Border crossings of the Balkans

The Peaks of the Balkans trail has been on my wish list for a while. It is a cross border trail which links Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania – all countries I have visited before and very much enjoyed.

It’s been a busy year, so I haven’t had much time to plan, so I lazily outsourced all the planning (including guest houses, private transfers, and border permits) to the excellent team at BN adventures. So I just had to roll up to Pristina airport, walk to the Best Western next door for the night, and then get picked up for the transfer to Kuqishte

Day 1 Kuqishte (Kosovo) to Babino Polje (Montenegro) – 17km 1150m ascent

The 2 hour ride to the trail head at 7.30 was in a very authentic Kosovan car with one wobbly wheel and a driver who texted and drove at the same time.   We stopped in a bar half way for an espresso that put hairs on my chest, and he dropped me at the restaurant Te liqeni at 9.30 at 1400m

I am very unfit and I realised I hadn’t hiked at altitude for a good 12 months. I was completely out of breath in about five minutes.  But I’m stubborn so I aimed to walk slowly enough that I could keep going without stopping.  (That was very slow).  I reached Liqeni I Kuqishtes (the lake) after about an hour and c. 450m of straight up and disturbed a handful of local skinny dippers and sat in the sun and ate my breakfast sandwich.  

Liqeni i Kuqishtes

They were my last humans for several hours as I climbed further up to the second lake – Madhe- which had dried up.   From there it was more straight uppedness to the high pass at 2250m at Qala e Jelenkut.  I confess I ran out oxygen about 70m from the top so collapsed on the ground and made a coffee and had a muesli bar

The pass was stunning and it was followed by a stunning ridge walk along the Montenegrin and Kosovan borders through red autumn foliage and some lovely fluffy white plants passing under Maja e Bajrakut .

Love these fluffy cotton things

After a few more hours I passed over Zavoj pass.  There were five soldiers having a nap at the pass so I kept going and stopped for a snack a bit further on.  Later down I took a wrong turn and met them as I was doubling back and they directed me to the right path and stayed with me chatting to me in odd English for 20 minutes.   Ten years ago I would have been slightly put off by having five armed me with guns escorting me down a hill, but these days I put it down as free entertainment

Near the Zavoj Pass

I made it down to the valley where I had the misfortune to run into to sheepdog bringing his sheep in and I was firmly shepherded with barks at my bum off the path so I had to take a detour. I arrived in Babino to the lovely Eco Lodge Hrid where they shepherded me into the kitchen and installed me next to the fire with a cup of tea. I had the whole place to myself and was in a bunk room for 4 with a private bathroom. Dinner was an excellent soup, chicken, loads of veg and lots of bread, with homemade lemonade. I was finished by 7pm and in bed asleep by 8pm

Day 2 – Babino Polje to Plav (Montenegro) – 20km 720m ascent

Eco had asked if I could sort my own breakfast this morning, as I was the only resident and he was a bit ill.  So I had the run of the kitchen and had egg sandwiches and two coffees.  I had made myself lunch out of my leftover dinner last night (with Eco’s blessing as I didn’t want to waste the food).  I hid the keys as I left, and marvelled at how kiwi things were here.  There aren’t many places in the world someone would leave you with keys to their restaurant.

Today’s climb up to Hridsko Jezero (the deepest lake on the trail) started nice and gently with a forested 4wd track up to the tiny village at Katun Bajrovic.  I was passed by an elderly couple who stopped and tried to give me a lift (I love locals who wonder why anyone would hike up a hill if they could afford a car) 

Katun Barjovic

From Katun Barjovic it was a stunning hike up the hill to the Jezero lake with the early morning frost cracking under my shoes and the sunlight flickering through the red and yellow autumn leaves.   

Jezero Lake

I had morning tea at the lake and took loads of photos and then clambered over the rocks to climb up to the pass at Veliki Grid.   From there it was an easy meander down another 4wd track to a mountain hut, and then a short hop up to a grassy saddle with views over to Visitor.   I sat in the sun, had a coffee and a sandwich and cleared my messages as I had my first signal in two days.

It was a lovely forested path if a bit steep, rooty and pine needly in places down past several farm houses in Katun Treskavicka.  From there it was an easy stroll on a 4wd path for a couple of hours into Plav.  The farms are immaculately kept, and I love the Montenegrin hay bales. 

I reached Plav in the hot sun at 2.30pm.  It was very sunny, and I was in shorts.  I remembered as I arrived in town that no-one in Montenegro wears shorts, especially not in conservative Muslim villages.  Oh well.  I stopped by the Franca supermarket for some supplies (as this is the last place on the trail with a shop) and then headed to the Hana Guest-house.  Hana is a character and forced her kids to speak English with me.  The house is spotless and I had a wonderful hot shower.  Dinner was another enormous meal so I used some of it to make lunch for tomorrow (i hate wasting food). And in bed by 9pm.

Day 3 – Plav to Vusanje (Montenegro) – 21km 840m ascent

Hana made me an awesome breakfast, including fried bread (which is one of my favourite Māori foods, which I wasn’t expecting in Montenegro – delicious) and homemade bread, fried peppers and cheese, homemade jams, two eggs, bread, and a few varieties of cheese and some turkish coffee. I hitched a ride to the end of the asphalt road which saved me about 5km of walking and 300m of ascent, staring at 1300m. 

From there it was a long steady climb up 4wd tracks to warm my legs up for the first few km until we hit 1600m and then a nice path weaved through the forest for another few km until arriving at a lovely meadow where I stopped for some lemon squash and a bit of fried bread with jam and local cheese.   

Then it was a pretty hairy and unpleasant steep scramble up the side of Bajrak peak which was poorly marked and very slippery.  I did a lot of it with both hands on the ground. I stopped a few times to cling to the side of a tree to catch my breath, but then had to force myself to restart – I really hate heights. 

Vrh Bora summit at 2106m

The views at the top of Bajrak (2047m) were stunning over to the Borit pass and down the Grbaja and Ropojana valleys, with stunning mountains.   Then there was a lovely ridge stroll for a few km through red foliage, and I disturbed a young deer.  I arrived at Vrh Bora (2106m) for even better views at noon, with a stunning view to the Prosllopit Pass.   It was very sunny, so I took my sweaty shirt off to dry and had a sandwich and a coffee.   A couple of hikers surprised me after about 20 mins, but I heard them coming in time to put my shirt on. 

Views up to Prosllopit pass

I then meandered down through rocky karst, passing dry lakes and walking through forest so yellow and red it was like it was on fire.  The trails were lovely and well marked (although I did fall and skin my knee).   I stopped at the spring for a while to let some sheep get ahead of me, I wasn’t too keen to run into another sheep dog. 

I arrived at Vusanje around 3pm to be met by an elderly Montenegrin gent on horseback who chatted to me for a while (didn’t understand a word), and then I found the wonderful Vucetaj guest-house – the best one yet – with a little chalet and a double bed (luxury after two days of single bunk beds).  I took advantage of the sun and washed my stinky kit. 

The views from my room down the valley are stunning and I can hear gunshots ringing out – so someone must be hunting. The family cooked me another epic dinner – lamb chops, paprika potatoes and peppers and veg, all grown and raised by them, and they lit me a fire as the dining room was outside. The hospitality here is immense, it isn’t fancy but the people are lovely, hard working and wonderfully warm. I was in bed by 8pm after my late 6.30pm dinner 🙂

Day 4 – Vusanje (Montenegro) to Theth (Albania) – 21km 1110m ascent

My lovely hosts had lit me a fire for my solitary breakfast with grilled peppers, fried eggs, sheeps cheese, fresh bread, homemade jam and turkish coffee. What an excellent way to start the day. The weather was forecast to turn but I was hopeful that the ominous grey clouds would stay just cloudy rather than dump rain on my head.

The trail starts gently, meandering up through the Ropojana valley. The views were stunning with vast karst cliffs on either side of the valley – it is apparently the craggiest part of the Accursed mountains. I stopped to look at the famous Oko eye spring but it had dried up.

Ropojana Valley

After about an hour, the trail left the 4wd track and meandered up to the forest to a dried up seasonal lake with more stunning rock faces on either side. After the lake, the trail meanders up a mule track and enters into Albanian territory – you can tell as there are lots of Hoxha bunkers beside the trail. This entire zone was a no go area during communist times, so it is nice to be able to hike it now

I had my wildlife encounter of the day – almost standing on a 50cm long black snake until I realised what it was, and swerved. The rain came and went, and I did stop a couple of times under the trees for some coffee.

Seasonal Lake

I ran into a young Albanian and his mule after the Fusha meadow, who was ferrying hiker bags from the road end at Ropojana to the other side of the pass near Theth. At least that gave me confidence that the apparently steep and hairy path down the other side of the pass was traversable by a mule, so I should be fine.

After a couple of false summits, and passing the stunning valley with the Liquni i Pejes lake, I made it to Qafa e Pejes at 12.15. The views down to Theth were spectacular in spite of the rain

View down to Liqeni i Pejes lake from Qafa e Pejes

Dropping down from the pass was a gruelling 700m drop on a steep gravelly (if mule approved) trail. I met Steve and Simona on their way up from Theth on a day hike – Steve was a kiwi so we had a chat for 15 minutes (his brother was born in the town where my parents ran a pub – only in NZ).

I eventually made it down to the teahouse at the valley head after about 90 minutes so I stopped for some chips and Lemon soda and a chat with some german hikers. The rain picked up, but I couldn’t be bothered putting my rain poncho on, so I just put some music on and walked fast for the final 5km (overtaking some bedraggled twenty something hikers with umbrellas and plastic sacks over their packs).

I arrived at the Bujtina Polia guesthouse (somewhat inconveniently 1.5km on the other side of the village but next to the famous church) and sat by the fire for a few hours catching up on email.

Dinner was another epic feast – a tureen of cauliflower soup, bread for four, a platter of hot and cold salads (three types of cheese, and a cheese pie, and three types of beetroot and fried potatoes, peppers and aubergines, and some chicken), and then fruit. It would be impossible to eat half of what they give you

Day 5 – Theth to Valbone (Albania) – 20km 1070m

Day 5 take one I actually spent watching movies, drinking tea, reading books and looking out the window at the rain torrenting down. I was up, packed and ready to go at 7.30 and downstairs for breakfast, and it was pissing down with rain with limited visibility. The hike to Valbone is apparently the best on the trail, so I decided to wait out a day in the hope of better weather.

So, Day 5 take 2 – There was reasonably visibility but quite a lot of cloud cover, so I wasn’t optimistic about seeing anything from the pass. But my legs and lungs are in much better shape than Day 1, so I enjoyed the climb up to the pass. Two dogs accompanied me from the hotel (my fault for nicking sausages from the breakfast buffet and sticking them in my bag for lunch later). Another dog joined about 3km from Theth. And then I picked up a fourth dog about 20 mins below the pass. I was quite a sight trailing up the hill with my entourage. I met a few Albanian’s hiking and they were most amused.

It was bloody freezing at the pass, so I rugged up and hoofed down the hill to Simon’s cafe, where I sat by the outside fire and had an excellent Albanian coffee. Hauling myself away from the fire was quite challenging, especially as the rain started.

The final few kms into town were still lovely if a bit soggy and viewless. The trees were nice to look at and I arrived at the lovely Kol Gjoni Guesthouse around 2.30pm. The nice man asked if I wanted a single room rather than sharing, and I said ‘yes please’. He showed me a room, and I asked if he had another one with it’s own bathroom (I am so high maintenance). He umm-ed and ahh-ed, and seemed embarrassed to let me know i could have the more spendy room, but it would cost me a princely 40 euros (including dinner and breakfast). I must look quite cheap. The room was fine, if a bit chilly

Day 6/7 – wandering around Pristina

Day 6 I was supposed to hike over the hill from Valbona to Cerem. When I went down for breakfast at 7am it was so foggy you couldn’t see the gate of the house 20m away. Oh well, I had seen the pass I was planning to go over a few days earlier on the way to Vusanje. I sat by the fire and arranged for my driver to come get me from where I was (versus Cerem in the afternoon).

My driver was the same guy who had taken me to the trailhead at the start. Unfortunately he was quite tired, and his driving was a bit dodgy. He had two near misses when he was on the wrong side of the road and he went into the gravel three times when he wasn’t paying attention. The trip should have taken three hours but took four as we stopped for him to eat and then once more for coffee (a good idea, as he was close to falling asleep.

I arrived in pristina at the lux Swiss Diamond hotel, and discovered my 90 euro room had no bath. I really wanted a bath. I asked reception if I could have a room with a bath, and the nice man explained to me it would be too expensive, an extra 40 euros for the upgrade. I do appreciate all these kind hearted men looking after my finances, but I was happy to invest for the bath

I had a wee stroll around town and then dinner in the posh hotel restaurant (definitely the worst meal I had in the whole trip).

After a big sleep I did some more wandering around town in the rain. The best thing to see is the bizarre national library – which now looks abandoned. I retreated from the rain to the Liburna restaurant for a very good local meal of eggplant, chicken, homemade bread and pastry. Then I rolled back to the hotel for an afternoon massage and a lazy evening

Pristina, October 10, 2021

Additional info

In the end I missed doing three stages, one as I stayed an extra day in Theth, and the other two as I headed back to Pristina early. The visibility on all of those days was basically zero, and on the bright side I have a reason to go back. I would definitely like to go back to do the Valbona and the Prosllopit Passes.

I booked with BN adventures and everything worked really well. You pay them a 200 euro arrangement fee and the sort permits, transport and then I paid everyone direct. Most guesthouses were Euro25-30 for dinner, bed and breakfast. They also arranged private transfers from and to the trailhead (60 euros from Pristina to Kuqishte – about 90 minutes, and 110 euros from Valbone to Pristina – about three hours).

I carried very little, just hiking clothes and evening clothes. I also took a really good sleeping bag as I expected it to be cold – and it was. There was very little water in the lakes and many of the springs were dry, so if you are going at the end of summer

Would recommend buying the Cicerone Guide to the Peaks of the Balkans

Meandering along the Cape wrath trail

I haven’t managed a night in my tent since last October (in Zagori) and I have been desperate to get off grid for a few days.  Covid rules scuppered my plans to go to Corsica so I instead I headed to Fort William to start the Cape wrath trail – an epic and unsignposted trail that goes through 320km of spectacular wilderness to Cape Wrath at the top of Scotland, passing very few signs of human habitation 

I have no plan except to see how far my current (atrocious) level of fitness will take me, so I set off from Fort William a tent, bedroll and seven days of food and an emergency beacon in case of trouble

Day 1 Fort William to Cona Glen – 21k

I arrived along fort William in time for the chugging ‘ferry’ to Camusnagaul which is the traditional start for the CW trail.  From there it was a scenic if monotonous tarmac stroll to the entry of the Cona Glen estate with nice salty breezes coming up from Loch Linnhe.   

Once in the estate, it is a lovely stroll along the river and I stopped for my first brewed up cuppa along the river, liberally applying smidge to protect myself from the ferocious highland midges which overwhelm you when you stop walking.   I sat in the breeze next to the river enjoying my coffee and the lack of phone signal.  I did see two hikers go by, the only people I saw all day, they were out for the weekend. 

I continued on to the ford at Tom na h- eilde and found a flattish small site next to the river that was already trampled and pitched my tent.  I am travelling in style with a 600 g zpacks triplex which is twice the size of my normal summer tent but I decided to bring a bigger tent in case of lots of rain – it’s good to be able to spread out inside and sit up 

I had a glorious evening drinking tea and reading a book.  It was light until 10.30 pm and I went to sleep listening to the river 

Day 2 Cona Glenn  to somewhere on the Chaorainn river 25km

It was bright daylight again at 4am but I managed to say cosy in my quilt until 7am when I slowly rowsed myself for breakfast.  I waited until a break in the morning rain and meandered up to Meall na Damh, and enjoyed the lovely foggy views down Cona Glen.   The top was boggy, foggy and with plentiful leaches and frogs, but a forestry trail eventually appeared and it was about another 8km to Glenfinnan

Glenfinnan was a shock after 24 hours with no people.  It is home to the famous train viaduct in the Harry Potter movies and there were hundreds of people.  I queued for a hot dog and chips and enjoyed the sun for half an hour before finding it all too much

I then headed up the road to the Glenfinnan estate.  The first 6k was easy forest roads and then it climbed steadily up to the lovely Beaulach between Streap and Sgurr Thuilm.   

The way down the other side was a steep descent alternating between slippery rocks and knee deep bogs but the view down the Chaorainn was lovely.   I found a lovely dry spot on the river bend with enough of a breeze to keep the midges at bay and pitched the tent 

It was a quiet night though two hikers did stroll by about 8pm, and there was a surprisingly loud moo or two in the late evening which did give me a momentary panic that I had camped near bulls – which would have been surprising as I hadn’t seen any livestock all day

I woke up at 4 again with the sun and then managed to sleep until 7.30

Day 3 onwards to River Carnach 24km 

After a leisurely breakfast, I descended down the boggy hill.  The only certainty hiking in the highlands is that your feet will be wet all day (and you will meet lots of horseflies and midges).   It was knee deep in places (like wading through mud) but I eventually made it down to the footbridge over the Glen dessary river where the two hikers from the night before were breaking camp 

It was an easy 7k of forest road before heading up a steep track on the Allt Coire Nan uth.  From there it was blissful scenery if rough underfoot.   The trail weaved under three enormous Munro’s, and I eventually made it to lochan a Mhaim for lunch at 13.30.   The views were stunning and kept getting better during the descent down the Finiskaig river to sourlies, with amazing views to loch Nevis (a sea loch).  I had a break by the river (when the two hikers caught up with me while I was drinking tea) and then meandered past sourlies bothy (where the two hikers stopped for tea)

I decided to head another 5km up along the river towards Barrisdale as it was sunny, and the guide book had warned of waist deep bogs heading up the river Carnach – bogs are more endurable if you can wash and dry in the sun afterwards.  It was boggy underfoot with not much path and the last 600m was hanging off roots on the side of a cliff dropping to a waterfall but I made it to a delightful campsite at the point where the trail leaves the river for the next days hike

My feet are mashed – blisters worsened by being sodden all day, I forgot sunscreen so I have a very burnt neck and a clear sock mark.  But it was an awesome day

I had a lovely dinner and chocolate pudding, tea and then bed

 

Day 4 to north of Kinlochhourn at the ford on the Allt a Choire Raidh 24 km

The day started off claggy and within 10 minutes of camp i was thigh deep in a bog.  I learnt in the hills of Sweden how to carefully extract your foot and keep your shoe on, and it was a useful skill to have

I then didn’t pay attention to the maps so I overshot the turn I was supposed to make up across the slopes of Mam Unndalain.  By the time I noticed, I was about 1km past the turn so I decided to bush bash directly up a stream to rejoin the trail.   The trail gods were smiling on me and I found a faint path and made the 200m ascent without too much bother, although it was steep and there were a few dicey drops.   After that it was another 200-300m slog up the hill with only a momentary break in the clag when I stopped for morning tea. 

The descent to Barisdale bay got me under the clag and the views were lovely.  It wasn’t raining but it was a bit chilly so I headed into the bothy for lunch and the bothy gods smiled on me as there was power and a comfy chair.  It was only about 10 km to Barisdale from camp but it took a solid four hours wading through bogs and bashing uphill

After that I strolled the lovely (if hilly) 10k to Kinlochhourn hoping and praying the b&b would have a room or at least steak and chips.  Alas my prayers weren’t answered but I did get a ham sandwich a pot of tea and a bit of cake.   My feet didn’t want to go on, but I didn’t fancy camping in the field in town so I continued up hill to a spot a fellow hiker had recommended.   

I hadn’t anticipated the 5km would have 400m of steep uphill climb under pylons.   It took quite a lot of mental stamina and an hour and a half to meander up the hill but it was delightful when I finally got there and pitched my tent at 8pm.  The two Hikers I have been crisscrossing with arrived about 9pm and pitched across the river.  We are all looking forward to a shower at Shiel bridge tomorrow 

Day 5 onward to Shiel bridge (15 km

From camp it was a relentless 2 hour slog up a boggy pathless hill in clag up to Bealach Coire Mhalagain, with most of the time my feet quite deep in boggy muddy water. The Bealach was lovely if freezing. I had thought to stop for morning tea but the wind whipping past chilled me within two minutes so I scarfed down a muesli bar and kept going

The descent down from the Forcan ridge involved hanging onto a rocky wall and jumping for rock to rock along the contour of the hill before a drop down to Meallan Odhar. And then it was a slippery relentless tiring descent down the allt a choire chaoill (described in the guide as an unpleasant, sloppy and not particularly easy to follow path), and then finally a nice stroll 2km into Shiel bridge 

By the time I rolled in to Shiel bridge, it was 3pm, and I hadn’t had lunch or a cup of tea, so I was desolate when the garage and camp site were both closed. I walked another 1.4km up the road to find the bun shop shut, and then the pub shut. Luckily for me, a local pointed me another 1km up the road to the epic Kintail Crafts – purveyor of all things, including doritos and cider, which did a lot to restore my mood) . I had to stop for the day to hang out in town to access email and power my devices (it was the first time since the one hour in Glenfinnan where I had had mobile signal)

Day 6 Shiel bridge to Chadha ruidh mor 22km 

It was a glorious sunny day and it was lovely to have dry socks for the meander up to Bealach na Sroine.  I stopped for a coffee and some oatcakes and enjoyed the sun.  Then it was a steep descent to the river that feeds the falls of glomach – the highest falls in the UK with a drop of 100m – arriving around noon.

The trail down from the falls was labelled as dangerous and precarious but it was actually fine compared to alpine paths.  There were quite a few places where I made sure I had three points of contact (3 out of 4 of my hands and feet holding something) as the drops were vertiginous, and there were a few awkward slippery rock climbs which I did with the classic slide down on my butt (what I call the 3 points and butt method).    It took a few hours to wander carefully down and the views were stunning 

From the bottom I joined a 4×4 track up past Loch na Leitrich and strolled up the valley stopping again for another tea.   The sunshine was lovely and there were lambs, and I even met a shepherd with a very well trained dog.   I stopped at a lovely river ford with an excellent breeze to deter the midges and pitched my tent early at 6pm.    Reading a book and drinking cinnamon tea 

Day 7 onward to just before Strathcarron – 22km

The clag was thick this morning, so it was a boggy 6km stroll to the delightful Maol Buidhe bothy on the lovely Loch Cruoshie. I had a cup of coffee in the Bothy and reminisced about kiwi tramping huts.

It was another c.8km to the next bothy, through a largely boggy path, and then along the shores of Loch Calavie which was being blasted by a chill wind. I was really looking forward to a warm lunch in the Bendronaig lodge bothy, out of the wind, but it was not to be, as the bothy was closed. So, i kept walking another 2km and found a sheltered spot by a bridge to have a cup of tea in the sun and out of the wind.

From there it was another pathless boggy 250m climb up a fenceline to the Bealuach Alltan Ruairidh and the lovely Lochan Fuara. I strolled on for another few km, and pitched the tent a few kilometres short of Strathcarron, delighted to get in the tent and out of the wind. The final kilometres were knocked off the next morning before I had to get back to Inverness airport. I will be back later in the summer to finish the rest of the trail I hope.

Additional info

  • Used the Cicerone Guide – and the online version and also links from walkhighlands
  • Downloaded gpx tracks from walk highlands and used with the offline osmaps app
  • Highly recommend carrying a garmin inreach (easy to text and keep in contact with the earthmate app which makes for easy texting – there is very very limited mobile signal on the trail
  • I was very happy with my kit, though would not bother with heavy winter gloves, a sawyer, or the lighter. I was really happy I had a big tent, given when the midges came in, I was confined to the tent.

Inverness – 17 July, 2021

Packing list FYI

Clothes eveningIB (Icebreaker) merino leggings/Long sleeve top striped/bra/socks
Clothes wearSmart wool socks, long sleeve top, OMM shell, LL shorts
Clothes wearOMM shell
ColdDownwhisperer Jacket
ColdNormal gloves, winter buff, hat,
ElectronicsBattery, Charging cables (USB to iphone, USB to kindle/torch/garmin, USB to USC), headphones
ElectronicsPetzl Head torch
ElectronicsUK charger (plus watch charger, and laptop charger)
ElectronicsWatch
ElectronicsPhone
EmergencyMini in reach
Food and WaterJetboil minimo, Stove gas and a fire starter
Food and WaterSea to summit spoon, Sea to summit XL folding cup
Food and WaterFood bag. CNOC 3L bladder and Sawyer water filter
PackGossamer Gear Mariposa 45L
PolesAdjustable poles
RainPoncho
ShelterZpacks Triplex Tent
SleepTherm new Mattress, Katabatic Quilt and Sea to summit pillow
SunSunglasses
SunMosquito headnet
ToiletriesCompeed, safety pin, lip balm, deo
ToiletriesMicro towel (for condensation in tent)

Hiking the Haute Route

The Haute Route is a high-level traverse in the French and Swiss Alps, from Chamonix (France) to Zermatt (Switzerland) over 180km. The route traverses below the summits of 10 out of the 12 of the highest peaks in the Alps, and crosses several high passes. The highest pass is at 2964 m (9,800 ft). I had already done most of the route near Chamonix (while doing the Tour de Mont Blanc) and likewise the Zermatt end (doing the Tour de Monte Rosa), and so I am hitting off some of the nicer sections in the middle between Verbier and Zinal with my buddy Tamara

Fair warning this is mostly a photo post!

Day 1 – Le Ruinettes to Prafleuri – c. 17k, 1000m of ascent

This was a pretty easy day as we dodged hours of boring walking up from Le Chable to Les Ruinettes by using the cable cars. Normally I am a purist but the trail up was 1350m of ascent next to a road.

We strolled from the cable car at Les Ruinettes around to Cabane de Montfort and then took the alpine route (blue and white markings) up over Col de Chaux at 2940m There was still a fair amount of steep snow to cross (shame I forgot my poles, so I used my hands instead on the steep bits) and the steep sections on rock were sludgy underfoot so there was a bit of back sliding involved. The col was lovely, but the other side was sludgy too so there was a bit of but sliding down the first 50m until we managed to crab across to the path skirting around the melt.

The views were stunning and it was a lovely stroll over a rocky moraine, sidling up to the Lac di Petit Montfort. We stopped for cheese sandwiches before taking on the col de louvie at 2924m

After the col de Louvie, we entered into the Grand desert, a surreal alpine bowl with a lovely grey green lake being fed by the Gran Desert glacier.

The trail wasn’t well marked so there was a lot of boulder hopping heading in the general direction of Col de Prafleuri. It was a col that just kept giving as there were several false cols before hand that tricked us into thinking we were close. There was a slightly hairy rock traverse which gave onto three lovely lakes before the final approach to Col de Prafleuri at 2987m

Looking down from the Col, the refuge was nestled in a surreal valley about 300m below, a weird flat bowl area which looked slightly geothermal and I suspect was an abandoned damn project

We arrived around 4pm and got the Covid induction. Blissfully there are many fewer hikers in the huts as they attempt to maintain social distancing. This hut has a bad rap on trip advisor but the hut was clean and well run, the welcome was warm and dinner was delicious (soup, beef stew rice and salad and dessert). It’s expensive at 75 francs but that’s normal in Switzerland

We were in bed by 7.30 but both of us were suffering slightly from the altitude so I didn’t get a lot of sleep

Day 2 – Prafleuri to arolla – 18km 740m of ascent, 1340m of descent

We were up for breakfast at 6am – thanks to the excellent refuge system of catering for early morning risers. It was a typical breakfast in a refuge far from town – tinned fruit salad, yogurt and crackers and jam. They also gave us apple sauce which is a weird french hut thing too

We started the day with a straight up climb of 180m up to Col des Roux at 2804m and then had a leisurely stroll down the mountain side enjoying the views of the Barrage de dix and cows

We passed a few wild campers who still had tents up at 8am (a bad idea when camping is illegal, I am always packed and gone by 7) but they were lovely camping spots.

After a nice flat stroll along the lake we left the lake at Pas de Chat and started the climb up to Pas de Chevre

It was a stunning hike skirting around big boulders with views ahead to the Glacier de Cheilon and the well situated Cabane de dix, and views back down the barrage

The final 150m of ascent was slightly tricky as there were a sludgy slippy bit with a bit of a drop, but the boulders were firmly in place and fine to scramble. The final approach to the Pas de Chevre at 2855m is via a trail along the rock face with a chain to hold on to, and an ascent of four ladders (I am assuming I could have clipped on if I had had a harness, but I didn’t and no one I saw did either). The ladders were easier than expected and easier than the slippy bit at the bottom

Crossing the pas, we encountered a lot of day hikers from Arolla, and it was a very easy stroll down into town. We were delighted at the bottom when we found a grand hotel with a big garden and stopped for a beer before the bus

We took the excellent post bus down the valley to Les Hauderes as the walk isn’t particularly interesting and we were saving our legs for the next day.

Les Hauderes was an excellent village, we showered, had a cider and then had dinner at 18.45 – an epic combination of cheese and morelles fondue and Rosti with bacon, and then we rolled into bed

Day 3 Mayens de Cotter to Col de Sorebois – 14km, 1400m of climbing

We had planned a bit of a sneaky taxi short cut for this morning to cut out the climb on the road. Tamara decided to have an easy day, so I took the cab up to Mayens de Cotter reasoning that the ascent I skipped, I could make up for by extending the days hike to Col Sorebois. The cabbie dropped me and two Germans off at 8am and off I went, slightly hampered by the absence of caffeine and breakfast

The climb up to the col de torrent (at 2916m) was as gentle as a 900m ascent can be, with gentle switchbacks through alpine pasture.

The view from the col down onto the Lac des Autannes 200m below was lovely, and I skipped down the descent.

From autannes down to the Barrage de Moiry (damn) the views just got better and better with epic views up the turquoise barrage to the Moiry glacier. The sun was shining and the cows were not aggressive and it was a lovely 40 min stroll from the col to the barrage

There was a lovey cafe at the barrage so I had an excellent sandwich, coffee and Coke Zero to fortify me for the next 600m climb up to Sorebois.

I figured out later that no one climbs up Sorebois, everyone takes the cable car from Grimentz to the top, then strolls down to the barrage to catch the bus back. But it wasn’t a challenging hike and the views back were lovely.

The views from the top were better still, looking out on Weisshorn and Zinalrothorn, if you looked past the scarred slopes from the ski infrastructure

The path down to Zinal is closed as they are rebuilding the cable car, so I hopped on the teleferique down to Grimentz to head back to the airport via the post bus and train

Grimentz, August 16, 2020

Additional notes

Stayed at Refuge Prafleuri which was fine, must pay cash, and then at the very budget (by Swiss standards) hotel des Hauderes

Train and bus connections easy from Geneva airport – use the easy ride widget on the SBB app and it will charge you for the cheapest possible fare. The postbus coverage in Switzerland is awesome (and again covered by the SBB app), but be warned it is not cheap

The best guide was the Cicerone Chamonix to Zermatt book, and I had downloaded the Swiss Topo maps on Gaia. Be warned these are alpine sections so take appropriate gear. I didn’t bring my poles and they would have been handy. Earlier in the season, crampons and an ice axe would have been smart

I put the routes on strava, but with the exception of day 3, I forgot to have the watch on for most of the day

Light and fast in Lanzarote

Time for stage three of the GR131 in the Canaries, this time to Lanzarote. Its an easy 75km, so fine to get done over two days. Most of the reviews I read of the trail weren’t amazing, so I have low expectations….. but the canaries haven’t disappointed so far.

I landed on Friday night in an easyJet flight stuffed to the gills with Brits looking for summer sun, cleared the airport in nine minutes and got a taxi to Orzola. I stayed at the lovely Perla del Atlantico with a view of the sea, and was amused to meet a Canarian who had been an exchange student in NZ – in Invercargill of all places, which as she pointed out what’s about as remote as Orzola. It was blustering like mad, with 25mph winds, so I stocked up on provisions and retreated to the apartment for supper and an early night.

Orzola harbour

Day 1 39k from Orzola to San Bartoleme and some extra bits, c. 950m of ascent

The wind blustered all night and I had decided to sleep in as the distances didn’t look very long. The sun was up before I was, so I had coffee and a muesli bar and started strolling up the road around 7.30. Although the winds were still blowing a gale, thankfully they were blowing from behind. The first section was a nice stroll from Orzola to Haría, over a small pass. The light was lovely and it was fascinating to see the farming practices – lots of retaining walls to keep the wind off, and I passed several ancient farmers in dapper hats doing tough physical labour, bending from the waist to plant seeds in the black volcanic dirt (my job feels easy in comparison).

Near Orzola
Typical Lanzarote country house
Boat on a dry dock inland

I arrived in Haría around 10 and had a look around the market before stopping for a cafe con leche. It was a delightful town

Haría

Strolling on, next up Teguise, but only after climbing up the side of an excellent hill (Valle del malpaso) with the hiking trail cross crossing a vertiginous switchbacked mountain road, which was beloved of cyclists – I must have seen 50 coming down. Reaching the top of the hill, the views would have been epic on a clear day with the beaches on both sides of the island in view. But I had to make do with just ‘pretty good’ views through the haze.

I arrived at Ermita de las Nieves, the high point of the trail, and was surprised to see a big group of hikers (after only seeing two people all morning). It was a popular spot, with a gang of motorbikes and many lycraclad mountain bikers.

Ermita de las Nieves
View from Ermita
Field near Teguise

I moved on swiftly, meandering down hill to the lovely town of Teguise. All of the villages appear uniformly white and pretty. The central church was lovely, and there must have been a festival on as there were about 30 boys dressed as what looked like bulls with bells on their backs chasing kids around. I sat in the sun admiring the town square and had a coffee and a toasted bocadillo.

Teguise
Teguise
Man dressed up to chase kids

The final section of the day was a short 10k to San Bartoleme, which you could see across the valley from Teguise. It was a flat easy stroll across a blasted dusty desert wasteland.

I arrived at Casa Natur around 2pm having clocked 33km. I checked out the maps and decided to stroll some of tomorrow’s trail so I could take a short cut in the morning. It was a nice little bonus 6km stroll around a small peak and a caldera. I couldn’t find any good restaurant so I had a bocadillo and a piece of cake and retired early to bed to listen to the wind blustering outside

San Bartoleme
San Bartoleme

day 2 37km to Playa Blanca with c. 450m of up

I slept in until seven, had two coffees a muesli bar and a banana and headed off into a quiet Sunday morning. There wasn’t much movement around town, and it was mostly road walking until coming over the little pass near Montana Blanca. Road walking is my least favourite type of walking, followed by dirt trails. But surprisingly it isn’t irritating me that much as I am enjoying the quite bizarre volcanic scenery and I have my most padded trail shoes on.

The villages came relatively close together… after Montana Blanca, I skirted Tias, then Conil and then La Asomada. None of them had cafes, and nothing makes a hiker sadder than a town with no cafes. The road was skirting along the side of several volcanic hills, so the views down to the Arrecife coast were lovely. I remember to put my hat on as my forehead was sizzled from the day before.

The highlight of the day was coming over a small pass between La Asomada and Uga – the farming creativity is extraordinary – the terracing to carefully protect the trees from the high winds was lovely . The route was slightly marred by excesses of mountain bikers coming by without much warning.

There was a bar open in Uga so I grabbed a coke but kept going to Yaiza. I was unlucky and didn’t see the camels that regularly patrol that section of the trail. The route picks its way through mounds of volcanic rock. My morning endeavours were rewarded by an exceptional bocadillo ‘racing’ (with egg, cheese, ham and chicken), and a coffee at Miguel’s in Yaiza.

Heading off into the increasingly hot sun, it was a flat dusty stroll to Las Brenas, which was a ghost town baking on a hill about 7k from the coast. I was so hot by this point that I took refuge in the bus stop for ten minutes to get some shade.

I summoned up the courage to keep going and strolled the final 7k to town (taking my time as I was parallel processing and doing a work conference call at the same time (thank goodness for modern communications).

The town of Playa Blanca was everything I don’t like about the canaries – heaving with tourists and cheap Italian restaurants. I had a callipo and stuck my feet in the water -and drank several litres of fluid. Then back to the airport to get ready for work tomorrow

The verdict – definitely my least favourite so far of the islands, mostly due to the road walking, but I enjoyed the scenery immensely. I wouldn’t do it again, but am glad I did it

March 8, 2020, playa Blanca, Lanzarote

Hiking style – This time, I decided to go fast and light, with less than 3kg of gear and hotels booked every night.

Maps and guides – Paddy Dillon’s cicerone guide is excellent as usual But you can download the full maps here . The full maps and trail notes are available for free here. I load the gpx files onto gaia, onto which I had pre-downloaded the OS maps for spain

Packing Given the hours of daylight, I told a headtorch with me, but kept my overall pack very light.  Full packing list here

Hotels – I stayed at Perla del Atlantico in Orzola and Casa Natura in San Bartoleme.

Trailhead transport I took a taxi direct from the airport to Orzola to stay the night before starting the next day. I finished the hike in Playa Blanca – a busy resort, from where you could either get a bus or a taxi to the airport. (This is partly the reason I hiked north to south, as finding transport from Orzola would have been a pain). As it turns out north to south makes even more sense as, at least when I was there, the prevailing winds came from the north

Flights – Direct flights from Gatwick to lanzarote with Easyjet.

Trails in Tenerife

I am working a few more hours than normal this year, but to ensure I keep sane I have planned monthly hiking trips to get some exercise. This month, I am off to Tenerife to continue the GR131 trail which covers the Canary Islands, which I started doing over Christmas, completing the trail in La Palma. Its February so the weather is perfect

day 1 – Arona to Villaflor 18km, 1400m of up

It was an unpleasant 5.45am wake up call to get to Gatwick, but worth it. I flew to Tenerife on a heaving full easyJet flight full of elderly packaged tourists, I felt like a teenager but did have to carry some bags up the stairs. We landed in Tenerife 90 minutes late, so I threw on my shorts, grabbed a couple of bottles of water and high tailed it to the cab rank. My driver was bewildered that anyone would want to walk from one end of the island to the other and seem to think it was an incredibly dangerous proposition. I got to Arona (a lovely little village) and the starting point of the trail, just after two hoping for coffee and lunch, but it was not to be, as the only restaurant had just seated a table of 15, and there wasn’t a shop. Oh well, fingers crossed I would find something en route.

Arona

The first section of the gr131 is through the lovely ilfonche preservation zone. The best views were obscured by the clouds, but the glimpses of the craggy cliffs were lovely. There was also stunning desert flowers and cacti. It was hot as hell and I was sweating buckets going up hill. As luck would have it, I passed a bar in Ilfonche (6km in) and had three bottles of Aquarius (my secret Spanish hiking weapon – it is like Gatorade but nicer and the Spanish had it for at least 15 years before Gatorade was invented).

Trail marking
Barranca near arona
Excellent plant with clouds obscuring the cliffs in the background
Terraces on the hillside
Cacti

After that the trail to Vilaflor was through a lovely pine forest on beautiful red soil. I started late, so only arrived in town as the sunset, which meant I had some lovely views as the sun lit up the trees. The best views were down on the clouds which were c400m lower down, and it wasn’t possible to see the sea at all.

Lovely scented pine forest
Clouds below and sunset
Clouds down far below

I had a lovely welcome at the El Tejar, where for a bargain €15 they served me tomatoe and avocado salad, soup, grilled tuna and cake. The canaries really are a bargain. And I was asleep by 10pm

Day 2 38km to la caldera with 1700m up

It was a brutal start to the day, primarily due to the absence of coffee. The hotel had made me a breakfast the night before but there was no kettle in the room, so no coffee, in spite of me having some with me. I was awake at six and left at 6.20 with the head torch on. The mornings endeavours consisted of a 1100m climb up to the Degollada de Guajara, and I love seeing the sunrise from the top of a hill. The paths here are gentle even when climbing and the Spanish sensibly put nice switchbacks in place (unlike NZ where we save money and mileage by making the trails go straight up the hill).

Sun coming up

I took it slowly, pacing myself for a hot day and the views were epic. Starting by climbing through delicious smelling pine forest and then eventually hitting barren red volcanic rock and sand, with stunning barrancos (ravines) cut through them.

Trees in the dawn light

I had the entire trail to myself for the three leisurely hours strolling up to the Degollada and when I crossed over the ridge line the views of Tiede (the highest mountain on Tenerife) were spectacular.

It looks flat but it wasn’t, looking back down the hill
Morning haze

The next section of the trail was a flat but spectacular 13.5km stroll to el Portillo, with tiede to the left and cliffs to the right. After the uphill slog, the flat was nice, though I was disappointed to actually see some humans (8 trail runners and 4 hikers) in that section. It was hot and the windy and I was hungry (not much breakfast and I hadn’t packed many snacks), I was ready for it to be done….

First view of Tiede from Degollada
Tiede
The long flat bit to El Portillo

Arriving at el Portillo was a blessing and a curse. I mistakenly went to the visitors centre in search of food and coffee. After waiting 15 minutes they sent me 150m down the highway to the restaurant. That was the most dangerous bit of my day….. bloody frightening with cars zipping by.

I was delighted to see the restaurant but horrified in equal measure at the mass of humanity – tonnes of men in leather with motorbikes and lots of Lycra clad cyclists of both genders. I had two coffees, a Diet Coke, a roll and a donut as big as my face. I shovelled food in my face looking like a hobo, and then headed out buying three Aquarius for the road.

My spirits were well restored with food, and made even better by a hilariously eclectic mix of music that kept me dancing and entertained for the 13km to aquamansa, where I didn’t see a soul. Just as well, as I was singing along to meatloaf, Dire Straits, Glen Campbell and the Moana soundtrack among other things, and I can’t carry a tune

I arrived at 16.20 in time to catch the bus down to Orotava, which is another lovely Canarian town on the hill with beautiful colonial architecture. I suspect the beaches here are horrendous and full of resorts but the hills are lovely. I’m staying at the delightful Hotel Rural Victoria, in a beautiful building but the rooms have probably seen better days 🙂

Sun 9th 30k hike to la Esperanza 1500 up, 1870 down

Another early start, thankfully with coffee! And I had a taxi take me up to La Caldera at 6am (no buses until 8am). It was a glorious morning and I meandered up the hill in the still darkness. After about an hour I started hearing cocks crow, and at one point I turned around to see lovely views of El Tiede in the south peeking through the trees looking like it was in fire.

There is an excellent few km of trail hanging off the side of the caldera. There is a sheer drop down the side into the ravine, and fortunately there are sections where the trail has handrails to stop you falling. The views out over the ocean were lovely

Path zigzagging on the other side of the ravine
Peligroso = dangerous

For the first 20km, I didn’t see a soul. The path was lovely, but not spectacular, as it was all in the forest so there were limited views.

The last 10 of the trail was a fairly uninspiring forest road which was largely an obstacle course in dodging Spanish mountain bikers. It was nice but not amazing

My feet were ready for the end when we hit la Esperanza, and google maps reliably led me to an excellent establishment where I refuelled with carne machado (pulled pork), multiple coffees and a piece of red velvet cake.

9 February 2020

Additional notes

Hiking style – The key issue on Tenerife is lack of water. Originally I had planned to wild camp the route, but I didn’t enjoy lugging 5-6kg of water when I hiked the GR131 in La Palma, together with a tent, sleeping bag and mat, as well as food and a cooker (with 17kg in total on my back). This time, I decided to go fast and light, with less than 3kg of gear and hotels booked every night. There is very little water on the trail, only at Vilaflor, Parador (a 7k detour), El Portillo, La Caldera and Siete Fuentes (not guaranteed).

Maps and guides – Paddy Dillon’s cicerone guide is excellent as usual but to be honest, quite a lot more information than you need. The full maps and trail notes are available for downloading at this site and are very good and detailed, and you can download all the gpx files also. Caers Bart wrote the best blog that i found, here . I load the gpx files onto gaia, onto which I had pre-downloaded the OS maps for spain

Packing Given the hours of daylight, I took a headtorch with me, but kept my overall pack very light. Full packing list here

Hotels – I stayed at El Tejar Hotel in Villaflor and Hotel Rural Victoria in Orotava. To get to Orotava from La Caldera I took the last bus down from Caldera. The buses are good and reliable, and details can be found on the amusingly named Titsa website.

Trailhead transport I took a taxi direct from the airport to Arona to start hiking (I landed at 13.35). I booked a pick up from La Esperanza with https://www.booktaxigroup.com. I was a bit sceptical about it arriving as I paid in advance, but it arrived

Flights – Direct flights from Gatwick to Tenerife with Easyjet. Annoyingly the late flight landed too late to take the Gatwick express, so I Addison Leed it home, arriving at 1am in time for a few hours sleep before heading to the office

Next time – I probably wouldn’t do the section from el Portillo to La Esperanza as I suspect there is better hiking in the Tiede national park, particularly on some of the ridge lines. The forest walks are lovely, but the landscape at altitude is stunning

Gr131 and the Caldera on La Palma

This is the first winter in years where I haven’t retreated to the Southern Hemisphere to go hiking and I desperately needed some long days walking and some tent time. I did my homework and decided to give the Canary Islands a go. They have never been high on my holiday list (although I have been previously for work), as I imagined them to be overrun with package tourists. However there are some epic trail races on the islands and the weather should be great as the islands are only a few hundred miles off the coast of Africa.

I am headed to La Palma, which has the most rugged terrain. The plan is to do the volcano route from Fuencaliente to Tazacorte (about 70Km), and a few routes in the national park of Caldera de Taburiente (about 40km) over a total of four days. I have my tent and a permit to sleep in Taburiente for one of the nights and will make up a plan for the other nights on the fly

I came to La Palma via Gran Canaria airport (which was candidly my idea of hell, heaving with package tourists) and I hoped like hell La Palma wouldn’t be the same. Arriving at La Palma the excellent taxi la Palma were there to pick me up and had bought me a bombona (gas canister for my stove), as it is the one thing you can’t fly with. He dropped me at the hostel in Fuencaliente, a bargain 30 euros per night for a private room with bath, albeit not much in the way of soundproofing, and I grabbed some supplies from the shop and hit the sack.

Day 1 Fuencaliente to Puenta de las roques (32km, 2200m of climbing 17kg pack)

I got up at six-ish and finally left at 7 in the pitch black with a head torch on. The sun doesn’t come up until 8, but I knew it would be a long day and the early bit wasn’t that scenic on the map.

It’s been so long since I hiked with 17 kg on my back that I have forgotten how hard it is!!!! All my gear is very light but I was unsure what conditions would be like on the tops so had bought a winter tent (1.8kg vs my normal O.4kg), and spikes for the snow (0.3kg), but nothing can make water ultra light and I wasn’t sure there would be water for the whole route so I took 6 litres with me! It was bloody heavy hauling it up the hill (and unsurprisingly I was over prepared but better to have than not have)

Heading up from Fuencaliente
First volcano through the trees

With the sun on my back I eventually got in a rhythm, albeit a really slow one as I slogged up the hills. I had the first three hours in blissful solitude. I had succumbed to putting some music on and was singing away happily to myself really enjoying the views when I passed the first of the many day hikers I would see coming the other way. I lost count at 60, by the speeds they were going I didn’t expect them all to make farocaliente before dark. The landscape is surreal and alternates between pine forest and pitted volcanic craters and pointy mountains. The nicest peak was The Volcan of Deseado which I could see for most of my day, it’s a distinctive point on the southern part of the islands spine

The volcanic rock paths were really well marked
One of the craters

I made it to El Pilar (after about 18km and 1400m of climbing or 450 flights of stairs according to the Garmin and 500m of descent) just after lunch where it turns out there is a tap so I carried an extra 4 kg for 18 km for nada. But I still need it for the next leg. Even better there was a snack truck! Two Aquarius (an excellent nonfizzy Spanish soft drink) , a cafe con leche, a hot dog and half a packet of biscuits later and I was a new woman!

After snoozing in the sun for a bit I strolled the 6km rolling path to reventon which was nice and easy as it was all in the forest. I stopped for a break and some food again when I got there (it took me an hour and a half, I swear I have never walked so slowly!). Apparently there is a good natural fountain at Reventon but I didn’t see it

After that it was a slow grunt up the final 700m climb over 6km to the punta de Los roques, punctuated by many breaks ostensibly to check my email, but really cos I was knackered. I saw the refugio de Los Roques peeking through the trees with the setting sun shining on it and I tried not to be too hopeful it was empty or not crowded. I was happy to tent but it was going to be cold at 2000m and I hadn’t seen too many flat spots. I eventually made it up the hill and the refuge looked delightful and was happily inhabited by a solo danish guy. So more than enough room for me (it probably sleeps 16 or 20 at a push).

Can finally see the refuge on the hill
The refuge well disguised

I set about hydrating, soup, decaf coffee, hydration fluids, cooking and eating in front of the refugio watching the amazing view. The sun went down and the light was breathtaking on the caldera. A bit more food and a good gossip with Soren (environmental law professor from Copenhagen) and we retired to bed at 8pm after checking out the stars (which are quite famous here as there is limited light pollution)

Sun going down from the refuge
The view down the island to Deseado from the refuge balcony

I had a mild fright at 10.30 when I woke up with someone crashing through the door of the refugio. Two spanish guys who had had a long day, they were suitably quiet while they ate and went to sleep so I managed to get back to sleep for awhile until one of them started making the weirdest snoring noises I have ever heard. I thought he was going to die as he kept stopping breathing. I gave up trying to sleep at 6am and got up to have a leisurely breakfast.

Luxury refuge – yes that’s all my gear, it explodes out of my pack
There was even solar power

Day 2 Refugio to Mirador El Time and then a shower (29km, 900m ascent, 2400m descent, 15kg pack)

The sun started to peak through the darkness around 7.15 so I went outside with my coffee for an epic sunrise with a stunning view of Tiede summit on neighbouring Tenerife.

The summit of Tiede on neighbouring Tenerife peaking through the clouds

I strolled out slowly at 7.30 less weighed down than yesterday but it was slow going. The route was stunning, for the first two hours I saw no one and the views out to the caldera with the sun hitting them were amazing. The walk meanders up and down the spine of the island though in most places the ridge isn’t narrow enough to give any cause for concern but I wouldn’t want to be up here in the fog.

The pine trees persist until about 2100m of elevation, and are lovely
Narrow path on the ridge

At some point after Pico de la Nieve the route comes close to the road and car parks, so I started running into ill equipped tourists skidding on the trails which were a tricky blend of sand, volcanic rubble and scree and rocks. I was already tired, so found a quiet spot to take a break and cooked up an early lunch.

It took me quite a while to hit the summit of Roque de los muchachos at 2430m, every summit was a false one, and I was low on water and thirsty. And I took a lot of breaks! When I did get there I didn’t stay long as there were about 500 tourists. There was a water tap next to the information booth marked ‘agua non potable’ which technically means it’s not drinkable but I was desperate. I had a litre and then saw the ranger and asked him if itnwas drinkable. He said they mark it that way to deter the tourists from drinking it, but the hikers ‘should know’ it’s ok as they block the tap if there is a problem (hmmmm not sure how I would have ‘known’, but was grateful nonetheless).

Part of the extensive observatory complex at Los Rocas

I left the summit at 13.30. My original plan had been to hike all the way down to the coast and then back up into the caldera. Checking out the map, the section from el time to Los llanos was entirely urban and not pretty and the route up from los llanos looked long and hot. So I decided to hike down to el time, bus to Los llanos and sleep in a hostel for the night for a shower and then head up to the caldera the next night.

That plan though did mean I had to book it down the hill to get the bus. It wasn’t far – 16km, but it was a 2200m drop. The path was rocky and while it eventually dropped under the tree line and had shade, the shade came with very slippery pine needles. The views on the first 8k were epic though, and there were very few people

Steep cliffs dropping down to the caldera with the trees holding on

The last 4km down (with 450m of descent) from the Torres to El time was interminable and without redemption. Rocky, steep, no shade, no view, and just the type of gradient where your toes get slammed into the front of your shoes (I’m pretty sure both big toe nails will be dropping off in a month). The only positive I could find about this interminable section was that at least I wasn’t walking up it. I had a mild sense of humour failure about 1km before the end as am sunburnt (forgot sunscreen and a hat) and was thirsty, so I stopped and downed my last litre of water and hoped like hell there was water at EL Time. Better than that, there was a bar with homemade cake. Two more Aquarius and an awesome slice of the owners banana caramel cake, and I whiled away 45 mins waiting for the bus to Los Llanos (and yes I know I can afford a taxi but I like buses)

Ok the bus was late, but I did get chatted up by a retired Swiss farmer on the bus who rents a room down here for six months in the summer. He was worried about me so walked me to the hostel. The hostel Vagamundo was all I needed, not as good value as Fuencaliente as it is shared bath and I had to rent a towel for €2, but €30 is fine. Then off to the important business of getting some fluid and calories in – off to the Argentinian steak house!

Day 3/4 into the caldera

After the gr131 the most recommended hiking on the island is in the caldera de Taburiente, you can hike into the crater and then take different routes up the sides. I had a campsite booked (free, see below) and had a plan for different hikes). After a leisurely 6km stroll into the camping from the mirador los brecitos, I was checking in and the ranger told me all the routes were closed due to landslides. I feel like this is the universe’s way of telling me to have a day off, so I pitched my tent, made some lunch and spent the afternoon reading and intermittently admiring the views

View from my tent up to Los Roques de muchachos
View from the playa de Taburiente
My new akto hilleberg getting its first outing

When I arrived this morning there was a loud party of Spanish people leaving – around ten of them with shiny gear, and I was hopeful they wouldn’t be replaced. Fortunately the campsite is vast and I pitched at the remotest end with the best view. I did go for a late afternoon stroll to check out the hills in the afternoon light and there was one other couple camping about 200m away, but still blissfully peaceful

Same view, different light

After an excellent and quiet sleep I extricated myself from my tent to watch the sun come up, had a coffee and slowly packed up. It was a delightful walk back to Los brecitos, though I passed about 20 people on their way in, and on the way back to Los Llanos I passed ten heaving van loads of tourists on their way to the trail so I had made a good choice on what day to visit (apparently Sunday is always quiet as the tourists go to the market)

Sun coming up hitting the top of the peaks
Same view in the morning

Day 4 afternoon chilling in Los Llanos

I spent the afternoon strolling around the lovely town of Los Llanos, stopping from time to time to have some tapas and a drink! There isn’t much to do but it’s quite lovely. I will be back as the hiking here is excellent and the infrastructure works quite well (taxis will drop off and pick off easily at trail heads and the buses work well).

Los Llanos de Aridane, December 30, 2019

Additional info

  • Water is the most problematic part of La Palma at least on the volcano route, so plan accordingly
  • Paddy Dillon’s cicerone guide to walking on La Palma is a good one, but is more set up for day walkers than long distance, and it doesn’t helpfully outline water sources
  • Senderosdelapalma.es was an excellent resource and had most of the gpx trails to download
  • Buying gas for my stove was my one issue that I couldn’t figure out, so I asked the taxi company to buy me some and bring it with them to my airport pick up, and tipped them generously as it saved me a lot of hassle. ww.taxilapalma.com. (Note it turns out cooking of any kind is illegal in the national parks.). They also provide drop offs to trail heads, or if you have more time and less money the island bus service (guaguas) is excellent https://www.tilp.es/regular/
  • It’s easy to book a campsite in the caldera de Taburiente for free, and bookings open 15 days in advance https://www.reservasparquesnacionales.es/real/ParquesNac/usu/html/inicio-reserva-paso2-oapn.aspx?cen=4&act=%202
  • Mountain weather forecast for the high route here (I was worried about snow when I went, as it has happened in December before)
  • Stayed at the hostel pension in Fuencaliente and the hostel vagamundo and hotel benohoare in los llanos

Ambling the Arctic circle trail in Greenland

Greenland – the largest island on earth and the most sparsely populated place in the planet. 85% of the land is covered in the ice cap, the population is c 55,000 (largely Inuits), in summer there is no night, and in winter there are no days. Technically it is part of the North American continent, but it is a self ruled territory of Denmark (yes I am ticking off another territory).

The main purpose of the trip is to hike the Arctic Circle trail from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut – c. 165km of epic trail through remote wilderness with a few ramshackle free huts available for hikers use and not much else. Apparently there are ferocious mosquitos and pretty challenging weather at the best of times, but this year there have been wildfires blazing for about four weeks, and while the fires aren’t dangerous (peat fires burn low and slow) the smoke can kill you. On top of this, I broke my wrist four weeks ago, and am not 100% sure I can put my tent up without the solid use of my left hand – this is going to be fun!

At the beginning of the trail – clearly the hunters were not impressed with the sign

Day 1 – Half day Kangerlussuaq Airport to 3km past Limnaeso Lake (c.25km)

I landed from Copenhagen at lunch time to a lovely clear sunny day. The airport was tiny and not super efficient, so I had time to pop across the road and buy gas, as well as sort out a locker in terminal before my bag arrived on the belt. I loaded up my gear, and hit the road, walking the 13km from the airport to Kellyville along the tarmac, as it is technically part of the trail. I suspect I was one of the few hikers who took the road, as I was overtaken by numerous hikers in taxis in the 2 hours it took to get there. Never mind, I overtook 20 of them pretty swiftly once I hit the trail proper. Once off the road, the landscape was stunning. No trees, but endless lakes and lovely wildflowers…. it was like a sunny Scotland.

The view back down the valley to Kangerlussuaq

One of the first lakes on the trail

I passed the ramshackle collection of caravans and sheds and Hundeso and pushed on to a lovely unnamed lake where I stopped for dinner and a chat with and Aussie hiker, and then given it was still light, I kept strolling until about 8pm where I pitched my tent (pretty wonkily given the wrist disadvantage) in blissful solitude and passed out (once I realised it was actually midnight Denmark time and I had been up since 6am in Denmark)

Dinner break on day 1
Campsite night 1 – with wonky tent

Day 2 Hiked to 10km past the canoe centre and camped above the beach on lake Kangerluatsiarsuaq (c.45k walking)

I woke up a bit cold as had gone to bed in shorts, not realising that the temperature would drop so much overnight. I was too cold to sleep and too tired and lazy to put more clothes on. It is also pretty awkward sleeping in a sleeping bag with a broken wrist. By 5am I gave in, made breakfast, broke camp and was walking by 5.40am. I passed numerous stunning white Arctic Hares – they obviously think they are camouflaged as they stand stock still when they notice you, thinking you can’t see them (which you couldn’t if it was snowing), but they stand out in the green and red scrub.

It was a stunning morning walk – I passed one tent near the ford at the stunning lake Qarlissuit, but apart from that it was totally still and quiet. After about three hours and 15km I arrived at Katiffik Hut at the head of lake Amitsorsuaq – its a typical Greenlandic hut and I was going to go and take a look but I could see about 20m down the path that one of the occupants had decided to do their morning ablutions 2metres off the trail, and that was more bare butt than I had planned on seeing in the morning, so I kept walking past down to the lake shore where I made myself a coffee and had a second breakfast.

Second breakfast spot on Day 2 on the shore of Amitsorsuaq

The day heated up as I ambled the 20km down the side of the lake to the canoe centre only passing three people on the way (still packing up their tents at 10am). My feet were getting a bit sore, and I was getting a bit grumpy so I stopped for an hour at 2pm, ate some salami, and soaked my feet in the ice-cold lake. I motivated myself back to action by promising myself an early stop at the lake head in 7km. Unfortunately the lake head wasn’t particularly lovely, it was boggy and windy, so I loaded up with 3 litres of water and planned to dry camp the first nice sheltered place I saw. Unfortunately that nice sheltered place didn’t arrive until about 10km further on at 7.30pm when I had been on my feet for 14 hours and had a sunburnt nose. I tried to pitch my tent around 6.30 at the lake side but it almost blew away. At. 7.30 in the first sheltered spot, I literally pitched my tent one metre from the trail on top of some scrub on a hillside, albeit with a lovely view of Lake Kangerluatsiarsuaq …. with no more mojo to continue, and then started shovelling food in my face for 45 minutes until I konked out.

View from my tent on day 2
Day 2 – stunning morning views
Day 2
Excellent ACT cairns

Day 3 hiked to Innajuattoq and stayed in the lovely hut (c.40km walking)

My sense of humour was somewhat restored after 10 hours sleep, and I woke up at 7am to a lovely view. It was a stunning cool day, just as well as there was a nice 500m climb up from the valley to start the day. The first 2.5 hours to Ikkattooq hut were idyllic, lovely alpine lakes, tonnes of ambling reindeer, impressive views from the plateau, and some rugged cliffs, and then eventually the incongruous hut came into view. A couple of danish doctors were in residence and they shared their hot water with me for my morning coffee and we debated the route. All hikers had been advised to take a southern diversion from the main trail as there was a risk of smoke in the northern valleys. None of us really wanted to do the diversion as there was no trail, limited cairns, and I personally am terrible at navigation. I took some confidence from the fact that they, like me, were planning to go north and see what it was like, and potentially use an escape route if required that someone on the arctic circle Facebook group had mooted.

Qarlissuit

The next three hours was a bit of a mountain scramble and then a steep descent down to a wide river valley with a ford. Unfortunately, my brain wasn’t turned on, as while I forded the river like a kiwi expert, I forgot that my phone and camera were in the pockets of my shorts, so both were drenched, and neither have worked since – hence the paucity of photos from here on in. oh well! I eventually reached Eqalugaarniarfik Hut around 2pm feeling pretty hot and knackered. The hut was full and surrounded by tents. I met some local girls inside who advised me to go south but told me everyone else had gone north. They were from a children’s home in sisimiut, and were out in the wilderness learning how to hunt reindeer, and they were very proud to show me their gun. They invited me for lunch, but I decided to keep going….., I probably would have stopped for lunch if I had realised there was another big arsed hill to climb straight up from the hut….., it was slow going. I am pretty unfit at the moment, so did have to have a talking to myself half way up ;-).

Once up the hill, the views were stunning and the rest of the path for the afternoon was a pure delight, going around the lakeshore of three beautiful lakes and then following a river valley to Innajuattoq hut. I past three Czech students heading in the other direction to me who assured me the trail was smoke free, and then I passed a trio of guys with enormous 25kg bags (a greenlander, a Parisian and a dane) but more on them later.

I arrived at the Innajuattoq hut at about 6.00, and decided to stay inside for the night. This was widely touted as the best hut on the trail, and the three occupants already in residence were delightful – Theo and Linea from Austria/Netherlands, and Jens from Denmark. I promptly started devouring a four course meal of soup, fish and potatoes and two desserts, a cup of tea and a cup of cocoa, and then started feeling normal, as the trio of guys I had passed earlier arrived. Bo, Brian and Goran…. they were like a comedic trio, with amusing riffs and they entertained us all until 10pm, well past my bed time when I finally called it a night. I slept wonderfully – sleeping inside on a mattress is a heck of a lot easier with a broken wrist even if you do have to put up with gentle danish snoring.

Day 4 hiked to Kangerluarsuk Tullek Hut (short day, 34km walking, finished at 3pm)

I woke up at 6.30 and headed out by 7.00, packing up quietly so as not to wake up my fellow hikers. Most people on this trail take 9-10 days to walk the trail, so don’t start early. They also carry huge bags – with the average weight being c. 20-25kg, compared to my 10-11kg (including all my food).

It was an easy morning 17k hike to Nerumaq hut along a river valley with steep cliffs on either side and a few lovely lakes. I have realised the walking here for me is always easy in the morning when it is cool and the sun is at your back.

Alongside Amitsorsuaq

I arrived at Nerumak around 10am and make some pasta for an early lunch, had a coffee and then headed further up the valley. This was crunch time as this was the smoke zone. I covered the first 10km without any worries, but then did start seeing the smoke billowing up from a neighbouring valley. Fortunately very little of it was coming my way and I knew I was walking into the wind, so if I made it a few more kms, then I would be fine. I pressed on, but couldn’t help stopping to check out the aftermath of the fire on the far side of the river.

Alongside Amitsorsuaq where I took a foot bath

By about 2pm I was through the worst of it and at the lake just before the ford at Kangerluarsuk Tulleq. The worst hiking hours here are in the afternoon with the sun in your face and sweat in your eyes and tired feet. I knew the hut was uphill and it is quite dry at the moment so I couldn’t guarantee there would be water, so I loaded up with 3kg of water and slogged (very slowly) up hill to the hut. I took two wrong turns, as there were very few cairns, had one sense of humour failure, and finally made it to the hut at 3.30pm having done 34km. I could have kept going, but I really couldn’t motivate myself, and I only had 20km to get to sisimiut the day after anyway.

Canoes at the head of the lake

I entertained myself in the hut with Anders the German backpacker, eating more food, while he made do with soup and instant potato (I was nice and gave him some tuna and boiled his water for him), and we watched the smoke billowing from the other side of the ford. Two German ladies arrived a little later, Irena kept me entertained with the weight of the gear in her pack – she had a mattress made of down that weighed 1kg and required a special apparatus to blow it up – it was quite something. It was a tiny hut so we squished in together. I am not normally a fan of huts over my tent, but with the arm busted, it is definitely easier. I was in my sleeping bag by 8pm, and we were all asleep by 8.30pm – a big night in the bush

Day 5 last 22km to Sisimuit (arrived at 11am)

I woke up at 6 thinking the hut was surrounded by fog, but it was actually smoke, so I roused the others, packed up and headed out by 7am (after taking a wrong route for 20 minutes).

Sisimuit

The trail sidles along the mountain side next to a fjord and there were stunning views, and then the trail veers sharply up to do a nice steep climb up to Qerrortusup Majoriaa. These high sections are beautiful, lots of little lakes and stunning views. There were a few tents dotted along the route. I met a Belgian guy about half way to Sisimiut who was making breakfast outside his tent at 10am accompanied by a very adorable local husky dog. Apparently she adopts hikers and walks them up and down the trail. Lucky for me, Snowy (as I named her), guided me most of the rest of the route to Sisimiut. Well perhaps not so lucky, as not far from the last descent (perhaps an hour from town), I forded a river, slipped on a boulder and fell hard on my broken wrist, and managed to get a great graze on my knee and as I would find out later, chip off a bit of bone in my little finger, fracture the joint and tear a tendon. Oh well!!!

Russell Glacier

I made it to Sisimiut just before 11, happy that I completed the trail in less than four days walking time. Less happy that I didn’t have a phone (and therefore didn’t know where my Airbnb was as didn’t have the address and there is no Internet cafe in town) :-). The universe always manages to sort me out, and I stopped in the first hotel I saw, got a map, and directions to the phone shop and the hospital. Sorted myself out an excellent 40 euro smart phone, got some X-rays on my broken finger, ate some pastries, and had a shower. I also had the good luck to meet Bo, Brian and Goran again. They had arrived at Nerumak hut in the evening on the same day I passed and there was a lot of smoke, so they pushed the sos button did the rest of the trail in a helicopter :-), which was nice for me as they were excellent dinner companions in Sisimiut.

Postscript – the Ice cap

I overnighted in Sisimuit, and then flew back to Kangerlussuaq. My plan had been to take a tour to the icecap and then walk the 40km back to the airport in time to catch my flight out. However, the weather had turned, my little finger was blue and difficult, and I decided to just be lazy and go on the tour and come back in the nice warm bus and stay in the excellent airport hotel. I highly recommend heading out to the icecap – its amazing and the Russell glacier is also lovely

This really was an amazing trail, and we were blessed with fantastic sunny clear weather all day, and unusually no mosquitos. Apart from the fire worries, the weather couldn’t have been better. I loved this trail and would be very happy to do it again!!!

Additional notes

  • Trail resources – I would highly recommend Paddy Dillons cicerone guide, the Greenland gps app (free), and the invaluable Facebook group hosted by Jesper and Huw
  • Food – take all your food with you, everything will be cheaper in your home country, and it also means you can get walking straight away. Gas and fuel are available in multiple places in Kanger, including the Isusishut which is 15m from the airport door
  • Gear – I took more or less what I took on the kungsleden (list here) except I took a poncho instead of waterproof pants and a jacket; and I now have a lighter mini in reach (highly recommended). I also took an extra fleece for the evenings and my heavier sleeping back (an extra 1kg in total max)
  • Tour – I booked with https://aac.gl to go to the icecap

Kangerlussuaq, August 16, 2019

Wandering the West Highland Way

Now I am finished with the 197 countries, I am quite keen to get a lot more hiking in…. so decided to sneak in a cheeky few nights in my tent and try and cover 70% of the West Highland Way over three days…. cheeky as I snuck what feels like a week of hiking in between leaving the office Friday night and arriving back Tuesday morning like nothing happened.

Day 0 – Ben Lomond. 15km 1100m of climbing

I finished a board meeting in Glasgow, changed into my hiking gear, offloaded my work gear on a colleague and hurriedly made last minute purchases of a lighter and some midge spray.  I headed north in an Uber ( more expensive but three hours faster than the bus alternative) 

My entertaining Uber ride to Rowardennan on the shores of Loch Lomond took an hour.  My driver was a retired restauranteur who was born in Islamabad and raised in Glasgow. He had only seen the Loch once in his 38 years there so he was quite happy for the ride.  We had a broad ranging discussion about the woes of the world covering everything from how the impact of the British partition of the subcontinent continues today to the Chinese expansion in Africa

It was a gloriously sunny day so I shouldered my enormous pack, with 10kg of gear and headed up to Ben Lo