Monthly Archives: October 2009

WHAT THE HAKA? – Facing down New Zealand’s Maori challenge

Ancestor figure, Waitangi

Before collecting our baggage at Auckland Airport, we pass under a wooden archway of carved traditional figures, tongues extended and mother-of-pearl eyes staring fearsome challenges. Next we face down a line of very broad-shouldered immigration officials ranged at their desks like the All Black defence though, unlike Kiwi rugby players, they cheerfully let Australians through.

We’d like to learn more about Maoridom before we leave Aotearoa, and to improve on our sketchy knowledge of New Zealand’s history which currently consists of: moas, Maoris, Tasman, settlers with pianos, Sir Edmund Hillary, America’s Cup, Lord of the Rings.

Our education starts at the Auckland Museum, which stages a Maori cultural performance three times daily. Such events can be very earnest, but this time the ice is quickly broken as six energetic young singer/dancers (“warriors” and “maidens” they call themselves) from the Ruaruka company launch into an eyebrow-raising, tongue-thrusting haka.

The explanation that follows is friendly, funny and unpretentious. For the next half hour, the performers demonstrate deft dances with twirling poi balls, play traditional games with juggling sticks, and the warriors show us how to do serious damage with a variety of hand weapons.

They sing and dance well, and it is innocuous, entertaining, good-humoured stuff, without a word about musket wars or European invaders. Nor is there any mention of the problems that Maoris still face in education, employment and health.

To try to get more sense of traditional life, we spend some time in the museum’s display areas. The Maori Court features collections of baskets, weapons, jewellery and domestic implements. Highlights are the elaborately decorated ancestor house and a 25metre long war canoe, which could carry up to 100 warriors.

Touch screens and videos tell us something about life in the pa (village), family structure and the significance of ancestry to Maori people, and we learn how their language is thought to have spread across the Pacific. Upstairs in a corner of the natural history museum is a corner dedicated to Maori creation stories, well told. All in all, very well done.

Next, to get a real hit of Maori culture we drive three hours up to Waitangi in Northland (the pointy bit that sticks up above Auckland). It was here that the first Maori migrants probably landed over seven hundred years ago, and in 1840 this was the site where Maori tribes agreed terms with the British crown by signing the Treaty of Waitangi.

The treaty grounds, ‘the birthplace of our nation’, are open to the public, free to Kiwis, though foreigners pay a toll plus extra fees for guides and performances. I opt for the ‘Make My Day’ package, which includes a tour of the grounds and an interpretative walk through the surrounding nature.
Meetinghouse, Waitangi
When I arrive for the first tour of the morning, it turns out I’m the only customer, though other visitors join us later. Maori guide Vern tells me the story of the place. He explains how his ancestor Kupe the Explorer first discovered the land of the long white cloud around the year 900, and carried the story back to his native Hawaiki, thought to be near present-day Tahiti.

On the spreading lawns, with great views over the Bay of Islands and the Maori flag fluttering overhead, I learn of the negotiations between the Maori chiefs and British resident James Busby, a ‘man-o’-war without guns’. Busby had a good rapport with the local people, but when the first treaty was proposed the chiefs ‘spat on it’. Then after days and nights of deliberations, they signed up to an amended version.

Decades of warfare followed. ‘Why did that happen?’ I ask. ‘Aren’t treaties supposed to stop that sort of thing?’ It’s a tough question, and Vern doesn’t have a satisfactory answer either. ‘It was a start, and it showed our people had rights,’ he shrugs, ‘but some of them still aren’t satisfied. They want more, even today.’

At night on the treaty grounds, Culture North stage a two-hour drama and light show, dramatising New Zealand history. Sad to say, it’s a bit of a let down. Is it an immutable law of travel that cultural performances staged principally for tourists must leave us slightly underwhelmed? Or is it our own fault for not seeking out something with better artistic credentials?

After all, if we want to introduce visitors to Aboriginal culture, a performance by Bangarra Dance Theatre will be far more satisfying than some phoney corroboree featuring boomerang throwing and average didgeridoo playing.

The Culture North show begins well. The director gathers us at the gate to teach us the protocol. Three rather embarrassed older gentlemen are selected from the audience to be our ‘chiefs’ to face down the challenge as we approach the meetinghouse. Traditionally dressed warriors appear in the light to scream at us in Maori, threatening us with clubs and spears.

They throw leaves on the ground and our chiefs, as instructed, step forward to pick them up. ‘Then stand your ground,’ warns the director. ‘A step back is a sign of weakness and taking your eye off the warrior shows disrespect.’

It is a genuinely powerful theatrical moment. Once we have been accepted as friends, we remove our shoes and shuffle into the meetinghouse, adorned with beautiful carvings, to sit on none-too-comfortable plastic chairs.

The show begins – more hakas and poi dances, but this time performed with variable concentration and skills. The linking dialogue as a grandfather tells his granddaughter the potted history of their people is stilted and awkwardly delivered, and we even catch a performer stifling a yawn. None of which would matter too much, except that we’ve paid the sort of money that would have bought a ticket to a terrific Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu concert.

We clap politely at the end; these people have no doubt done their best, and other audience members seem more impressed than we are. They queue to be photographed with warriors brandishing weapons and sticking out tongues.

Over the course of our stay in New Zealand we meet a number of international tourists who’ve been to various Maori hangis (traditional feasts of steamed food) and concerts, and most have the same response – it was nice enough, but a bit forced and plastic.

So we’re left with as many questions as answers. How did a deeply spiritual people, so aware of their own history and proud of their culture, living on their own land and speaking their own language, become disadvantaged, despite having serious political clout in modern New Zealand?

To find the answers, we’ll have to read some books. The Maori tourism experience has at least sparked our interest. It’s a start.

TRIP NOTES:

Cultural performances at Auckland War Memorial Museum cost NZ$25, including museum entry.

Entry to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is $20, and guided activities and shows cost an additional $12 each. Cheaper packages are available for groups, families and additional performances.
Culture North’s Night Show costs $60 per person.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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TASMANIA, SOUTH COAST TRACK – a walk on the wild side

South Cape Beach below

Camping? Why would I spend money to live in poverty? And when it comes to walking Tasmania’s South Coast Track, it’s poverty plus a week of hard labour. There must be some good reason why I chose to put myself through this. I wake at dawn on a mat on the cold ground, scratch my insect bites and pull on the same clammy clothes I’ve been sweating in for days. I force my legs to straighten and stumble through wet bushes to a clearing. Here I squat over a stinking pit, then rinse without soap in a murky stream. Yep, it’s poverty all right.

Breakfast time. The cheery sign on the packet reads, ‘You’ll love Coles Quick Oats.’
‘Love’ is not a term I use lightly, and I never apply it to gluggy cereal. But it would take me days to hike to the nearest croissant and extra shot cappuccino, so quick oats with powdered milk it is.

Body suitably carbohydrated, I hoist a dead weight onto my back. We’re carrying our own tents, sleeping bags and enough food for nine days. Two of my heavier packets are labelled ‘Dinner Day 7’ and ‘Dinner Day 8’. They’ll be with me for some time yet.

My fellow travellers are also saddling up. Brian the Brisbane fire fighter is intoning, ‘I must become the pack. I am the pack…’ Susie the adventure racer is leading stretching exercises, designed to ease the kinks out of Stan’s dodgy hip.

‘As they used to tell us in the army,’ grins trekking guide Ambor, ‘pain is weakness leaving the body.’ He’s younger and fitter than me, but he must have 30 kilos on his shoulders. Ah, poverty plus hard labour.

We step out of the trees onto the beach, and immediately we’re millionaires. We remember now why we’re doing this. The South West National Park, the largest wilderness area in Tasmania, is as savage, beautiful and untouched as anywhere on the planet, and we’ve nearly got it all to ourselves.
In 600,000 hectares there are no roads, just the crashing surf on our right, the rainforest rising on our left, and behind it the rugged peaks of the Western Arthur Range. We’ll make the only footprints on the sand this morning. If Bill Gates wants to see this, he’ll have to walk in too.

The 83km South Coast Track is one of the world’s great wilderness walks, though due to recent track work and drought it’s no longer the muddy bog that old-timers speak of in hushed tones. Nevertheless, it’s harder going than the famous Overland Track, much less busy and with spectacular wild beaches as well as mountain views.
Louisa River

The terrain varies from button grass plains, stands of melaleuca, rocky alps and dripping rainforest with endemic huon pines, massive swamp gums and 300 species of fern and moss. Much of the trek is not too difficult, and we need to walk just four to six hour days between our lovely campsites, but there are two gruelling eight to ten hour slogs over the Ironbound Range and the South Coast Range. The views from the top are brilliant in fine weather, so we’re told. Coming down the steep slopes is an ordeal in the rain as we scramble through roots and clamber over fallen timber and slippery rocks.

Some members of our party can talk with intimidating authority of iron man events, mountain bike marathons and kayaking expeditions. Young Kai and Anna are doing their first multi-day walk and we admire their guts and determination. I fall somewhere in the middle in experience and sadly lead the pack in age. The South Coast Track is tough enough to keep the athletes interested, but even the novices and the old bloke comfortably stay the course.

It helps to have Stan as our senior guide. His company Adventure Seekers has done all the logistics; booking the light planes which flew us from Hobart to Melaleuca airstrip at the start of the track, providing the tents and buying the food – skilfully balancing minimum weight with maximum taste and nutrition for seven people over nine days.

Stan and Ambor carry first aid kits, an emergency beacon, a GPS device and a satellite phone, but luckily all we need are a few bandaids for blisters.

The guides also do the cooking. Maybe he’ll never earn a Michelin chef’s hat, but Stan deserves at least a Michelin beanie. Out of dehydrated meat, peas and carrots he conjures up Madras curry or Navarin of lamb over the spirit stove each night. Dried orange slices dipped in melted chocolate are a great dessert if you’re hungry enough.

Our track food is the envy of the few independent walkers we meet along the way. The German backpackers from Dresden were hoping to catch fresh fish to eke out their supplies. So far they’ve eaten a lot of rice.

We ford the Louisa River and rock hop over Tyler’s Creek. At New River Lagoon we have the fun task of shuttling across the water on two rowboats. It’s a puzzle how to get everyone over and still leave one boat and one set of oars on each bank for the next group. The solo walker in front of us admits he rowed back and forth five times before he got it right.
Granite Beach
We hear birds everywhere, though we seldom see them, apart from a glimpse of rare orange-bellied parrots at Melaleuca and the ubiquitous currawongs and gulls. At dusk pademelons and a spotted quoll creep around the campsite hoping for snacks.
There can’t be too many places left on earth where you can go a whole week without checking your email or hearing news of Britney Spears, so it’s a bit of a shock when on Day 8 graded track sections and the appearance of day walkers in clean clothes suggest we’re nearly back in civilisation.

We emerge at Cockle Creek, at the end of the most southerly road in Australia. To those camped there in their mobile homes it probably feels like they’re getting away from it all. To the hardened nature types we’ve become this week, the place is a buzzing metropolis. Kai and Anna chat to a family from Ireland and are rewarded with a bar of chocolate that we divide seven ways and eagerly devour.

When we’re in mobile phone range I ring home. ‘I survived the wild!’ I report. ‘Good,’ says my wife, ‘because the dishwasher broke, the accountant urgently needs our bank statements for the tax returns, the car’s making that funny noise again and the toilet won’t flush.’ Welcome back to living in luxury.

Richard Tulloch was the guest of Adventure Seekers.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting There: Virgin Blue flies Sydney/Hobart from $322 return including taxes.

Par Avion flies between Hobart and Melaleuca for $160 one way.

www.paravion.com.au

Tasair flies between Hobart and Melaleuca for $176 one way (min. two persons).
www.tasair.com.au

Tassielink buses operate between Hobart and Cockle Creek 3 times a week for $64.90 one way. www.tassielink.com.au


Park Access
: An 8 week pass to Tasmanian national parks costs $28.


Guiding
: Adventure Seekers run nine-day treks on the South Coast Track for individuals or groups of up to six. Cost $1995 per person including pre-trek kayak trip and dinner, flights from Hobart to Melaleuca and bus return, national park fees, all meals and use of tents.

Three- and five-day Tasmanian treks are also available to Mt Field and Frenchman’s Cap.

www.adventureseekers.com.au

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Filed under Hiking, Travel, Travel-Australia

HOMES AWAY FROM HOME – home exchange for beginners

DSC01823 WHAT WE OFFERED: Amsterdam apartment (level 5)

How’s this for a cheap holiday with the kids – a week in a smart London apartment on the Thames, then a cottage in the Lake District for a few days? Next meet up with a group of friends for a week in an 18th century French chateau, and finally stay in a renovated country house in Umbria, Italy. Perhaps on the way home you could stop off in Thailand and recuperate in a villa with gardener and cook/housekeeper.

I said ‘a cheap holiday’, so your accommodation budget for the family is $65. That’s not per person per night; we’re talking $65 for the whole trip. It can be done, thanks to home exchange websites. The five star options above are real homes, and their owners are looking for Australians to swap houses with.

Maybe we could do that, we thought a few years ago. We have a comfortable, albeit unglamorous place in suburban Sydney, a share in a simple holiday cottage on the Mornington Peninsula and a small apartment in Amsterdam. There might be some interest in one of them.

We found a home exchange website boasting over 11,000 properties world-wide. $65 buys 18 months membership, which allows you to list your home and contact other members. Browsing for non-members is free.

So we joined up, wiped down the benchtops, took flattering real estate photos and wrote glowing notes about ‘vibrant multicultural Sydney’, ‘Victoria’s best golf and wineries’ and ‘stroll or bike to cosy Amsterdam cafes’.

Soon we were getting more email about home exchange than about viagra. We were offered swaps in Mauritius, the Dominican Republic, California, Spain and the French Alps. If we weren’t interested we simply pressed “Delete”, but we replied politely to the possibles, spent hours trawling the website to drool over apartments in Manhattan and Rome, and made up a shortlist. .

We eventually agreed on exchanging with a family in Paris and people with a holiday apartment in Northern Ireland. Paris was a no-brainer, but we would never have considered visiting County Down until Janet and Ken pointed out the cheap flights to their hometown Belfast.

Dundrum 055WHAT WE GOT: Dundrum, County Down, Northern IrelandCamping Redondo Poco Redondo, Portugal

Increasingly chatty emails settled mutually agreeable dates, and everyone promised to ‘look after your home as if it were our own’. Some months later we arrived in Paris to swap keys with Pierre and Evelyn and learn the workings of les lumieres et la cuisine moderne. Their car was packed ready to drive to Amsterdam so after a quick café au lait we bid them adieu.

We loved their charming apartment near Montmartre avec le creaking parquet and le balcony francais. We could shop at local markets and cook for ourselves, and since the cost of living was much the same as at home, we didn’t feel driven to rush to every museum to get our money’s worth. We took books to the park some afternoons, and there was money over in our budget for the occasional chic restaurant.
At the end of the week we left a merci beaucoup note, and backed out the door in our socks so as not to scuff the floor polish. We arrived home to find that the Parisians must have done the same. Our apartment had never been so clean.

The famed Irish hospitality kicked in when we arrived in Belfast. Janet met us at the airport and drove us out through Erin’s green fields to their immaculate waterfront apartment with a spectacular view of the Mountains of Mourne. We somewhat shamefacedly handed over tram tickets to ease their passage to our place and were pleased we’d left them a welcoming bottle of wine on the kitchen table.

Once again, all went swimmingly. They enjoyed riding our bikes round Amsterdam and we had a great time in a beautiful quiet backwater we may never have discovered otherwise.

These were simultaneous exchanges, but we’ve since organised non-simultaneous ones. Guests from Italy and Portugal have stayed in our Sydney house while we happened to be away, and we were able to accommodate golfing enthusiasts from Nova Scotia on the Mornington Peninsula. We plan to visit their places at some future date to cash in our brownie points.

So far we’ve come across no thieves or pigs. On the contrary, people we’ve exchanged with have gone out of their way to be perfect hosts and guests and we’ve tried to do likewise. Any accidental breakage has been followed by a note offering to pay damages, and we’ve always said, ‘Forget it’. We’ve met people we hope to visit again.

Yes, we’re lucky with what we can offer. Most visitors want a place that’s convenient and centrally located and that we have. As long as it’s clean and has beds and running water, people aren’t too concerned with a house’s glamour.

Naturally flash apartments near the Sydney CBD with spectacular harbour views are in demand with overseas visitors. But you may well find exchangers who want to be close to relatives in Penrith or Gosford, in a relaxed family home where they don’t have to worry too much about the odd peanut butter handprint on the sofa.

Some listings suggest car exchange as well, though we’ve hesitated to take these up, fearing complications in case of accidents. People may ask you to water plants, or feed a cat or walk a dog, but most also have a neighbour who can look after the animals if you’d prefer not to.

We leave all the services connected and trust people not to run up substantially greater bills than we would. In return, they do the same for us, though we generally try to use our mobiles rather than their phones and so do they.

You can specify non-smokers, no children or seniors only if you think oldies are going to be better behaved.

NOTES:

The website we have used successfully is www.homeforexchange.com. They’re offering a free 40day no obligation trial membership at the moment, if you’re referred by a member. If you’d like to try it out, leave me your email address in the comments box below, and I’ll refer you and email you a voucher for the free trial.

There are numerous other house swap sites (untried by your correspondent),  including:

www.1sthomeexchange.com

www.homeexchange.com

www.homelink.com.au
As well as the world-wide sites, there are also sites specialising in Australian and New Zealand exchanges, such as www.aussiehouseswap.com.au

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under Budget travel, Home exchange, Travel, Travel- Europe, Travel-Australia

NO FREEZING IN FRIESLAND – a breeze on the bike

Friesland 067

It’s one of the world’s most gruelling journeys, the classic ‘Elfstedentocht’ or ‘Eleven cities tour’. When the canals freeze over in Friesland in the northern Netherlands, thousands of brave souls attempt to skate over 130 miles, visiting all eleven towns in one day.

For those of us more interested in landscape, culture and food than in masochism, there’s an easier way to see the province. Wait till the ice melts, then ride round Friesland on a bike. The sign-posted Elfsteden Cycle Route leads us along designated bike paths and quiet country roads. There are comfortable places to stay, eat and rest the buttocks every few kilometres. The countryside is extraordinarily pretty. The eleven towns are varied and interesting. Best of all, Friesland is flat. Anyone with two legs can roll round the circuit in a few leisurely days, with no need for a flash bike, performance-enhancing drugs or an embarrassing lycra outfit.

We could rent bikes at Friesian stations, though we bring ours up on the train from Amsterdam. We’ve also bought bike computers to measure our achievements, because they were on special at the Aldi supermarket, which we now know is 3.828miles from Amsterdam Centraal Station.

After a three-hour train trip, we clunk on to the platform at Leeuwarden and ride 0.026miles out into the street. Where’s the signpost to Sneek, first of those eleven towns? Signs point to Dronrijp, Wytgaerd and Ritzumazijl, but fail to mention Sneek. A taxi driver directs us to the edge of town where we find a sign with a friendly picture of a bike and the magic words, “Sneek 23km”. We’re on our way!

Sneek
Sneek’s ‘waterpoort’ is crowded with pleasure boats, and star attractions are the skutjes, beautiful flat-bottomed sailing barges. Skutjes used to carry mud along the canals, for reasons unclear to us. In bygone days generations of Friesians were born  and died on their skutjes, but they are no longer working boats, which may be just as well. A picture in Sneek’s Maritime Museum shows a husband and wife trudging along a towpath dragging their barge behind them. They don’t seem to be having as much fun as the modern skippers, preparing their skutjes for a week of racing on the Sneek Lake.

Riding on south, we miss a turnoff and are briefly lost again. A friendly lady riding the cycle path in a motorised wheelchair suggests we follow her. We cycle behind her for 1.562miles through wetlands, to a jetty on a narrow waterway. A ferryman appears on the other side and skilfully pilots a raft over to pick us up. Cost of adventure – 80 cents. No doubt about it, Friesland is quaint.

Onwards we ride to Sloten, our first night’s stopover (36,875miles including wetlands detour). It turns out to be one of the prettiest of the eleven towns, with only 750 residents. Most of them are out in the main street, where an egg-throwing competition is in full swing. You make your own fun in a small town, and it sure charms the tourists too.

Next morning we ride towards the North Sea, passing healthy crops of corn and wheat, flocks of swans and black and white Friesian cows dotted along the canals. The cows aren’t quite as rustic and natural as they appear, according to our guidebook. Old breeds are disappearing as Friesian farming becomes hi-tech, and 300,000 Dutch cows were fathered by one bull called Sunny Boy, who was himself grown from a test-tube embryo.

Friesland 020

We stop for coffee and appeltaart in Hindeloopen, a mini town, with mini bridges over mini canals. It’s home to a curious private museum. Gouka Bootsma claims to have the world’s largest collection of ice skates; thousands of them, from all periods of history and all parts of the world. ‘In 1965 he began collecting a few painted tiles,’ Mrs Bootsma tells us. ‘He specialised in winter scenes, then moved on to skates. After that,’ she shrugs, ‘things ran out of hand.’

The museum also displays masses of Elfstedentocht memorabilia. Which brings us back to that extraordinary Friesian event. Only fourteen times since 1909 has there been is there enough ice for it to go ahead. When it happens the whole country spends the day glued to the TV. My wife remembers watching Renier Paping win in 1963, when the weather was so appalling that thousands of contestants dropped out suffering snow blindness and frostbite. In 1986 the ‘tocht’ had perhaps its most famous finisher, when a young ‘W.A.van Buren’ turned out to be the current heir to the Dutch throne, Crown Prince Willem Alexander. The last Elfstedentocht was held in 1997, and the way global warming is improving the Dutch climate, it may remain the last.

The wind turns against us as we fight our way along the dyke holding back the Wadden Sea. There’s lots of wind here, driving the occasional old windmill, and rows of modern versions cranking out green power. Nevertheless we seem to be making remarkable progress according to the Aldi bike computers. Then we notice they still tick over at a creditable 4,7miles an hour when we’re stopped for a rest. The pulse from the electric fence along the cycle path is keeping us up to speed.
We reach Sint Annaparochie, where in 1634, the daughter of the mayor of Leeuwarden married a young artist, Rembrandt van Rijn. Needless to say, the old octagonal church on that spot is still a popular wedding venue. ‘But in winters we use the new church down the road,’ says our nice lady guide, ‘with the central heating.’

Sint Annaparochie

An unexpected thunderstorm (expect the unexpected in Friesland) forces us to shelter at Hotel Liauwkama near Sexbierum. It’s a beautiful thatched cottage surrounded by a moat, which the Bloem family from Rotterdam restored in 1988. Dinner is a choice of pancakes and spare ribs. ‘The spare ribs are sold out,’ Mrs Bloem tells us. ‘We’ll have the pancakes,’ we say sensibly, and they turn out to be very good.

When the rain clears we ride on to Dokkum, famous for the murder of St Bonifatius there in 754AD. To be honest, we’d never heard of it either, so it can’t be all that famous, but Dokkum is a ‘gezellig’ or ‘cozy’ town nonetheless. Then it’s a 15.653mile cruise with wind behind us along the cycle path down the lovely Dokkum Ee, a wide canal with those skutjes sliding along it and Sunny Boy’s grand-daughters grazing on its banks.

All too soon we’re back at Leeuwarden Station, with smiles on our faces, 154.358miles on our computers and our rear ends a little firmer. A trip around Friesland is highly recommended.

Guidebooks:

Bicycle Touring Holland – Katherine Widing 2005
http://www.cyclepublishing.com

For more detailed maps, photos and accommodation options, written in Dutch but mostly self-explanatory, see…

Elfstedenroute by Diederik Monch
pub. Buijten and Schipperheijn, Amsterdam 2006

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Filed under Cycle touring, Cycling, Travel, Travel- Europe

THE PYRENEES – Hiking the High Road to Heaven

Approaching the Grande Fache


Does it get any better than this? Sitting beside a still clear lake, which perfectly reflects the rugged peaks of the French Pyrenees. Not a breath of wind in the late afternoon. Complete silence. We’re 2300m above sea level. There are no cars, because there are no roads. To get here, we’ve had to walk.

And yes, it does get better, because that little stone building behind us is the Refuge d’Arremoulit, where we’ll be staying the night, and the warden calls through the window that our dinner is ready and will we be drinking wine with that or would we like another beer?
Pyreneen 050
We’re following the HRP, the High Route in the Pyrenees. There are twelve of us; nine Netherlanders, two Frenchmen and a lone Australian. Each of the last four days  we’ve covered over twenty kilometres horizontally and more significantly, over 1000 metres vertically. Some of us are blistered and all of us are tired. We’ve scrambled over scree and been drenched by thunderstorms. This lovely mountain lake and a sunny evening are our reward.

Our guidebook says the HRP is ‘the most spectacular and challenging route in the Pyrenees…one of the classic walks of Europe’. We haven’t seen the less classic ones, but we’re more than happy with this. It passes 800 km along the high ridges from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, roughly following the French-Spanish border. We’re tackling a one-week walk eastwards to the town of Gavarnie. It’s rated  ‘tough’, though not the most difficult section of the HRP. That suits us fine, because most of us are the wrong side of fifty, active rather than athletic.

The High Route certainly is spectacular. We pass along rivers gushing over rapids, climb through dark forests, tramp through snow to cross high cols and traverse ridges with brilliant views over cloud-filled valleys.

We sometimes spot groups of ‘isards’, wild Pyrenean ibex, and numerous marmots, rodents like small, flat beavers that perch on strategic rocks and whistle warnings as we pass.
It’s challenging enough for us, though the route skirts round the highest peaks and avoids terrain that needs ice axes and crampons. This is walking, not mountaineering, and anyone in reasonable shape can manage it. Our packs are light, because we don’t need to carry tents, sleeping bags, stoves or food, except for snacks to eat along the track.

We’ve organised this trip ourselves. Well, I’ll come clean, our Dutch walking companion Kees planned the route and booked the refuge accommodation on-line, but any of us could have done it if we hadn’t been too busy.

There are refuges run by the Club Alpin Francais liberally scattered through the French Alps and the Pyrenees. To an Aussie hiker like me, a ‘refuge’ suggests an iron hut with a snakebite kit and an emergency can of baked beans ‘Best before 1968’. The French do their refuges differently.

These are comfortable staffed mountain huts, open to anyone. Bunk beds, pillows and blankets are provided, though hikers are expected to bring a sheet. There are no private rooms, though we do our best to segregate the snorers of the party.

Refuges serve breakfast and a hot meal at night, with beer and wine available – not good for those of us who were hoping to lose weight on this trip. Dinner is usually a thick soup followed by hearty pasta or rice with stew – ‘roast marmot’ says the witty Arremoulit cook. To follow there are slabs of cheese and on a good night a crème brulee. It’s just the sort of food you feel like after a day’s hard walking.

Refuges are open during the hiking season, from mid-June to late September. Some are quite elaborate buildings, almost ski lodges. Others are more basic, with outside toilets and no showers. All are spectacularly situated by lakes and rivers, and surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

Refuge d'Arlet2For a larger group like ours, booking is essential, especially in the busy July-August period, though we meet individuals who are just turning up, and nobody is left out in the cold. The average cost is about 35 euros per person per night including dinner.

The atmosphere is always what my Dutch companions call ‘gezellig’ – cosy and friendly. The French wardens often speak English too, though essential phrases like ‘Encore un litre du vin rouge, Monsieur’ aren’t hard to master.

Most walkers on the HRP are sprightly middle-aged people like us. The youth are off bungee-jumping, while we’re getting this hiking stuff out of our systems before our knees decide they’ve had enough. Lots of people park the car in a village and walk up to the refuge, stay overnight and walk back down again. Others stay a few days in a refuge and use it as a base to do day walks.

In the morning we drink our huge cups of coffee and smear slabs of bread with jam, then set off again for another day on the track.

The HRP track is well marked with signposts and little red and white symbols painted on rocks and trees, so navigation is no problem, but the Pyrenees are rougher and less populated than I expected. The route varies from gentle strolls across wildflower meadows with a soundtrack of bells from grazing cows, to steep scrambles over boulders and my least favourite substance in the world; rocky scree, which slips treacherously under our feet. We’re often walking above 2000m. There are few other ‘through walkers’ on the HRP in late June, though we’re told it gets busier from mid-July to September.

On the peak of the Petit Vignemale.

On the peak of the Petit Vignemale.


Our fitness level improves daily, and some of us have energy on Day 7 to make a side trip to climb over 3000m to Petit Vignemale, and look out on the spectacular Glacier d’Ossoue. But we’re tired when we finally reach Gavarnie. It’s a pretty tourist town, towered over by a World Heritage-listed glacial cirque, but to us it’s the place with hot showers and cold beer and football on TV.

Next morning we catch a bus which takes us back towards Pau, along the way making a short pilgrimage to Lourdes, where the believers among us pour holy water on their aching limbs, with no miraculous cures.

Direct flights to Pau leave from (among other places) London, Amsterdam and Paris.

Guidebook: Pyrenean Haute Route by Ton Joosten, pub.Cicerone Press (English version available) www.cicerone.co.uk

Accommodation in refuges: www.clubalpin.com

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Barcelona FC – More than a club.

Camp Nou tour

A sport tragic jogs a couple of quiet laps around Barcelona’s famous venues.

Is there any place on earth more desolate than a former Olympic site? It’s been sixteen years since the Barcelona Games, and the party was well and truly over by the time I arrived.

Last month’s newspapers fluttered against the fences surrounding the Estadi Olimpic in Montjuic Park, a boy kicked a soccer ball against the wall under the long-extinguished torch, and a lone jogger and a Bus Turistic passed but didn’t stop.

Yet for two weeks in 1992, this area was packed with cheering crowds. Kieren Perkins won the 1500m in the pool. In the stadium, Carl Lewis took long jump gold and Linford Christie at 32 became the oldest ever winner of the 100m.

A gate was open and it was free to walk inside. The Olympic stadium was all but empty, and is apparently only half-filled when soccer team Espanyol play here. The team of Barcelona’s immigrants is nowhere near as popular as its glamorous Catalan neighbour Barcelona FC, and Espanyol is planning a move to another ground.

Next door to the stadium, the flash new Museu d’Olimpic i d’Esports has opened. I was the only visitor until a handful of other tragics joined me. I was able to check the brakes on Miguel Indurain’s Tour de France-winning bike and I’ve never been so close to a Formula 1 racing car. No-one was watching. If I’d been able to fit my legs into the cockpit I could have gone for a spin.

There was a pair of Michael Jordan’s basketball shoes, displays of boxing gloves and hockey sticks down the ages and ancient and modern cricket bats. It was all a bit perfunctory, though the building was impressive and the toilets very smart indeed.

In the Olympic section were costumes from the 1992 opening ceremony, looking slightly worse for wear, though it was nice to be reminded of the big mechanical runner powered by four cyclists. There was information about past Olympic greats, including our Dawn Fraser. Thorpie seemed to have gone missing, though.

The Juan Antonio ‘The winner is Sy-de-ney!’Samaranch Collection featured presents he received from various world governments during his 21 years as IOC president. Possibly donating them to the museum helped him dispel nagging accusations of corruption, but more likely Senora Samaranch told him she was tired of those things cluttering up the mantelpiece.
Most fun I found the interactive exhibits where we mortals could test ourselves against the stars. My legs were still feeling the effects of walking up a hundred steps to the site (taking the bus would have felt like cheating) so that no doubt accounted for the lack of spring in my high jump and my slight stiffness on the exercise bike.

I was particularly interested in the soccer-coaching computers, with bird’s eye and sideline views of each moment of a game, and a red squiggly line recording every player’s movements. The featured match was the 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy. Unfortunately the computer wouldn’t let me re-run the Zinedine Zidane squiggle to see the head-butt incident leading to his infamous end of career send-off.

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Across town, Barcelona FC had no problem attracting visitors to its stadium Camp Nou. It was even more crowded than the Picasso Museum. At first I thought a game must be starting, but the fans were queuing just to see the famous ground itself. I parted with enough money to buy a season pass to lesser clubs and bought a ‘Tour Plus’ ticket.

We were hustled into an auditorium where we put on 3D glasses to watch the ‘virtual tour’ film entitled ‘Mes que un club’. My Catalan is even worse than my Spanish, but my best guess is that this means ‘more than a club.’ Music blared, the Barca logo spun and we zoomed into Camp Nou in a way calculated to induce instant motion sickness. For ten minutes jerky computer models of Barcelona’s stars kicked a virtual ball around and virtual Ronaldinho slammed home a virtual goal. The house lights came on and we handed back our 3D glasses with a muttered ‘Gracias’.

The arena itself was temporarily closed due to training – heaven forbid that fans should get to see a non-virtual player – so we proceeded up the ramp to the museum. Excited groups of youngsters in club tracksuits, including groups from Germany, Kuwait and the UK dashed past displays of ancient football gear to take mobile phone photos of golden boots in a glass case.

Upstairs was an exhibition, with English commentary, on the club’s Swiss founder Joan Gamper, who in 1899 kicked a ball around on the weekends with a couple of British mates. There were displays of historic Barcelona football cards, Barcelona table football sets, and rather stiff reconstructions of an ancient gym, changing shed and administration office, as well as photos of legendary past players including Kubala, Cruyff and Maradona.

The diehard Barca fans had already been dragged downstairs by the kids, and were shuffling through the locker rooms. When I joined them, after standing in another queue for twenty minutes, I was naturally thrilled to glimpse the showers, hot tub, massage table and whiteboard. A whiteboard?? You mean, Barcelona doesn’t have a computer with red squiggles to show player movement? Could it be that we’d been shown the visitors’ change rooms by mistake?

In an alcove off the players’ race was a chapel, where the boys could whip in and ask for a little help with the big matches. Soccer fan and former goalkeeper Pope John Paul II held a lifelong Barcelona membership ticket, granted after he performed a mass for 120,000 here in 1982. So it’s logical that Barca should be God’s team too.

At last we filed out past the holy ground of the pitch. Had it not been for the security man, I could have touched the turf. Everybody took photos of each other, and for a small extra fee some fans had their photos taken holding hands with a cardboard cut-out Ronaldinho (yes, I know he’s moved on now – this was last year’s adventure).
The Tour Plus ended inevitably with a trip through the Megastore. For just under $150 you could buy a Ronaldinho shirt, or get the kids ‘Ronaldinho-inspired’ shinguards. The guy is earning back a fair whack of his pay packet without even strapping on the golden boots, but I found the temptation to splurge on merchandise totally resistible.

Barca certainly is more than a club – it’s a mighty successful business.

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