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Friday, 9 May 2014

Post 32. Les Gorges du Tarn et Les Cevennes

14th of April. 12 miles, [19km]. Hot and sunny again. I went through the village of le Messegros, bought some food and sat outside a cafe and had a coffee. I chatted to the secretary of le Marie and she let me use le wifi to check my emails. It's really nice to get my emails and sometimes  people make kind comments about my blog, which l appreciate. The villages in this part are very old and interesting. A Flemish couple invited me to lunch, I enjoy having nice food with people and while we're talking often learn useful information about the locality and the route I'm taking.

It's a 1,450 feet drop down to the river
I carried on and stopped at Le Point Sublime, which has really great views of the gorge and river Tarn, 1,450 feet below [442m]. In the morning it was cold and when the sun came over the hill l stood warming myself and watched some birds of prey rising on the thermals and no doubt warming themselves too. I'm 700 miles south of Calais.
15th April. I descended the gorge to the village of La Malene. The road was steep and winding.

Roads are quite winding
I had to wind the brake on hard.

Gorges du Tarn. 15th April
The horse can hold the wagon back a bit, using the britchin of his harness. If you didn't have a brake as well, the weight of the loaded wagon, 850kg, would push the horse too much and he'd lose his footing and you might have an accident.
Down in the gorge it's really hot and sunny.

Elm brakelock, almost worn out
The road that winds its way along the gorge is narrow, there are huge, intimidating overhangs of rock, that almost touch the wagon roof, narrow low tunnels, that thankfully are not very long, just high enough to get through, l'm glad l have a good horse, a spooky, erratic horse would be exhausting to drive along here, there is little margin for error. After 15 miles the horse and l are getting tired, l'm really glad when l pass a campsite and they say it's fine for me to stay. It's 13 Euros, well that's fine, it's a lovely place, l'll have a good shower and sit on the terrace of the cafe and use le wifi. The people are very kind and l'm glad to be stopped. In all the years l've travelled l don't think l've ever stopped in a campsite before and l don't think many would let me. It's the first time l've paid to stop somewhere. I had a lovely nights rest and in the morning, the lady, Emilie, who runs the place took photos and gave me a bottle of the local wine.

Tunnels through gorge, just higher than wagon
16th April. I carried on up the gorge another 11 miles, [17km]. The gorge is so dramatic and imposing it tires me. Again there was nowhere to stop so I asked at the municipal camping of Ispagnac. They were also very friendly and welcoming, 'pas de problem.' They charged me 9 euros, which is fine, l'm glad to stop, the grass is good and l don't have to look for water and l can go up to the village on my own without the horse. I'm the only person at the campsite! Usually the weather isn't so good at this time of year. This year is unusually warm. I've been very lucky to be able to stop at these campsites and it's only possible because there is no one about.
Tarateeno still has remnants of his winter coat.l pulled some long  soft and downy bits off his belly, l measured them, 8 inches long [200mm]. That's how he keeps warm in winter.
17th April. Went through Florac, a small town, climbed 500 metres, [1,640 feet] to an altitude of 1020 metres, [3,346 feet]. [It's almost as high as Ben Nevis in Scotland, the highest mountain in Britain]. It was a long old pull, 13 miles, [22km] in hot sunshine, the horse was tired and dripping with sweat from the exertion, but at the top of the hill we pulled onto a big piece of rough ground and after 10 minutes his flanks had stopped heaving and his breathing was back to normal, he's fit. That's the toughest hill we've had so far. There is a great sense of achievement getting up a hill like that. About a mile from the top l got 6 gallons, 30 litres of water from a spring. When we got to the top l unyoked the horse and put a little water in the bucket, just to wet his lips and rinse his mouth, then when he'd cooled down l gave him a whole bucket.
I'm on a ridge, called the Corniche des Cevennes, it's dry like a desert, scrubby pine trees and rough stony grazing, inhabited mainly by lizards. This bit is a desolate lonely place; with a bit of luck a beautiful shepherdess will turn up with some goats and l'll share some wine and food with her and see how it goes on from there, it gets cold at night up here.
I did read a book once by the writer Robert Louis Stephenson; he described coming up here with a donkey, an anesse, called Modestine, he had trouble to get her to go. Happily my horse walked up here quite willingly without any encouragement with a stick or goad. In the old days all sorts of methods were resorted to, to get up a hill, if your horse laid down in the shafts and refused to go on, you might try lighting a fire under it, we still have the expression today,  'light a fire under it,' but people have forgotten its origins.
I woke up in the morning refreshed, l looked out the window and the horse called a cheery greeting, that's good enough for me. It's quite cold in the mornings, l lit the stove and made tea, scrambled eggs and toast.
Despite his exertions yesterday, the horse looks great and l'm really pleased with him.
After breakfast, l went back to bed and read a book for the whole day, l thought we'd have the day off, the horse didn't mind. I moved his tether a couple of times, gave him some bread and he's drunk most of the water, so l'll head off in the morning. I wonder what l'll find down the road?
I set off at 8am, it's cold and my hands are a little numb, the horse walks along briskly for a while to warm up. In the night a chilly wind got up, reminding me l was 3,400 feet up and the weather can change suddenly.This is really lovely wild country, huge ranges of hills as far as the eye can see. l get to the village of le Pompidou, the villages have a wild remote feel about them too.  l water the horse at the spring. These villages only exist because of the spring, there are no streams in this part . At 3,400 feet the weather can be bad even in April, you wouldn't want to be in a tent. The farmers don't bring their livestock up this high until later in the year. I've been very lucky with the weather, it's been a gamble.
People sometimes confuse this type of travelling with a camping holiday and they think it looks nice and romantic and an easy going free sort of life. Well it can be quite easy if you're used to it, if you know what you're doing, but there can be very tough times too. If you're not used to this way of life you might find it pretty tough, challenging, uncomfortable and at times scary. Constantly moving, not knowing where you were going to stop. There would be times when you felt unsafe and insecure. You have to learn to think differently, sieze chances, be resilient, have the impudence to dare and to leave most of what you learned before behind. If you can adapt to it the rewards are great. It's a life of extremes.
I stopped the night in a big layby in a pine wood, there was enough good grass for one horse. A nice French woman came by and chatted to me and said she had just built herself a wagon and was hoping to train her horse to pull it, it was good talking to her, who knows we may meet on the road one day? I asked her if she could take my water container in her car and fill it at a spring a mile away. This she kindly did, l thought it would be good practise for her too.
My container for the horse holds 25 litres, that's 25 kilos, quite heavy to lift with one arm, and very heavy to carry more than a few yards. If you're 4 stone overweight, you're carrying that all the time, you may feel tired.
Some French people stopped and chatted to me.They asked me where l'd stop the night and were surprised that l was stopping there, 'camping sauvage' is not something most of them would do. If you have a van or camper, stop in the smaller towns, where they have parking for you and a tap, it's safer and more acceptable, l do it myself sometimes if there's some grass for the horse. I like waking in a village and getting a croissant for breakfast.
A bit later some Spanish people came and chatted, they were very kind and friendly, if the people of Spain are like them l would like it there.
Ticks are a problem in the countryside, lt's important to keep your skin covered when walking through long vegetation. Sometimes the horse gets lots of them, especially round his muzzle. I loathe the way they bury their heads into your skin and spend days drinking your blood.
I go past a memorial to resistance fighters who died in the war, interestingly the first three dozen on the list are Germans, anti-fascists,  as well as French names, there are also Spanish and Russians.
St Chely-du-Tarn
I'm often asked how much does a horse drink? This depends on several factors. How wet is the grass, was the dew heavy, is it salty grass beside the sea, how hot the sun is, is there a dry wind, how fit your horse is, the size of your horse, how hard is it working.....? Some horses seem to need more than others. A thirsty horse can drink 3 to 5 gallons, [11-19 litres] straight-away.
A litre of water weighs 1 kilo, it's heavy, you don't want to carry it more than you have to. I prefer stopping places that have water, but if l know they haven't, l get some on the way at a nearby house or farm. Very few people will refuse a horse water, although l have had it happen. When it's raining, horses get enough moisture from the wet grass. One summer it didn't stop raining, l didn't mind not having to find water for the horse, but it was hard to find dry firewood. As much as possible l try to water the horse on the way, it's easier.
How much water does a person need? I generally make sure l've at least one gallon [5 litres], that's enough for washing hands, drinking, cooking some rice and washing up, l can manage on less if l have to, l prefer to have two gallons, then l have enough to have a strip wash and a shave. I'm careful about the water l drink, but for washing most streams in hilly country will do, you usually get a pretty good idea by looking. See what's growing in the stream, is there rubbish in it, is there a farm or village above it, walk up the stream a bit, see if there's a dead sheep in it. If the horse doesn't drink it , it's bad.
Castelbouc, Gorges du Tarn
Sunday, 20th April. I came over the Col St.Pierre and suddenly l'm in a different country, the hill is covered in Holm oaks and l know l'm not far from the Mediteranean. I descend a steep winding hill to St. Jean-du-Gard, l stop and buy some bread then carry on to a bridge over the river Salendrinque, unusually there is access and rough grass to the river, usually there are signs saying keep out, but nothing here, so l pull over and make myself at home. I saw up some dead branches of walnut and light my stove, it's not very cold but it's started to rain. It rains all afternoon, l'm glad, it'll be good for the grass.l get a couple of visitors, nice ones, they chat about horses and as they speak slower here l can understand better, even though they pronouce some words very differently from further north. The people down here seem more forgiving about the way l speak French.
I'm only 600 feet [180 metres] above sea level now, the grass here is 2 months ahead of what it would be in England. There are roses out in gardens, the leaves are out on the walnut, sweet chestnut and acacia, the thyme is flowering and l've seen bamboo with stems as thick as your wrist.

In the last five weeks l've crossed  a range of huge hills, 300 miles of them, and l feel great and elated to be down here. Now l need to find somewhere else to go.