Way of the King

On Wednesday morning, a friend tagged me in a Facebook clip of ‘the most dangerous hiking path in the world’.  I watched it, saw it was in southern Spain, and replied, “holy fuck, I’ll go this weekend!”.  Thus began a highly impractical series of misadventures.

I was actually already supposed to be heading to Madrid on Sunday evening to begin two weeks of intensive Spanish classes, so just had to sort out flights to Málaga—the nearest airport to the path—and a way to get to Madrid by Sunday afternoon.

I need to stress again that absolutely none of this was practical.

I found a flight to Málaga from Brussels airport first thing Saturday morning, and went ahead and booked that.  Of course, from Málaga I was going to have to get to El Chorro, a town an hour’s drive away, to then gain access to the path—El Caminito del Rey.  The minor issue being that I was arriving into Málaga shortly after the only train in the morning left.  The bus was going to take four hours—and you actually have to book your walking slot in advance, so I only had 1.5 hours to get to El Chorro.  Apparently, people normally book the walk months in advance, so that was the only time at which I would be able to enter.

First, I booked car hire.  Which would have been fine—albeit my first time driving on the right—except that my licence is non-EU.  Which means I need an International Driving Permit to drive in Spain.  And I don’t have one of those, you have to request them from the driving clubs in Australia, and their IDP services were all suspended until 9 January (even excluding the whole “international postage” and “complete lack of time in which to do so” factors).

At this point, I reconciled myself to a 90 euro taxi, because by hook or by crook, I was going to do this hike.

Thus it was that I had another 4am-ish start on Saturday morning, headed to the airport, made it to southern Spain, and checked my phone.  I saw that, now I’d arrived, the weather had turned: and the Caminito was closed for the day.  This was my one day!!!

But no.  This was unacceptable.  So I immediately booked the final remaining slot for the following day, which did unfortunately happen to be a slot with a tour, but there were no other options.  I then started trying to figure out how to get to El Chorro—there was an afternoon train—and where I could stay.  I was on the bus into Málaga proper, desperately calling accommodation options in El Chorro.

As it turns out, there is such a thing as “climbing season”, and El Chorro is surrounded by climbing canyons, so the town was absolutely booked out.  I saw that one of the hostels, the Olive Branch, normally offered tents—but even their tents were booked out.  So I did some more brainstorming, excluded the hotel in El Chorro as too expensive, and called the Olive Branch lady back.

“Forgive me, because I’m about to ask something really stupid, and you’re totally allowed to judge me,” was pretty much how I started.  “But I saw there’s a Decathlon in Málaga…if I buy a tent today, do you guys have any sleeping bags?”

She replied that they used to hire out sleeping bags, though no longer do—but as a result have a lot of old broken ones out the back, which I was more than welcome to.  She said that Decathlon would be closed for Children’s Day, in all likelihood, but I was clearly in a spot: so I could sleep on their terrace, if I’d like.

DEAL.

This freed me up for around four hours of wandering around Málaga before my train up to El Chorro.  It’s a picturesque little town, though it’s obvious that it’s been built up around cruise ships—and not just because there were two of the hulking beasts in the marina.  The town is very much geared towards tourism, and the major sights can be ticked off in a fairly short period of time.  Thus it was that I had a lovely adventure in the castillo overlooking the town, strolled past the Picasso museum (he was born in Málaga), checked out a Roman auditorium or two as well as some ancient baths—and, of course, had some tapas.

At last it was time to head to the train station, and I managed to get to El Chorro (I keep typing ‘el churro’, so please appreciate it every time I manage to write the correct thing…!).  It was then a 35 minute walk uphill, as it began to rain, before I made it to the Olive Branch.

I was very lucky in that they’d managed to find me a bed for the night.  While moderately less adventurous, it was going to be a heck of a lot warmer!! So I settled into the WiFi, booked a new coach from Málaga to Madrid for the next day (17:45 rather than 15:20) in case I missed the first one, and got to know my bunkmates.  It was a great bunch of people, actually, though I was the only non-rock climber.  Despite this glaring flaw, they invited me to dinner, and it turned into a late night involving a thoroughly civilised amount of wine and a regal feast.

The next day I got up early, and two of the guys drove me to the station on their way to ‘the rock’.  I then caught the busito up to the entrance to the park, más o menos, and headed on inside as day finished dawning.

The Caminito, while spectacular, was in no way dangerous.  Perhaps during the 15 years when it was closed, where it had to be completed while bolted onto various objects.  Now, however, they’ve built a very sturdy path into the walls of the canyon.  Anyone with moderate fitness and surefootedness would be able to complete it with ease.  That said, while a lot tamer than anticipated—a LOT—it was stunning.  I don’t think I’d ever seen a proper canyon before, and I couldn’t help but imagine pterodactyls, rather than vultures, swooping from the heights.  It was prehistoric—a fact attested to by the ancient shell fossils in the walls.

After a nice chat or two with some Danes, and with some Ukrainians whose teddy bear’s twitter is apparently famous, I popped out the other end none the worse for wear.  Can, yon.

Now I had to get back to Málaga to catch the 6-hour coach to Madrid.  I walked up to the hostel, grabbed my suitcase, and walked back down.  And while theoretically there was a train just after 3pm, there was never any doubt that I was obviously going to try hitch-hiking.

While there weren’t many cars exiting the town, I was lucky to have only a few go past before a van pulled over (as is custom—you’re not allowed to have a van if you don’t pick up hitch-hikers).  There were two German guys inside, and the driver said, “I don’t have a seatbelt—is that ok?”

“Sure,” I said.  “I’m adventurous!”.  And so it was that I climbed into the back of this van, took the pillow off the bench, and braced myself against the table for some fun turns on the way to Málaga airport.

At this point, I was feeling I’d definitely be able to make my original bus, and so I caught a too-expensive taxi to the coach station.  (The taxi driver, by the way, was not very convinced of the safety of hitching.) I then waited and waited, the coaches arrived, I stashed my suitcase on the correct one and boarded.

Espera,” said the driver, beckoning me back.  He looked at my ticket.  He pointed at the date.  “This is for the first of July,” he said, “not the seventh of January”.

What, the, fuck.

“Go inside,” he said, “and see the staff.”

So I grabbed my suitcase and dashed to the Alsa desk, but it was packed.  Returning to the driver, he took me inside to the information desk, where another girl was freaking out over having exactly the same problem.  We’d both booked online, had selected the correct date from the website’s calendar, and been issued a ticket for the wrong date.  Thanks a freaking bunch, Alsa.es.

The lady behind the counter grasped our problem and got onto fixing it: the only problem being that there was just one seat left on the coach, and the other girl was at the desk first.  Soooo I had to wait until the 17:45 bus after all—and my second ticket had the exact same problem (i.e. 1/7, not 7/1).  The lady changed my first ticket, refunded my second, and I went and hid in Starbucks and had the whitest girl coffee I could find.

A few hours later, I returned to the station, and this time successfully boarded.  There was a brief panic halfway through the trip during the break, when I returned outside only to get on the wrong bus, because mine was MIA—but apparently it had just gone on a little adventure, and returned shortly.  That said, the bus took an hour longer than it should have, so it was a seven hour trip to Madrid.  Good times.

Upon arrival, it was time for yet another taxi to the hostel, where I apparently bounded in with enough energy for 2am that they immediately assumed I was Australian.  Result.

With a trip this impractical at the outset of the year, it’s boding well for 2018.

Hysterical: Audinghen to Boulogne-sur-Mer

After three days and nearly 110km, day four would finally be a shorter day.  My destination was Boulogne-sur-Mer, which seemed to be the last place to get an ‘easy’ connection back to Brussels via Lille.  I did briefly consider just continuing to walk, ad infinitum, but my body was honestly not up to it.  Also, you know, things to do (and a PhD supervisor who may or may not read my blog ;)).

Day four barely dawned at all: the sea was ferocious, and the sky was so filled with grey salty haze that the sun barely made an appearance.  It was windy, evocative, ethereal.  I felt like a character out of Tolkien or something, stumbling amidst the barrows.  Except that my ‘barrows’ were clifftops.

From my ‘murder hotel’ in Audinghen, I firstly headed to what was marked as the ‘sea wall museum’ on Google Maps.  I was hoping this would be some kind of pagan-esque tribute to the sea—one can only hope—but it turned out to be another war museum, in memory of the ‘sea wall’.  Nevertheless, had I not detoured down that road, I wouldn’t have seen a sign pointing to the ‘route nordique’.  “Pues, soy Nordica,” I said to myself, “so this is clearly the route for me.”

The path took me to the seaside and a religious statue of some kind—I clearly did not care enough to take a good look—before working its way up to the clifftops.  Thence followed a dramatic period of mud, blustery winds, and a violent sea.

A few kilometres later, I decended back to sea level, then meandering through various gorgeous traditional fishing villages. These had historically used a special type of boat—a ‘flotard’—when heading out to sea, and there were still examples of flotards in the towns—a chunky flat-transomed boat, designed to be wheeled backwards into the waves using a tractor.  Having seen how wild those waters can get, I’m honestly amazed.

A couple of villages later, I took the ever-inevitable coastal route, and found myself walking along an extremely rugged beach.  With the sea-spray in the air, it appeared borderline apocalyptic.

While days one and three of my walk were amazing, day four was a bit more akin to day two: an exhausted grind. Though I was walking a much shorter distance, it took me a long, long, long time to do it, and for the remaining time until I reached Boulogne-sur-Mer, I was mainly focused on convincing one foot to move in front of the other.  (More regular training might be helpful…?!)

At last I reached the top of a hill, expecting to see Boulogne-sur-Mer laid out in front of me: and I did.  But what I wasn’t emotionally nor physically ready for was the fact I was going to have to first conquer another hill.  I may have wailed.  Loudly.  “You want me to go up a fucking hill???  Howwwwwww”.  Yes, I was in a state: I had only walked ~23km that day, but it had taken nearly seven hours to cover, instead of a more normal 4.5.

A significant amount of old-lady shuffling later, I made it into the town and to the closest train station, but it was another two hours until the next connection to Lille.  So I looked at my phone, considered the fact there was no coffee in my immediate area, and realised I was just going to have to fill the time by exploring the town.

As it turned out, Boulogne-sur-Mer was super interesting.  It, like Gravelines, is one of the ‘fortified villages’, and has a history going back to Rome.  There’s a wall surrounding the old town, a huge cathedral, gorgeous medieval squares, and a proper castle.  By which I mean, the castle had a moat.  With water.  (And presumably sea monsters.)

Overall, it was an amazing trip, and well worth doing.  I feel like the next section I do on my ‘all around Europe’ coastal walk will likely be back in Spain (the Barcelona-Valencia strip is too tempting!), but France really delivered.  With a few alterations—e.g. avoiding the dangerous highway/overpass west of Dunkirk, and taking the inland route from Loon-Plage to Calais rather than opting for a coastal detour—I think it would make a fantastic extension to existing established through-hiking trails.  Doing it with other people to cut down on accommodation costs, and perhaps avoiding the middle of winter, might also be good.  I can imagine that those with an interest in occupation of the French coast/WW2 would find it especially rewarding.

Audinghen to Boulogne-sur-Mer (with bonus exploration!): 27.29km

Total from De Panne in Belgium to Boulogne-sur-Mer in France via coastal and littoral trails: 134.9km.

Ecstatic: Calais to Audinghen

I swear Calais’ Punjabi restaurant gave me superpowers, because I woke up on day three feeling like I wasn’t going to re-commence sobbing with every other step.  My mission for the day would be reaching Audinghen, as the only village under 40km away with accommodation less than 80 euro for the night.  (I was very much missing Spain’s ever-present albergues peregrinos.)

Starting in the pre-dawn light, I struck out parallel to the beachfront, passing through a village with French, European, and Canadian flags on the way.  Speaking of decorations, people’s festive decorations were still up, and one of my quiet joys on this trip was France’s apparent obsession with murdering Santa Claus as brutally as possible.  I saw him hanging from windows, chimneys, ladders, tumbling down from terraces, swinging from letter boxes.  Santa clearly does *not* have an OH&S policy (though hopefully he does have life insurance?).

As I continued, the beach fell away, and I started to climb towards what turned out to be Cape Blanc Nez, a German outpost during WW2.  It was back to bunkers everywhere, and the wind on top of the cape itself was immense.  I was fascinated to read that they were able to hit Kent, as in in-the-UK-Kent, with 1 tonne bombardments from there.  I mean, obviously it’s bad and all, but how amazing is that??

Descending the hill, I was really hoping it was time for coffee, because honestly, half of me doing these walks is just coffee forcing my legs forward.  I walked into a cute hotel just below the cape, L’Escale, where I was able to both buy water and meet all my caffeine-based needs.  Also, I spilled water all over their floor, and they were cool about it, sooo.

I waited in the hotel until the sudden rain passed, and then headed off once more.  An hour later, it was time for lunch—at ‘Chez Nicole’, a place which had just two meal options: mussels and frites, or jambon and frites.  Needless to say, I asked for just frites, though the bowls of mussels that were coming out were seriously impressive (scary?).  One bowl for two people was about as big as my rib cage.  I don’t think they get many vegetarians in that cafe.

My path took me somewhat inland after this, as I followed ‘littoral’ routes over hills and through several more villages.  I started to meet locals out walking their dogs, including one couple with an extremely pattable sepia-toned Australian shepherd.  Finally, at the top of one hill, I reached the town of Tardinghen, from which I could see the famed white cliffs of Dover.  It’s so ridiculous to be standing in one country, and be able to see over the waters to another!  Just imagine if New Zealand was that close to Australia.  I think they’d be embarrassed enough to tow themselves away in fairly short order!

At last I reached Audinghen, where I tried to check into and pay at my hotel.  Minor problem being that their card machine was broken, and I didn’t have enough cash.  “The nearest ATM is only 5km away, in the next village,” explained the lady.

Hard nope.

I offered to do a bank transfer in front of them, but the lady didn’t know their bank details, as she was looking after the hotel for her friend.  She then suggested I make the same offer at the restaurant over the way, where happily there was not only a woman who spoke English, but who was effusive in her efforts to help me.  With her assistance, the hotel agreed to let me pay the following morning, when their card machine would apparently be working.

My heroic lady suggested I follow the road east out of town to Cape Gris Nez, which I was very much hoping to do.  Why have one ‘cape nose’ in a day, when you can have two?  So despite starting to feel a bit terrible, I struck out for the lighthouse on the point, which was only a couple of kilometres away.  As I headed towards it, the light was heading into golden hour, and the rain-strewn hills and fields made for stunning company.

At last, as the sun was approaching the horizon, I reached the Cape Gris Nez lighthouse and reserve.  It was, hands-down, the most amazing sunset of my life.  I went full ‘double rainbow guy’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQSNhk5ICTI) and started crying at this sunset.  Possibly a combination of pain and endorphins helped me out, there.  Also, it bears saying again, it was utterly gorgeous.

It was time to troop back to Audinghen for some food at the helpful restaurant, before returning to the hotel.  While waiting for my food, I started reading this book about a woman in 1920s Alaska whose marriage was failing, who had lost a baby and was now trying to kill herself.  Probably a little much after an emotional sunset, tbh, not to mention the two glasses of wine.  Apparently trying not to cry very publicly in restaurants is now a thing that I do.

As it turned out, I was the only one staying in this most budgety of hotels, which was disconcerting.  There weren’t even any staff—just me, some shutters, and the looming possibility of ritualistic death.  I may have checked under the bed for bodies while doing my evening stretches…just maybe.  (Luckily, I did make it through the night, as the next day would be the final day of my trip—for now.)

Calais to Audinghen, via Capes Gris and Blanc Nez: 34.59km.

Pained: Loon-Plage to Calais

When I woke up on my second morning of doing the Belgian coast walk, I felt like I was going to die: I was already shaking, and I hadn’t even gotten out of bed, yet.  Therefore it was somewhat of a pleasant surprise to wake up after my first 38km on the French coast feeling positively sprightly, and ready to hit the road.

Leaving my hotel in Loon-Plage, I started off along the highway.  Our overlord, i.e. Google, suggested I keep following that highway the whole way to Calais: that way it would be just 26km for the day.  Naturally, I had other ideas: after all, there was a natural reserve on the coast which was basically calling my name.

Spoilers: I should not have listened.

The day started off well, with my encountering the first of what is a series of ‘fortified villages’ on the Route des Villes Fortifiees.  Despite the somewhat morbid name, Gravelines was a gorgeous little town ringed with a solid wall, and I had a lovely time exploring the old fortress.  I had an even lovelier time when I left and realised that the Christmas markets meant there were stables of cute baby animals just next door: pheasants, goats (<3), llamas, and some huge shaggy donkeys.  Quite an odd array, really—and possibly best not suited to the freezing weather.

After leaving town, I started bending towards the coast, striking out for the aforementioned national park—Reserve Platier Oye.  Granted, there was a nice little jaunt through some hedges, with birds in a variety of colours flitting back and forth; however, I wouldn’t make the same choice again.  Once I was already on the coast, heading back to the main highway would have cost me a couple of extra hours, and the in-between-y road was pretty damn boring, to be honest.  Fields for days, and that’s about it.  Though I did get to befriend a horse, so that was nice.

At around the 25km mark, I started to really feel exhaustion hit me.  My legs weren’t happy, my feet weren’t happy, and I was basically half-sobbing…with 8km to go til Calais.  Had I just stuck to the main drag, I would have had a shorter day and not been in such a horrendous state: but, absolutely miraculously, I did actually make it to Calais in the end.  I had booked the hostel there, and while somewhat broken—and they put me up two flights of stairs (sob)—I did get a room to myself.

I’d been advised that restaurants close early in Calais for whatever reason, so decided to head straight out for some food.  That turned out not to be the case, but in either event, I was going wherever was closest: which turned out to be an ab-so-lute-ly amazing Punjabi restaurant.  I’ve never had veg biriani so good, and I’ve had a lot of biriani.  (Still can’t spell it, mind.).  If you do find yourself in Calais, it’s called Restaurant Le Punjab, and is by Calais beach.  They do also have cocktails, and my piña colada turned out to be pretty much straight alcohol.  Not that I was complaining, obviously.

By the time I’d returned to my room, showered and stretched, it was getting pretty late.  All there was left to do was video the spoiling bruises on my hips from my pack and the horrendous dark bruising on my right foot, and distribute the resulting cinema to my friends, so that they could feel just as disgusted and concerned as I did.  Because that’s what friends are for, after all.

Loon-Plage to Calais via the coast: 34.93km.

Overwhelmed: De Panne to Dunkerque

In November last year, and following my 500km Spanish hike, it occurred to me that I should now walk the entire way around Europe. With a long weekend coming up, I decided I’d knock off the Belgian coastline, from Knokke-Heist to De Panne, in a couple of days—and in this year’s xmas downtime period, the French coastline was looking more and more tempting.

Christmas itself was spent re-visiting Copenhagen, and I flew back to Brussels on the 26th.  At that point I had two choices: watch Netflix and procrastinate against schoolwork for the week, or get walking.  I asked myself what a version of myself that I actually had some degree of respect for would do—and thus I found myself up at 4am on the 27th, scrambling to pack on time to catch the first train at 5:13am.  Which, incidentally, I missed: but I did make it to Gare du Nord in time to catch the first service to De Panne.

After a quick stopover in Ghent, I switched trains, and came to in De Panne when a passing stranger shook me awake.  It was cold, it was dark, and it was rainy: an altogether ignominious start to the day.

Just as I made the very plain French border, first light made its appearance, and things started to look up.  In a continuation of the landscape in West Flanders, there were dune reserves galore, and so my trail saw me walking on sand for a significant period of time before I finally saw the ocean itself in Bray-Dunes.  It was, as always, overwhelming: the ocean is my favourite thing in this world.

At Zuydcoote Beach, I stopped for an extremely confusing coffee.  I asked the woman what a “latte caldo” was, and ended up with…honey-flavoured warm milk?  A quick order of an espresso later, I had an actual coffee.  Coffee is life, dammit.

There were plentiful signs everywhere explaining the history of the area: this particular region used to be a launching-off point for fishing trips to Iceland, and there were markers of friendship to be found.  The villages and resorts in the coastal region were largely destroyed via war and occupation in the 20th century, and started to be rebuilt from 1954 onwards.  The closer I got to Dunkirk/Dunkerque, the more graphic the signs became, posing cheery wonderings such as, “We can only imagine how many dead remain buried and undiscovered”.  Being the somewhat imaginative person I am, this led to some fairly eesh-worthy images: wondering how many dead people I was walking over as I trekked across the dunes, or how much blood had been spilled in any given spot.  Horrendous.

This only got worse as I started walking the beach at Dunkirk, where old bunkers truly started to make themselves known, and shipwrecks were strewn like carcasses themselves up and down the beach.  Underfoot was some kind of hollow, crunchy seaweed, which both looked and sounded like walking on bones.  It was all a little much, though the juxtaposition with the dark-limned ocean was sublime.

Luckily, Dunkerque fed me cheesy fries, and thing started to look up.

By this time I was some 25km in, and starting to feel it: in the preceding ~4 months, I’d done just one walk, and that was 15km at most.  My hip flexors were starting to complain about all the sand walking, and I was definitely starting to get a bit tired.  But again, cheesy fries were there to save the day—and I had a long way still to go before my accommodation for the night.

Because it wouldn’t be me if there weren’t a train-tracks photo.

Things started to get a bit more fucked at this point.  Part of the reason I’d set out from Brussels so early was the 90% chance of rain and heavy winds, and I was hoping to get the bulk of the day’s hike in before that hit.

I was not so successful.

The rain started to properly settle as I ate my fries (which were cheesy), and when I went outside, it was already windy enough that I was blown sideways.  Thus began several hours of walking into an extreme headwind, which saw me doing involuntary grapevines and drunkenly staggering up the street.  The rain was cutting, and I was pretty glad to have brought one of my snowboarding bandannas with me to protect my face.

That highway, though.  It was not designed for pedestrians.  Or cyclists.  And while I’m down with road walking, this was actually quite dangerous.  There was a path which kept swapping sides, then disappearing, then running into a goddamn hedge.  A hedge.  Whenever the path swapped sides, as there was no shoulder to the road, I’d then have to cross the six lanes to get to the other side.  #SafetyFirst.  Also, there were windfarms everywhere, with the mills going crazy—possibly a reflection of how extreme the winds in the region are.

It was starting to get dark, and I was tired, and grumpy, and driving myself on with a combination of some very angry punk and a near-constant refrain of “fuck you!” to everything that wasn’t working out for me.  It was something along the lines “Fuck you, foot!  Fuck you, weather!  Fuck you, horizontal rain!”—because naturally, all these things were doing all this to me on purpose, and my current state was in no way the fault of me or my poor decision-making skills and/or stubbornness (read: stupidity).  It reached a peak when a hedge-leading path took me into a field, from which I could see the other side of a river, and no apparent way to cross it.  Did I throw a tanty?  Yes, yes I did.  Did I have a little yell?  My word, yes.

With no other help for it, I looked at the busy overpass, climbed up a wall of fucking mud, and started to cross with the traffic.  I certainly wasn’t going another 10km out of my way to cross this river on a pedestrian bridge.

It was stupendously windy, and I was clinging to the guard-rail on the downwind side of the overpass.  At one point, a large truck went past, and the draft created saw me starting to fall over the barrier for the river below.  I’m pretty glad to have been holding on—but all I could think, in my somewhat adrenalin-fuelled state, was that “If I fall off this bridge, I am going to be so pissed (and dead)”.

Soon after crossing, an actual cycling path began, and things became a lot easier.  Granted, things were starting to get quite painful, and I was making the odd sound that would have been more at home at a sumo wrestling match than coming from the delicate flower I obviously am.  I was hitting another wave of energy, though, and so put on some Aussie hip-hop and started dancing my way down the highway: because if I’m going to do this thing, I may as well do it with swag, right?  (Right??)

I was only 300 metres from the hotel when my calves started unforgivably cramping, which was a bit of a joke.  I made it, though, walking into the lobby, seeing the clerk, and immediately announcing “I’m sorry I look so terrible!!!”.  Because I did.  I was haggard, wind-blown, soggy, and—as I later saw—had the beginnings of weird blood/bruise patches all over my legs and feet in particular.  I didn’t show that to the clerk, though.  I mean…. no.

Happily, despite it being the budgetiest accommodation I could find for the night, my room turned out to have a bath.  I poured it and jumped in, only to start uncontrollably saying “oh my god” for a good five minutes straight.  A solid room-dance, dinner, and some stretching later, it was time for bed: because the next day, I’d be heading to Calais.

 

De Panne to Loon-Plage via Dunkerque: 38.09km.

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