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February 2016 Issue
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No. 21 – Hike an overseas epic

Marie looking down on the Lac du Melo. Photo: Nick Groves

Overseas trips will always be quite a different experience from tramping in Aotearoa. Why not try the ‘Grande Randonnee 20’ in Corsica; billed frequently as ‘Europe’s hardest hike’.

Whether it’s the ancient remnants of far higher Scottish ranges rising out of the storm-swept Atlantic, or the more recent Southern Alps, the juxtaposition of mountain and ocean always has an aesthetic appeal.

The island of Corsica, nestled between the curved, sensual coastline of southern France and northern Italy offers this pleasing combination of rugged granite mountains and the clear warm waters of the Mediterranean.

Western Europe is well endowed with a huge range of hiking trails that criss-cross the diverse landscapes of this geographically remarkable part of the world. In France, of which Corsica is a political department, the great walks and hikes are referred to as ‘Grandes Randonnées’, or more commonly ‘GRs’. These long distance footpaths can be a gentle stroll in the woods on the outskirts of Paris, a challenging multiday hike along the crest of the Pyrenees or a circumnavigation of well-known ranges in the Alps.

Corsica has the GR20 – a two-week affair that traverses the rugged, mountainous backbone of the island, only seldom dropping below 1000m and regularly reaching altitudes of well over 2000m. This famous ‘randonnée’ has the reputation of being the hardest hike in Europe, and consequently on the to-do list of a large number of outdoor enthusiasts around the world. The walking season extends from late May until October, with July and August being by far the busiest, and hottest, months. Winters can be severe in the upland regions, with snow lingering well into summer at higher elevations. Only the very hardy and experienced venture forth during the winter months, where ski touring would be the only sensible means of travel.

The trail looked like a fine objective for Marie-Luce and I, and surely, for people accustomed to the rigours of tramping in New Zealand, the ‘hardest hike in Europe’ would not be too demanding?

The precipitous nature of Corsica abruptly became apparent as our ferry from Nice approached the picturesque port of Calvi in the north-west of the island on a warm June day. Emerging out of the summer haze was a vague outline of improbably high mountains, rising directly from the narrow coastal plains to snow fields, seemingly suspended like ice islands in the sky.

First impressions, as we sailed into historic Calvi, were that traversing this land was not going to be merely a walk in the park. I reminded myself that the first day on the trail involved an ascent of more than 1600m, respectable by any standards.

With Kiwi-sized packs on our backs, we searched for the start of this famous track among the narrow, sleepy passageways of Calenzana village. An ancient-looking stone path, overhung with chestnut trees, led uphill and away from the last permanent settlement we would see for 10 days. Although only 7am, it was already warming up and soon we were wishing we’d gone a lot lighter, rather than labouring under 18kg packs.

The downside of our cautious approach was soon driven home when a group of lean, fit Italian guys shot past us with a brief “Buongiorno”, and a slightly quizzical glance at our bulging sacks. The majority of hikers along this demanding trail tend to carry far lighter packs, but considerably heavier wallets.

Well-supplied huts are found along the way that, in season, provide snacks, drinks and cooked meals in the evenings. Our do-it-yourself style was not such a popular option for the Europeans, but since neither of us are fans of hot, overcrowded huts and our budget had to be stretched over several months of travelling around Europe, heavy packs it was.

The shady forest soon gave way to open ‘maquis’ country, where a stony, but well-marked, path zigzagged across rocky hillsides of aromatic scrub dotted with large clusters of creamy white hellebores. From a small pass at 1200m, the whole coastal plain lay stretched out beneath us, dominated by the town of Calvi, with its dramatic citadel perched on a rocky peninsula directly above the blue waters of the Mediterranean. A big advantage of tackling the trip in June was the availability of snow-fed water courses along the way, whereas in high summer a lot more water would need to be carried between the huts.

The Italians were already well into some serious rehydration on the balcony of the Refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu when we arrived after seven hours of steady climbing. Although technically France, Corsica has a lot more in common, both culturally and linguistically, with Italy.

Pitching our tent on a leveled-out site well away from any nocturnal revelry at the hut, convinced us that carrying all that extra camping gear was worth the effort. The money thus saved could be put to good use socialising with the Italians over a can of Pietra, a local beer generally a lot safer than some of the very rough local vino.

Even if festivities at the hut continued late into the evening, we heard nothing until the dawn chorus of early risers, intent on beating the heat of the day, as well as hurrying to the next hut to guarantee a good bunk. We were, by habit, more leisurely with our departure times, being happy to enjoy another cup of coffee at the now deserted camping area near the hut.

This trail attracts all sorts, from perennially fit outdoor people, some of whom ran sections with little more than Lycra, to weekend warriors and office-bound groups on their annual holiday and out for a good challenge.

At times, the route along this granite island backbone traversed some fairly unlikely looking terrain. Had it been New Zealand, it would have been doubtful any walking trail could negotiate such ruggedly precipitous mountainsides and ridge tops. One major advantage the mountains of Corsica have is the generally excellent quality of the rock underfoot. Narrow paths hugged sheer drops, where humble walkers (albeit with a good head for heights) could venture where only the brave or foolhardy would go on crumbly greywacke in New Zealand. Handholds on the steeper scrambling sections could be hung onto with impunity; after all, many thousands have tested these holds before.

When the going got particularly rough, such as the formidable Cirque de la Solitude encountered on day four or five, the steeper, rockier parts are frequently adorned with solid chain hand rails and even steel ladders concreted into short, vertical sections.

The highest point on the island is Monte Cinto, 2706m, which is either by-passed on the fourth day, or climbed as a ‘rest day’ from the comfort of the settlement of Haut Asco. This small ski resort, where a narrow winding road crosses the mountains, provided some R&R for Marie, while I went peak bagging along with an elderly and eccentric Englishman. Our efforts for this 10-hour day were rewarded with cold beers on the hotel balcony. To round off the day, we forsook the tent for a room and hot shower in the lodge, a luxury not normally available back home.

So, is the GR20 as hard as it is cracked up to be? For one thing, you would be hard pushed to get lost on the trail, as red and white splashes are liberally painted on rocks or trees all along the way. Of ups and downs there is no shortage, and daily ascents can reach over 1000m, along with the inevitable knee-wrecking descents, often at the end of five or six hours of hiking.

Huts and availability of food does mean it’s possible to travel a lot lighter, but at a far greater cost. The weather in Corsica is more more reliable than New Zealand in the summer months, although frequently too hot in the middle of the day.

A dose of summer flu put paid to us continuing along the generally easier, southern section. It’s always a good idea to leave something to return for, and as I write this on a grey day below the Port Hills, plans are to revisit this granite jewel of the Mediterranean in a couple of months. Time for some unfinished business along one of the famous old trails of Europe.