I went for a walk in the Catalan countryside last week.
I saw cherries that were young but already sweet. I tasted them and felt happy.
I went for a walk in the Catalan countryside last week.
There was plenty of air to think, secret houses to find and a fresh breeze in the valley. There were Chinese dragon sculptures in the front yards, sand-coloured dogs licking my shins and strangers opening their homes. There was peace in the salad bowl, and an itinerary chosen for the rest of the 2017.
I went for a walk in the Catalan countryside last week. And I felt happy.
I spent the three very last days of April in North Yorkshire, in the land of wild garlic, frolicking ewes and magnificently shaped rocks.
Little brooks, arched bridges, slate roofs, trees that are still barely accepting the arrival of spring, private fancy bidges and light hearts – these are the keywords from one of the best weekends of the year. So far.
My heart feels light in Yorkshire. Not because you can go trekking with llamas there and imagine yourself to be standing high on the Andes platoo. Not because it offers you the best little pies in the country, and shop keepers who literally say “Welcome to Yorkshire” in your face. 🙂 It’s actually not all romance and glory. On our circular walk from Pateley Bridge (via Brimham Rocks) we also saw large flags with the word “Brexit” written all over them. Fair enough, the flags were also half-burnt but… Even that could not take the lightness away. I do not know how to be a political person, really. And probably never will.
North Yorkshire’s lightness seems to come from the wide open spaces, from the tiny brooks leading you to bigger rivers and bigger bridges. Yet, there’s no unnecessary quaintness (like sometimes in the Lake District, for me, sorry!). Spring always arrives much later in here. In fact, it’s almost like you get two springs in one year, just by travelling between Yorkshire and London.
The source of the lightness seems to be a mix of natural beauty (the land is never too flat), a certain sense of time (nothing is too compressed or too eternal or long) and from forgetting to complain. Completely. (A habit I picked up during last 6 months and am now dancing a slow departure walz with.)(Can’t wait for the music to end!)
And then there’s a sense of magic. Somehow, behind every corner, there’s a surprising view you just did not think or imagine to meet you. Everything is clean. So clean that is has an immediate effect on your mind. Something would almost suggest the presence of a monastery, of sorts, but all you can see are country lanes and daffodils. Maybe this it, though? Might as well be. The real reason why the heart becomes so light in here? Parts of North Yorkshire feel like a vast, outdoors monastery where walking is proof of your silent yet lively dedication. To life.
And it sure helps to hear the cry of a close-by yet unseen peacock just when you are crouching down to pick some of that long-awaited-for wild garlic. In your undefined and unnamed temple gardens.
So. I visited Norfolk for the first time this February. Norfolk has a skull-shaped coastline but I did not discover it all on my feet. We wandered around Hunstanton and the Holme Sande Dunes instead. And the biggest thing that happened to me in February is straightly related to that visit.
Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve, Norfolk.
When the tide is out in Norfolk.
Into the great beige open.
Namely, I came up with a new theory about human nature which answers the most spike-y and acute questions I’ve had about what makes us all so different. (Well, technically, what makes us all the same, but using different means to reach that sameness.)(Uhuh.)
Imagine you get an unplanned job project that suddenly leaves you with you a nice amount of extra money. What’s your first reaction?
I, being a slow thinker, spent the most of 2015 and 2016 pondering over the following question: is it possible that not all of us feel the same thing in that situation?
Hunstanton Cliffs. February 2017.
The same cliffs, indeed. February 2017.
The answer: it is not only possible, but it also is the actual case. The actual life. With a perfect shock I discovered that not everyone is thinking about new routes, roads, mountains and destinations all the time. And that explains it. The difference of us all.
Yes, I have a job that’s my love and my hobby, and which I would also do it for free (for any clients reading this, only kidding). Yes, I’m reaching an end of a long academic road this year which just might leave me with a PhD degree. And yes, there is life, and a house renovation that is nearing its finish this year as well. But surely, SURELY, all one really thinks about is what unknown roads there are, just hours from their doorstep?!
Towards Hunstanton Cliffs. Norfolk, England, February 2017.
Definitely quite bleak.
Did not get bleakless.
New theory for human nature
Based on long hours of interviewing my friends, and on accounts heard from others, I am now convinced that humans fall into two large (and obviously not always straightforward) categories:
– people who get properly grounded, energised and refocused by visiting places they know well or where they have been before (visiting the same fells feels like visiting an old friend, a friend once said);
– people who get their soul back and reach their metaphorical home by going to places that are completely new.
In Norfolk, you shall find fossils, they said.
How the theory really explains it all?
Here’s why and where it can be applied. It shreds light on:
why some people are not upset when an idea of a trip gets forgotten because no one really takes the lead in organising it;
why people have savings accounts that are actually savings accounts, and not cover-names for Travel Accounts;
why some people follow maps in new cities and others could not think of anything worse;
how certain work and living choices get made;
why it is not the most shared dream of all people throughout all times –> to sit around a map or a globe, dreaming of places you can’t yet pronounce;
why some of us have a need to return to certain places that give us back the sense of self (a ritual of sorts, technically);
why some people always choose the new dish from the menu or never cook the same dish twice, and why some do.
Entering the rounded rock area.
Hunstanton Cliffs and Rainer.
Icelandic moon landscape of Norfolk.
Looks like a troll cemetery.
A ritual for relocating the self
Usually, humans need rituals to create a new space either physically or mentally. This is why we choose the same roads to walk on when feeling on the edge, and why we re-read the same books or visit theat same holiday spot. This is partially why meditation works, and why regular workouts keep us sane (apart from the funky hormones, of course). It is curiosity that’s been given a form. But there’s another way to handle curiosity.
Gaining security and strength from the new
The other way is the following: you are one of those people who feel most secure and yourself-like in places where you have never been. This makes a rucksack full of sense. In a new place, your idea of the self has no familiar triggers to bring on the feel of a certain image, so you can feel borderless and – in the lack of a better description – the most authentic version of yourself.
You probably belong to this category, if:
you’re willing to sit on a bus for 7 hours just to see a new place for one evening;
you feel like sleeping in the palm of your favourite god when sleeping in a new place (a bunkbed, an airport, a hotel, someone’s sofa, etc.);
you prefer hiking new trails to returning to a set of sweetly favourite ones:
your mind rests like crazy when having boarded a local bus or a train in a country you have never been in;
the unfamiliar makes you love and respect life and strangers more;
an amount of fear in the day renders the peace of your evening more serene;
it’s bliss to sit on trains for 12 hours withour internet or books;
you need the knowledge that you’ll never run out of streets to walk on. You need it for your daily sanity;
horizonless cities make you feel home;
mountaineous terrains make you feel home (ok, now I’m just talking about me, but mountains are some of the last areas of true wilderness left);
not having your things around you makes you feel creative again.
It happened on a Thursday morning, on August 11, 2016. The alarm went off at 1am. I unzipped the tent door and looked outside. There was not a cloud in the sky. Only the largest number of stars I had ever seen.
“Fuck!” I thought with bone piercing joy and a good amount of intimidation.
We were at the base camp on Mount Kazbek. In Georgia.
It was time.
→ Everything before Monday, August 8
For 10 years I dreamt of climbing a mountain in Georgia. But between a 24/7 drama school or 24/7 agency work, taking proper time off that was not spent writing seemed inconceivable. Then followed the years of getting settled as a freelance writer. This is not the time for investing in mountain gear. No.
Finally, in 2015, I joined a group of young mountaineers getting ready for Mount Elbrus. For the first time, my plans and reality were facing in the same direction. And then that expedition was called off due to fiscal reasons.
It started to dawn on me that I couldn’t wait for possible new groups to get formed. I needed to find people who were set on going.
This year, my waiting ended.
I had kept my eyes on Mount Elbrus – the highest mountain in Europe and Russia – for the most part of those last 10 years. But this year, a fully fresh perspective suddenly introduced itself: Mount Kazbek. A dormant stratovolcano situated on the border of Georgia and Russia. Third highest mountain in Georgia. Lower than Elbrus, but exactly as pretty and as famous. (Amongst other criteria.) The mountain Prometheus was chained to. And quite a legendary baseline for an adventure.
The decision was made. Some last minute injuries were survived. And the missing part of the kit gathered.
→ Monday, August 8. Getting used to the rucksak. From Tbilisi to 2100 m.
This is where it all started. When Turkish Airlines reunited me with my luggage after a 24-hour delay, I was finally ready. It felt like the past 10 years were nothing compared to those last weeks of haste and hectics. Finally, I could relax.
Our group of 11 climbers and 2 mountain guides packed themselves into a van in Tbilisi and headed off towards the mountains. It was warm. Both outside and inside the van. One of the van’s doors could only be opened with a screwdriver. Our bags were all tied to the roof. We were properly off!
We reached Kazbegi village (1700 m) in a couple of hours. After a lunch of salty meats and soft breads, we were ready to start walking. It took a bit of time to getting used to my rucksack. Mine weighed around 18 kg, if not more. Some people were carrying 23-25 kg loads. I was not carrying any ropes, hence the lightness of it all.
We reached the Gergeti Trinity Church (at 2100 m) nicely before the sundown. It was time to set up camp, eat and fall asleep. The sun was setting quickly. The massive Caucasian sheep dogs were curling up for the night between our tents. The adventure had begun.
→ Tuesday, August 9. Toughest day of the week. From 2100 m to 3600 m.
A day of many, many novelties!
Today, I stepped over my first crack in a glacier. I also walked up a glacier carrying my 18 kg rucksack. While occasionally stepping into little streams created by the melting glacier.
Almost without noticing, I became used to crossing mountain rivers while carrying a rucksack on my back. It was wild and exciting, and I could not believe I had not been doing this all my life. Also, the rivers were not 20 m wide.
Luckily, all river crossings happened after my period had started. It means that my period cramps did not disturb my balance while skipping on the “stepping” stones. Because of course the period started now – during the hardest rucksack carrying day of the entire trip. Otherwise, things would have been too easy.
But. Luckily again, all the river crossings started after the middle toes on my left foot had released their cramps. Never has a magnesium powder tasted sweeter than the one I obtained from Raki, one of the climbers and organisers of our trip.
This ascent gifted me with a well-timed moment of wonder: “Which hurts more? My period cramps or mytoe cramps?”. But before getting through with the analysis, a strong wave of nausea hit me as soon as we reached 3000 m. I forgot all about the cramps. (I still don’t know whether my nausea was caused by the change in altitude or by the 150 g nuts and raisins that I had just inhaled within 10 seconds.)
The nausea was the strongest I have ever felt. I wanted to lay down and not move for a long time.
Of course, I could not stay behind during this part of the journey. That was the *only* reason that made me pick up my trekking poles. (Together with the hope of reaching the base camp by the evening.) And even when doing so, I was certain I would not make it through the next 100 meters. I positioned myself near the end of the line, hoping that not everyone would have to witness my involuntary projectile spill.
But as suddenly as the nausea had picked up, it also abated. (Kind of like a storm in a Brontë novel). Either it was the sugar kicking in or my body deciding to reduce three pains to two, I do not know. All I know is that from this point onwards, it was easy to change tampons behind random boulders.
By the time we got to the edge of the Kolka glacier, I was fine again.
The rest of the climb to the base camp at 3600 m was relatively easy. From the distance, the old meteo station looked like a castle featured in a 1980s children’s movie that the EU is refusing to show on television.
And with our eyes on the growing outline of the meteo station, we all reached the base camp. There was almost no reception up here. There were horses, however. Upon reaching the camp, we learnt that one can also send their stuff up (and down) from the base camp on a horse. Later, we also found a specific area on a slope which shared some mobile reception with us as well. Today, the surprises never stopped.
Today, I climbed more than I have ever climbed (in altitute meters) – 1500 m straight up. Technically, also up and down in the middle of it. They say that one should rise 1000 m a day, and not more. Especially not at very high altitude. But our guides knew what they were doing. And Kazbek is funnily shaped like that, it really is. Mostly everyone felt fine when reaching the camp, with a single, light exception. It had been a good decision.
In the evening it was our tent’s turn to cook dinner. Buckwheat with canned meat it was, mmm, mmm, mmm.
Sunset at base camp.
Old meteo station in base camp.
→ Wednesday, August 10. Acclimatisation day. From 3600 – 4000 m.
A practice and a rest day.
After eating breakfast, we walked up to the edge of the white glacier to practice rope work. And to give our feet a reminder of what walking and jumping on crampons felt like. Our 400 m rise went really slowly, however. It felt proper heavy and difficult, even after a good night’s rest. This was the first time I really felt the change in altitude.
Our 400 m climb in new altitude lasted 2.5 hours. While up on the white glacier, we practiced rescue techniques and jumping over tiny glacier cracks at 4000 m. It was warm, sunny and felt like a practice-based holiday. Everyone was happy until our mountain guide Sirxan let us know that we had no chance of reaching the summit if we progressed that slowly also on the summit day. Eeeek!
Kazbek’s famous seracs.
Glacier travel practice.
Moraine glacier of Mount Kazbek.
Everyone gave their absolute best when descending later. To prove that all of us might be worth it. That we can actually move. And to hopefuly get a blessing from the mountain gods.
Later in the camp, Sirxan admitted that we might have a good chance after all. And not only because our foot work. The weather report was extremely benevolent for tomorrow as well.
We all knew that our good weather window was closing soon. Technically, we would need one more acclimatisation day, but since Kazbek is shaped funny like that (and with the not-so-favourable weather coming in), we made the decision. Tomorrow was going to be our summid day.
It was time to put everything on one card. To take all the sprats and chocolates with us.
We set our alarms to 1am (that’s 10pm back at home!) for tea drinking and gearing up. Our last 1400 m climb was to start at 2am, sharp. This would get us to the glacier after the coldest time of the morning had passed. And back to base camp around 4-6pm. Hopefully.
We talked through some basics and to double-checked our kits. It is a beautiful, quiet time: every climber going through their gear with focus and hope on their face.
PS. Tonight I popped my first blister on my foot sole. (With the sharp edge of my little toothpaste tube.) It is a scientific fact that I’m a proper outdoors person now.
So, what will actually happen when I finish the Lea Valley Way? Will there be a tiny deluge or will the river itself disappear? (No, no one is suffering from illusions of grandeur in here, no one.)
Lea Valley Way is the 50-mile long-distance walking route following the River Lea from its birth spring in the suburbs of Luton to the Thames near Limehouse.
It can be pleasantly walked in 4 days or so the Internet says. When I was planning to walk it in one go last summer, there was only one proper description of all stages available online.
I’ve walked the Lea Valle Way:
– Lea Valley Walk, Stage 1 / 17.07.2015 / ~ 36 km; read about that stupidly lucky walk here
– Lea Valley Walk, Stage 3 / 19.07.2015 / 23 km
– Lea Valley Walk, Stage 4 / 26.09.2016/ 7.9k km
– And on 16.04. 2016, S-L, G and I set out to do the Lea Valley Walk, Stage 2 (25.9 km)
Stage 2 of the walk stretches from Hatfield to Broxbourne. By all accounts it should be pleasantly doable in one day, during the warmest sunlight hours. “I can’t believe I’m finally finishing it today!” I told my lover, my friends and my housemates when leaving for that last stretch that Saturday morning.
The first half of the walk was cloudy, but after leaving Hatfield behind and lunching in Hertford, the skies lit up and our step got faster. (Sadly, G actually had to go home, since his foot had managed to seriously convince him it was too exhausting to move.) I also witnessed my goldenest golden hour during this stage of the walk. Everything was going brilliantly.
We continued on, following the lovely water. The darkness had long-ago fallen when S-L and I reached Dobb’s Weir – a location separated from the Broxbourne train station by a few kilometers. Finishing the Lea Valley Way was going to happen tonight. Suddenly, all the tiredness was gone from my legs as we started to cross the canal (the river has been directed into a canal around those parts already), I could clearly imagine reaching the station within the next half an hour and… and… and… The road was closed. Blocked (even cordoned off, maybe?; can disappointment also create false memories?) off by a large road works sign. Somewhere not far off in the darkness we saw the orange working lights of the industrial vehicle. But. Not all was lost yet!
I dashed off to talk to a security man. And yes, all types of roads were closed. However, he directed us to a path in the forest which would take us straight to Broxbourne train station. So we entered the dark forest-like area with the help from the flashlights on our dying phones. We walked to the railway (“When you’ve reached the railway, you’ve gone too far,” the man had also said). Upon then retracing our steps we found the path. Also to be blocked off.
And we decided to call an end to our day.
I asked for local cab numbers but the security van gave us a lift to the train station. (Reminder to self! Always carry chocolate around to give to nice people!)
I still have roughly 3 km to finish, which I will do at some point this year. How else can I ever say that I’ve followed an entire river, right?
1) Never underestimate a journey;
2) If destination becomes a goal the journey will lose a bit of its magic;
3) Passing a race track in the dark makes you feel like a character in a James Bond movie;
4) Trips can be undertaken that take you to a beginning of a journey which itself is actually shorter than the trip to get there. (Which part of the journey is the real journey? she asks in an ominous voice.)
My dear and much-esteemed last kilometers of the Lea Valley Way, I’m coming to find you in 2016.
The trail from Bridge of Orchy to the Pass of Clen Coe is one day’s journey on the Scottish West Highland Way – the 96-mile trail starting in Milngavie and ending in Fort William.
It is – by far – one the most magnificent parts of the journey (don’t judge! It includes a moor and the mountains, what else would one ever need?!) and gives you just a glimpse of one of the last wildernesses in Europe.
When K and I walked the West Highland Way in October 2015 (check the archives for stories from that time), the Rannoch Moor part of the journey turned out to be a rare stretch without full sunshine.
I’ve read descriptions of people getting lost in the rain or crossing the moor in scorching heat, so getting an opportunity to cross it in another season and specially in March, was a chance not to be missed.
Why is it wonderful to cross the Rannoch Moor in March?
1. It is is quiet.
At first, you can guess the traffic sounds in the background, but as you get further into the moor you’ll start finding pockets of silence where only a littil bird of a flowing river is adding their notes to the ambiance.
Silence, just like the feeling of real fear, has become rare in 2016. (Disclaimer: I wrote this text before the EU referendum.) But only one of them is a luxury we should stretch after. And nature, even moor nature, is definitely quieter in March than later on in the year.
2. You can get very lucky with the weather.
Locals have said that the Highlands tend to get a fair weather spell around Easter. Whether it was due to the early Easter this year or just a lucky chance, the day became fit for a T-shirt.
(The same weather stretch magic applies to early October – I’ve heard it from the locals and tested it myself.)
3.You can have the moor to yourself.
The usual West Highland Way crowds start appearing from April onwards. In March, you can still feel like walking in remote parts of Alaska in here, literally meeting no one the entire way.
4. A chance to taste all the seasons.
If you can’t return to Rannoch in every couple of months, March will be a wonderful time to see snow either on the ground or on the mountain tops.
Yes. It is wonderful to try to escape the moor when being annoyed to oblivion by midges in summer and to see it cloud-covered in autumn, but if you don’t have proper winter clothes to wear, March can still give you a little taste of the winter season as well.
5. No. Midges.
Just like during the first days of Paradise.
6. Flexibility with hotels.
The hotels at the start and end of your journey are less likely to be fully booked. And if your destination is set around Glen Coe, you can start off from the Bridge of Orchy Hotel (meaning that you can fuel yourself by one of their glorious breakfasts). Mmm.
7. You can hear that bird!
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, relish in your luck. (Ok, I’ve also heard that bird in October. Sue me and leave me alone next to a solitary birch tree!)
Walking down from the moor (location pictured below) to be greeted by a sudden, invisible mock-laughter is just one of those reasons to go and wander around in this wilderness that Europe still holds.
I will not look that bird up. Something that sounds freeing and demonic at the same time should remain a mystery.
And this is just a short list of reasons to return to Scotland as often as possible. ❤