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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.
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