I have lost it. I am engaged in a pointless, energy-sapping, expletive-laden one-sided dialogue with a footpath. It’s not its fault, but I can’t take it out on Lisa. She has to put up with me enough as it is. When we manage to exchange a few words in between our dying breaths, it is along the lines of ‘when this is all over…’ - it’s like war. When this is all over I am going to have a bath. And get very, very drunk. And not do anything like this ever again.
Lisa and I are climbing up a mountain in Corsica. We have chosen to spend our summer holiday walking 136 agonising miles in 11 very hot days. If you know nothing about Corsica, its claims to fame are: Napoleon, and the GR20, infamous among walkers as ‘Europe’s toughest trail’.
The GR20 is hardcore: two weeks of ‘rock climbing without ropes’ along the island’s spine that shoots into the sky. But for the vertigo-averse like us there are other long-distance trails, like the Tra Mare e Monti Nord. Still, as the name suggests, the TMM takes you through some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery, from shimmering seascapes and jaw-dropping jagged coastlines to epic mountains, via a string of seriously weird places in which we are glad we are staying for just a single night before hitting the trail once more. Having taken a ferry from Nice to Calvi, and a bus to the trailhead at Calenzana, we walk for about half an hour before getting lost.
Making a basic navigational error, in this case turning off the main path before the big, obvious sign saying ‘this way (and abandon hope all ye who enter here)’ and ending up back where we started, is an inauspicious, and demoralising start, but eventually we are off into the wilderness. We will walk the TMM for a week, transfer to the Mare e Mare Nord for a day, and then it’s on to the GR20 for, somewhat embarrassingly, its easiest stage (allegedly), before leaving the high mountains on a gruelling last day down to our final destination, Corte, for a cold beer and a bath. Think Ice Cold in Alex.
So here we are, not quite at the top of a mountain, on our sixth day on the trail through the Corsican ‘maquis’ - a fearsome land of jungle, forest, desert and hills. The terrain is hard. It’s hot, very hot. We’re carrying rucksacks twice our bodyweight. I dodge iridescent flying beetles; I walk into a spider’s web for the 67th time; yet another bug bites me: I am a one-man all-you-can-eat buffet. I collapse crumpled on granite, hatefully chuck my rucksack in the dust, fling sweat from my hands, flick sweat from the pool that constantly gathers in my belly button. It is 35 degrees C. You can’t train for this in Scotland.
We are beaten to the top by a crack crew of pensioners. We share the TMM experience with two groups of senior citizens who put us to shame yet flatteringly refer to us as ‘les jeunes’. They hand us fruit and spray water in our faces like beatific maternal angels when we’re collapsed in the dust trying not to be sick. At times we share at very close quarters, in ‘gîtes d'étapes’ (communal walkers' bunkhouses). We barely survive desperate sleepless nights in dorms, sharing sinks with old ladies from Lucerne, tear-streaked eyes meeting in the cool morning after the crazy night before.
The ascents are awful, worse than the ridges, where fear forces you forward across tightropes of needle rocks, pinnacles of pyroclastic porphyry. Above us, only sky. There’s no other way. Down, I guess, but we haven’t made wills, so death would be a hassle. At least you can see the funny side. If anything, the descents are more difficult. Under the brutal, beating afternoon sun, we slip down the steep shale slopes of stone ovens like inebriated goats. This is a holiday? Why didn’t we just rent a villa, laze by the pool perfecting our tans while getting slowly sozzled on sangria?
Four days later we leave ‘the oldies’ and join the hardcore on the GR20: wiry, taut-muscled men in short shorts and t-shirts that read ‘Alps 5 Mountain Race 2006’. We feel like day-tripping tourists in comparison. We negotiate a stupendously precipitous section that defines sublime: a psychological shock and awe, simultaneously stunningly epic yet engendering terrified thoughts of falling into the abyss. Reaching safety, I lose my focus, leap onto a rocky outcrop in celebration, trip and just rescue myself before I break several parts of my face.
We reach our long dreamt-of Shangri-La, Lac de Nino, a high-altitude lake encircled by peaks flecked with eternal snow. Poster boy for Corsican tourism, it looks like Tibet. Wild horses frolic as we slump by the shore on springy turf. Lisa blissfully rests her eyes in sleepy sun while I am harangued by flies and burn. I worship the sun, but even the gods are our enemies.
There is nothing but rocks, sky and sun. I defend against sunstroke with a too-tight £1 sunhat from Primark. I look ridiculous, like a beered-up 40 year-old at T in the Park. I complete my look by wrapping a towel around my sunburnt neck and my Skyscanner tote bag around my sunburnt arm. I am cool. Sunstroke is a curious thing. It’s probably dangerous to feel like this when you’re this high up, this far from safety. Either I don’t realise the seriousness of my condition, or I don’t want to admit it. But Lisa is worried.
We pick our way through what was once a wood, on an island in the sky. Now it is a bone yard, trees reduced to white rubble like an elephant slaughter. In this land lightning is king. What still stands is black, charred, like grotesquely bitten fingers. As my mind drips like a Dali clock in the sun, falling apart with the sheer weirdness of it all, a chopper menaces over the brow of rocks ahead. We duck. It’s Apocalypse Now; Paint it Black. But no, it’s not ‘Nam, it’s mountain rescue, taking away another unfortunate soul who has lost their footing, or their mind, up here in the sky.
We make it to Manganu, a mountain refuge. The ‘guardien’ in charge enquires about my arm. “It’s nothing serious” I reply nonchalantly, suggesting to him and the veterans sitting outside the hut in their pants that I may have fallen down a crevasse, but I’m hard, I conquer 17 peaks before breakfast.
Keen to wash away the day’s turmoil, we queue for the shower, share a romantic drip of cold water before retiring to the honeymoon suite, our tent, encircled by a moat of horse poo and pairs of pants hanging on bushes.
2am… After three hours’ sleep, I wake in a wet crisp packet. It’s my bivvy bag. I have not had a good night’s sleep since we left home. Sleep, oh sleep. I haven’t dreamt enough. This is having serious consequences on my judgement, my sanity. I’ll either fall off a cliff or go mad. Pigs, owls, mosquitoes, cockerels, duelling dogs at dawn – all have been the enemies at the gates of my dreams. I get up for a pee. Fie on you stars! Why am I awake? A night sky like none before, but I can’t look skywards, I am more concerned with not treading barefoot in horse poo in the pitch dark. It is freezing. We hold each other and listen to the bloke in the next tent snoring happily. Thank goodness we have brandy.
A bird sings in the misty mountain dawn. There is hope…. We have made it ‘til daybreak: it’s like the morning after in a horror film. Now we need to walk a sleepless 25km to get out of here alive. GR20ers head off into the combat zone once more, while we have had enough. But as we breakfast on bread and jam in the sunrise, resting on warm rocks in a rushing torrent, talking to lizards, we realise that we don’t want to go home. We share many moments of bliss like this, when everything is perfect, when we lay our heads down and close our eyes and the only sound is silence.
I just try to put one foot in front of the other. If only it was that simple. There is barely a flat path in Corsica. Every other step brings the risk of breaking an ankle, or landing in the monstrous cow pats blocking the path, swirls of greenbottles attendant. We embrace the insanity of it all. We sing. An ironic ‘raindrops keep falling on my head’ bounces around sun-blasted boulder fields.
We are so tired. On one side of the path is a hellish chasm; on the other, storm-felled trees poise on the point of hurtling downhill, smashing into us. We are in danger of falling asleep as we walk, falling a thousand feet down to oblivion. Am I awake? Are we stuck in a perpetual dream, a purgatory of rocks and hairpin bends? Everything looks the same. Are we going the right way? Are we ever to get out of here?
But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am with the woman I love, walking in paradise. We are wandering stars, two drifters off to see the world. We walk on, with hope in our hearts.
I think we’re going to make it.
How to get there
From the UK, you can fly to a choice of airports in Corsica: Bastia, Ajaccio, Calvi or Figari Sud Corse. Lisa and James flew to Nice, took a ferry to Calvi, then a bus to Calenzana. Then walked a very, very long way…
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