Walking Into The Past

Beyond the bustling crowds, the skyscrapers and tube stations, there lies an area so rich in natural beauty and wildlife, you wouldn’t believe how close London is. These are the Surrey Hills; a place I’ve only recently been reunited with. When I was four years old, we moved to Dorking; a market town in the county of Surrey, just twenty one miles from London. Some of my most prominent memories of early childhood were formed here. Till recently, the area remained a distant memory, a place lost in time.

In an attempt to get out of London last week, I returned to the Surrey Hills to walk a section of the North Downs Way. Starting from Guildford, the plan was to wild camp the first night, then finish the hike in Dorking the following day. The trail passed through rolling hills, forest, woodland and golden meadows. I couldn’t quite believe how beautiful and wild it was. I expected something much more domesticated and suburban, but you could go awhile without seeing another soul.

About half-way, I detoured into the village of Shere. I wasn’t sure if I had been there before, but as I stepped into the village, something felt familiar. When I saw the children playing in the stream, I had a flashback from the past. A memory of me splashing around in the water, just like the other kids were doing. Things that I’d completely forgotten came flooding back. It’s incredible how a place can do that; it’s ability to reawaken the past. After resting awhile, I stocked up on water, bought a beer, then left the village and continued the hike.

From there on, the thick of the woodland felt endless. I saw fewer and fewer people, aside from the occasional runner or mountain biker. At Blatchford Downs, I considered setting up camp. That was until I realised the field was used for cattle grazing, so I had to continue walking. I didn’t want to camp in the woodland or forest, so was hoping to find a discrete spot in a field, but it didn’t seem likely. By nine o’clock, I hadn’t found anywhere. As darkness fell, I accepted my defeat and finished the hike off early in Dorking.

It was good to be back, especially when arriving on foot and seeing the town unfold in the distance from the hills above. I grabbed a beer from a pub, then began to feel the aftermath of twenty two miles, particularly in my shoulders and calfs. My parents picked me up and we reminisced over the past on the drive home.

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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.

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.