[I’m using the (Un)Inspired Ramblings Facebook page to post some more regular updates and photos in between main blog posts here. You can find it here.]
The trail leaving Bagnols les Bains (913m) heads up and over the Mont Lozere massif, passing La Croix de Maitre Vidal (1445m) and the Col de Finiels (1541m). Comparing these heights to the heights you hear of people riding over in Asia and South America highlights how small these hills really are, but I like to remind myself that Ben Nevis, the highest point in the UK, is 1344m, and theres no way you’d find me hauling a loaded mountain bike up there… :-). At the Col de Finiels I find some tourists who have just stepped out of the cars to take a picture of the sign showing the height of the Col, after the 15 minutes of not very much effort that it probably took them to get up here… Even the motorcyclists don’t truly appreciate the top of these passes and the difference as gravity starts to help rather than hinder on the other side. But I do.
Initially the trail crosses open heathland, with expansive views across the landscape. The colours on either side are vibrant, and the hills are a jumble of different kinds of vegetation, trees and rocks.
As I head deeper into the Cevennes National Park, which astonishingly for an area that only occupies 0.5% of the landmass of France contains about 50% of its plant and animal species, the forest coverage increases as the views over the hills to the south grow.
Descending down the other side of the massif, I pass through some tiny villages, some with more derelict that habitable buildings.
Eventually the edge of the Tarn Gorge works its way into view.
Descending into the gorge, at the end of the day I find the little village of Le Pont de Montvert (‘of bloody memory’), which sits close to the source of the Tarn river. This place has a violent history, being the place that the War of the Camisards between French Catholics and Protestants broke out in 1702, lasting until 1789. Its also well know for the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson passing through with his donkey Modestine, on the ramble narrated in his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), one of the first books to present hiking and camping as recreational activities. Some of my route out of here will follow his trail.
At the campsite on the edge of the Tarn river I find, not only a great spot for a swim…
..but also some of the first people travelling by bike that I’ve come across so far, other than some passing at speed downhill on the other side of the road that I’m slowing winching myself up…
This is Lien and Detlef, from Belgium. They left on their year long trip two months ago, and are also heading to Spain, although sensibly they are sticking to the tarmac. They’re also trying to do some work on organic farms (via WWOOF) in order to learn and develop plans for living more sustainably. They dream of setting up their own forest farm.
The next morning we get chatting in the morning and, despite having only done one days cycling since Montpellier, I decide that its too late to leave and we take a walk along the Stevenson trail in the afternoon. Along the way we come across this guy, in fact, we nearly bump him off his perch as we pass by. He is MASSIVE – literally bigger than my thumb, and I have big hands – and has the HUGEST tail/sting. He seems to be sucking food out of the plant. Any ideas what he is?
The following morning I head on, climbing back up the Stevenson trail on the bike, and then following the Tarn valley through Florac to St Enimie, partly through the woods and then partly on the road to avoid some really rough sections of trail. The views just get better and better.
The Tarn is a popular place, and the locals know how to find the best spots.
Florac is a gorgeous little town with a river running down through the centre of town in a series of waterfalls and tunnels, and with a festival taking place the weekend I pass through. Lien and Detlef are spending the weekend here with friends and I’m tempted to wait for them, but know that I need make some progress. St Enimie, popular with kayakers, is also pretty cute with some little backstreets, and I camp right on the river.
In the morning the top of the gorge is covered in mist.
The next few days seem to involve climbing out of a gorge, crossing a high plateau before descending into another gorge, and then repeating this the next day. I start to think that Lien and Detlef’s strategy of sticking to the roads (which follow along the gorges) is eminently more sensible than mine. Today in particular is going to be a big day. I’ve decided to try to head on up to the top of Mont Aigoul to stay overnight in the refuge that is apparently there, but this will mean quite a bit of climbing – probably 1500m. Things start with a long climb out from the bottom of the Tarn gorge. Its slow, but on tarmac and the views are amazing…
Once at the top, I head across the high limestone plateau known as the Causses. The land is empty and less forested up here. As always the villages are tiny with barely a shop or cafe. This is wild horse country, with a breed of small wild horses originating in Mongolia (the petit chevaux de Przewlski) roaming the land, although I don’t see any. The climb up to the Col de Perjuret is particularly memorable for quite a long period of pushing…
At the end of the day, I pass through Cabrillac where there is no sign of the gite that is open in ‘season’ (just July and August here it seems), and then grind my way up to the top of Mont Aigoul where some walkers have promised me I’ll find a water fountain to refill my empty bottles. The climb seems to take forever and I keep having to stop to munch on some nuts or chocolate. And, as seems to be the case with everything whenever I arrive somewhere in France, all the facilities (including even the public toilets) at the top are closed (as its after 5pm). I spend time searching for some kind of refuge but find nothing open – I guess this is also only open in July and August (rather than just between the hours of 9-5, which surely wouldn’t make much sense ;-)).
The scenes from the top are worth it, but I’m disappointed that I won’t see them at dawn. I do find the water fountain and consider hiding in the woods over night. But partly because camping is expressly forbidden here, and partly because my stomach is not feeling quite right (and whilst I’m happy to shit in the woods, I’m not that keen to have the shits in the woods… ;-)), I convince myself to head on.
So instead, I spin down a gorgeous smooth and winding road for half an hour to find a little campsite hidden in the woods on either side of a bubbling stream just outside Camprieu. The next morning I eat the breakfast of champions: fresh(ish) bread, Nutella and coffee. I’ve got a replacement for the Aeropress – Ortlieb’s little coffee filter holder held in place with some random tent pegs I found left at a campsite. The coffee doesn’t taste as good as the Aeropress, but at least it all packs down flat and light…
I’m using a titanium Honey Stove which goes from flatpack to this hexagonal shaped contraption pretty neatly. It holds a small meths burner and can also be used for wood, though I’ve yet to use it like that. So far, I’m liking it.
The skies today are looking a little ominous. I know that I’ve been spoilt with good weather over the past couple of weeks and whilst the clouds can add some atmospheric moodiness to things, by the end of the day everything is just a washed out, overcast grey. I make it to Dourbies, whose river of the same name runs through another gorge, and stay in a cute little gite attached to a restaurant. The landscape has changed again, markedly, now dominated by these forested gorges sides, cut across by steep rock faces.
Its just a shame that the greyness puts such a flat blanket over everything. I hope that this isn’t a sign of things to come…