Day Six: Stage Five
A day behind our schedule due to the storm on day four, we began hiking at 6:30am just as the sun was rising. The first two hours were relentless climbing in 70mph winds that kept blowing us over. At the top, the wind was so strong that we could lean our whole body weight into it without falling over! We kept our sheltered break short, before starting the long but gentle descent to the end of stage five, arriving just after midday. It was far easier underfoot than in the previous stages, but even so it was 15km, and by the end of the stage we were split as to whether we should do a double stage to get back on schedule and escape the 80 Belgian paratroopers that were hiking the same trail and crowding the pristine wilderness. Concluding that it was more important to finish trekking for the day than out-hike the paratroopers, Carla and Diane stayed with the boys and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of wine, beer, and tuna pasta with our hiking friends Alexandra and Mandus. Meanwhile, Max pressed on to the next stage alone, escaping the testosterone of 80 commandos, who were singing their intimidating chants “SEX, DRUGS, GUNS, AND DANGER – THAT’S THE LIFE OF THE AIRBORNE RANGE” during the night, only to hear us reply with our RSM ones: “WE ARE MINERS!”
Day Seven: Stage Six
Without our leader to guide us, we opted for a more laid back 9am start for stage six, knowing it was one of the easier stages. After a late night in the hotel bar saying goodbye to Victor and Lila (some hiking friends who were ending their GR20 experience), we were glad for a lie-in that morning – especially Harry who may have had one too many beers! One benefit of the army men taking over the camp was the boxes of free ration pack snacks they left behind for anyone to help themselves. We got a bit carried away with the concept of free food (the refuge food was very expensive – I’m talking €6 for four slices of ham expensive!) and we started the day with packs multiple kilograms heavier! The gentle climb and descent to Lac Du Ninu presented no problems. We had a paddle in a painfully cold lake and many breaks throughout the day, thoroughly enjoying the Corsican landscape instead of having to glue our eyes to the tricky terrain at our feet. We also found River Tavignanu, and we are convinced it has some link to Diane’s ancestors.
The sun was still blazing in the sky upon our arrival to Refuge Manganu so we went for a swim in the river and sunbathed on the granite rocks. The paratroopers and their huge muscles were still around, so the boys tried to find an isolated spot for sunbathing to avoid any comparisons…
Day Eight: Stage Seven & Eight-B
Having appointed Carla the new team leader the night before, everyone was soon to regret that decision when we were awoken by a 2.30am alarm for a 4am start up the mountain – all because a French man told us that the highest point of that day provided a view of the best sunrise in Corsica….
We were not disappointed. After two hours of relentless scrambling, we reached the summit at 6am while it was still dark, and a dim red glow was visible on the horizon. Also, joining us on our twilight climb was a dog that guided us all the way up – whenever we got lost, we could see his eyes glowing red and we knew where the right way was! We called him Max to complete the team once again. As the sun began to rise, we wriggled back into the comfort and warmth of our sleeping bags and enjoyed the landscape before us, relishing the fact that the hard work was over and everyone back at the refuge would have only just begun to stir. It was one of the best moments of our GR20 expedition. We spent an hour taking photos and listening to Hans Zimmer’s Inception in our sleeping bags before emerging back into the chilly morning air to begin traversing along the arete.
There were some awkward slabs, boulders, gullies, and short scrambles to negotiate, including a very steeply inclined slab with chains underneath a boulder that practically required sliding down on our bums. At this point, Harry sped ahead down to the refuge because he was desperate for a poo, and upon arrival was disappointed that the toilets were holes in the ground to squat over. Meanwhile, Diane, Georgios, and Carla took advantage of the head start on the other hikers and spent many hours sunbathing with Max the Dog and posing for photos in the morning sun.
We arrived at Refuge de Petra Piana just before midday, had lunch, and then decided to push on to Refuge de l’Onda with Alex and Mandus who caught up with us while we were sunbathing. Although only four hours long, the second stage of the day was hard on everyone – the wind picked up and fog descended while we were climbing up to the ridge. But it was the last two hours of descent that were the hardest – we had been walking for 13 hours and had covered thousands of metres of ascent and descent by the time we arrived so our feet were sore from the constant impact on the rock. Upon arrival, we found Max (the person as well as the dog!), and Diane thoroughly spoilt the dog with left-overs from her dinner. In fact, she became way too attached to the dog, and Carla was surprised to find her bed occupied by him when she came back from dinner in the refuge! He was swiftly kicked out and spent the night sleeping in the tent outer instead.
Day Nine: Stage Nine-A
Having started at 4am the day before, we relaxed the start time by five hours and set off at 9am. Since Max didn’t have such a long day previously, he was off before we woke up, negotiating stage nine – the last stage of the northern part of the GR20. Much to our dismay, the dog was also nowhere to be seen, despite us treating him so well the night before! We had a few hours of steep ascent followed by a long but mainly gradual descent. Getting up to the peak was tricky and involved some scrambling. Even in places that didn’t require scrambling, we found the steep incline very tiring after the previous double-stage. On the way down, we found a waterfall with a deep pool underneath so we took off our boots and took the plunge – many times in Carla’s case. We then proceeded to sunbathe for an hour or so, and when Harry eventually suggested moving on, Georgios and Diane responded rather unenthusiastically as they lay back down to sunbathe! We also came across a British couple just before we left, and Harry tried to lecture them about the Geology of Corsica – I don’t think they were quite as enthusiastic as him!
The last part of the day was nearly luxury for the GR20 – an almost paved path leading down to Vizzavona where the guidebook had promised us a pizzeria. There was indeed a pizzeria but, much to our horror, we were told their pizza oven had broken! Nevertheless, we treated ourselves to a meal in the restaurant with Alex, Mandus, and Max.
Day Ten: Stage Ten
We were planning to leave at 9am that morning but it was 9:30am by the time Georgios and Harry had finally put their tent down. It didn’t matter though because the day’s route was easy, and we covered ground very quickly. We could already see the difference between the terrain in the south compared to the north. From one of the highest points reached that day, the Aiguilles de Bavella were visible in the distance – pointy peaks of the penultimate day on the trail and a reminder that we were closing in on Conca. Most of the day consisted of walking through a forest, with much shallower inclines than we were used to. In fact, the terrain was so much flatter than on the previous days that we passed the time by singing musicals, ABBA, Queen, and Eminem. There was a particularly good spot on a rock overlooking a forested hilly landscape, where we took a break and Harry sang ‘The Hills are Alive’. That night was very windy and the door of the boys’ tent inverted in the wind, leaving them with little sleep.
In the next article: tensions rise between the team after twelve hours of heavy rain and wet sleeping bags, the boys manage to get ready earlier than the girls, and the reason behind Diane’s heavy rucksack is revealed! So stay tuned.