Sospel to Menton – D37

Sospel to Menton, Day 37

So, finally, dawn has broken over Sospel on our 37th and last day of hiking the GTA from Lake Leman to Menton on the GR5 and GR52. As we set off from St. Gingolph on the 6th of August this last day seemed so distant as to be scarcely possible. Yet here we are, simply by putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going.

I’d spent the evening with Simon and Nada and heard first hand of the real trauma and suffering that Tatiana had endured during the last months of her life – full of suffering and pain, which she had borne stoically and usually with a smile. But the details of her decline and eventual death are truly horrific. I barely slept that night.

As we prepped and booted up it was evident it was going to be a really hot day. I filled up a spare water bottle and for the first time loaded up with three litres of water.

Paddy Dillon’s account of the final descent into Menton describes it in quite off-putting terms: jagged, steep, slippery, rocky. Others we have met have told of a real horror of a descent. Here’s what the graphics in Trekking the GR5 by Cicerone relate:

In total we had about 20km to run with 1,000m of ascent and 1,500m of descent down to the Med. So, we set off just before the sun rose over the mountains and immediately began to climb through quite dense woodland. It was humid and despite the relative shade provided by the trees we were soon sweating quite freely – at least I was. In fact, I was going to have another of those days of being soaked to the skin.

After some climbing and meandering we broke into a clearing with a long view into Italy; a memorial to resistance fighters who’d been caught and shot by the Germans in the Second World War at a farm in the valley below; and a water fountain, where Phil Neame decided to have a drink with all his mates:

Not to be outdone, Richard decided to buy all his mates a drink as well:

But, we couldn’t hang around drinking like this for too long and soon moved on along yet more winding track and woodland, some of which grew at crazy angles.

After a couple of hours a sign by the track improbably indicated that somewhere up ahead was a free help-yourself-to-drinks pit stop. What could this mean? Free? But, sure enough, within ten minutes we came upon an unusual set up: a beautiful terraced garden in which a tent provided shelter and a bar invited you to help yourself to a variety of soft drinks and produce. There was no obligation to pay but you could leave whatever you wanted in a tin. We rang the bell and a lady high up on the terrace welcomed us and told us to help ourselves and wished us a pleasant journey. This act of generosity restores one’s faith in human nature.

But, we didn’t loiter there at the half way point too long. We had another ten kilometres to cover over high terrain that occasionally offered glimpses of the sea below and, tantalisingly, Menton and Monaco beyond.

We’d heard quite a lot of helicopter activity. The same aircraft kept flying the same pattern above the hills we were in. I had a sense they were searching to someone or some thing. All came clear as we began the ascent of the Col de Berceau. As we sweated uphill a young man in jeans and a sweater appeared almost out of nowhere and demanded to know the way to Nice. He wasn’t dressed for hiking. Beyond him about fifty metres away I could see five, perhaps six others. They looked Middle Eastern. Migrants on the trail into Europe. These had slipped over the Italian border, possibly at Menton and were headed towards the nearest large city in which they could disappear. They were clearly ill equipped for the journey and had no idea where they were or how to get to Nice. As the helicopter returned all of them looked up and shrank back under the tree where they were sitting.

This was the first time we’d come face to face with desperate-looking migrants, risking everything to escape their failing countries for a new life in Europe. We weren’t able to offer them much advice other than to go back to Menton and try to get to Nice that way. They were reluctant to do that. Quite why became very obvious once we began our descent into Menton.

We pushed on towards the Col. I was walking with Richard when he suddenly spotted a blue handkerchief on the ground – recently dropped. It turned out to be Phil’s. After the underpants incident yesterday and the gross contamination that Phil’s handkerchief might have been subjected to at the dreadfully unhygienic Refuge des Merveilles several days earlier, Richard was taking no chances with what he clearly saw as a biohazard and made novel use of his sticks to avoid contamination.

The Col de Berceau was the last we’d have to cross. Beyond it the ground dropped down to Menton and the sea. We stopped in the saddle of the Col in the shade of large but sparse pines. This was our last brew stop. The Jetboils were fired up and the last of our tea bags and crumbly lumps of sugar were used in the daily ritual.

In the clearing three large trunks formed benches around a fire. It was still warm from the previous night. We wondered if the migrants we’d seen had huddled round it before striking further inland. From the forward edge of the treeline Menton was clearly visible far below.

After a lengthy brew and foot-breather we booted up and set off on what we thought would be a hellish descent. At least that’s what everyone told us to expect. It was nothing of the sort. Yes, it was steep and in places you had to watch the loose soil and rock, but it was nothing like the descent from the Brévant into Les Houches or the toe-bashing one down into Maljasset. The descent was easily manageable, but the heat was intense, which made it somewhat arduous. I’d gone through nearly two litres of water by this point. But, any discomfort was rendered small by the alluring view of Menton and Monaco.

Down we went, picking our way carefully through loose boulders and stones. It wasn’t really a time for your mind to wander, but as the marina at Menton inched nearer I was acutely aware that none of this would have been remotely possible had Richard Villar and Godfrey McFall not planned their parts of this journey so meticulously. Not once did we get to a refuge or an auberge to discover that the booking had been cocked up. That’s some feat of planning and perseverance, which is incredibly time-consuming. I am very grateful to them both for their enabling efforts.

As we closed on Menton the track became littered with the detritus of illegal migration. Almost at every turn of the track we’d find discarded clothes, cheap sleeping bags, empty water bottles, personal possessions. What was the story? Had they been caught and rounded up, or had they sensed the authorities closing in and simply fled, abandoning their meagre possessions? It was a pitiful and sad sight. I couldn’t help thinking that in less than twenty-four hours I’d be in a tin tube flying back to UK in comfort while below these folk would be blundering around the forest and tracks of the GR52 trying to get to Nice on foot.

The worst of the migrant detritus is to be found just where the track meets the first of Menton’s tarmac, which leads under the main Cote d’Azure highway and downhill through Menton’s narrow streets. In one we were confronted by an elegant arch containing a Madonna, at which Phil knelt to give thanks for our victory at the Battle of Merveilles several days previously (or that’s what I’d like to think).

Actually, it should have been me kneeling to give thanks for all the generous donations that have continued to come in throughout this trip. As we close with the Med and journey’s end, those donations through two gateways have easily exceeded £9,500 and may yet reach £10,000. I am extremely grateful to everyone who has chipped in to help support this incredibly worthwhile and much needed charity. I have no other words than thank you.

The curious thing about finishing this trek is that it doesn’t seem that big a deal. Perhaps we’d just got used to the rhythm of walking. I mean, all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and just keep going. What’s required? Bold and fearless steps; firmness and presence of mind; at all times.

Curiously, yet unsurprisingly by now, whilst at the brew stop, two Englishmen had panted up behind us. They were quite minimalist in terms of gear – light packs and trainers. We got chatting. They’d started from St. Gingolph on the 24th of August, nearly three weeks after we’d started, and caught us at Menton on the 11th of September. They had raced along at an average of 40kms a day. Their last day had been Refuge de Nice to Sospel. This had taken us three days. It seems that each time your ego starts to think you’re quite good the Great Spirit in the Sky provides you with evidence that pricks your bubble, a form of spiritual emasculation: Steph the German who had started her GR5 solo from Stuttgart some 300 kms further north; the amazing Ninja of the Alps; the Aussies who’d slogged all the way down from Holland (true GR 5ers) and now this pair of impressive racing snakes.

I guess everyone looks to get something different out of a long trek. It wasn’t about speed or distance for us. It was about the journey – the Fools you’re with, and the people you meet along the way and how you interact with and write about them. Would we have enjoyed that drink with the goats had we cut along much faster? Would we even have noticed them? Did the racing snakes discover novel and multi-functional ways of drying their underpants? Did they have a battle honour?

Ultimately, a journey like this is really a journey through the interior landscape of your own being. As we got closer to Menton I began to regret every step that would ultimately mean that this dreamscape would soon end. I didn’t want it to. But, all things come to an end and as my late mother always used to say, one door closes and another opens.

After some twisting and turning through Menton’s streets we emerged onto the main palm-fringed seafront and turned left. We were headed towards the tiny scrap of beach at the eastern end of the marina that is mentioned in Paddy Dillon’s Trekking the GR5.

We found it easily. Waiting for us were Tatiana’s parents, Nada and Simon, and their two Schnauzers, Dottie and Mimi. Dottie had been Tatiana’s.

We threw off our packs, tore off our hot boots, scooped up Dottie and put our feet into the luke warm water of the Mediterranean. We’d completed our journey from water to water.

It seemed right that Dottie should join us. She’d lain across Tatiana’s feet until she died.

Days to go: 0

Vital Statistics:

Sospel to Menton: