In 2013, Daniel Graham and his twin brother, Jake, stepped out of their front door in Bristol, England, and onto the path. Yearning for an experience they would never forget, and with the added incentive of raising money for WaterAid, the brothers traipsed for five months - washing in rivers and sleeping beneath the trees - until eventually, after passing through 3,000 kilometres of Western Europe, they reached the the Mediterranean Sea.
From the experiences gained on our journey to the Mediterranean and the walks that preceded and followed, I have now created Scuffed Boots: notes from a walker, a blog celebrating the world of walking and the thoughts of those who do it.
Head over, leave a comment, send a guest entry and get inspired to walk.
After a year of research and writing, editing and re-editing, I am finally in the latter stages of completing and publishing A Walk to the Water. It has been an extremely rewarding experience, allowing me to relive the greatest achievement of my life, and, for that matter, Jake's too.
The book will be available in both hard copy and online form. Details of its publishing date and how to purchase a copy will be posted soon. If you are interested in getting your hands on A Walk to the Water, or have any other questions, please either comment on the post below, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Jake (to the right of the photo) spent some time producing this special array of video diaries, scenic footage and photographs, accompanied by some splendid songs. Click on the link above the photograph and follow our adventure as it happened. The film is presented on Jake's photography page for those interested in exploring further.
Four weeks after our toes felt the Mediterranean Sea I sat
at my desk, glancing every now and then through the sash window in my room. It
was drizzling. Surrounding me were piles of books, diaries, notes and
photographs from our trip. I was in a particularly decisive mood and had spent several
hours gleaning as many facts and figures from the materials in front of me as
was possible. As my bottom began to numb from the hard wooden chair I deemed it
time to stop. So, here are the results.
– 130, beginning April 14th 2013, ending August 21st 2013.
walked - 2,842.9km(as the crow
flies, Bristol to Menton is 1000km).
taken – Danny; 5 million, Jake; 5.1 million (because his legs are one
centimeter shorter than mine).
countries – 8; England, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Luxembourg, France,
Switzerland and Italy.
We packed our bags for the last time in the dim pre-dawn light and left Sospel. As the boulangerie ovens burnt strong, the leaves of the plane trees played with the warm Mediterranean breeze.
Once above the town, we ate a box of Chocolate Noisettes and watched the sun ripple across the terracotta roof tiles. The path climbed by elderberry, apple, blackberry and plum, then fell into a deep forest of holly, pine and beech, clad with hugging ivy. Mountains gave way to hills. We picked lavender and margerets and strung them to our packs before reaching our final col. Six million steps after leaving our front door we sat on the grass and looked down onto the Mediterranean sea. We were still 1,000 metres above sea level, a fact felt as we slipped down the rocky path towards Menton. To the east was the Italian coastline, and to the west lay Monaco; the grandeur of Monte Carlo rolled into the sea where million dollar yachts left wakes of wealth.
'Menton, 1hr', read a sign. We began to run, a suggestion of the track gradient, but more notably our excitement. Houses began to appear and soon we were catching glimpses of azure through the alleyways. We emerged onto the Promenade Reine Astrid and made for a crested moon of beach, small and stoney, where the waves met our toes. As the water lapped over my shoulders I felt weightless.
As Jake's stomach cramps faded and his bowels fortified, the baton of illness once more was passed back to me. We had ran out of both toilet paper and Imodium, a recipe, I assure, for disaster. Via various tenuous links, Jake had miraculously acquired a connection in the local hospital, where an angel was waiting for him with eight sachets of magic powder.
On our second day in St Etienne we ambled amongst the market stalls, taking the rare opportunity to buy fruit and vegetables, which we ate as we poured over the forty-first, and final, map of our journey.
Eagerness saw us find the path as morning broke. We climbed zigzags to the modern ski town of Auron, where we sat on a bench amongst a host of music-blaring shops and eateries: Free Style, Point Break and my personal favourite, The White Grouse Pub. I ate far too many banana flavoured sweets as our feet took us briskly away from Auron and over the Col De Bianon. Derelict stone farmhouses, filled with lavender, rose bushes and untamed raspberries, led us down to the village of Roya, where children played in the dirt, and grass and clothes hung from drooping washing lines. We set up camp by a bustling torrent. I picked grass seeds from my socks, noting how the previously mundane had become, dare I say it, habitually enjoyable.
Jake had spent the night sharing his pillow with a beautifully green caterpillar that stretched lethargically when we woke. It was the 14th August and our granddad's eightieth birthday. Ted, undeniably, was our inspiration. We discussed his feats whilst steadily ascending to the Col De Collette, where a possible view of the Mediterranean Sea was scarpered by a thick haze. A flock of sheep jangled in the valley below, diverging into lines, like a drop of paint blown through a straw.
The day was beginning to draw to an end, when we bumped into 'Spiritual', a character we had met several times over the previous two weeks. He held out a hand and offered me a stone, more specifically a piece of dolomitic limestone from the Hanging Valley in which we had just passed through. ''It's for the heart'', he gestured. Having snapped our toothbrushes in half several months earlier in a bid to reduce weight, it was difficult for me to drop the weighty stone into my side pocket, but I figured an unhealthy heart would be heavier. We pitched in a dry river gully, which, as the thunderstorm hit, became rather more wet, provoking the ridiculous visual of me scaling the steep forest slope with a tent over my head in the drizzling rain in search of flat ground.
The village of Raure, perched precariously onto the forested walls of La Vallee de la Tinee, was magical, not only for its thirst-quenching lavoir, but for its friendly locals, its loaded flower boxes and its shuttered windows. Deep in the valley's trough I felt a wave of nostalgia for England - oak, apple trees and blackberries - but was soon reminded that home was far from close by, as trees of fig, cherry, olive and pomegranate bowed across the path.
St Dalmas proved to be one of the most poignant junctions of our journey thus far; we were to diverge away from the GR5, a path that we had been treading for a quarter of a year, and instead join the GR52, a more raw and rugged path, that took us back northwards. After a night camped amongst bilberry and juniper shrubs, labyrinthed by deer tracks, our route swung to the east. Mushrooms of all shapes and sizes began to appear, some like cups of cappuccino on stalks, others like flattened peaches, and one species, whose purple concave hats made me think, quite awfully, of an inverted baboon's bottom. We diverted briefly from the GR52, stepping foot in Italy, courtesy of the Col De Fenestre, then the following morning broke through the Pas De Mont Colombe, a shoulder-wide gap in the ridgeline, 2,500 metres up, that revealed a show of radiance as beams of hazy light shot across the valley like an asymmetric kaleidoscope.
We passed a lake drifting with ice, a proud bouquetin and a young German boy who sang 'Survivor', by Destiny's Child, at the top of his voice. Who could blame him? As we climbed through the Baisse De Valmosque, I noted my hunger. Our bodies were craving 5,000 calories a day, but were only getting 2,000. With relish, we ate jam sandwiches whilst looking down into the Vallee De Merveilles, our wildest scene yet. Huge chunks of angled rock, like piles of lego, dusted purple, green and red, lay on the valley slopes.
Our final night of wild camping was spent on a col swamped with mist and cloud. By morning the skies had cleared and we watched the sun rise over the eastern Alps. A daddy long-legs strode across a tangle of brambles. The walk to Sospel took us down to 350 metres, the closest we had been to sea level in five weeks.
The Bee Gees played whilst I brushed my teeth in front of a mirror. My lips had cracked from the sun and wind, and on my chin sat a bird's nest of hair. We left Modane up a steep, needled path, appreciative of the fading sound of the town. I noted Jake's composed, regulated breathing compared to my open mouthed, gormless expression, which allowed air to come and go as it pleased, and flies, for that matter. Just past the tiny hamlet of Les Herviors, whose gardens were coloured with pastel-yellow foxgloves, Jake ground to a halt. The vaseline applied earlier in the day had done little to reduce the friction between thighs and berries (if you know what I mean). Thus, in an act of experimental desperation, Jake found himself taping something other than his toes. For those interested, it seemed to do the trick and, yes, we have applied for a patent on the design. We gained 1,200 metres then ate jam sandwiches whilst watching a cyclist undress to his tan lines, before washing himself with devoted enthusiasm for what must have been half an hour. We left the splashing gentleman, soon cresting the Col de la Vallee Etroite, where a more rugged, scree dominated view took our eyes. An old lady stepped by as we rested, "Bon journo". This, it seemed, was an Italian valley. That night we slept by a flume of cascading water over quartzite.
In the days that followed we pushed south through forests of larch, windswept cols and prairies thick with tussocks of grass, like the manes of a hundred sleeping lions. On the Col de la Lauze we looked west through a frame of two mountains. Crows flew the valley, doubling their numbers with shadows that matched their owners' acrobatics. Through a particularly clement valley my unintentional weight loss programme finally got to me as the map case, which used to fit snuggly between my arm and body, slid out for the umpteenth time. "Fucking map", I raged at the inanimate object that, to be fair, took the critique on board like a true professional.
Our Modane food supplies were running low - we squashed breadcrumbs between thumb and fingers and dipped the unconsolidated structure into a pot of jam before rushing it mouthwards. Our arrival, therefore, into the medieval town of Briancon, which boasted both ancient forts and not-so-ancient supermarkets, was all the more welcome. We ambled the bunting -clad, cobbled streets and then checked into the wonderfully cheap Pension de Ramparts, where a sign forbidding eating in the room was contradicted impressively with the provision of our own kettle and microwave. When I returned from the shop, Jake revealed, through words as opposed to the more visual option of physical matter, that he had been vomiting. He spent the day in bed and the following day in considerable discomfort as we crossed over the Col de Ayes. In fact, it was not until we dropped our bags on the south side of the Col that Jake finally showed a smile following a mountain -splitting trump. "I have been waiting five hours for that!".
We had been promised bad weather by a "meteo" report slapped on the window of a closed Office D'Tourisme. The prediction came to fruition as we rounded a bulbous crest to strong winds that blew the hat off my head. White dust swirlled across the path from the crumbling Ravine De Ruin Blanche below and conifers slouched at their bases, as the gale played their woodwork like an eerie orchestra of pipes. When the rain came it didn't stop for a day and a night.
I unzipped the tent the following morning to valley walls awash with bands of cloud. A lack of resupply points over the following one hundred kilometres left our packs filled with four days' worth of food. To accompany, Jake was still carrying the heavy weight of illness. We were thus grateful for the magnificient Ubaye Valley and the Parc Nationale De Mercantor that distracted our tired minds. We swam, as bare as the day we were born, in the turquoise Lac D'agnel, where unsuspecting walkers diverted their eyes. A golden eagle soared and the chamois scrambled along the scree.
With just ten days of our walk remaining, we lay inside the tent, pitched (with permission) on the grass of a cemetery. Starring at the tent ceiling I began characterised our bed-sharing insects. Zany Zac appreciated personal space, Nostalgic Nigella lived forever in the past and Timid Tina had joined a dating agency in a bid to improve her self-confidence. As I drifted off to sleep I heard Jake blasphemise firmly at Tina; her new found confidence had put her dangerously close to a hand not afraid to swot.