This week’s blog is brought to you by our daughter Millie – she has a hankering for adventure, as you may know, and her latest story is certainly interesting enough to share! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…
The idea of doing long journeys under my own steam is something that has always really appealed to me, and some of you may remember my blog post in 2016 when I sailed with some friends down the coast of France from the UK. Since then, I’ve always had a longing to hike along the Pyrenees, high up where the paths lead from one horizon to another and you camp in a tent or a hut each night. The obvious time to do this is this summer as I’m now an adult (scary times lie ahead) and heading off to university this autumn. However, such a strenuous undertaking requires some preparation beforehand, and so this half-term I thought a quick 3-day training hike around the Île de Ré would be a good idea. The island is a bit of the Charente Maritime that lies a bridge away to the west of La Rochelle and I thought the planned 3-day adventure and would be simple – 75 kilometres on flat land with a campsite each night? Easy.
As it turns out, I was hilariously wrong. Here’s what happened…
I thought that the walk (based on cycling maps) would be a great opportunity to test out some gear and get a feel for the whole ‘walking-with-your-home-on-your-back’ thing. I had a shiny new backpack to load, hiking boots I’d barely broken in, and a teeny tent that I’d only ever put up twice. There was also a minuscule camping stove that would be in serious use each night. Since it was spring break I was able to recruit both little (but taller) sister Hetty, and dad (who joined us on his folding bike) for the journey. We set a tentative date, did our best to pack as few unnecessary items as possible, and set off one rainy Sunday morning this past weekend.
(Above: Hetty pre-hike, still in high spirits. Looking very adorable)
9.00am was obviously a slightly ambitious time to head to the island, as we ended up leaving two hours late – amongst various mishaps there was also a certain ‘someone’ who insisted on bringing a bicycle pump that had been misplaced in the garage — it had to be found before we could set off (I won’t mention any names but as there was only one person on a bike you can guess who this was). Another hinderance proved to be a necessary stop for lunch supplies, as despite our careful food planning (which had extended to precise measurements of couscous for the evenings and exact amounts of snacks per person per day), we somehow neglected to pack anything for the first day’s lunch. Daddy blamed me, I blamed Daddy, and Hetty blamed us both. As a result, we knew we would have to stop and get something along the way.
Of course, since this was a Sunday, it all ended up being a rather critical mistake, as every shop and supermarket tends to close at 12.30pm on Sundays. Hetty stared mournfully at the closed entrance of a non-Sunday-opening Carrefour as we passed by on our anxious way to the bridge and we all eyed the glowering clouds overhead as rain started to fall on the windscreen. This diversion cost us 20 minutes as this particular Carrefour lies in a commercial retail area and I made us take the wrong turn-off; as we were also without a GPS in the car we managed to get lost twice amongst the superstores, including five minutes circling a shuttered Feux Vert store, trapped by bollards as we tried to work out where the exit was.
Thankfully, the clouds receded slightly as we got back on the road, and we crossed over the bridge to the island in beautiful sunshine. After a frantic search on my phone, we found a small supermarket at 12.25pm and rushed inside to buy some bread, water and sandwich ingredients before heading to a parking spot to have a pre-walk picnic and discuss plans. In such pretty surroundings, and with full stomachs, it was easy to believe that we were going to have a delicate afternoon stroll.
Hetty and I waved goodbye to dad (who as he had the bike was going for a little pedal to photograph some insects before catching up), shouldered our backpacks, and set off along the coastal path. I must admit, my morale started to falter only a few steps in. My backpack containing tent, stove, food, far too much iced-tea, and all of my clothes, seemed a tad heavy, but I said nothing and we plodded onwards. The first hour passed relatively well, despite me accidentally sending us along the wrong road around the first village. I may need to brush up on my navigation.
At this point, our problems began. First of all, Hetty, who had bravely still decided to come despite a massive blister, started limping slightly — the heat from a now blistering (pardon the pun) afternoon did not help. My own hiking boots (which were really overkill for walking on flat paths) were pinching my feet a little too, but we turned on music on my phone and walked along to that for a while. A little later, my phone, which was our only navigation device and also our only way of reaching our father, then decided to turn itself off, despite having been charged that morning. Slightly bereft, Hetty and I decided to sit down for an impromptu break on the edge of the cycle path, panicking about being lost forever on the island.
We worried for a while, and then thankfully my phone decided to turn itself back on. Hurriedly I relayed our location to Daddy, and we continued on walking for another hour, Hetty now limping considerably. She was just saying that she’d decided hiking wasn’t her thing when Daddy pulled up in the car, having correctly anticipated our trajectory and probable failure, and we discussed what to do. He had a look at Hetty’s foot in a rather blood-stained sock and decided it was going to be best to cut our first day short (it was 4.30pm or so) and head straight to our campsite for the evening in Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré.
HALFTIME SCORE: Feet 0 Path 2
“It’s alright,” I thought to myself, “tomorrow we’ll wake up really early and walk all of the ground we should have done today.”
At the campground, a cheerful woman directed us to the area for tents, which was an island of close cropped turf and stones surrounded by camper vans and people in rented cabins. Nobody else had a tent, and an audience quickly grew to watch us set up our two bivouacs. Guy lines tightened and fly-sheets zipped up, we headed down to a nearby beach to recuperate from the day’s efforts. Along the way we came across a pizza-vending machine, a most astonishing discovery that almost had us reaching for some coins! Dad guessed (probably correctly) that the pizzas were pre-cooked and it was basically a giant microwave machine so we left it for another time. Hoping for an uneventful night, we fell asleep early after hot couscous and tomato sauce from my little stove as our fellow campers conversed loudly over their suppers – close by, traffic passed along the road noisily but I fell asleep easily, worn out by five hours on the road with a heavy pack.
(Above: a defeated Hetty, reluctant to emerge from her warm sleeping bag, wondering when we can go home.)
Alas, the day dawned with unhappy news.
As I dressed, a slight pain I’d felt along one shoulder the night before revealed itself to be – on closer inspection – a case of severe sunburn, meaning that wearing my backpack would be impossible. Hobbling to the stove to boil water, I then realised my new boots had left me with quite stunning blisters. Daddy emerged from the other tent, wincing in great pain — it turned out his sleeping mattress had deflated during the night and various stones had shut off blood supplies to assorted parts of his anatomy. He remarked he needed a hip transplant and a new neck.
“Oh,” remarked Hetty, “I wondered what that hissing noise I heard was.”
After a breakfast of very squished croissants from the bottom of my pack (note to self – croissants need to go on top), we started to put away the tents only to be interrupted by a cry of alarm from Hetty and Dad. When I rushed across to them, the cause of their distress became evident: the tent had been parked under a tall tree, and it was obviously a popular roost for various birds. These delightful feathered friends had passed a typical night in their roost and as a result the tent was covered in bird poo. Daddy muttered that he’d woken in the night at some point to what he thought was a fellow camper tripping over the guy lines and thudding into the tent; the disturbance now made sense – it had been avian artillery at work.
(Father anxiously trying to scrape some of the bird poo off the tent — we’d borrowed it from our neighbours. Of course, this scenario elicited much mirth from our fellow campers having breakfast in the porches of their little cabins)
At this point, Dad then realised my ear was also sunburnt and swelling considerably – so much so that he became quite worried and after a quick conference we decided to abandon the walk.
FULLTME RESULT: Feet 0 Path 8
Both Hetty’s and my feet were in a poor state, and there was no way I was going to be able to carry my backpack – instead, we decided to spend a day seeing a bit of the island we had never got to before and then we’d head home in the afternoon.
Our first port of call on the re-arranged schedule was the magnificent Phare des Baleines (Lighthouse of the Whales) located on the westernmost point of the island. The lighthouse was built in the 1800s to help ships navigate around the treacherous coastal reefs of the island, and we counted 267 steps on the long (tiring) climb up the spiralling staircase.
At the top, breathtaking views stretched for miles in every direction — once again the weather was on our side, and beautiful blue waves and rolling green fields made for great photos.
After descending, Daddy decided that he was in need of a coffee, and we set off in search of caffeine on a route that took us past wildflowers, the salt marshes, and down the winding whitewashed alleyways of Portes-en-Ré on the most northerly tip of the island.
Eventually, we found a tiny café sitting above the oyster beds that stretched out from a pretty bay.
Many people were out on a low tide collecting their lunch in buckets, and deciding that we too were feeling slightly peckish, we went to find a spot to eat.
Heading back south on our picnic-location-hunt Daddy suddenly took a right turn up a dirt track and we ended up stumbling upon the nature reserve and beach of Plage de Couny – it turned out to be on miles of practically deserted coastline. There were beautiful protected sand dunes, and surf rolling in that would have appealed to any surfer.
We parked the car under the trees and I put the little stove to work again as Dad walked around with his camera, trying to find more insects – he actually found a little spider that seemed to have spent much of its life in a crack of the car’s boot.
Feeling slightly better about our failure to even walk a quarter of the way around the island, we packed up after eating, and headed home to nurse our injuries. I have made a long list of what I need to do differently – and father has said he will come along for another trial expedition as long as we find a new mattress.
Of course, something had to to make up for our harrowing defeat on the paths of the Île de Ré, and yesterday something wonderful happened to become the high point of the half-term! On the way back from a tennis tournament, Mum and Gigi spotted a team of cyclists climbing the hill into our village — and realised with some excitement that they had Union Jacks on their jerseys. As they continued past the cyclists they realised that they were some sort of British cycling team in the middle of a London to Africa tour. Mum phoned ahead to the house and Daddy was just in time to run across the road as they passed and invite them in for a drink and a break in some shade. The offer was very gratefully received and soon we had a dozen or so bikes littering the gateway.
Five minutes later we’d found out that they were a group of people cycling to raise money for the charity Regenerate, which aims to broaden the horizons of disillusioned youth from inner city areas and help young British people get out and do projects to help others. It’s a great cause (you can find out more about it and donate here: http://www.regenerateuk.co.uk ). We produced some cold beers, several jugs of very cold water and some snacks, and an exceedingly interesting hour passed by as we got to know all the riders. After they left, Jack and I then sat outside the gate to offer water to a second group of cyclists who came through half an hour later; I was most surprised to discover that amidst them was a YouTube film-maker whom I’ve followed for years! I’d say that getting to meet and talk to them (and especially him) more than made up for our catastrophic walk.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our disastrous adventure as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about it! Hopefully you’ll be hearing from me again. Until next time… xxx