Friday, 9 October 2015

The Mountains of Corsica. GR20 Backpacking Tour.Part One.

                                              ALL PHOTOS CLICK FULL SCREEN.
When I was writing my first book AUTOHIGHOGRAPHY (named incidentally, long before Morrissey brought his book out as I had the idea in my late teens after reading The Great Beast by John Symonds about the Life of Aleister Crowley, published in the early 1970s, although admittedly Mr M has sold shed loads more copies than I have :o( ,  I gathered together all my photographs from backpacking trips to use as a memory aid. The walk across the mountains of Corsica in the burning heat of a Mediterranean mid summer is described in the second last chapter of this book so here are the photos to go with it. We travelled into Nice airport then had a walk of a few miles to reach our hotel for the night before getting the boat across the Med to the island of Corsica. In the photo above there is a lovely little path off to the right that runs parallel to the busy road, weaving between the palm trees, so I opted for following that. Not only was it in the shade it was full of bird and insect life.
Our hotel for the evening. Julian, Gavin, Scott and Shime made up our group. It was the first time most of us had visited the French Riviera and my main memory of Nice is one of streets lined with palm trees and beautiful men and women who were obviously very rich parading down them, fashion catwalk style. We did look slightly out of place in this millionaire playground environment. Luckily for our wallets one quick night in Nice was all we had. The hotel, found by Julian, was excellent and reasonably inexpensive. Here is a photo of my porter, cook, and tent erector, Gavin, carrying two large sacks. Obviously I did not carry my own rucksack over the mountains but paid someone else to do so in the style of a Victorian explorer. He struggled at times on the vertical ladders but coped admirably, like most porters are born to do. If only :o)
Compared to the workman-like and battered Scottish ferries crossing the often rough Atlantic in our frozen northern ocean the quality of the ferries crossing the Med surprised us with their obvious luxury but we instantly fell in love with the Corsican flag and sunshine colours of the craft here. Although I admire photos of the scenery in Iceland, Norway, Sweden etc, living in a cold country myself with frequently wet, cold summers the last thing I want on holiday is more of the same. I've always loved sunshine, heat and clear blue skies in abundance and I've learned over many years of trial and error how to manipulate the natural landscape and weather conditions in Scotland to my advantage.
After a 6 hour sail across the Mediterranean (an inland sea 2,400 miles in length and 1000 miles across in places) we arrived in the port of Ajaccio, seen above, and walked through this small seaside city to get a taxi to the start of the GR20, reputedly the hardest of all Europe's GR long distance backpacking trails. The heat when we landed was intense and prickly pears grew wild on the slopes of the massive Citadel rising from the harbour above the town. Anytime we visited a mountain region abroad in summer on back packing trips it was always that first euphoric wave of heat stepping off plane, train or bus that greeted us. Part of me always wanted to hang around the lushness, luxury and decadence of various towns and cities a little longer, knowing what was ahead of us, but we were always pushed for time and usually only had two weeks before returning to work.
On our visit the citadel was still being used as a fortress by the French military in Corsica, (at that time, approx fifteen years ago) as the island still had a lively contingent fighting for independence and the French army was evident around the island occasionally. Obviously, as single visit outsiders to Corsica we had limited awareness of the situation internally but during our trips to here and the Basque region of Northern Spain we have never witnessed any trouble anywhere and the locals have always been friendly. Mind you, we have always been up in the mountains mostly. Loads of luxury yachts in the harbour.
a link from 2014.

Waiting for our taxi in the capital port city of Ajaccio, birthplace of a certain Napoleon Bonaparte, to take us to the start or end of the GR20, which runs across the mountainous spine of Corsica, depending on direction travelled, and begins for our trip in the small hill village of Calezana just above Calvi. As we only had two weeks holiday and the full route takes three across the island we had decided to concentrate on the toughest and highest section of the route which was like Skye on steroids with  peaks around 2500metres, 8000 plus feet, compared to the section we intended to miss out which was more like a sunnier Mediterranean Cairngorms, with high slabby ridges and plateau style landscape. We would have liked to do the full route but none of us had three weeks spare.
As usual on backpacking trips we arrived around 1:00pm,the hottest part of the day, but decided just to go for it as time was so precious. This first stage, from close to sea level, was 12 km in distance uphill with a full heavy pack and 5000 feet of ascent ahead of us before we reached the hut. Carrying the equivalent of a large dog on your back as we had tents, sleeping bags, water and 3 days food each we set off into what felt like 80 degree heat.
A fine collection of hat attire halfway up the mountain. Naturally, it got dark before we reached the hut and only two of the younger, fitter crew made it to the hut for the night where they would camp while the other three had to sleep out in the open on the hillside on a flat escarpment. One of the hardest mountain days of my life as I was ten years older than everyone else on this trip and really felt it for the first time. Professional footballers retire around the same age for the same reason.
The temperature every day on this trip, at a rough guess, was nudging around 30c or between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit with very little shade or sea breeze. After the horror of the first day we learned our lesson and got up to start walking around dawn in the cool of the morning to put a few hours in before the sun beat us with a big stick in the middle of the day. Although we had seen a few photos of the mountainous terrain on Corsica nothing can really prepare you for this magnificent island. Not many European trips have been this visually wild and savage with mile after mile of naked rock and twisting spires.
Little did we know the first few days were just a taster for the real challenge ahead as the further into the mountains we walked the wilder and steeper the landscape became. It seemed impossible to find a route through some of it but amazingly a path always existed. On the steeper sections, chains, wires and ladders helped the struggling backpackers over territory that would be a full blown easy rock climb without any artificial aids attached.
Gavin waving his hat on a rock spire.
A steep gorge in Corsica.
One of many bridges across a gully climbed in dawn light
Gavin in deepest Corsica near a campsite and hut. Most of the huts allowed camping nearby and we made our own meals but used the hut at night for drinks and snacks and to meet other backpackers. Most if not all of the huts were constructed around a fresh water source and this was the main lifeline as there was very little water to be had in high summer anywhere else on the trail. At each hut you filled your bottle with 2 to 3 litres of water to last you all day which added considerably to the weight of the packs. You could get by with less but we were already meeting folk walking in their third week from the other direction that showed some signs of heatstroke. Later on in the trip two people fell ill ( fortunately not in our group) and had to rest for a day or two in the shade under damp towels and another poor walker toppled over on rocks and had to be airlifted to hospital. Getting enough water into you to keep healthy was not easy and I reached several huts on this trip feeling lightheaded and on the verge of passing out. Never has an ice cold shower been so welcome, as the huts then and maybe still now, have no hot water for showers but no-one would have wanted one. The pint went down well after an ice cold reviving shower.
Typical landscape on the GR20. Ruggeder than a very rugged thing!
Little did we know it was about to get worse.....



Carol said...

How on earth do you get up those huge blocks in the last photo? Have they got chains and stemples and stuff on them? or is there a crafty way through it all?

I always put those luxury 'yachts' in quotes as they don't bear any resemblence to a real yacht and I've no idea why they get it so wrong calling them that! I think they're vulgar and horrid, whereas, I love to see a real yacht.

I've flown over Corsica a few times and was amazed at the absolute wall-to-wall mountains all across the island! I'd love to see it one day. And I'm with you on the hot places thing - I much prefer them, although they do make hillwalking much harder.

blueskyscotland said...

Hello Carol,
All the GR routes have paint marks at intervals so you never lose sight of them and they are really easy to follow. This particular gorge was climbed by zig zag crafty paths and a mild spot of scrambling. It has to be that way as you would not want to go off route traversing such serious mountains. Any time we did go off route deliberately as a perceived short cut it didn't turn out that way and we often had to backtrack. The weight and size of the packs was the main hindrance along with the heat but you could use the huts and get all your main meals for an extra £20-25 quid a night and save weight. The huts tend to be busy though in peak period and I find it hard to sleep in them. The chains and ladders came later.

Linda W. said...

Wow what an adventure! I enjoyed reading your story.

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers Linda,
It was a great trip.