Hiking Les Calanques: An Introduction to the Wild

From a slope overlooking the city of Marseille, the surrounding mountains and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, I was half way between the natural world and civilisation. In the abode of possibility, ancient limestone cliffs clouded the trails foreseeable rhythm. Birds larger than I had ever seen were soaring above my head. Only then when studying my map for the first time, I realised I was following the wrong trail. I would have to hike back to the beginning and start again.

Throughout most of human history, arriving at a new town came with a huge sense of accomplishment. You had to physically earn the destination by travelling there on foot. These days we just hop on some form of public transportation, and then we’re there in no time. Not a single drop of hard-earned sweat. I think there’s something inherently wrong about this, at least in principle anyway.

This thought process led to months of curiosity and research into hiking and wild camping; a form of travel I had never experienced, nor previously considered. I found myself in the Calanques National Park in Bouches-du-Rhône, southern France; a wild and rugged terrain stretching along the coast between Marseille and Cassis. Here I would learn to experience the in-betweens of destinations. This was my introduction to the wild.

That first night before sunset, I came across Calanque de la Mounine; a small uninhabited creek near the port of Callelongue. Contemplating whether to set up camp, I soaked in my surroundings and enjoyed the mere passing of time. Psychedelic yellow Jacobaea maritima were growing out of the cracks in the rocks. What a strange, yet beautiful plant to sit beside. Later, I cleared a space between the pebbles, then set up my tent and sleeping equipment. When everything was sorted, I sat on the rocks listening to the waves rocking back and forth, drinking a small, 100ml bottle of whisky. The booze helped relinquish my uncertainty.

When darkness fell, the slightest sounds of the wild magnified. My surroundings felt infinite, though I tried to blend in. With nothing to do but lie back and dream, I thought about the future and eventually drifted to sleep. I was woken a few times by passing helicopters and park guards in speed boats. It’s illegal to wild camp or bivouac in the Calanques, so I laid low in the darkness. Luckily due to the shape of the rocks, the boats couldn’t see me, but the helicopter remained a risk. When their noise faded away, the enchanting stillness of the wild reappeared. I was alone, once again.

The second day was one of the most challenging, yet thrilling days of my life. I managed to clear a lot of distance in the early morning when the temperature was still cool. By midday, I was almost at the creek of Sormiou, trekking along the desert scrubland like a lost mountain dweller. Soon, the city of Marseille reappeared in the distance; a reminder that civilisation wasn’t all that far away. This sight wasn’t nearly as comforting as you might believe. The environment was extremely harsh and unbearable, and I hadn’t seen shade for miles.

After a short detour into town to stock up on food and water, I returned to the mountains, but struggled to carry on walking. With the weight of my bag carrying a full supply of fuel, I felt fatigued and nauseous. Eventually finding shade beneath a pine tree, I crashed for a good hour or two, resting upon the sight of Sormiou. Just the thought of the world outside of my beloved pine tree, was anxiety provoking and borderline petrifying. When my body had almost recovered, I took the plunge and descended into the open sunlight.

Miles and miles of barren sand and limestone led me to a point, where if I continued following the trail, there’d be nowhere else to fill up water and I’d be running on empty. The prospect of this was far too dangerous to attempt, so I detoured towards the small port village of Morgiou, where I hoped to camp nearby and find water before the following morning. The trek was torturously hot and difficult, but with evening just around the corner, the mountains opened up and the village appeared from above.

Overlooking Morgiou, I set up camp on a cliff edge. The view was out of this world, but I was too exhausted to fully appreciate it. I had walked 17.5 miles that day, up and down mountains. I felt sick and defeated and wanted to go home. I probably would’ve quit if there was an easy exit, but there wasn’t, so I sucked it up and played tough. Tomorrow, I told myself, I’d make it to Cassis and sleep in a nice, comfy bed. That thought alone, was the one thing that kept me going.

Mother nature painted the cliffs in a warm, pink glow of wonder. As night fell, the darkness replaced the pink. I felt more frightened than the previous night. Perhaps it was because I didn’t have any whisky left, but the location felt wilder and more primal, and open to disaster. As I was lying there in my tent, I heard something moving around in the scrubland above me. This happened every time I remained quiet. It freaked me out, so I got up and turned my headlight on. When I did, I saw eyes in the bushes, watching me. I packed away my things as quick as I could, and ran down the mountain in the dark, slipping once or twice on loose rocks.

When I got to the bottom, I snuck through the village to the harbour front and found a spot on the rocks roughly 15 feet above. It was too dark to set up my tent and I didn’t want to attract any attention or get caught, so I unrolled my mat and slept out in the open beneath the stars. I found comfort listening to the villagers talking inside their homes. It was so quiet out; I heard the cracking open of beer bottles at numerous occasions. There I was, a stranger hiding on the rocks above the village port, yet nobody knew I was out there. I put my headphones in, switched on a podcast and tried to fall asleep, looking up at the stars and pretending the wilderness behind me didn’t exist. At one point throughout the night, I awoke to a passing black cat, just inches from my face. What a night, I thought.

The following morning, there were fishermen loading up the boats. For whatever reason, I remembered that near Morgiou, was the Cosquer Cave; an underwater cavern with prehistoric rock art engravings. It felt amazing to have slept in a place surrounded by so much history, despite the dread of last night. I walked on, keeping that in mind, remembering that soon I’d be back to civilisation.

The third day was tough from the very beginning. As I was approaching Sugiton, where apparently the wildest part of the trail begins, a large hare runs out from the bushes and crosses the path. From there, the trail got increasingly difficult as I approached Mont Puget; the largest limestone mountain in the Calanques. At one point I came across a few other hikers, but they decided to turn back due to the steepness of the climb. The highest part of the trail near the Grande Candelle was just 500 meters from sea level, but felt a lot higher due to the constant ups and downs.

By midday, I knew the end was drawing near when people began appearing regularly. I went from seeing one person every hour to a few people every minute. Soon, I was just another face in the crowd. A dirty, smelly backpacker surrounded by hundreds of beach-goers wearing clean clothes and perfume. I kept my head low, slightly ashamed of my appearance, but proud of what I had accomplished. Right when I was reaching my limit, the national park transitioned to pavement, and I was out walking on the streets of Cassis. I had travelled 16.1 miles that day, but the overall hike was 45.6. My dreams tormented me throughout the night, replaying the hike over and over. My body went into shock and I spent the whole night throwing up.

The following morning by the pool, the Calanques loomed in the distance like a giant, epic monster. I knew that one day I’d be back, but for now, Cassis was mine and I had earned it. To think that such pristine, natural beauty lies between two cement infrastructures. There must be very few places like this in the whole world.


Cherry Tree

Working in a garden centre gives me a lot of time to think. Taking care of plants doesn’t require too much thought or consideration once the actual decision making process is over. The rest is purely patience. Like today for example, I was watering the cherry trees. It got me thinking about how much time and dedication it takes to grow one. Years and years of regular maintenance goes into producing a tree of that size. Then eventually, the day comes when its ready to bear fruit.

I heard a couple behind me deciding on whether to buy one, until they saw the price and changed their mind. A cherry tree between 1.2 and 2 meters tall goes for around £50. I felt like telling them just to grow one if they weren’t willing to pay the price. You can plant a seed for nearly nothing. It just takes a lot more time and dedication instead. You end up paying the price one way or another. That goes for everything in life.

Time plus dedication equals value. It’s such a simple formula, yet I never think about it. A cherry seed is worth next to nothing, but the more time and dedication you put into caring for it, the more its value increases. Sooner or later, you have a beautiful tree worth significantly more. Not only have you gained possession of a cherry producing instrument, but you also possess all the fruit it bears.

Everybody should plant a seed in something. It’s the only way to better yourself. Whether its picking up a guitar, lifting weights, learning a craft or starting a business. It all begins with a seed. This got me thinking, what am I putting time and dedication in to grow something of financial value? Maybe it’s these very words themselves?

New Horizons

I’m currently in the midst of figuring out my next adventure. The style of travel I usually undertake (travelling with a rucksack using trains and coaches as a means of transportation) is not enough to fulfil my thirst for accomplishment and experience on the road. I’ve played around with the idea of cycling or getting a driver’s licence, but why not just use my own two feet? Isn’t that what they’re there for in the first place?

This thought process led to months of curiosity and research into solo hiking and wild camping – a form of travel I’ve never experienced, nor previously considered. What could be better than walking, getting off the beaten track, exploration, solitude, struggle, nature, a sense of accomplishment and trying to survive in the wilderness, all in one? I guess I’m yet to find out, but I better not over-romanticise it too soon. It could turn out to be a complete disaster.

Through research, I’ve found a potential location that’s caught my interest and might make for a good first overnight hike. The Calanques National Park in Bouches-du-Rhône, southern France – a wild and rugged terrain stretching along the coast between Marseille and Cassis. The park is home to Europe’s largest snakes, rabbits, foxes, wild boar, the Bonelli’s eagle, the Peregrine falcon, the eagle owl and the Ocellated lizard. The only problem is, I’m scared shitless of most animals. All the more reason to go and overcome my fear, I guess.

It’s illegal to wild camp or bivouac in the Calanques – the area is closely monitored and can result in a large fine if caught. There’s also no available source of drinking water, other than to detour out of the park itself. Another risk is that in summer, the area is regulated and can sometimes be closed down due to risk of forest fire. The unforgiving sun, the heat and lack of shade can pose as a call for alarm as well.

After assessing the risks and hazards, I’ve decided I want to go ahead and pursue the hike anyway. I’ve gotten far too emotionally invested to turn back now. Therefore, I’m all in – heart and soul. It might not be the easiest first hike in the world, but I’m sure it’ll be a good one.

I fly to Marseille on June 17th (with 3 weeks booked off work). My current plan is to hike from Marseille to Cassis (and maybe La Ciotat) following the GR 51-98 trail. I want to sleep under the stars for just a night or 2, then escape without leaving a trace and keeping the environment in-tact. After that, well it’s up for grabs, but I want to go to Nice and walk the Nietzsche path, and explore the villages beyond. Then I’ll probably meet my girlfriend in Italy (who’ll be undertaking her first solo backpacking adventure). We’ve got one place in mind we’d like to see together, and that’s Cremona, Italy – a city known for its violin-making heritage.

“Whatever happens, happens” – Spike Spiegel, Cowboy Bebop.

Sleeping Amongst Drifters in Youth Hostels Throughout Spain

Published by GoNOMAD.com, 8th June 2019

Most of us seem to have a very romantic idea of what it means to be a drifter, well at least I do. Some Tom Waits-esque character living out of a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles, writing song lyrics on a paper serviette. This romanticisation is partly what got me interested in travel in the first place. Just the idea of not being bound to a single place, and simply drifting from town to town, city to city; a stranger in a foreign land with endless possibilities of experience and good living. I wanted to experience life as a “character” from a Charles Bukowski novel. That’s what I’ve always imagined life being like as a drifter.

This past winter I travelled across Spain from north to south for 6 weeks. For the first month, I slept primarily in the cheapest hostel dorms I could find throughout the country, and some of the worst if I’m to be honest. I expected the dorms to be fairly quiet considering it was the off-season and a lot less people travelled in the winter. This turned out to be the case a lot of the time, but some of the hostels I stayed in were surprisingly full. My biggest surprise was that most of the people staying in these dorms weren’t travellers at all, well at least not in the traditional sense of the term. They were drifters. Down and outs without a home. It had caught me by surprise, and not in the sense that I thought it would if I were to ever come across a real-life drifter. These people weren’t there to socialise, make friends or explore the cultural differences of a foreign city. I learnt that lesson quite quickly when trying to strike up a conversation to break the awkward silence of being in a room with a complete stranger who hadn’t even noticed my presence since arrival.

My first experience of this was in Barcelona, when a fellow “traveller” staying in my room ignored my greeting and stormed out as if I had ruined his day and invaded his personal space by attempting to interact with him. Or at least that’s how my comfort inclined, home-bred self had perceived his response at the time. I soon realised he wasn’t a traveller at all, and had probably been there for quite a long time. Perhaps a youth hostel was the only form of accommodation he could afford? Or maybe he was just up to no good, and therefore a youth hostel rendered the perfect temporary residence for his suspicious activity?

There were quite a few characters like this that I met throughout the trip. There was an old man in Tarragona who was built like a skyscraper with constant ticks and fidgety movements. After observing him for 2 days, I became curious about him and tried to dig out as much information as I could, because apparently he wasn’t entirely against having a conversation. He seemed to spend every single day locked up inside on his laptop, sitting in the same position. It amazed me how one could live like that. He told me he had been there since September (5 months prior) sorting out “medical documents”, and that he was from Zaragoza. We spoke about Fransisco Goya and other Spanish artists, and even though he spoke English, I only understood about 15 to 20% of what he said. The rest I responded to with mere nods of agreement. His current situation was all very vague and unspecified, so I decided to not ask too many questions in fear of accidentally irritating him with my suspicion. The old man happened to be one of two drifters that were temporarily living out of that same room. The other was a middle-aged man from somewhere in eastern Europe who refused to say a single word and played incredibly annoying videos out loud on his phone. He seemed to sleep in till about 7pm, and then disappear into the night and return before I awoke the next morning, like some strange drifting vampire. Both these men’s bizarre actions and daily activity soon became a running joke between me and a female Argentinian traveller who I think felt slightly more than a little uncomfortable sleeping amongst such characters, but it would be a little naive of me to assume she felt any different around me either.

At first, all of this was a little bit of a culture shock to say the least, but perhaps culture shock isn’t the right term. It was more of a lifestyle shock, or a mild awakening into reality. Real-life drifters (a person who continually moves from place to place without a fixed home) weren’t at all what I was expecting, though at the same time, acted very similarly to what my pre-conceived notion of a drifter was like. Their actions were just performed in a manner that resembled a lack of hope in humanity and existence. For some reason, all I’ve read that formed my pre-conceived notion of a drifter, carried a sort of romanticism about it that cried for hope, despite the nihilism. These people I came across in Spain were far from that fantasy of mine. They had given up hope a long time ago. They stunk of failure, defeatism and misery. They were completely alone in this world, but not in the glamorous, social outcast sense of the description. They were so alone, almost nobody would ever notice they were alone. There’s nothing more lonely than being completely alone and having nobody know about it.

The most interesting of all the strange characters I met throughout the trip was a young man named Costa; a fellow Londoner who was also half Spanish, just like me. I met him at a hostel in Nerja; a resort town in southern Spain. I went there thinking and hoping that it might be one of the few places on that stretch of coast that retained its authentic Spanish charm, but boy was I wrong. Nerja was a lazy, patriotic English man’s paradise, or hell, depending on who you ask. Aside from the beautiful view from the Balcony of Europe, the town offered little to nothing for me. Costa on the other hand, was fascinating to be around, though hard to keep up with and slightly exhausting for an introvert like me. He had a rough, croaky voice, a cockney accent and far too much charm for his own good. All the travellers in the hostel loved Costa and would sit around listening to him ramble, drink cheap wine and crack jokes all night long. It was by far the best form of entertainment you could get around there. I soon realised he was a sort of local legend. We all talked about him, wanted to know where he was all the time and would gather around to listen to him talk from the moment he awoke at midday from a drunken, late night bender. On the night I met him, we went out drinking with a few other guys from the hostel. Costa just happened to know everyone at the pub we went, and a bunch of people around town as well. If he wasn’t such a nice, genuine guy, I would have felt a little envious of how everybody treated him, but the attention was well deserved. Costa was like a character from a movie. I can’t remember how long exactly he said he’d been staying at that little hostel, but I think it was almost a year. Costa was undoubtedly a drifter. He relied on occasional construction work in Granada to fund his chaotic lifestyle, but admitted he was nearly out of money and needed to work again soon. He had served up to nearly 5 years of jail time throughout his short lifetime, which he’d served in small amounts for a build up of small, petty crimes. He also had a lot of exciting stories to share with me, like surviving a stabbing in Beneficio; a hippie commune in the mountains of Andalusia near the village of Orgiva. He had a big scar on his stomach to prove it; a battle wound he wore proudly, and rightfully so.

Costa was similar to the sort of drifter I had initially imagined somebody who drifted to be like. He was a walking Tom Waits song with a little less romance and a lot more trouble. He even sounded a little like Tom Waits with his croaky, burnt-out ramble. What differentiated Costa from the other drifters I more regularly came across, was the glimmer of hope in his eyes; a need to live in the moment and enjoy life. A thirst to get drunk, chat to strangers, cause trouble and live wherever he wanted, as long as he was on the road and far away from home. Perhaps this is not the purest, most common type of drifting, but this was the kind I had been hoping to discover. Costa put the cherry on top of the cake for my hostel experiences throughout that trip. After that, I stuck to private rooms for the remainder of my journey due to a desperate need to return to my own space and company. Nevertheless, it was an intriguing experience sleeping amongst drifters in youth hostels throughout Spain, from the good, the bad, to the ugly. It got me out of my comfort zone and forced me to see the realities of drifting. Not everyone has the privilege of travelling as a means of seeing the world. For some, the road is their home. They have no one or nowhere to return to when in need of company, or when times are rough. The closest thing they have to family is the strangers that come and go, and frown upon their forgotten souls. It must be because accommodation is so much cheaper to find in the winter that these lonesome drifters resort to youth hostels as a means of survival. I wonder what happens to these people in the summer when the prices almost triple? That’s a question for another occasion, but one can only imagine.