Canoeing

Canoeing

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After a relaxing day the day before, we decided it would be a good day to go and do something a bit more active. Before we got around to doing that, we had a team breakfast. Kas was too tired for a run so didn’t bother going, so we sat around the outside table with a selection of fresh breads and pastries from the only shop in the village, and generally contemplated our state of being before heading off for the main event.

One of the reasons we’d come to this area was that the previous year, whilst watching the Tour de France, we’d seen some overhead shots of the race passing through the Ardèche Gorge and there’d been one shot of kayakers passing beneath the Pont d’Arc. We fancied having a go at that. I mean, why not…

Kas had, on a previous run, noticed the cluster of kayak places just in the village of Vallon Pont d’Arc so we decided just to head over there and see what was what. We didn’t expect to be able to get going straight away – you normally have to book stuff in the busy summer season, but the first place we went to offered reasonable rates and could accommodate us basically straight away. Fair enough. For some reason, we were asked to pick up our life jackets and “stuff buckets” before moving the car down into the customer parking area, which seemed weird, but I digress.

The weather was warm, so we weren’t quite sure what to take with us but guessed it would stay warm enough to not need jumpers or much else in the way of other clothes. We stuffed towels and a few drinks into the stuff buckets and made our way around to the area where they keep the actual kayaks. We’d bought a package involving 2 kayaks seating 2 people each. We’d notionally got 2 hours to progress our 8km down the river, which would allow us an hour and a half to chill in the river before getting their bus back home again. All of the places just here basically do packages where you paddle downstream only underneath the Pont d’Arc. Once we got onto the water, we understood why. There are two main reasons – firstly it’s really busy, and secondly, there are rapids that you’d never be able to paddle up.

To avoid repeating the mistake I made in the Lake District in June, I made sure the kayaks we got had backrests for the seats – in June I’d got one without a backrest (they didn’t offer me one) and because I’m a bit on the portly side and don’t do enough sit-ups, I found it virtually impossible to use the kayak because it’s like sitting upright on the floor with your feet in front of you. This requires stomach muscles, and mine aren’t very strong. Anyway, back at the plot, backrests were included and we buddied up with me and Ami sharing one kayak and Kas and Izzy sharing another. This fixed a further problem that we encountered in Catalonia a couple of years back (see Kayaking). On that day we’d tried to even out the total muscle power in each boat by having Ami and Kas in one and me and Izzy in the other. The problem with that line up was that the weight difference between me an Izzy meant that our kayak was sloping a bit, to the extent that Izzy could barely get her paddle down into the water. So this time we went for the most even distribution of weight in each kayak, so the two heaviest in one kayak and the two lightest in the other. That should at least mean that the kayaks were sitting flat in the water. As we are right now that means Ami and I were sharing.

I think we got the hang of the paddling quite quickly. I was at the back so to some extent I was able to counteract Ami’s unbalanced use of the paddle by just going the opposite way to her. Neither of us is great at the game and both of us are strongly right-handed, so it took a while to figure out how to go straight. It seemed to take Kas and Izzy a bit longer to figure it out though. Ami and I were also going faster most of the time.

The river level was really low, and in most places you could easily have jumped out and walked no more than knee-deep. There’s more water in the spring and late autumn, apparently. Anyway, there’s also quite a lot of rocks in the way, which make for rapids. Some of those were a bit narrow and shallow, others had a proper “log flume” moment. Before we’d got into the boats they’d advised us of just two things about the rapids. Firstly, pick a straight line and go at it with confidence and speed. Secondly, if you fall out, it’s best to let the water float you down to a calmer bit and then pick up all your stuff, rather than trying to stand up in the fast-flowing water. That’s what they told us, anyway.

We were all doing just fine and dandy until Ami and I had wha I’ll generously describe as a loss of communication when entering one of the sets of rapids. We failed to decide which gap we were going to paddle straight and fast through, and as a result of us deciding to go for a different line, we ended up side-on with a rock against the side of the kayak. There was fast flowing water around both sides of the rock, but where we ended up we were pretty much beached and couldn’t get off it again. In the process of rocking and bouncing the kayak to get it moving, we managed to unweight it an over we went. Hmmm! Riding the rapids out proved to be difficult because the water wasn’t actually deep enough to ride. My knees were immediately on the bottom, as were Ami’s, and for a brief moment, we were also underneath the kayak. We got out quickly enough but were pretty much stuck. The kayak wouldn’t move, and we could get a solid enough footing to push it or turn it back over again. Thankfully we weren’t too proud to accept extra hands from a nice woman who was wading in the river just below us. She walked up and gave the layak a good tug, which at least dislodged it enough that it moved down a bit into some actual water. This allowed us to turn it over and collect all the paddles before getting back on top again. And off we went, over the next run of rapids and into a calmer bit, where we accelerated along to catch up with Kas and Izzy, who’d shot across that set of rapids without a hitch.

So Ami and I got totally soaked, and our stuff bucket leaked a bit, so two towels and one phone got a bit of a splashing, but otherwise we were none the worse. Funnily enough, we mastered the art of running the rapids after that and we managed to put in two or three real sterling efforts that probably looked really good from a distance.

Not too long after the dunking we reached the Pont d’Arc, and they’ve supplemented the natural slip-off slopes thereby adding some beach-worthy sand on one side. On the other side is a big pebbly beach which is pretty easy to get a kayak up to, so that’s where we went. We’d been going a while, so we were probably owed a break and a drink. It allowed me to dry out my phone, and re-pack the stuff buckets so that all the wet stuff was in one, and all the dry stuff in the other.

After 15 minutes or so parked up, during which the girls both decided to swim in the river under the arch, we jumped back onto the kayaks to finish our stint. The river below the arch is much easier to paddle than above it – mainly flat, smooth flowing, and lacking in rapids, so Ami and me shot off into the distance and periodically stopped for a breather while Kas and Izzy caught up.

We landed at our destination at about 1:50, having taken 2 hours and 20 minutes to make our way down the 8km of paddling. When we got to the end there wasn’t really a beach for chilling at, and nor were there any useful facilities like toilets or a cafe, so as we were all wet and the girls fancied finishing the afternoon in the pool rather than the river, we decided just to jump on the 2pm bus home.

As we were in the period of the year where Groundspeak offers incentives to new cachers in the form of pictorial souvenirs, I was kind of obliged to go out and find a geocache to keep the required one-week run going. After doing most of the caches in the village the previous day I’d left one traditional on the river bridge just down from our village, and there was also an earthcache there. The traditional was in place and the earthcache was both easy and interesting – it was all about the flooding of the river and the geological and climatic conditions that cause it. Earthcache was placed alongside a bridge over the river, and one of the tasks was to go find the height markers on the bridge pillars that are used to measure floods. While we were there the river was maybe 1m deep under the bridge and the bridge deck was a good 16m clear of the water. In the late 1800’s there was the biggest ever recorded flood at the site. At that time there was a different bridge, and it was higher up than the current one, but the water level came all the way up to the underside of the deck, so the river has risen from 1m depth to about 20m, and because the surrounding land is a flat flood plain, the river had widened from 30m to 900m, which essentially meant that the village we were staying in would have been flooded. Madder than a sack of monkeys. The photos here illustrate just how much of a flood it was.

When I got back to the apartment it was most definitely beer o’clock, so Kas and I retired to the bar and sank a couple of cold ones whilst wondering if it was time to drag the kids out of the pool yet. We called them out at one point for a cool drink and a few crisps.

We’d sort of decided to go to the nice-looking restaurant over the road, so we weren’t hurrying. When we got there though, we discovered Monday was their night off. Having already had a beer or two that meant our options were now rather limited. We tried walking along the main road, where we’d noticed a couple of bars, but they all seemed to be attached to one or other of the camping venues – not really “restaurants” as such. We made it all the way over the river bridge before deciding that we were going to walk all the way into town, but also that we weren’t likely to find a nice restaurant any time soon – Monday seemed generally to be their day off. So we walked all the way back again and camped at pretty much the first place we’d passed. They did pizzas. It turned out that they did quite good pizzas, and they also did beer. So that’s what we had, although I had mine later than everyone else because they forgot to put it in the oven. We weren’t in a rush and it’s not like there was anywhere else we could go, especially given that it was nearly 9pm by the time we arrived there. It was a pleasant enough place to sit for an hour watching the world go by.


Salavas

Salavas

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The day started off (for me) rather slowly, as a result of having had too many beers too quickly the night before.

Kas went out to Intermarche in Vallon Pont d’Arc to get some provisions and came back wishing she’d taken someone with her. Not because of the shopping, but because the car park has a barrier to stop people parking in there without buying anything from the shop. The barrier was designed for someone with a left-hand drive car, and our cars aren’t.

By the time she came back she needed a break. I would say we had breakfast as a family, but we didn’t. Various members of the collective drifted in and out without there ever being four of us. It was a pleasant environment though – the apartment was on the first floor and had an outdoor terrace with a table big enough for us to sit and eat, and it had a big sunshade. The apartment block was rigged up so that all the apartments looked out to the back, and hence looked out over their gardens and the pool area. The weather was warm again.

After breakfast there was a general lack of enthusiasm followed by a wave of apathy, so eventually we decided that the girls were going to laze around by the pool, which meant I could go and do the handful of geocaches in the village. There were supposedly five, spread over the whole village, which meant I’d probably need an hour or more to do them.

The first one involved a walk right around the edge of the village heading East – a short walk along a country lane. At the end of the village I turned back in and found the first cache before walking into the oldest part of the village. I’m not sure whether the village is traditional, you would assume that it is, but the overall effect was really rather lovely. It’s composed of narrow streets with buildings made from limestone blocks which come right up to the edge of the street. Some have been “done up” to look quite clean but most were what you might describe as shabby chic.

The second cache was an easy find at the church and then the third proved a little more tricky. Salavas hosts an open-air market on a Sunday morning, and the next cache was right in the middle of it, next to a cheese stall. It took me a little while to interpret the hint, and once I had, I then had to haver around and wait a while until the stallholder went off to talk to someone. I was then able to make a quick smash-and-grab raid for the cache.

The next one was up next to some Roman ruins on the other side of town from our apartment. Another easy find. This was followed by a pleasant stroll along a narrow lane halfway up the side of the hill, which had some nice views back over the valley and the village. The final cache was supposedly next to a well. This one took me ages as I didn’t explore the meaning of the hint in enough depth. Two French lads walked by and asked me if I knew how to get back into the village, so I showed them my map (on the GPS) in exchange for them confirming my interpretation of the hint. I was about to give in but had one more look, whereupon I spotted the cache hanging in a place I’d been into at least four times already. D’oh!

When I got back to the apartment there was still a general lack of enthusiasm. I suggested we go for a little walk over to the market to see if we could buy anything interesting for lunch, but by the time we got there the market was just finishing packing up, so we went back home again. There was still a general lack of enthusiasm, so I took the bull by the horns and made the required drive down to Barjac, about 10 km away, to complete a cache in the Department of Gard. We’d driven straight through here on the previous evening when we were a bit tight for time. Barjac is bigger than Salavas by some way, and seems very typically middle-French. I parked in a grassy field reserved for tourists (on busy days), and walked up through the village to a terrace next to the town hall. There was a very easy find there. Once I’d completed Gard the caching map of France was starting to look nearly like a complete loop.

On the way home from Barjac I tried to stop for a couple more caches. One was successful, but the other, in Vagnas, was not so. It was supposedly a micro somewhere in an ivy-covered stone wall. I think it was probably a fake snail. I probably spend 30 minutes before giving in.

Back at the apartment, there was still a general lack of enthusiasm.

We planned to go out into Vallon Pont d’Arc for the evening, parking in the same place that we had done the previous night. When we got into town and noticed it was full of market stalls the kids’ enthusiasm increased a little bit. We wandered around for a while looking for a restaurant that everyone was happy with, and we settled for a nice table inside one which did some very nice burgers.

On the way back to the car the girls indulged in a bit of souvenir hunting, and that was about it for the day.


Painful

Painful

When we set off, we’d been thinking we might toy with the idea of going to do a parkrun at Toulouse, but once we arrived in Luz Saint Sauveur it became apparent we could forget that idea. The apartment block wanted to do a formal check on the morning of our departure prior to returning our deposit, and the reception didn’t open until 8am.

We still had a long way to travel, though, so we aimed to get to the door on the stroke of 8am and get the first slot in the departure game. We got up at 6:30 and got on with loading up the car, finishing the cleaning, and dumping rubbish and laundry in the relevant place.

We’d apparently done enough to get our deposit back and the checkout was fairly efficient, so we were off at about 8:05. So far so good, then.

We took the road down the valley and through Lourdes and Tarbes and then headed east on the motorway towards Toulouse. Before we got there we stopped for some breakfast at the Aire de Comminges. We tried to do a geocache there too, to keep the “colouring in” streak going. We couldn’t find it at first, which was annoying. We retired for some breakfast, and whilst sitting there I delved more deeply into the geocache description and found some spoiler photos. D’oh! How did we miss that?

Kas took over the driving here, and managed to negotiate us successfully around Toulouse and on the way toward Narbonne before the day started to go a bit pear-shaped. We found roadworks. And then we found a crash, and a big queue, and then more roadworks. The drive from Toulouse to Narbonne took maybe 90 minutes more than it should. This kind of set us behind schedule for the rest of the day. We stopped for a geocache and changed drivers near Carcassonne, but didn’t stay long.

We’d promised the girls the possibility of having a quick plodge in the Mediterranean, so we fought our way through the minging traffic all the way to Montpellier before jumping off the motorway to head for the beach at Palavas-les-Flots. The plan was to park up, plodge on the beach for half an hour, grab an ice-cream and a geocache, and then move on. Unfortunately, plans rarely happen. We couldn’t find anywhere to park, and after half an hour we had to give up because we’d got an appointment in the evening that was time-dependent. So we didn’t stop. We stopped for a cache on the way out of town but I couldn’t find that either, so we just left. We swapped drivers again while we were musing, so Kas was in the hot seat again.

We needed to stop at the Aire d’Ambrussum to get more fuel and take a comfort break, and there was a geocache in the car park, so we stopped for a bit to sort ourselves our. It had been busy all day and we were starting to get a bit sick of it. While we were there, we grabbed some McDonalds to eat too.

From here to our endpoint the sat nav thought it was going to take half an hour more than the amount of time we’d actually got. That wasn’t good. So we took a second opinion by checking with Captain Google, who said we were OK, just, but only if we went the way he said. As we were short of time, we also decided not to stop for any more geocaches, and that left us with a bit of a gap in the “colouring-in” chart.

The route that Captain Google suggested involved driving to Nîmes and then cross-country up to Alès. We followed google to the letter, all the while watching how the changes of route were making the car’s satnav come more into line. We eventually reached our destination town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc at just the right time (6:30 pm). We found a car park and pushed our way through some crowded streets up to a small square with a covered seating area, which was the location for the geocaching event I’d noticed some weeks earlier and promised to try to get to. The event was only open for half an hour, so timing was important. We made it to the event but it was pretty obvious the girls didn’t want to be there, so I did a quick traditional cache around the corner and we said our goodbyes to head to our chosen accommodation.

We’d originally booked in an expensive hotel along the road out towards the Ardeche Gorge, but a few days before leaving home we’d thought that spending five days in a single room (and having to go out to eat all the time) wasn’t our favoured mode of operation. We therefore changed it, and moved to a small apartment complex over in Salavas, just south of the river. It proved to be a small family-run affair that had a totally different approach to the commercial skiing place in Luz. We didn’t need to pay until we left, and they were willing to trust. We didn’t have to clean up the flat before leaving and the swimming pool stayed open until “Meh! When we switch the lights off.” They also had a bar that was open more or less all day, so as we were too tired to do anything strenuous, the girls jumped in the pool while Kas and I sat in the bar with a beer and some crisps. When the girls had done in the pool (i.e. when we told them to come out) they had an ice cream from the fridge in the bar.

The apartment was quite small but the bathroom was nice and whilst there wasn’t much room, it was pretty comfortable. Comfort was good, because we hit the beds like four proverbial sacks of potatoes.


Circular

Circular

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After yesterday’s less than complete walk, I suggested today that we have a go at somewhere which, on the face of it, seemed relatively relaxed and not strenuous. I thought we might have a go at the Cirque de Gavarnie, on the basis that it’s one of the most perfect and spectacular examples of this particular geomorphological feature in Europe. The fact that it was 20 minutes away had some effect too, obviously.

We got up and had a leisurely breakfast while Kas was out running. Eventually we left the house still fairly early, around 10am.

The cirque is up at the top end of one of the valleys that run into Luz Saint Sauveur, and the road up there proved to be pretty well surfaced and fairly wide. It was also covered in cyclists, but that was true of everywhere we went in the Pyrenees, so we were kind of used to it.

The village of Gavarnie is a small settlement that is big on the whole “outdoor activity” theme and is also fairly well catered for as far as car parking is concerned. In fact, the car parks are massive, and I can only surmise that this is because the walk to the cirque is one of the famous “must do” things in the area, much like walking up Helvellyn would be in the English Lake District. They may be massive, but mid-morning on a sunny day in summer, they are still full. Getting full, anyway. On the way up the valley I’d got myself into the middle of what turned out to be a group of four cars that were with each other (I didn’t realise it at the time). Anyway, everyone was going to the same place and I ended up parking second spot in a run of five cars. The occupants in the four-car big group seemed oblivious to the fact that we weren’t in their group, to the extent that one of their teenage members started peering into the back of my car and seemed just about to pick out one of the sets of walking boots. Seriously dude? I think we made the point eventually without too much argy-bargy.

When I started up my GPS (of course, because there were geocaches on the way) it said that the head of the walk, or the foot of the cirque, was about 3.6km away. The first of those km was though the village, so we strolled through in the rather warm conditions and Ami and I filled the bags up with cold drinks and biscuits while the other two found a toilet.

The walk to the cirque appeared to be fairly flat on the map, especially compared to the previous day, and for the first two thirds it certainly was. All the way while you’re walking out you can see the very impressive and substantial back wall of the cirque getting gradually larger. It looks big from the village. It gets amazing as you approach.

As you can see from the photo, the walk up was along a fairly wide and well-travelled path, leading eventually into a bunch of trees which completely hid the start of some relatively steep uphill. Eventually you break out onto a flattish area at the foot of the cirque where there’s a big open paved area and a cafe, which we weren’t expecting. We stopped here and the girls waited for me for a bit while ran up the side of a cliff to find a geocache, as you do.

When I came back we had a brief discussion about what we wanted to do, and the girls opted to go plodge in the stream in the bottom of the valley while I opted for one more earthcache, that involved walking right up to the foot of the waterfall on the edge of the cirque.

The walk up was supposedly a mile or so, but what I’d neglected to account for was the underfoot conditions. It started off as a reasonable mountain path, but closer to the back wall of the cirque it was basically loose and rather unstable rock. It was like walking up a sand dune only with bigger lumps. Every step involved pushing some rocks down behind me. It took me a while to reach the point required for the earthcache, a part of which involved waiting for the GPS to figure out where it was. Close proximity to a 600m high sheer rockface isn’t conducive to getting a good GPS signal. If the way up there was rough, the way back down was positively tricky. Having your feet slip away behind you whilst climbing isn’t so bad. Having your feet slide away in front of you is quite disturbing.

Once back on terra firma I met up with the ladies back at the cafe and we retired for some ice cream, water and coffee. It was reasonably priced given the location, and we sat for a while resting our achy legs.

The walk back was done with reasonable speed but also a fair amount of moaning due to aching feet.

The car was where I’d left it (which is good), and we were soon back down to the apartment and preparing for our evening. One of the pieces of preparation was washing a few clothes, which worked all fine apart from some oik deciding to take our stuff out of the machine and just dump it on the floor.

While we were getting ready there were large amounts of cyclists turning up in the apartment block. There was an event in the village on Friday evening and it seemed most of them were stopping overnight at our place. The event meant that many of the roads were closed off to cars from about 6 pm so that the cyclists could get to it.

We didn’t actually spend any time watching them, as a result of the fact that we had a reservation at the “Chez Christine” restaurant – the place we’d failed to get into on Saturday night and where I’d suffered the grumps on Wednesday too. Kas has made a reservation for Friday night and we duly arrived for our date.

Aside from the fact that they were very busy and the waitress was really overworked, it was probably the best restaurant we used in Luz. It’s Italian in style and we split a selection of pizzas and kinds of pasta between us. I think I had a risotto with chicken and mushrooms. It was well nice. For pudding the girls gorged on their usual things while I ordered a plate of cheeses. Mmmm! Cheese. And port.

We’d done much of the packing before going out, so when we got back the girls had a bit more packing to do while Kas and I did some cleaning. The apartment was one of those places where you pay a deposit against damages and they check prior to departure whether you’re good to go. They did offer us the opportunity to pay €85 to have them clean the flat on our behalf, but that seemed a little excessive. All we really had to do was to sweep the floors and brush the khazi. It was obvious that they sent cleaners in anyway before anyone else arrived, so I guess they were really looking to make sure you hadn’t done a dirty protest or smashed all the furniture. We hadn’t.


Vertical

Vertical

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Today was planned to be one of my “key” days for the holiday – one where I’d planned to do a fairly significant walk with a good course of geocaches. Not sure it worked out that way – it was closer to being another famous near-death experience of a day, but never mind. Here’s the story.

There was a tempting looking caching series walking around the Lac de Migouélou – an artificial lake in a cirque about two valleys over to the west from Luz Saint Sauveur. It’s branded as quite a challenging series of about 80 caches over a distance of 20km. I didn’t think we’d get all the way around, but with sufficient supplies I’dd thought we might climb up to the lake and find the first 25 or so of the caches.

We got up fairly early and were out of the house well before 9 am – it was about an hour’s drive around from Luz, and involved driving all the way down the valley nearly to Lourdes and then hopping across the base of a couple of valleys through Argelès Gazost before climbing up into the Val d’Aste.

At the top end of the valley is a tourist information centre-cum-refuge that gives information about the valley and the various activities that can be done there. We stopped about a kilometre short of that at a large gravel-topped car park at the foot of a very big hill. It’s also the start point of the caching series. The first one of the caches involved crossing a small stream on a bridge and finding a cache at the base of a tree. After walking over and wasting 15 minutes searching, I was finally clever enough to examine in detail on the GPS, and discovered it’s not there. Nobody had found it for the last 10 attempts. Bum! Not a good start.

Anyway though, back at the main walk, we grabbed as much stuff as we’d bought with us – 2-3 bottles of liquids each, biscuits, sandwiches and crisps – and began our climb. The walk up the lake was supposedly a climb of 850-900m on a well-travelled pathway. We’d sort of done nearly that amount when we climbed Helvellyn earlier in the year, or so we thought, and as a result I was optimistic we’d at least be able to get up to the lake and back again in a day. The walking up proved to be pretty hard though, especially for the kids, both of whom were generally progressing at low speed. I wasn’t exactly racing, but the kids were definitely struggling to the point where they were grumpy about it. Not a lot of fun being had. There were caches on the way, but series #2 also wasn’t there, and even though they were spaced at near maximum density of 161m apart as the crow flies, I concluded it was somewhere that crows don’t actually fly.

On this initial stage, each 161m over the ground involved about 8-900m of actual walking on a narrow zig-zigged path up the side of a very steep slope. Each 161m as the crow flies involved about 90-100m of climbing too. That made for pretty tough going. After an hour or so I was starting to think we weren’t going to get anywhere near, and suggested in a less than friendly tone that we just give up and go back down. Anyway, I got told off and we kept going. After a shade under 3 hours we’d managed to climb about 600m and had got to somewhere between cache #6 and #7. We’d come out of “the worst” of the steep slope and were definitely above the tree line, but it still looked a long way up to the lake. We couldn’t even see the dam that holds the lake in place. Around this point Izzy started to have a problem with her feet – blisters, basically – and we’d been going ages. While I was walking on with Ami I suggested to her that we just take a lunch break and go back down again, given that Izzy was struggling, and I could tell from Ami’s regular stops to help Izzy that she’d had enough too. So we agreed to stop for lunch and then walk back down again. The view from our lunch stop was pretty good though.

The walk back down took us only half the time of going up – it was still slow because of the steepness and the zig-zags but at least we weren’t having to push our body weight uphill anymore. We were encouraged by the sight of the car getting gradually closer as we descended.

Once we got to the car we drove up to the head of the valley and were unable to park, so Kas took control of the car while I did some speedy caching. We did another 4 caches as drive-bys on the way back down before driving all the way down to a cafe we’d seen in the morning a few km down the valley at the Lac du Tec, a small artificial lake used as part of a complex hydroelectric scheme and having facilities both at the upstream and downstream ends of the lake. The cafe was attached to a campsite and was fairly basic, but did a few cakes, coffes and ice creams. And it had some toilets.

After ice creams it was still warm and it wasn’t late, so we took a short walk along the lakeshore here and found a beach (well, a bit where a load of rocks had been dumped on the shore to make a platform) and wasted a quarter of an hour trying to skim stones on the lake. The stones were a random mix, and it was quite easy to find broad, flat ones. Ideal then.

The drive back home was uneventful and we decided to go out for dinner again. We walked up into Luz and took a table outside at the Hotel de Londres. I can’t really remember what anyone had to eat, but it was the “usual” selection of French, Italian and American dishes. It was much welcomed and pretty good.

That more or less ended our day, as we’d been up for quite a while. As we were walking up the mountainside it became increasingly apparent we weren’t going to get as far as I’d thought, but on reflection (reflection that began during lunch on the mountain) I realised that what I’d thought we could manage was, in fact, was several steps too far. We’d had a tiring day and had seen some beautiful scenery, so I was happy with that. We just hadn’t reached a lake or done a shed load of caches.


Panollama

Panollama

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Well – panorama, but with llamas, and other llama related puns. “What the actual? What is he on about now ?” I hear you ask. Allow me to explain, in my usual not-entirely-direct style.

We all got up reasonably early. Kas had her grand plan of running up to the top of the Col du Tourmalet, and today was the day of the doing. The girls and me planned to do something that Kas wasn’t, rather than just hanging around until she was nearly there and then driving to meet her. I’d noticed it was possible to walk from the top of the Col in the general direction of the cirque underneath the Pic du Midi de Bigorre along a path that appeared to be fairly flat. I figured we could walk out as far as we could be bothered and then turn around and come back, fairly certain that we’d see some “not available at home” scenery on the way. Kas had her phone, so she could keep us updated on progress and we could make a call on what point to turn around and walk back to meet her. She had enough cash to get herself a coffee, plus a few spare clothes to change into.

I parked in almost exactly the same place that we had done the previous afternoon. When I parked, it was empty. When we returned, we noticed the sunshine had made it somewhat busier, mainly with everyone’s “support crew”, which I guess was a bracket that we fell into too.

Our walk out to the cirque was uphill – in fact much more uphill than I’d thought it would be. I’m not sure whether the 2000m plus starting altitude had any say in the matter, but we weren’t exactly covering the ground very quickly. It also seemed to be rather further than the map had promised. We kept plodding onwards though, around a few “just one more corner” corners. Eventually were rewarded with a herd of llamas and a pretty spectacular view of the cirque, with the observatory above us.

As we were arriving at this point, I happened to look at my phone and saw a 10-minute old text from Kas saying she’d be at the top in 40 minutes or so. That was our cue to turn around, elbow our way through the llamas again, and hot-foot it back. We really did hot-foot it too. The journey back (being slightly downhill, and avoiding any photography breaks) took about a third of the time we’d taken to get out.

We met Kas at the top of the Tourmalet at about 11:40, although it was amazing we managed to find each other. On a sunny day in summer, the top of the Tourmalet is, to be honest, absolutely heaving with cyclists. Dangerously so, if you’re trying to get over in a car. We retired briefly from the throng to grab a drink and/or ice cream in the cafe at the top. Magically a table became available outside just as we needed one, so we were able to sit and watch the utter bedlam of cyclists arriving at the top, congratulating each other and then parking their bikes up and taking some photos. Kas said she’d been congratulated quite a lot after running up, and also that she’d overtaken a few cyclists who subsequently didn’t manage to catch her up. That’s probably quite an achievement.

Having had our ice creams, the next item on the plan for the day was to drive down into La Mongie (or maybe Llamungee) and trip up in the cable car to the Pic du Midi de Bigorre. On the drive down we obviously listened to some music from our favourite 1980’s girl band, Bananallama. Whilst the top of the Tourmalet was fairly cool, despite the sunshine, the car park down in La Mongie was definitely on the hot side – pretty balmyllamy – and also quite full. As is often the case though, a space came free just as we began looking for one. The famous Gardner parking karmallama stikes again.

We bought our tickets for the cable car – one of the rare events where the “family ticket” represented a significant saving – and then made our way around to grab some cold drinks. We’d brought packed lunches with us, but didn’t have much in the way of liquid refreshment. The cable car up was a 2-stage job (which you can’t tell from down in the valley) and it was all fairly quiet and under-populated – no cause for a llama, despite a bit of a swing as we passed the one and only pylon on each stage.

The observatory at the top was a little more busy, but still fairly calmallama. We walked around in the sun for a while before decided to sit indoors to eat. It was quite windy up top and there was a high chance of losing your sandwich in the breeze. After lunch we took a stroll around the deck of the observatory, generally taking photos from all angles. It was one of only a couple of days on the holiday that Kas and Izzy carried their posh cameras out. Even then, Izzy had given up wanting to carry her own camera by the time we got to La Mongie, so I left mine in the car and took hers.

The best bit of the observatory deck is definitely the overhanging metal gantry on the north side, from which you can see the Pyrenees drop away from you towards the towns of Tarbes and Toulouse – the Pic du Midi de Bigorre is higher than any of the peaks to the north, so you get a clear view out in that direction, and at the time we were there the air was clear aside from a couple of little wispy clouds drifting by a few hundred metres below our feet. You don’t get that very often.

By this time we were starting to get a bit tired and the girls were getting itchy and twitchy about their desire to go swimming, so we jacked it in and took a somewhat busier cable car down to the bottom. On the way out you’re forced to walk through the gift shop. Izzy got a stuffed goat, Ami bought a fridge magnet (I think) despite us no longer having the ability to stick magnets to the fridge. We also bought ourselves a new bottle-opener-corkscrew-jobbamajig, partly because the one in the apartment in Luz was a positive health hazard, and partly because we seem to get one every year now, if you can count two years in a row as a collecting habit.

More drinks and a bicycle rotation stop were required, and while this was in progress I had time to pop over to the back of a church in the village to grab an easy geocache. Might as well.

From here we took a leisurely drive back over the Tourmalet and down into Luz Saint Sauveur, taking care to stop for a few photos on the way down. It’s really quite a spectacular view from the top.

Once we got back home, Kas took the girls to the pool while I attempted to do a bit of organisation for the evening. “Attempted” is the operative word.

First of all, I tried to acquire some more Euros, but seemingly tried to acquire more than I was allowed at the only one of Luz’s three cash machines that would take a UK card. The result was that the machine wouldn’t give me anything at all, and also that I was unable to use it in a cash machine at any subsequent part of the holiday. In fact, I also ended up with a problem relating to cashless payments, and I now have a new card.

Secondly, I tried to go book a table at a restaurant we’d looked at on the first night but couldn’t get into. We couldn’t get into it again, so flushed with my failure at three ATMs and one restaurant, I had a bit of a meltdown and just walked out rather than trying to book for an evening later in the week.

Finally, I had to go shopping for a few things, which went reasonably smoothly apart from having to buy them with my credit card.

Back at home, I was still stuck in the “grumpy, sweary, muttering-under-the-breath” setting, and it didn’t really settle until some beer had been included in the mix. We walked back up into town to get some dinner. Kas got some money out of the only ATM in the village that would take our cards and we sauntered up the street and around the houses a bit before deciding to sit at a streetside cafe that offered a reasonable selection of things the girls might try. It was good, even if the menu was limited. Kas had a bottle of locally brewed “Col du Tourmalet” beer, but it had a bit of a top-fermented tang to it and she wasn’t over keen. It was good for a photo though, given that she’d run up the Col earlier.

And so another busy day ended with a stroll downhill back to the apartment and a fairly early night. We wanted to get a good run at the following day’s planned activity.

PS, I think the animals in question might be alpacas not llamas, but I can’t think of any appropriate puns, so alpaca tin.