Our train ride back to the Ardennes for the Hoge Ardennenroute’s final section is livened up by a squealing toddler and an entire Scout group. With ringing ears, we digest the journey so far – along with a pain au chocolat – on a tea room’s terrace in Bouillon.
But the action-packed morning is far from over. A delivery truck’s side mirror taps a first umbrella, causing the entire row to topple over like dominoes, targeting the table of an elderly couple that manages to jump up just in time. Luckily, no cappuccinos or croissants are harmed in the process.
As we set off on our steep climb out of the valley, the tourists relaxing on the river in hot-pink pedal boats adorned with giant swan heads soon drop out of sight. Accompanied by the local youth’s speakers blasting Estelle’s American boy, we make our way up the grand watchtower for one last view over the old town.
At last, we reconnect with the woods’ solitude. A whole other range of sounds takes over: a finch singing cheerfully, bees buzzing past and a soft breeze rustling the maple leaves that shield us from the sun, while the river Semois leads us to an idyllic lunch spot.
The trail then hits us with a second long climb before guiding us through dense vegetation. By the time we reach the quiet town of Vivy, the muggy weather has made our water supplies dwindle. A local lady kindly fills up our bottles, while a jeep flies by with screeching tires, Belgian flags waving from the sides and young lads dangling out the windows.
The whole country is getting ready for the kick-off against Italy tonight and we could not feel further removed from the Euro madness. Following the match from the forest through texts and emojis from friends and family, we give up after the first half. Disgruntled boars trot past our tents all night, clearly as upset by Belgium’s loss as we are.
A less romantic version of nature
A blueberry bush graciously supplements our breakfast in the morning, while the fresh paw prints in the mud allow us to speculate who else passed by last night: a deer, some squirrels, a fox?
Through dewy fields we reach the town of Naomé, where a bench by the church calls our names. As we let our socks dry, we take another peek at the weather forecast and try to estimate how far we can still make it before the elements catch up to us.
“Do you ever wonder if we just romanticize nature when we’re in the city?” I ask Katrien, while staring down at my legs that have been transformed into battlefields by the nettles, ticks and horseflies, all eager to leave their mark. “Nature sure isn’t always kind.”
A narrow trail winds up and down along the Our until the Lesse takes us further towards Daverdisse. On a comfortable looking rock, we sit in silence and try to catch our breath. But nature grants us little respite: mosquito swarms have started their evening shift, giving us just the push we need to rush further up the hill.
Thrilled that the storm seems to have blown over for the night, however, we count our blessings. When we finally sit down for dinner in the beautiful forest we call home for the night, a hare pops his head around a rock. The moment his eyes meet mine, he shoots off into the bushes.
In the morning, a little mouse greets me as I open my tent door to find clear blue skies and pleasantly warm sunrays piercing through the foliage. We pack up and sprint towards the finish line, stopping only at an old mining site to marvel at how resilient nature truly is.
The multitude of mountain bikers and fishermen indicate that we are nearing Mirwart and with only five kilometres left to go, the predicted showers finally erupt. After starting our adventure on the Hoge Ardennenroute in the snow in April and bathing in the sun in June, it feels only fitting to finish during a summer rainstorm in July.
Having walked 278 kilometres through some of the most beautiful parts of the country, I can safely say that although nature may not always be kind, I would let it bite me all over again in a heartbeat.
Other blogs on the Hoge Ardennenroute
A week and a half after completing the first section of the Hoge Ardennenroute, Katrien and I continue on our way south on the 278-kilometre long trail. A few lefts and rights from Trois-Ponts’ train station lead us straight into the forest, where the crisp air and tiny snowflakes wash away society’s stresses and welcome us back for another adventure.
Disney to reality
We follow the ridgeline overlooking the valley and then descend to Lierneux, where we treat ourselves to instant coffee and biscuits on the town hall’s steps. In these biting temperatures, sitting still for too long is not an option, so we hastily hike on. The patches of snow grow deeper and deeper until the temperature drops to -6° Celsius at night.
In the morning, a furry fox shyly greets us before disappearing into the woods. In the afternoon, five deer leap out of the bushes right in front of us. We stand transfixed, as they run, stop, look around. Run, stop, look around. Run, stop, look around.
Crossing paths with more animals than humans in a day still awakens my inner Disney princess. Unfortunately, the fairy-tale is short-lived, as the shooting pain in my right knee serves this city girl a bitter dose of reality. When I can no longer hide my limp, we decide to leave the trail early. Biting through the pain, I hobble another six kilometres to catch a bus in Dinez.
Admitting that I am not okay does not come easy to me. While hitting the pause button to tend to my body is no doubt the wiser choice, feelings of defeat creep up. I tend to shrug off successes with remarkable ease, but when not reaching a goal I set, I am my own worst critic.
Luckily, the trail always provides. And this time quite literally so, as I suddenly spot a five euro note right by my feet. “Looks like the trail is buying us coffee!” I exclaim. “Or maybe even a Chouffe next time!”
Gnomes and rivers
Ding! The bell resounds through the bus, as we approach the stop where we left off. With a lighter pack and a rested knee, we are ready to hit the trail again with our newest hiking buddy Erik tagging along. Last month’s cold front has even made way for an abundance of sunshine.
We cross Dinez and head back into the forest. The Martin-Moulin brook leads us straight to Achouffe, where a giant red hat points to the brewery, famous for its family of gnomes representing the different beers. After months of corona-induced deprivation, we cannot resist the appeal of the Brasserie’s recently reopened terrace.
From Achouffe, we follow the brook until it flows into the Eastern Ourthe. A narrow trail curves along the steep slopes, testing our endurance while rewarding us with stunning views over the valley. Where the Eastern and Western Ourthe meet in the Parc naturel des deux Ourthes by the Nisramont dam, the forested hills make it hard to believe we are still in Belgium.
A row of yellow-flowered broom shrubs then leads us up to the majestic rock formations of le Hérou. Blessed with long summer days, there is no rush and arriving late in the day means we get this phenomenal viewpoint all to ourselves.
The rock in the Ardennes
We follow the Ourthe further in the morning, as it winds around a peninsula-slash-beaver-paradise. A steep hill then takes us to Le Cheslé, one of Belgium's largest Celtic fortresses. Legend goes that the treasure hidden in its central well resurfaces every Christmas at midnight. To seize it, you are to throw a black chicken into the abyss and take the treasure without saying a word.
After walking up a shallow stream, we reach open fields again, overlooking the rolling hills, farmlands and villages around. An airplane propeller resting on a stack of rocks commemorates the crash of the B-17 bomber The Joker after it attacked a German ball bearing factory in 1944. Our lunch break by the World War ll monument quickly turns into a nap.
Coffee and ice cream in the hamlet of Borzée wake us up from our beauty sleep and give us the energy to carry on to La Roche-en-Ardenne. Entering the town from atop the famous rock, we descend past the castle to the shopping street, where the scent of tourists’ laundry detergents and perfumes pervades the air. A likely indicator of our own odour.
The bustling square and town food are tempting, but we do not linger. We still have a hill to climb. As we ascend further and further into the forest, the evening glow radiating through the trees slowly turns the world bright orange.
“Is anyone still navigating?”
When I open my eyes, I notice that I am not the only one sheltering in my tent. A small army of slugs has moved in overnight, claiming the space between the inner and outer sail as their own. First order of the day: serving them an eviction notice.
The tall grass treats us to a morning dew foot bath, after which wider paths lead us to the town of Cens. Won over by the promise of artisanal ice cream, we happily waste an hour or two on the benches in front of the Biofarm.
The further we follow the river out of the town, the denser the vegetation gets. “Is anyone still navigating?” Erik wonders, as we bushwhack our way through. Blood-thirsty ticks attack our calves, but we successfully fight back with a pair of tweezers.
In Lavacherie, we leave the fields behind and dive into vast forests again. When evening falls, we reach the observation tower La Billaude, where a couple in their late fifties has their eyes glued to the pond, binoculars at the ready. “Have you spotted anything yet?” I whisper. “Not yet, but we have seen deer and wild boars here before. With a lot of patience and a bit of luck, we are hoping to spot a beaver!” he gloats.
We follow the trail all the way down to the river, where a small deer is startled by our appearance. As soon as we sit down, a more bothersome type of wildlife makes itself known. A swarm of mosquitoes terrorizes our feet, arms, backs and faces until we crawl into our tents. The sound of boars grunting softly in the distance finally rocks us to sleep.
The life of an adventurer
A sweet smell permeates the morning air. Berries, perhaps? We can’t quite put our finger on it, but it brings back memories from summers past. After a short descent, we pass the open-air museum in Fourneau Saint-Michel dedicated to rural life in Wallonia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fog wraps the fields in a mysterious cloak, making it is easy to imagine ourselves in the Alps with the high peaks hiding behind the clouds.
Having caught wind of a nice café in Grupont, we start fantasizing about our order long before reaching the town. Finding the café closed and the streets abandoned is not quite the finish we had in mind. “No coffee in this town, nor in the next, nor in the next,” a local confirms when he pops his head out to check who his dog is barking at so fiercely.
“The life of a great adventurer always comes with highs and lows,” I jokingly shrug, while killing an hour with nothing but boring crackers for lunch. With the dilapidated train station looking an awful lot like a haunted house – with wooden boards barricading windows and doors – we are pleasantly surprised when a train does show up according to schedule. A definite high in my book.
Photos by: Katrien Rigo, Erik Aerts and myself
Other blogs on the Hoge Ardennenroute
With the borders still closed, Katrien and I found the perfect recipe for adventure close to home in Hiking Advisor’s Hoge Ardennenroute. Over the Easter weekend, we hiked the first section of the High Ardennes Route from Eupen to Trois-Ponts.
Fields, forests and fens
We start our trek in the charming town of Eupen, where we stock up on the necessary calories for three days in the woods. As always, Ostbelgien instantly gets me in the holiday mood, as I pick up snippets of conversation in German left and right.
Paved streets quickly make way for fields and forests that lead us close to the German border before turning south, even deeper into the Parc Naturel Hautes Fagnes-Eifel. After gradually climbing for a few hours, the woodlands open up to a vast plain with bogs and heathland. Boardwalks guide us through the fragile Brackvenn, where we feast our eyes on the wetland’s undeniable splendour.
As we dive into the woods again, it dawns on us that we did not pass a single house since Eupen this morning. Even in one of the world’s most densely populated countries, there is still a piece of wilderness to be found.
For dinner, we relish one of our classic trail dishes: a dense mush of vermicelli, sprinkled with instant tomato soup and parmesan. This brick to the stomach not only replenishes the calories we burnt today, it also provides us with the fuel we need to keep warm at night. The temperature is already dropping noticeably, creating the ideal conditions to test if my new sleeping bag will deliver on its promise to keep me ‘comfortable’ at 0° Celsius.
“Excuse me, is there something to see over there?”
With sleepy eyes, I wipe the fresh snow off my tent. For lack of caffeine, I rub a handful of snowflakes in my face, which instantly does the trick as well. We are grateful to slowly feel the blood circulate through our toes and fingertips again, as we make our way to the nearby stream.
Just as we have filtered and boiled our water, sleet decides to spoil our little tea party. To our great delight, however, the ‘modest clearance’ promised to us by the Royal Meteorological Institute quickly turns into a generous one.
Kilometres of boardwalks in various stages of decay await us, making our hike all the more adventurous. Though the river running through the valley is picturesque, my feet demand my full attention. As we trudge through puddles of mud, unsettling memories of sinking knee-deep into dirt not too far from here resurface.
Apart from one other hiking enthusiast, we do not meet another soul until we reach the final stretch, where the ever-increasing number of tourists allows us to gauge the distance to the nearest parking lot. The renovated boardwalks finally grant us the freedom to look up and take in the stunning scenery.
Our admiration for the vast bogland seems to be lost on the family approaching us, however: “Excuse me, is there something to see over there?” Wildly unimpressed with “just nature” for a response, they promptly make a U-turn and drag their feet back to the car.
The trail leads us past the Baraque Michel, at 672 metres the third highest point in Belgium. Though the restaurant is closed due to COVID-restrictions, the bakery alongside it fulfills our need for takeaway coffee. “Have some Easter eggs, girls,” the woman behind the counter offers, while already tending to the next customer. Don’t mind if we do.
Our tent sails dangling over the washing line behind the property are dry in a jiffy, so we quickly disappear into the glorious pine forests again. At dusk, we are greeted by a deer leaping silently past and are swayed by the wind rustling through the trees. A familiar pattern repeats itself: after two hours of shivering in my sleeping bag, my internal furnace suddenly jolts into action, allowing me to finally doze off as my limbs defrost.
In the morning, we descend to Malmédy, where we treat ourselves to an Easter brunch of pains au chocolat outside the bakery near the town square. A greenway then leads us out of town to the Rocher de Falize, an overhanging quartzite rock that offers a fantastic panorama over the valley.
As we hand our camera to another hiker to take our photo, his wife instantly transforms into a true director: “No, not from that angle. You should get more of the valley in the shot. Come stand here. No, another metre to the left. Yes, now hold the camera a bit higher.” He meekly obeys her orders. “That actually looks really nice,” she proudly concludes. “Would you mind taking our photo as well?” “Sure, we know exactly where to stand now,” Katrien winks. Even though the lady assures us that we have “toute liberté,” I make sure to follow her instructions to the letter.
All day long, the people we meet on the trail are unusually sociable for the typically more reserved Belgians. We indulge in the small talk and stop for conversation whenever the opportunity arises. Our most memorable chat is no doubt with a man living in a trailer under a bridge. “You were camping these past nights? Are you ladies trying to become soldiers?” he chuckles.
The jovial and good-humoured man’s knowledge of the region is unparalleled. While we listen to his stories, we cannot help but notice his big toe sticking out of his torn sock and the bottle caps he sewed onto his coat for buttons. As we part ways, Katrien hands him some biscuits from our stash, which he gratefully accepts.
We follow the river Warche all the way to Stavelot, where decorations for the town’s carnival – the Laetare des Blancs-Moussis – are still up. On the fourth Sunday of Lent, locals parade through the streets wearing white robes and long red noses. While the parade was cancelled for the second year in a row, the traditional masks dangling from the buildings and shops still create a festive atmosphere.
Though the forest is lovely as ever, our sore feet turn the remaining kilometres in quite the torment and an unexpectedly steep climb makes our glutes scream. After a final sprint, we make it to the platform right in time to pull out the stove before catching the 19:03 train from Trois-Ponts.
Our pumpkin flavoured pasta is al dente just as the train rolls into the station. Gathering our belongings in a rush, we hop on, abandoning a pair of hiking poles in the process. All in all, a small price to pay for three amazing days in the Ardennes.
In her article ‘For women, running is still an act of defiance,’ Rachel Hewitt describes the fears she experiences while running alone. Unsurprisingly, they are almost identical to the ones I, and so many other women, face when hiking: “Running’s emotional windfalls couple a sense of profound freedom with moments of euphoric joy. But for me they are always cut through with the fear that as I run alone, a man will abduct, rape, attack or murder me.”
The fear of falling victim to an act of violence perpetrated against me because of my gender is the main reason it has taken me ages before I dared to hike alone. While I love the liberation that comes with hiking solo and reconnecting with nature without the distractions of making conversation, these adventures are never carefree.
Sooner or later, the irrepressible urge to look over my shoulder re-emerges. Did someone follow me? Will someone drag me into the bushes? Is that cyclist out to get me? Am I an idiot for being out here? People sometimes ask if I worry about getting lost, hitting a storm or encountering a wild animal, but the truth is that even in nature, my biggest fear is still the off chance that one ill-intentioned individual might be out to harm me.
Statistically, of course, the odds of falling victim to crime in nature are low. You might even argue that hiking through a forest is far safer than walking alone in any city. In fact, I too have been followed, cat-called and groped multiple times when doing the latter, but never when doing the former.
Yet my uneasiness does not seem to respond to statistics. When I was hiking through Jordan with a female friend, people called us ‘fearless.’ If only they knew that with every rustle I heard at night, my body would tense up completely. Even though Jordan might well be the safest country I have ever lived in, I would wake up exhausted after a long and wired night, feeling grateful that nothing had happened to us.
These are feelings my friend and fellow hiker Katrien can relate to: “When thru-hiking solo, I feel safer out in the wilderness than I do closer to society. Sure, there are coping strategies: never telling anyone exactly where you’re going for the night, purposely letting your social media posts lag behind, making up partners that you’re catching up to or friends that are waiting for you in the next town. But I shouldn’t have to. I don’t have to wonder if I’m an idiot for being there on my own, just because of my gender. I have every right to be there. And it shouldn’t make me feel afraid.”
So whether or not the threat is real, the fear most definitely is. And it is holding many women like me back. It is instilled in us by a society that tells its daughters not to go out alone. It is perpetuated by a society that keeps reminding women of their own responsibilities in not getting raped, while too often turning a blind eye to toxic masculinity. It is sustained by a society that calls me ‘brave’ – or even ‘foolish’ – for doing the same thing that makes my male counterparts ‘strong’ or ‘tough.’
While I consider myself lucky to live in a safe country, where both men and women can hike freely, that is not equality. I hope I live to see the day when everyone can walk wherever they want without feeling hypervigilant. But until then, I will keep pushing my own boundaries, one step at a time.
IC 513: Train cancelled. The bright-red announcement immediately strikes my eye. Fadi and I have just rushed into my hometown’s train station, all geared up for a night in the forest. “Now what?” I grumble, when the wise words of Gilbert Keith Chesterton come to mind: “an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” If that is the case, we must be on the brink of a grand one.
When the next train also disappears from the board, it is time for plan B. We stroll back to the house and declare the backyard our new campsite. Fending off my self-proclaimed tiger – a ginger tabby whose eyes are firmly fixed on the tent's fragile mesh walls – promises to be our main challenge tonight.
It is still dark when our alarms go off at 7 am. We wriggle out of our newly purchased sleeping bags – our main reason for camping – and make our way to the station for our second attempt. Luckily, the train gods are with us today. An hour later, we find ourselves in the German-speaking part of Belgium, meandering through the town of Eupen in search of the GR 573.
The trail leads us straight into the Parc Naturel Hautes Fagnes-Eifel, where an impressive collection of mushrooms is on display. We spot red ones with polka dots, brown and orange ones, white ones hiding between the moss and pancake-shaped ones with only the maple syrup missing. A pictogram tells us we are allowed to fill a 10-litre bucket each, but our lack foraging skills holds us back.
Instead, we follow the river upstream and keep ascending gently through the forest. The trees in the valley flaunt their fall foliage and when the sunlight hits the brown, yellow and orange ferns, I imagine this is the kind of place we are told about in fairytales.
"Do I have mud on my face?"
A little bridge leads us out of the forest and into the raised bogs, where small trails alternate with narrow boardwalks. “Attention! Boardwalk in bad state!” a sign reads and soon enough, the perfectly good boardwalks turn into post-apocalyptic versions of themselves. Staying upright is a matter of remaining dry or getting wet, a balancing game I quickly lose.
I suddenly find myself taking a mud bath, when one false step lands me knee-deep in dirt. The true depth of a puddle remains a mystery to the naked eye here. As I wipe some soil off my chin, I conclude that even accidental mud baths can be quite rejuvenating.
Our soggy boots pick up the pace when we reach the plateau, grateful to be on more solid ground. As the sky turns black, we rush to the Signal de Botrange: the country's highest point. We Belgians are known for our modesty, so luckily our highest point does not give us much to brag about. With its mere 694 metres, it is hardly postcard material. We quickly climb the small staircase that indicates its exact location and enjoy the panorama for a split second. And then the storm erupts.
A month after leaving the Pyrenees, I already find myself heading south again. This time, Fadi and I plan to hike the GR5/GR55 from Landry to Briançon in the French Alps.
"Don't worry, they're not live bullets"
After stacking up on pains au chocolat and other essentials in the small town of Peisey-Nancroix, we head to the Palais de la Mine. This 18th century lead and silver mine mainly used to serve military interests. While the site is derelict today, the military presence is still a fact. Camouflaged snipers march past on their training day and when the shooting intensifies, an officer reassures us: “Don’t worry, they’re not live bullets.”
Leaving society behind, we enter the Parc National de la Vanoise and get acquainted with its population of cows and marmots. The view of the glaciated dome of La Grande Motte in the distance rewards us for the long climb before we set up our tent by the beautiful Lac de la Plagne.
The next day, the promise of a supermarket in Tignes helps us brave the frigid early morning temperatures. After climbing over the Col du Palet, a signpost prematurely informs us that the ski resort is a mere 20 minutes away. When we finally arrive 45 minutes later, hunger once again proves to be the best sauce as it turns our groceries into a feast.
The town is eerily quiet outside of winter season, so we happily resume our climb through the national park and set up camp by the charming Refuge de la Leisse.
Love at first sniff
Our first encounter with patous awaits when the trail leads us down to the valley the next morning. These mountain dogs are trained to guard sheep and their white coats allow them to disappear in the crowd entirely, hence the advice to always walk around a grazing herd. As the sheep occupy the entire mountain flank, however, we have no choice but to move slowly and talk gently, hoping this will put their protectors at ease.
Luckily, a few sniffs suffice for the dogs to categorise us as harmless, so no objection is made to our passage. Their professionalism stands in stark contrast to more aggressive encounters we've had with shepherd dogs in the past. Instead of barking and growling, they remain calm and focused.
A steep climb brings us to the Col de la Vanoise, while menacing clouds announce a storm. We hastily descend, only stopping to have lunch when our campsite appears in sight. When a fine sample of lunch foods emerges from our backpacks, the Lac des Vaches soon honours its name: a curious cow confidently strides towards us and gives my phone and hand sanitizer an inquisitive lick, before examining our pasta, crackers and cheese. I learn exactly how long a cow tongue is, as I narrowly dodge hers while stuffing everything into my pack.
Soon after we set up the tent, the storm breaks loose. The mountains are blanketed in a dense fog and eventually disappear entirely, while lightning lights up the sky. Tomorrow’s forecast is even more bleak, so we grant ourselves a day off in Pralognan to dry up and rest.
"Allez, allez, allez!"
Our early wake-up call is followed by a familiar pattern: walking up forested slopes until we reach the tree line to then climb quite a bit more. Snowfields and cairns adorn the trail as we near the Col de Chavière. After covering the final stretch on slippery scree, we find ourselves on the ridge between two valleys at 2,796 metres. Behind us, the Mont Blanc. In front, the Italian peak of Monte Viso. A glorious, yet taxing descent awaits.
When we reach Modane, a two-hour picnic on the city hall’s shaded steps is in order to appease our striking knees. After plundering the supermarket, several pilgrimage stations lead us to the Sanctuaire Notre Dame du Charmaix, a chapel dating from 1401. Deserted ski resort Valfréjus is just around the corner, after which we continue upstream through the forest.
“Allez, allez, allez!” We briefly feel encouraged by the farmer’s enthusiastic cheers, until we realise they are meant to spur on his cows to cross over into another pasture, not help us get up the hill. We make use of the meadow his herd no longer inhabits and pick a flat spot to set up our tent.
A slice of Italy
The cold morning breeze makes my eyes tear up, while I gratefully wrap myself in all my layers. The short climb to the Col de la Vallée Étroite makes the discomfort worthwhile, however. By the time we reach the cross – the former French-Italian border – the clouds have lifted and majestic rock formations appear. A baby chamois running after its mother by a little lake seals the deal. To put it in Dean Martin’s words: that’s amore.
Up until the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties, this part of the valley belonged to Italy. Even today, the character of the hamlet Les Granges de la Vallée Étroite is unmistakably Italian. The refuge boasts both French and Italian flags and for the first time in France, my cappuccino does not come with three centimetres of whip cream on top.
For the love of well-engineered paths
After leaving our final campsite at the Lac de Cristol, Briançon quickly appears down the valley. The town was fortified by French military architect Vauban in the 18th century and we look forward to catching a glimpse of the UNESCO World Heritage site tonight.
According to the signpost at the Col de Barteaux, taking the high-level route via Crête de Peyrolle should only take 20 minutes longer than the lower variant. Described by the guidebook as a fine ridge walk that offers extensive views, we take our chances and climb up to the Croix de la Cime. The panoramas are stunning and the weather is on our side: clear vision, sunny, no wind.
The ridge trail is narrow, however, and the deep abyss on both sides soon makes my knees a little shaky. A misstep could have disastrous consequences, but the right amount of focus makes it feasible. That is, until the trail is reduced to a scramble on the side of the wall, demanding our utmost concentration. The guidebook offers no consolation, stating that the descent will commence with a steep and “nasty stretch” on loose rocks before reaching a “well-engineered path.” Suicidal would have been a better choice for words in my opinion, but we clamber on.
When we reach the tree line, we take a breather by a derelict blockhouse with a newfound appreciation for life. As we zigzag down the final slopes, the famous Fort des Salettes appears. Never have I been this relieved to set foot on paved roads. Our agony fades quickly and gives way to hunger, so we celebrate another 150 kilometres on the books with Briançon’s best pizza.
Clacclacclacclacclacclacclac. Ah, the familiar sound of a family vacation. I turn around to see my dad standing on a small hill, currently on his 15th attempt at shooting the perfect panorama with his Fujifilm. A disapproving nod is followed by the 16th clacclacclacclacclacclacclac, while the rest of us eat our homemade sandwiches and stare out over the Strait of Dover.
The English shoreline is clearly visible from the top of Cap Blanc-Nez – the famous chalk cliff in northern France. Our hike starts at the Dover Patrol Monument, the obelisk dedicated to the British Royal Navy for its valuable role in defending the Strait of Dover during the First World War.
From the monument, we stroll along the top of the cliffs. The stunning views tempt visitors every day to ignore the signs warning them to stay clear of the edge, as chunks of the fragile chalk walls have suddenly broken off in the past. But this is a risk the young couple ahead of us seems to be willing to take for the perfect selfie.
After a few kilometres, the trail leads us down to the beach. Eight years ago, we spotted a stranded harbour porpoise here – a type of toothed whale – but now all we find is a lifeless jelly fish. “And a cat!” Fadi points to the cliff above us, where a black feline is sitting next to an old bunker, one of the landscape’s many souvenirs of its military past.
We stop for coffee in Wissant – the next town over – and admire the kite surfers’ determination to catch a wave on this windless day. At low tide, we follow the beach all the way back.
When we reach the staircase leading up to the parking lot, I sense some hesitation. “I have never swum in the North Sea before,” Fadi admits. The cold September breeze makes a warm coat no luxury, but Fadi packed his swim shorts nonetheless, eager to tick off another box on his to-do list. After a little persuasion, he decides to go for it, to an elderly couple’s great concern.
After his refreshing North Sea baptism, the winding trail lead us back up the cliff through grassy slopes, overlooking fields and sea.
Having grown up in Belgium, I am programmed to believe it is a boring place. Rich in concrete, low on adventure. Recently, however, a fresh pair of eyes has been proving me wrong. Ever since Fadi exchanged life in Jordan for that of a graduate student in Belgium, I have watched him explore my home turf with awe.
As we hop off the train in Pécrot – a mere 15 minutes from home – the first revelation of the day awaits: “they speak French here!?” The fact that my country the size of a peanut is blessed with three official languages is something I often take for granted.
Together with my friend Sarah, we make our way to the forest of Meerdaalwoud. “Look at these tall trees! And those ferns!” Not only does Fadi marvel at everything he sees, he also points out things Sarah and I missed: “Come see this! There’s a giant orange slug munching on a bright red mushroom!” No matter how well you think you know your surroundings, paying attention always pays off.
“The scent of the forest is amazing. Did you know that trees are great for your immune system?” Fadi informs us. “I read a Japanese study that said that forest bathing decreases the production of stress hormones. Trees also produce phytoncides. When these chemical compounds touch your skin or you breathe them in, they bolster your natural killer cells, which protect you from infections and help prevent cancer!” His enthusiasm is contagious and soon, Sarah and I find ourselves awe-struck by the trees around us.
The wide forest lanes slim down and the ferns grow denser. A small trail leads us further to the Tomberg. The term ‘berg’ – or mountain – is used loosely here at barely 102 metres above sea level, but the open field is idyllic and makes an excellent lunch spot. The tallest tree graciously shields us from the drizzle, while we peer into the dark woods.
After our loop through Meerdaalwoud, we follow the GR 512 from Sint-Joris-Weert through nature reserve the Doode Bemde. While manoeuvring around a giant puddle, Fadi clutches the fence, making Sarah shriek. “Whew, it’s not electric,” she sighs, when Fadi turns out to be unscathed. “Are they sometimes electric!?”
The hike continues through fields and over an elevated trail with flood zones on either side. Here too, a series of discoveries unfolds: “Is this a blueberry? Nope, it’s not.” “Look! A little frog sitting by the side of the road!” “Nettles sure hurt.” “Did they build this hut especially for people to watch birds?” "These little bugs are devouring an entire leaf!"
Sarah treats us all to homemade ice cream in the cafe of outdoor organisation The Shelter, while we overlook the Dyle meandering towards Leuven. “Everything is so green and interesting!” Fadi exclaims, when a stork spreads its wings in a field nearby.
We walk parallel to the river, where Fadi poses with his first remnant of World War II: a bunker. When we reach the Castle of Arenberg and the OHL football stadium, we are officially back in the city. After a cup of tea in Heverlee, we finish off with a peek at the Park Abbey before making our way home.
"The Pyrenees aren't that far. In case you feel like joining for a bit ..." If Katrien was just being polite, she is in for quite the surprise. A week after receiving her message, my train ticket is booked. I will join her for a stretch of 126 kilometres on the GR10, one of three long-distance hiking trails cutting through the French-Spanish mountain range.
While Katrien and I are strangers, acquainted only through the world wide web, something connects us. We had both planned to start our thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in April, but spent the last few months mourning our cancelled trek during a nationwide lockdown instead. To not let summer go to waste, Katrien now aims to thru-hike the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coast.
Our adventure begins in the small town of Gavarnie, where I snap a photo of the first cows I spot, eliciting a giggle. "I also took lots of cow photos during my first week, but I have gotten used to them now," Katrien explains. Right, rookie mistake.
When I fall flat on my face that afternoon while searching for a suitable campsite, I bid my credibility as a competent hiker farewell. "All things considered not an unsuccessful day. I did make it up the hill after all," I comfort my ego, as I savour the first of many instant soup flavoured vermicelli bowls.
Pyrenese wake-up calls
"I think a horse is licking my tent." As I unzip my door, I confirm Katrien’s suspicion: a brown stallion is indeed sniffing her humble abode. Her one-person bedroom not only comes with a mountain view, it apparently also includes a free wake-up service.
The day of the self-doubt – also known as day two on any multi-day hike – starts with a long descent towards the small town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur. My body is tired from yesterday’s efforts and not quite adjusted to the exertion yet. Having gone through this phase before, I know that I will probably feel more confident tomorrow, but fail to silence my inner critic.
Tempting though it may be to call it a day by lunchtime, we have another 800 metres of ascent waiting for us. Once we start our climb, my body luckily seems to have found its rhythm. By the time we reach the top, I am on cloud nine. Even the extra kilometre walked in search of a proper campsite – flat and free of cow carcasses – does not bother me in the slightest.
Head in the clouds
I wake up early to a dense blanket of clouds lingering in the valley below us and observe the spectacle while crunching my muesli. As the temperature rises and the valley starts to overflow, we pack up our things and hit the trail.
After a quick descent to Barèges – with obligatory coffee and quiche break – the real work starts. We scramble past the many day-trippers and soon have the high-altitude mountain lakes mostly to ourselves. Over the next 12 kilometres, we gain 1,200 metres in altitude, but the view from the summit successfully soothes our sore legs.
We pitch our tents by the most pristine lake until a disgruntled couple marches past, tent dangling over their arms. They inform us that we are still on the outer edge of the nature reserve, in which it is illegal to camp. To avoid sharing their fate of getting fined, we make our way to the bivouac site three kilometres further down. A little late to the party, the hunt for a decent spot begins.
Already off trail, we decide to continue down the alternative route to Lac d’Oredon in the morning. The sharp descent is followed by a steep climb, only to descend again to Lac de l’Oule and then climb back up. By the time we close in on the Col de Portet at 2,215 metres, a thick mist envelops us.
With the view gone, my ankle hurting, drizzle permeating our clothes and exhaustion setting in, I drag myself forward. Our pace slows down even more when we find ourselves stuck behind a herd of cows lining up to pass the slope’s narrow parts. We eventually set up camp in the rain and brace ourselves for a cold night.
Homeless to hot tub
My whining ankle turns into a fully-fledged limp by the time we reach Vielle-Aure. Time to rest the tendons. While Katrien takes on the next mountain, I skip 11 kilometres ahead by bus. With high hopes, I make my way to Loudenvielle’s one and only campground to discover it is fully booked for the night. The tourism office informs me that randonneurs – long-distance hikers – can camp on a small grassy patch behind the caravan parking lot. Less than idyllic, but a solid plan B.
As I wait for Katrien, the town's stares are glued to my skin even more than the layers of sweat and sunscreen I accumulated over the past five days. The question ‘hiker or homeless’ is written all over their faces as passers-by assess my situation: two wet tents left out to dry, muddy pants, greasy hair and one foot elevated on my pack.
But along with Katrien, our lucky break arrives. She manages to secure a spot for us on the five-star campground after all, allowing us to indulge in the hot tub and enjoy our first shower of the week. After a dinner that is not instant soup vermicelli – hello, actual veggies – our spirits have been lifted.
The sound of panting tourists
It is well past noon when we part ways with the town’s many comforts and start our lengthy climb. A few hours later, we are greeted by tens of griffon vultures at the summit of Couret d’Esquierry. With a wingspan of up to 2.8 metres, these majestic creatures do not fail to impress. "Why don’t you hold up your leftover sausage and see what happens," I jokingly suggest, immediately changing my mind when a bird the size of my pack soars overhead.
After a short night at the top, we exchange the seclusion of the mountains for hordes of panting tourists hauling themselves uphill as we pass Astau’s parking lot. Our sense of solitude is restored once again when we leave the Refuge Espingo behind and continue ascending. Three last bumps in a row put our calves to the final test before we enjoy a beautiful sunset with the Spanish snow-capped mountains as our backdrop.
The 1,900-metre descent to Bagnères-de-Luchon transforms my knees into rusty old hinges the next morning, but the end is near. When we reach the sleepy town, we wonder whether it has been placed under lockdown again. That is, until a glance at our watches informs us it is merely siesta time. A well-earned lunch and ice cream later, Katrien and I say our sweaty goodbyes as I start my journey home, confident I will be back someday to use my guidebook’s pages left unturned.
At 30 years old, I am yet to discover what going with the flow means exactly. If I am not busy executing a plan, you will likely find me in the middle of hatching one. When I decided I would hike 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, I knew it would be impossible to be in control the entire time, however. So I prepared mentally.
Fire closures? No problem, we’ll find an alternative route. Current too strong to cross? No big deal, we’ll just turn around. Injured? When our bodies heal, we’ll continue. Whatever the trail would throw my way, I was ready to take it on and adjust my plans accordingly. Oh, how wonderfully flexible I thought I had become.
Just when I believed I had mastered the skill of expecting the unexpected, my newfound stoicism was put to the test. Words like travel ban, coronavirus, self-isolation and lockdown quickly made their way into every conversation. In the blink of an eye, an ever-growing list of temporary measures was put in place, with the word 'temporary’ still up for definition.
While researching the Pacific Crest Trail, I had read thru-hikers’ testimonies of post-trail depression, yet none had warned me of pre-trail despair. The kind that results from quitting your job, uprooting your life, and preparing mentally and physically, only to wake up to a world you no longer recognise.
In the face of adversity, my coping mechanisms of choice tend to be lists and scenarios. Only this time, the nature of the crisis did not allow me to rely on my old ways. As I found myself stuck in limbo, I scrolled through my pre-trail mental prep notes:
While these lessons are now brought to me by COVID-19 instead of by the trail, they ultimately remain the same. And so, I try to apply them to my new circumstances, as it is looking less and less likely that my feet will touch the trail anytime soon. Other concerns will have to take priority, while we collectively overcome unprecedented hurdles and hope that better times lie ahead. So for now, I wash my hands, set my mini goals and embrace the suck.