Travels without Modestine

In 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson bought a donkey, Modestine, and walked with her through the South of France from Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille to Saint-Jean-du-Gardin. The resulting travelogue, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, was, I believe, the first travel writing to describe enjoying nature on nature’s terms. RLS’s route is celebrated in the Grande Randonnée (long distance footpath) GR 70, also known as the Chemin de Stevenson, or The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail. 

Recently, my wife Sue and I took the opportunity to walk GR70. It wasn’t too hard to choose the section we ended up walking – we had once lived not too far from where RLS had resided in Apia. It’s always satisfying to make important decisions on a whim, because there can be no accounting for taste, no reason to justify and no explanation to satisfy. (Other satisfyingly whimsical choices have included climbing the highest peak in the Dolomites, Marmalade, because it sounded like something you should do before breakfast, and climbing Rheinwaldhorn to actively begin the Rhine River – after breakfast).

Te Anau once claimed to be the Walking Capital of the World. It isn’t and I suspect one could spend hours usefully debating which part of France is. France enjoys about 60,000 kilometres of national walking tracks (the GRs) and countless thousand more kilometres of local walking and biking tracks. They are great, with meticulous way-pointing and signposts, and clear, discrete signage. What surprised me was the diversity of travel. We wouldn’t walk for more than half an hour before the terrain, the track conditions, the scenery, the vegetation, or the environment had changed. Unlike trogging up the Rakaia River for hours at a time, the travel was never boring. Our surroundings were seldom spectacular, but it was always delightful, rather like choosing to tramp in the Eyre Mountains instead of Fiordland.

What did I learn? I was keen to hire a donkey, but fortunately Sue’s better judgement prevailed – I observed that donkeys are slower than small children and just as wilful. Small villages in France can make Wairio look like The Big Time and, indeed, only a few were large enough to support a bar, or shop. We found that using Google Maps in thick cloud with a flat-battery iPhone for navigation in a forest can get you severely lost. Because of this, I am confident that we became the first ever visitors to Conzes, a hamlet high in the hills of le Grand-Altier. The road from Conzes out to the nearest real town, 20 kilometres away, was basically a tarsealed version of the Skippers Road, which in itself provided plenty of excitement once we had persuaded someone to drive us down it. 

We also found that if you go off the tourist tracks, you find the locals. On the GR70 we found the French enjoying France; the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage starting at nearby Le-Puy-en-Velay was the domain of the Americans, Germans and English. For little more than twice the cost of a Great Walks hut, we enjoyed hot showers, feather beds, Pernod aperitifs and three-course French cuisine accompanied by Côtes du Rhône. And our packs were taxied to the next hotel. 

That said, we did cheat by going on a self-guided, pre-booked walk. Even I agreed afterwards that this was sensible as finding somewhere to stay and, in some villages, to eat would have been problematic without a great deal more time, French linguistic skill and luck than we possess. 

Tramping on Chemin de Stevenson, or The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail, France; Photo credit: Robin McNeill

Sustainable Summits Conference

Two years ago the New Zealand Alpine Club organised the second Sustainable Summits Conference at Aoraki-Mt Cook. This year it was in Chamonix and a large Kiwi contingent found its way there. The next one is in Nepal, 2020. 

Two papers held my attention. The first was on accidents on the Goutier Route on Mont Blanc, launching a substantial report funded by the Petzl Foundation (Paul Petzl was in attendance). The paper showed just how difficult it is to analyse mountain accidents for just a single route in any depth, even with a tragically large database and masses of reports. In that light, the recent Mountain Safety Council report A Walk in the Park?, which analysed tramping accident data in New Zealand, could never have done anything other than dance lightly over the obvious (see related articles on this issue). Dealing with the effects of mass tourism, and the resulting accidents, turns out to be a worldwide phenomenon. The inadequate infrastructure and capacity we have in New Zealand is by no means unique.

The other paper was from the architect Jacques Félix-Faure, who was tasked to replace the historic Aigle Refuge, high in the Ércins Massif. He explained how he came to realise that he should keep the heritage essentially intact – ‘the bits of wood were important for what they represented’ – and not just bowl the old hut. He understood that mountain huts offer the crucially important opportunity for everyone to eat together. At the dinner table you meet new people, new cultures and new ideas. You can make new friends. That, he said, was just as important as keeping dry. ‘A simple volume hut, the simpler the better’, was his conclusion, ‘even if it isn’t much fun for the architect’. 

I contemplated those backcountry huts for which I hold fond memories and also those barns that the Parks Boards used to build, which I have always hated. If I do another climbing trip in France, the continuing story of Aigle Refuge presents a sufficiently whimsical reason to go there.

Ka kite,

Robin McNeill
85 Sunrise Drive, Seaward Bush
Invercargill 9812

This column was originally published in the November 2018 FMC Bulletin. We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column here on Wilderlife.