Saturday, 28 November 2015

Aroumd and about

The sound of four grown men being assailed with buckets of water in a vaulted hammam reminded me of the noises made by crowds attending fireworks displays, in my childhood. As we lined up against the wall, we were pelted with water of varying temperatures, each of which drew from us different noises, ranging from comfort to pain: warm water ("oooh"), hot ("aaah") and occasionally very cold ("eeeee"). After a while, these sounds, which echoed around the tiled rooms, began to make us all laugh in a slightly delirious way, to the undoubted bewilderment of the hammam's attendant and his assistant.

The day before, we had descended from the refuge just below Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, the highest peak in North Africa, and we were sorely in need of hygiene. It was in the depths of February, the mountain was encrusted in snow and ice, and the temperature inside the refuge where we had spent a few nights was, but for one room with a stove, extremely cold. One morning, I had braved the dribbling pipe in the basement room that was pleased to call itself a "shower", but as I squatted in the shower tray, desperately hoping for the barest hint of warmth, I had started to doubt whether I would ever get properly warm again.

The summit of Toubkal had been reached a few days before that, and not without with a great deal of effort. Altitude, combined with occasionally knee-deep snow, meant that our ascent had been far from speedy. At the top, we looked out across the Atlas Mountains, under a crips blue sky; the covering of snow making it extremely hard to judge scale.

"Are we the slowest group you've lead up here?" somebody asked, jokingly, but our guide's polite smile and silence in reply spoke volumes.

Back down the valley, we had walked across to Amound, a small village clustered on top of an ancient mountain land-slip, on the promise of a traditional massage and steam room. The village resembled a scattered collection of cardboard boxes, and appeared extremely basic. Inside the hammam, however, all was warm and clean. Afterwards, we marched back across the valley to our auberge, skin tingling with freshness.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Corte between a rock and a hard place

The commune of Corte on Corsica comes, if you are walking the GR20 North to South, as something of a blessed relief. The GR20 is widely-known as one of the toughest long-distance walking trails in Europe and, if truth be told, I had not prepared adequately for it and was enduring rather than enjoying the experience. The GR20 runs from Calenzana in the north of Corsica, to Conca towards the south east coast, is around 112 miles long, and is relentlessly tough and, at times, miserably strenuous. Well, maybe that's not quite fair, but you certainly have to be in the mood for it, and it became increasingly clear to me, after several days of trudging over mountainous passes and sleeping in accommodation that was little more than sheds, that I simply was not.

By the time we reached Corte, a beautiful little outpost of civilisation somewhere towards the middle of the island of Corsica, I had long-since realised that I was much more in the mood for spending leisurely afternoons in glorious French caf├ęs, restaurants and bars, possibly with a gentle wander along to a pool or the sea, for a soothing swim. In fact, after several days of hard walking, and frequently extremely uncomfortable sleeping (when such a thing was even possible, in the company of extravagantly-snoring walking companions), the idea of a swim proved tantalising to the point of torture.

The GR20 is frequently beautiful, and n another occasion, I can imagine dedicating myself to the task of exploring it with great delight. On this occasion, however, I missed my girlfriend and, bar some very good friends with whom I had come on the trip, and some other like-minded walkers, was accompanied by slightly too-eager fellow-hikers, who were getting on my nerves. For me, a good walk is something that takes as long as it takes. You enjoy the views, you take your time and, provided you're not still walking late into the night, you arrive at your destination eventually, with a pleasing sense of a day well spent.

Other walkers, and I am not claiming that they are necessarily wrong (although, obviously, they are), see a long-distance walk as a challenge to be be attacked with something of a joyless vigour. They have to be at the front of a group, ideally disappearing off far into the distance, as if they were in a race, leaving others (usually including me) watching them almost running off, somewhat bemusedly. Some people enjoy racing, I recognise, but I fail to see the challenge or enjoyment in behaving like that, when nobody else is taking part in the race. Despite that, they go haring off, as if reaching the end point before the others, usually without having noticed much, if anything, of their surroundings on the way, is in some way an achievement worthy of praise.

These people drained my enthusiasm, such as it was. I wasn't in a race, I just wanted to get from A to B, with as much enjoyment as possible in between. In Corte, I found some of the things for which I had been longing - good wine, good cheese, omelette et frites... I am a simple soul, at heart. After a couple of nights in Corte, in a pleasant hotel, with a comfortable bed, we resumed our walk south, but I had been teased by thoughts of what might have been, and my heart really wasn't in it.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Good morning, alpaca

The daily commute can, at times, be a joyless duty. Following the same road, day in, day out, until - like Willy Loman - you get so ground down by the routine that you can almost forget which day it is. Which is why, one morning on my usual commute, I was elated to see that an otherwise unremarkable field beside my road was suddenly occupied by a couple of dozen alpacas. This, as you may readily be able to imagine, brightened my morning immeasurably.

They weren't doing anything remarkable, you understand. They were not, for example, performing miraculous feats of acrobatics, singly or in unison, nor were they lined up along the fence, harmonising their ululations to melodic effect. They were just standing there, occasionally nibbling grass, or peering around, bemusedly. The reason I was so pleased, was that they seemed so completely satisfied with their little existences, and almost pleased just to be alpacas, that it felt churlish not to share in their quietly joyful world-view.

Months - years - went by. Sometimes they were there, and I feel no shame in admitting to calling out "Morning, alpacas!" as I drove by. Sometimes, they were not there, in which case my felt a sense of regret at having missed them. And then, a few weeks ago, they returned to the field, after a prolonged absence, and I realised that it would be remiss of me not to introduce myself.

After one morning's false start, when they were away from the field by the road, I saw them. Giddly with expectation, I turned my car around and pulled into a little dirt track beside them. Before I had got out of the car, most of them had wandered over to inspect me and, by the time I presented myself before them at the fence, most of them were there ready to greet me. They were as delightful as I had hoped, and as diverse a bunch of characters as one could imagine.

One white alpaca appeared cautious and skeptical, whereas another brown animal appeared to have decided that, in me, it had found a long-lost friend. I spent perhaps five or ten minutes watching them as they watched me. Some of the more skittish held their long ears back, until they realised that I was no threat, and then held their ears aloft, and pranced about as if to reassure me that they knew I was all right, really. Others craned their necks over the fence to say hello, and one or two let me stroke their delightful furry faces.

I left them, with a wave of gratitude, and continued on my way. I felt pleased and deeply satisfied to have met them, and relieved that our encounter had been of such a cordial nature. I like to imagine that they might have been pleased that, after all this time, I had taken a moment to say hello.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Puffin away

The small island of Skomer lies of the south west coast of Wales, and is accessed via a small fishing trawler, refitted to hold a few hardy souls. The journey is not a long one, but when the sea swells, it can feel like a reasonably arduous endeavour. As the little boat, which has been bobbing quite wildly in the water, rounds a particular headland, it wrestles wth an evil-looking swirl of water, and sways alarmingly from one side to the other. The extent of the tipping is so wide that, at one point, I genuinely wondered whether it would right itself, or if this is how shipwrecks feel, when they begin.

All being well, however, in a little under half an hour, you arrive at the foot of a set of steps cut into the cliff on Skomer. At the top of them, the warden greets you, and sketches out the island's points of interest and, before you know it, you are wandering among the last of the bluebells, seeking out the puffins. The puffins are what makes Skomer famous, and a Mecca for bird-lovers.

The island is not large, but as one starts to explore it, it feels like the chances of seeing a puffin, other than as an ambiguous black dot, bobbing away in the sea some distance away, might not be great. As is often the way with such sights, you start by doing your best to appreciate the initial somewhat unsatisfactory views. "Well, well," you think, slightly disappointedly, as you squint at some kind of seabird, no bigger than a pin-prick away in the sea, "Now I can say I've seen a puffin."

Then, you round a corner, and walk down a path between the burrows, and you see one of these enigmatic creatures, less than half a metre away. When this happens, you forget the rough sea crossing (and the inevitable replay of it that awaits you to get back to the mainland) and the vague sightings of earlier. They are such familiar birds, that being in such close proximity to them - and there are several of them close by, pottering around, sometimes posing for photos - slightly takes you by surprise. It's almost like coming face to face with a famous film star or musician, except these birds seem to have no objection to having their picture taken.

The puffins of Skomer are, and no other word quite seems to do them justice, charming. Up on the cliffs, where their burrows are, they stomp around, quite oblivious to the snap-happy visitors, like a group of sad-faced clowns going about their daily lives. Every now and then, one of the puffins that has been flying around the little bay comes in for a somewhat awkward landing. As they appear to crash land - every time - it is hard to resist anthropomorphising them, and imagining them thinking "Oh, no! Oh, no!" as they skitter to an inelegant stop among the clover, before they right themselves with dignity and stomp off, as if nothing had happened.