May 31st-June 3rd: The Pollino – a private wilderness

While waiting for sunrise high in Calabria’s Pollino National Park I realized I didn’t know what day of the week it was. And, hard as I tried, I couldn’t work it out…

Now, not knowing whether it was Monday, Wednesday or Sunday may not sound like a big deal. But it was. It clearly illustrates that a fundamental shift had occurred: that after nearly five weeks on foot I was now so far removed from the routines of the every-day world that routines were no longer relevant. A day was now just a day, an event without a label. Not knowing what day it was meant I was free to live it to the full.

When you know what day it is you typically know what to expect. A Monday, for example, is a particular thing – the first day of the working week for many people – just as a Friday is often the last. Knowing that it is Monday means we know how the day will likely unfold, and we know how we will likely behave. The day’s name may well help us survive it and help define its routines, but it also limits how we approach it. But if a day has no name with no pre-determined routine then there is no expectation of how it should unfold, and then it can become a thing of unlimited potential, a blank slate upon which we can draw whatever we wish.

Pre-school children don’t know what day of the week it is when they awake. And they don’t usually care. They just know it’s another day; that it will be whatever it will be, filled with things to discover, and experiences to be had, and that it holds great potential for fun. Pre-schoolers know how to live life…

And so do long distance walkers! When they’ve been underway long enough, long-distance walkers get a chance to step right back…

Which is what I got to do in the Pollino.

The Parco Nazionale del Pollino is Italy’s largest national park. Covering 756 square miles the Pollino forms an immense mountain barrier that separates Calabria from the rest of Italy. The range boasts the type of mountains I’d been dreaming of since the walk had begun: stony giants thrust above treeline over which one can stride without hindrance and see for a hundred-plus miles. The highest peak, Monte Pollino, is the highest mountain in the southern Apennines. For half the year its 7,375-foot summit is buried in snow, and the surrounding forests can hold a snow pack lasting many months longer. Deer, wild cats, and wild boar make the Pollino home. As do golden eagles, vultures, and the elusive and endangered Apennine wolf. Apennine wolves pose little threat to people, but just knowing they were around added an extra element of wildness to the mountains and surrounding woods. They gave the national park value beyond measure.

I climbed into the Pollino on the last day of May after a wonderful stay in the town of Castrovillari. The town, filled with welcoming and helpful folk, proved to be the perfect place for rest and recuperation, and, thankfully, the ease of my stay there helped the swelling around my left ankle improve a great deal. Unlike elsewhere in Calabria all my ‘rest-day’ chores were completed swiftly and with the minimum of hassle. I filled my pack with quality food from a single well-stocked supermarket, and washed my clothes at a local laundry ably assisted by locals who helped me surmount the laundry’s otherwise insurmountable quirks. Just two blocks from my hotel I found a photographic store and bought some extra rolls of Velvia to replace the rolls that hadn’t reached me further south. And the owner of the hotel gave me a book, in English, the enigmatic Villa San Michele. Best of all, a stranger I bumped into in the laundry went away to make photocopies of his detailed hiking maps and brought them to me at the hotel. They covered the next hundred miles of the walk and opened up the Pollino for full exploration.

And explore it I did. After a long climb from the hot plains following a remarkably easy-to-follow trail (a rare thing indeed in Calabria!) I set up a base camp at 6,000 feet in the heart of the wilderness, and from there spent two days wandering over high ridges, lonely tops and through flower-filled meadows. My base camp sat above a wide grassy bowl and looked south to a shattered crag laced with snow. A huge snow-drift just above camp gushed fresh water, removing in a stroke one of the main challenges Calabria had presented. The camp’s location was everything I could have ever wanted: beautiful, wild, and completely un-peopled. And it was cool: I needed my fleece! Even at midday the slightest breeze prompted goose-bumps upon bare flesh, while the nights were mountain-cold. Each dawn brought a coating of frost to the inside of the tent and a skim of ice to water within my water bottle. Each evening I sat wrapped in my sleeping bag in silence in my own private wilderness while deer and boar rustled unseen in the forests and cuckoos called from nearby slopes. The mountain closest to camp was named Dolcedorme, which means ‘sweet sleep’. After all the sultry nights at lower elevations I certainly did.

I climbed to the high crest of Serra Delle Ciavole and then Pollino for sunrise. In soft pre-dawn light I picked my way carefully over patches of hard-frozen snow and scrambled up a shattered limestone ridge to stand higher than anyone else in southern Italy. What a morning it was, so filled with vibrancy and promise! There was a child-like thrill to experiencing it, a simple joy in tasting every subtle nuance. Every sense tingled with life; every breath seemed sweeter than the one preceding it. When the sun finally burst free from the horizon the rocks at my feet glowed, and a huge swathe of Italy came into view. I looked across to three seas – the Ionian, the Adriatic, and the Tyrrhenian – and gave my imagination permission to roam. There’s no traveler like the imagination, and no better place to grant it freedom than a high summit at dawn. This was why I’d come.

And it didn’t remotely matter what day of the week it was…

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The wild heart of the Pollino National Park.

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Easy walking beneath Monte Pollino.

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Soft pre-dawn light on the Serra Delle Ciavole, at 5:10am.

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Sunrise across wildest Calabria.

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The high ridges of the Pollino, offering unhindered walking and hundred-mile views.

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Summit view from Monte Pollino.

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Castrovillari and the hot plains seemed a world away.

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A Pollino sunset, viewed from just above camp.

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My home in the Pollino, a private wilderness.

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Collecting fresh water, and it was sweeter than from any tap.

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May 26th-30th: Hard Days, Hot Nights, High Summits

One of the great ironies of backpacking across Northern Calabria is that the low rural valleys, which you’d suppose would give easier walking, make things harder, and the high mountains, where you’d think progress would be harder, make things easier…

It’s like this:

Private land down in the valleys limits options. There are countless barriers, fences, and all manner of man-made obstacles that get in the way . There is little open country; there are very few places where one can just… walk. Pedestrian-friendly paths and tracks are few and far between, and of the rare handful that do exist none are marked (at least none that I found). Filling the landscape between farms, orchards, vineyards and villages are occasional uncultivated thickets and wooded hills, and these usually are wild in every sense of the word: often so filled with brambles and thorns and with undergrowth so dense that they form, essentially, impenetrable walls. Just try pushing through such places and you’ll feel like a jungle explorer. And you’ll be well perforated and shredded for your efforts. I speak from experience.

There are few places in the valleys where one can camp wild, and finding a hidden pitch takes real ingenuity and great stealth. Water for camp can be scarce; water from streams isn’t necessarily safe to drink. Occasional roadside fountains do exist, but rarely near a good spot for camp, and water usually has to be carried some distance. And the camps aren’t comfortable. By night mosquitoes, ants, and a million-and-one weird and wonderful insects appear, making it difficult to sit outside after a hard day’s slog and simply relax. Mosquitoes frequently force retreat into a zippered tent, and on hot, sultry nights this isn’t the best place to be. Sleep here isn’t restful, one lies tossing and turning, drenched in sweat, and by dawn one often feels more wasted than one had been the evening before after a long and hard day’s hike.

And then there are the dogs: large dogs, small dogs, old dogs, young dogs… muscular farm dogs, flock-protecting sheep dogs, territory-defending village dogs, and plain-old-crazy-mangy-flea-bitten wild dogs. They fill the valleys in their hundreds, barking and howling all night long, limiting sleep, hassling the would-be pedestrian by day. Sit down anywhere during the day for a desperately needed rest and dogs will likely appear, suggesting with snarls, bristling fur and low-hung tails that one should quickly move on. A token few are friendly, most are not. Every time any kind of building is approached one becomes tense, expecting the next set of hounds to emerge. To someone out walking all day they are a curse. No wonder I saw few Calabrians out walking.

And then there are the roads, the hard paved valley roads, the only realistic routes to follow where trails don’t exist and woods can’t be penetrated. The roads can leave legs sore, soles tender, heels raw. The roads cut one off from the land. Unlike shaded woodland paths the valley roads are typically open to the blistering midday sun and can be furnace-hot; how one can sweat while following a sun-baked Calabrian road! And they aren’t the friendliest places to walk: even motorists following quiet country roads frequently make it clear that walkers are out of place. And on major roads? Is the pedestrian made to feel welcome? I think not! After a day following roads in searing late-May heat one can feel physically spent and spiritually drained. And that is when a road leads where wanted. When they twist about unexpectedly and dead end, and when they fail to match the map, then the long distance walker can finish the day feeling ready to keel over and never move again, too far gone to think, to exhausted to question the purpose of being out on foot in the first place.

So much for the valleys!

The high mountains, by contrast, at least those with bald grassy heights above tree line, are a breeze. There’s nothing to interrupt progress, one can see a hundred miles, the air is usually cooler, and one can stop and camp pretty much anywhere one chooses. Easy…

So it’s no wonder I was looking forward to the next set of high mountains, those of the Pollini Range, with such keenness. And it’s pretty clear why I pushed towards them across lower country in such a rush. The valleys after the Sila were undoubtedly beautiful to look at, with their ordered olive groves and medieval villages, and they were fascinatingly rich in history, with layer upon layer of civilization buried deep into the soil… but I couldn’t wait to confine them to my past.

For five days, life was ROUGH.

Of course, it didn’t have to be. Most of the towns had hotels, and a cleansing shower followed by a soft bed in an air-conditioned room every night would have eased the intensity of the adventure notably! Unfortunately, I was on a desperately tight budget. Even without such luxuries as hotels my limited cash reserve was due to run out by September or October, long before I’d reached Norway. Hotels every night were far beyond my means.

And perhaps the landscape would have seemed entirely different and friendlier if I’d crossed it by car, coach, or even by bicycle. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t! When traveling by foot one sees a place as it really is, warts and all! That’s one of the attractions of foot travel, even if sometimes it makes life harder.

Of course, if I was to re-walk that section now, fifteen years on, there are things I’d change. I’d carry half the load, I’d wear soft trail shoes not hefty mountain boots, and I’d go out of my way to ask farmers and locals if I could camp on their land, as I did later on in the journey further north. That, more than anything, would have made the biggest difference of all. But I didn’t. For some reason at this early stage of the journey I felt compelled to remain self-sufficient and camp wild, as though I had to prove to myself I had what it took, and life was exceptionally tough because of it.

The lowest point came when a minor road I was following led into the depths of a steep-sided gorge through which a major four-lane highway roared. By this time I was no longer relying on a large scale map of Italy: I’d picked up a recently published road map just of Calabria, but it was still wildly inaccurate and impressively out of date. It didn’t even hint that the four lane highway existed. Filled with roaring traffic it wasn’t crossable, so I walked along the shoulder for a while, looking for some way to escape. I considered turning back, but I was so hot and tired by this point I just wanted to push on and have the day done, not retrace my steps for many hours to finish back where I’d started.

But I should have turned back. And I shouldn’t have dashed through the first dark tunnel the highway cut through, in fear of my life. Nor should I have tried to climb above the second even longer tunnel. It was a crazy situation for a mountain walker to find himself in, scrambling up steep rocks and loose earth directly above a major highway filled with horn-shrieking engine-roaring trucks and cars. The slope I climbed was so near vertical it might just as well have been vertical, and the ground was treacherously loose, and the exposure was terrifying, and a fall was utterly unthinkable. The only way to climb to freedom was to pull hard on trees and shrubs and hope they didn’t break or come free from the loose ground. With my backpack pulling me backwards I strained and cursed upwards, aware that one slip would finish the walk. And what an embarrassing way to fail it would have been!

But somehow I escaped, and somehow I forced a route through the jungle above the tunnel, and somehow I escaped from the gorge. The vegetation was so knotted and razor-sharp it took an hour to make a hundred yards. It wasn’t remotely pleasant. But oddly, in the midst of the struggle, and despite the flowing blood and sweat, I found myself laughing. It was all so outrageously ridiculous! And I sensed that even this low point had value; that even this insane battle above the tunnel could teach. At the very least it would make future miles away from civilization even more sweet…

A few days later came the high point, when I tasted the sweetness of the mountains, when I burst above treeline for the first time in the journey on the lonely dome of La Mula, and practically danced with joy beneath the sky. It didn’t matter that it was just one mountain, and that I faced another crazy forest battle descending from it, all that mattered was for twenty four hours I could live in absolute freedom and bliss, and I’m not sure I’d ever enjoyed or appreciated the simpleness of a high mountain before the way I then did.

By the time I reached my last village in Calabria – Castrovillari – I was a physical wreck. Being scratched, dirty and torn was the least of it. My left leg was in shocking pain. Great spasms kept erupting behind my knee, across my thighs, down in my calf. And my left ankle had swollen horribly. It had puffed up exactly the way it had after fracturing it four years earlier when I’d fallen a thousand feet down a glacier in Switzerland. I walked a grueling 28-mile day to get to Castrovillari before stores and services closed for the weekend, and most if it was done with a painful hobbling limp. I almost cried with relief when I reached town. I thought: “To hell with my budget!” and splashed out, and found a hotel for a well-earned two-night break.

For 461 miles life had been hard, but it didn’t remotely cross my mind that I could, or should, give up on the walk. Why on earth do that? I didn’t even consider it. The truth was I was having the adventure of a lifetime, it was exactly the way it was supposed to be, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing!

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Sunset from the Serra La Guadi in the Calabrian Apennines.

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The beautiful hilltop village of Luzzi on a hot May afternoon. Walking across this landscape shouldn’t be too hard, right?

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Idyllic Calabrian landscape in the Crati Valley. If only it had all been like this…

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The limestone Pollino Mountains, bursting free from dense forests of oak and beech.

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The sweet high life. Joyfully easy progress across bald grassy tops.

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An upland valley in the Pollino. Just don’t go too near the cattle and dogs…

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Big mountains and shifting mists in the Pollino.

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Summit view north from La Mula, the coast in view to the left.

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Long distance view ahead to snow-speckled summits, the highest in the Southern Apennines, due to be reached by early June.

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Hot afternoon and wide spaces near Castrovillari, seen during a grueling 28-mile day.