacular views and were able to take a rest in the valley (the Höhbalmen). I was convinced that Heidi was going to come bounding over the next hill. This was exactly how I have picture walking in the alps.
There sure is a lot of time to think when one is climbing a mountain – or even traversing across it. This is quite a feeling.
My mind wanders and analyzes on a constant basis; this is true of most of us. We relive events, and delve into new ideas all the time….all the time. There’s that certain beautiful point during any extended activity, were the mind suddenly relaxes.
Ahhhh…. It’s nice to get to a point where you’re just concentrating on the next step.. or the wild flower at your feet, or the fact that there are dozens of butterflies landing beside you; on you. The first marmot is spotted, and then you search the rocky hills above for more. You watch the mountains creating clouds in the clear blue sky and your thoughts get bigger – they get perspective – they put you in your place. There’s nothing like the grandeur of mother nature to make you realize how small you are. It’s wonderful, and Switzerland is full of it.
Who hasn’t always wanted to stay at a “BAR/Hotel/Campsite” in the middle of small town in New Zealand? Well, we stumbled across exactly this. We had been sent on a bit of a wild goose chase by a local….promises of the best campsite in town had us driving around aimlessly for half an hour. Only after realizing there were multiple bridges over the river (we had assumed there would be only one) did we decide we needed to stop for sustenance. A beer would work. Well, look at that – Bar/Hotel/Campsite….perfect!
We made our temporary home amongst the more permanent residences: the converted buses, the odd trailer, derelict vehicles, the goat tied to a rope. We skipped setting up camp and went straight for the bar. Our evening was spent playing pool with the locals, meeting a few characters, and learning the finer points of sheep shearing. Did you know that it’s someones job just to shave around the nether-regions of the sheep? This person has to do the dirty work so that the other shearers can get some “clean sweeps”…not having to worry about the messy bits. Makes sense hey? We spent some time asking all the questions that you, yourself, would want to ask. What a fitting and fantastic ending to our road trip across the North Island.
When Missy and I had set out from Wellington a week earlier we had high hopes of hitting all the Conservation (free) campsites. Just us, our tent, abounding nature…living off the land (canned tuna notwithstanding). So good!
So our reluctance to buy a proper map may have led to our downfall. That’s where I pinpoint the beginning of the end…the constant roaming; the U-turns. Although I’m not sure that either of us even considered using anything but the crappy maps they give out free at information centers. And actually – getting lost proved to be half the fun!
What’s a good road trip without a lot of unnecessary driving?
Our first night was epic. We drove up the windy roads on the East Coast…dusk was setting in, we had planned to be somewhere camp-able hours earlier, but due to a little bit of misinformation, shotty navigation (re: the aforementioned maps) and badly predicted driving time, we were miles from anywhere. We did consider just setting up camp on the side of the road, but the rolling hills enveloped the small road in an oppressive manner and were less than ideal. We persisted. After some swearing and some uncontrollable laughter, we were finally rewarded with a stunning sight. We wound our way down the cliffs to see the rocky beach and the surf and a few fisherman who would be our neighbours for the night. Could it be more perfect? It was cool and windy, but we were able to build a fire…ahh. Never mind that our cushy air mattress had a massive hole in it, and we ended up sleeping in the back of the station-wagon. The achy backs were worth it.
Our trip had many highlights, a few low-lights and an overall feeling of relaxed chaos. We walked away from our adventure with a better understanding of the Kiwi culture, pictures and memories of the beautiful and natural scenery, a few hearty laughs, sore backs, and a personal injury (trampolines are surely a death-trap)! Oh yeah, we also saw a hedgehog – he approached us in our camp – and I think that might be the cutest animal I’ve ever seen. They make sniffy sounds!
You know those times in your life where you can tell you’re making memories as the event is actually taking place? I have a lot of these…maybe it comes with going through something traumatic? Realizing the preciousness of each moment? I think we all do it at times, but I also think that we have more of an opportunity to do it at certain times in our lives. When we travel, our time is perceived as finite; we are experiencing so much in such a concentrated timespan. Every so often it’s nice to step back and get some perspective.
I’ve found from personal experience, that this is harder to do this when trudging through the routines of daily life, but I guess that’s the trick… NOT waiting for your life to start…you know that whole thing we all do? The thought process that confirms we aren’t quite living our real lives until some arbitrary date in the future? That whole: “when I finally get my promotion,” or “when I meet the right person” or “when the kids are older, and we’ve sold the house.” Even worse is when these life-starting events are so small as to border on ridiculousness… “once I get that new car” … “when I have my vacation,”….“when I lose 10lbs.”
Let’s try to enjoy our health, wealth (don’t forget your friends and family as the bigger part of this category) and happiness as it stands now.
We’re always waiting for the future, but it’s a pattern of thought that holds us back from enjoying our lives in the present. The future it so unpredictable, let’s just ride the wave!
At one point, as the barbed-wire vine ripped into my shin yet-again, I did question my decision to tramp through the unforgiving forest, on a volunteer basis, for hours on end. It was a fleeting thought, but my shins were already pretty banged up and I had just come face to face with the biggest spider I have ever seen…and yes, spiders this big are, indeed, big enough to have distinguishable faces.
I think this one winked at me as I screamed.
I’m not actually scared of spiders, but I challenge you to find me a person that doesn’t scream involuntarily as they feel the web and the spider brush against their eyelashes…yeah, it was quite the Australian experience.
I had been lucky enough to be invited along on a trip to a place called Rainbow Beach (north of Noosa and south of Fraser Island). We were with Conservation Volunteersand we had six days of forest-walking ahead of us. Our mission: locate and destroy the invasive species called bitou (BIT-oo). In total, we covered over 700,000 square meters of Cooloola National Park. This park, along with Fraser Island, makes up the Great Sandy Region, the biggest landmass of sand in the world.
We made our way over fallen debris and hidden sandy holes and we did it all with smiles on our faces (maybe they were grimaces at times?). We were working from a track, out towards the edge of beautiful sandy bluffs (if you haven’t picked up on it – ‘sand’ was very much the theme of the entire trip). These are the cliffs that line the postcards in the souvenir shops. Every other time we completed a line, we were greeted with stunning views of the ocean from 200 meters.
How many people had actually seen the view of Fraser from this angle? How many people had looked down the cliffs and noticed the bitou that need be removed? How many people knew what bitou was? (note* – probably about 50 of you now!)
The only other time I had done anything remotely resembling this, I was tree-planting back in BC. And although I was being paid good money to plant those blue spruce, I could see the uniqueness in the experience at hand.
I think the hard work was good for me… it helps to clear the mind. I’ve had two months of ‘hard’ travel and I’m guessing a little routine has got to be good for the soul.
As the permanence of my (real-life) situation sets in I can feel the weight of a million thoughts upon my shoulders. They are heavy. The non-permanence of my surroundings helps to keep me balanced. I truly believe this. Although I feel lonely at times, I know I would be even lonelier if left to ponder my thoughts by myself without an ever-changing road ahead of me. I do not want to even imagine what, or how, I would be doing at home right now.
I think I’m going to have to do a bit more with this volunteer work – it’s really great to get my hands dirty (and my knees, and my face, and virtually every inch of my body, in fact).
Conservation Volunteers is a national group with offices scattering the country. There are many opportunities to lend a hand out there. I would recommend the experience to anyone wanting to help and/or experience a different perspective of a local area. I know I could easily be coerced into more than a week of this!
Theme Songs of the Day:
You’re a Wolf – Sea Wolf, from the album Leaves in the River
Kicking the Heart Out – Rogue Wave, from the album Out of the Shadow
Lola – The Kinks, from the album Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround
So you may be asking yourselves….”what exactly has Jill been learning on this journey of self-discovery?” Well, I now know that even if you think you’re being nice by letting an overly-helpful, partially senile old man help you with a flat tire – you should probably just take care of it yourself.
So Stacey and I met up last week, here in Brisbane, and we rented ourselves a Jucy Camper-van. These are great vehicles – totally self-contained: bed, fridge, stove..we were all set. We headed South, stopping here and there along the coast, finally to find ourselves in Byron Bay. This is a beautiful town…gorgeous beaches, lots of surfing, cool shops to check out. We had a swim and checked out the nightlife, and although it slowed us down the next day, we had a great time and met lots of interesting people that night.
In the morning we continued South to a small town called Ballina. The scenery was spectacular – lush, green, rolling hills spotted with trees full of large, shockingly bright, purple flowers. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we climbed the hills and saw the coast in the distance…. and to cap off a perfect afternoon we found a great sushi place right in the middle of the wee village. Unexpected and Perfect.
That day we made our way back up North, past Brisbane and over to the Sunshine Coast. Lots of driving, through rush hour, but we had some tunes and good conversation to keep us occupied. We hit up a little town called Noosa. This is a favourite spot of Stacey’s and I can see why! We spent a couple of days exploring the beaches and parks.
We headed inland to the Sunshine Coast Hinterlands and explored the many small towns in the area. We saw the Glass House Mountains which look beautiful, if not slightly out of place in the surrounding countyside.
Although we had planned to camp out in the hinterlands, the ocean called to us. We did some research and found out that even though there was a triathlon happening that weekend, there was space available at a beach-side camp ground in Mooloolaba. Great!
As we entered the little camp ground and I made to back into our reserved spot, an older gentleman appeared out of nowhere. He began directing me… abruptly – with no real words (just aggressive, yet unclear, hand movements). This relatively simple manoever required very little driving skill, yet, somehow it took almost ten minutes. It was hot…I had been driving for hours….I just wanted to park and head to the beach, but this man was really trying to be helpful so we continued to humour him and finally made it into the exact spot we were supposed to be in. It, really was, a fine parking job….sigh.
Thus began our relationship with the old man. He is a permanent resident at the park and although he’s not paid, he helps out by tidying up and directing traffic. His wife told us that about six months ago he decided that one of the trees in the park needed pruning. With no prompting, he climbed the tree and started to cut down the huge pine-cone-like fruit growing from the palm. Well these fruit are, apparently, really heavy; one managed to fall on the poor guy, throwing him from said tree. He broke his hip and was off his feet for months. This is very sad, but I can’t help giggling to myself as I write this. He’s trying so hard to be helpful!
The next day we realized that one of the tires was a little flat. It was a slow leak, if anything ,so we planned to fill the tire up at the local gas station before heading out for the day. Wouldn’t you know it: the old man showed up again – really, as if out of nowhere, and stopped us as we were pulling out. He pulled off the hubcap (we’re not sure why…) and started to fiddle with it. He managed to actually break off a piece of it and then couldn’t replace it. I got it back on and we thanked him for his ‘help’ and tried to get going. He stopped us at the gate and told us he had a pump and would fill the tire up. He hulled out this piece of machinery from WWI (there may have been a mouse and a wheel in there somewhere, I can’t be sure) and hooked it up to the tire. We all stood there watching the tire deflate. It took us a couple of minutes to convince him it wasn’t working…we unhooked the crazy generator gadget and, luckily, had enough air to make it to the gas station. With only 6psi left – we successfully filled it up to the required 34psi and made our way inland to explore. Drama complete.
So we had a good last few days in the area. We made some friends, saw some crazy animals (some of them being the aforementioned new friends) and were awestruck by the beauty that surrounded us.
It was hard to give the van up yesterday, but we are flying North to the Whittsunday Coast today…off to the next leg of the adventure.
Oh yeah….somehow the hubcap fell off and we were charged $60 by the rental company! Maybe the laughs were worth it.