Today’s destination was back up into the mountains – the Cirque de Gavarnie – where the longest waterfall in Europe (240m high) cascades off the mountain into space, encircled by 11 x 3,000m peaks. The ‘cirque’ is a horseshoe shaped escarpment with a total of 17 waterfalls cascading down. From a distance it doesn’t look big, but when we actually started walking the 5 kilometres in and you saw the tiny specs that were people, then we knew how big it was. The cloud and mist had settled on top of the mountains like a big woolly hat so the true height of the peaks above the waterfalls couldn’t be captured on our cameras.
The walk up to it was diverse with open grassy areas and silver birch forests. It drizzled on and off, so sometimes the path was quite good, and other times rocky and slippery – especially as we didn’t have the right shoes for the day. It was also quite cold so the long walk and climb also helped keep us warm. We had intended to reach the base of the main waterfall but Heather stopped at one of the large rocky creeks once we actually reached the cirque because she was worried about the mist setting in, a light drizzle starting, we had no umbrellas, mobile phones or food, no water, – we might die.
I had 3 other walkers (or ‘randonneurs’ as the French call them) walking with me dressed in all their walking kit, sticks, and bright red waterproof jackets etc) – I was on my way! Sir Edmund Hillary eat your heart out! But then I turned to see Heather with arms whirling like a windmill at me, gesticulating violently to come back. Would Mrs Hillary have done that to Sir Edmund? I think not. But as she was standing with a couple of other people, I had a sudden thought that maybe they could see something looming that I couldn’t, or word had come through that an avalanche was imminent. So I returned to be told that bad weather was setting in. We headed back through light rain, then the light rain turned into a downpour. Heather said ‘I told you so.’ Fortunately there was a shed we’d spotted on the way up which we managed to open and shelter in until it lightened back to a drizzle again for the rest of the way.
Some gateau Basque and hot chocolate at base camp warmed us up a bit (a little café actually, with beaucoup des mouches). Then it was off home via Cauteret, a larger town midway up in the mountains near us, famous since 1843 for its thermal springs with healing qualities. It was still drizzling and we were tired so didn’t dally. It has kept its past elegance and is evidently a great spot for winter skiing.
On the way home we came past a cordoned off section of the road where we had driven up in the morning. A slip had occurred undeneath it… Another spooky reminder of how precarious and dangerous the combination of landscape and weather can be here.
Tina and Heather