Words and photos by Tales on Tyres @talesontyres
I can feel the sweet tingling feeling of excitement in my stomach, as we stow a few days worth of food into our frame bags. I’m no doubt looking forward to heading out on another bikepacking trip with my partner Jona, across the south of France.
With our frame bags filling up fast, we have to squeeze the last packages of nuts and muesli bars into our seatbags before we leave the picturesque town of Barcelonnette, climbing up and out of the valley through lush larch forests shimmering golden in the late autumn's sun.
The fully loaded bicycles feel heavy at first but soon the surrounding landscape, pulls us into its span. On our first night, we camp high above the treeline, watching the faint lights of towns and cars dancing across the horizon in the far distance. Our phones are switched off. We're disconnected and unreachable as I begin to feel relaxed.
The next morning we begin before sunrise, the air feels fresh and we must to pull out our gloves and wait for the sun to rise over the peaks before we begin to warm up. The landscape we are passing through that day still feels wild and remote. Something you don't find often in the otherwise so densely populated Europe. Apart from a shepherd with his flock of sheep, we seem to be the only ones out there.
We are taken by surprise as just before dusk we spot two hikers on the trail ahead of us. Their pace is slow but steady and when we finally catch up to them. We stop. The fact that the two middle-aged women hardly speak any English and we only some very basic French, keeps the conversation short. We wave them Goodbye before descending down the mountain side, concentrating on the rough and sometimes technical downhill ahead of us.
Just before we enter the forest again and the trail turns more smooth, Jona comes to a sudden halt and pulls out the GPS. The thought that we had missed a turn earlier and would have to climb all the way back up the trail immediately pops into my mind, but Jona seems to have a different concern. “I really wonder where these two women are going. There is no road or village nearby” he determines, he then catches a quick look on his watch, which seems to add another worry “And in half an hour it will be pitch black!” He is right, the sun is slowly disappearing behind the mountain ridge on our left and the backpacks of the hikers didn’t looked like they were going to spend the night camping out in the mountains.
We debate for a while if we should wait and check on them or if we better keep on going to set up our own camp for the night. Our gut feeling is telling us to wait. It takes a good half an hour before we can make out their voices, happily chatting away just a few meters up the trail. When they see us, they are more than surprised and even more so, when Jona asks them again about their destination. One of them pulls out a slightly weathered pamphlet, the kind you'll find at good equipped tourists offices, featuring a short description of their hike along with a very basic map of the area. With her finger she points out the place where their car is parked and I can see Jona's eyes wandering back and forth, from pamphlet to the GPS in his hands.
“Shit, they're totally wrong!” he calmly says to me in German not to spark any panic, but the expression on my face must have given away too much because the women immediately want to know what is wrong. When Jona shows them their location on the GPS, a tirade of french swear words breaks loose, followed by a heated conversation among them. Me and Jona step back to have another good look at the map. Our plan: to scan for roads cutting the trail at some point from where it would then be possible to arrange a taxi to pick them up. Lucky, we find one and when we propose our plan to help them getting there, the women refuse politely, assuming we surely must have better things to do. I must say, with my stomach asking about dinner and my legs feeling heavy from the day's ride, the excitement of stumbling through the dark, for what looks like another 10km, doesn’t seem the most tempting version to end the day but no doubt the only right one.
We ignore their declination of our help and when we pull out our head torches, we can sense their relief. They had forgotten to bring their lights. Together, the four of us continue with Jona in front, guiding the way with the two women in the middle and me in the back, trying to illuminate us much of the trail ahead as possible. Needless to say, both of them are embarrassed about the situation they got themselves into and keep explaining that this has never happened to them before. We totally believe them and the rest of the long march, we walk in nearly complete silence, concentrating on our tired feed taking the right steps. When we finally reach the road at 10:30pm, their friend awaits them. Jona and me are relieved to have managed to guide the two hikers down the mountain and immediately look forward to rolling out our sleeping pads and going to sleep. But they don’t seem to want to let us go and instead they offer to pay us a night in a hotel and invite us over for dinner, seemingly looking for a way to thank us and show us their appreciation. We kindly refuse and instead exchange a round of warm hugs before they take off with their friend as we watch the lights of the car disappear in the distance.
When Jona and I finally lay down that night, tightly tucked into our sleeping bags, we can't help but laugh about the whole situation.
Of course some would consider it careless to head into the mountains without a proper map and no lights. However, we ourselves have been lost in the mountains before.
Years back in Bulgaria, we accidentally went off-track and were picked up by a couple of local shepherds just before nightfall. Realizing how miserable of situation we were in, they offered us one of the beds in their little hut, served us a plate of hot dinner and showed us the way back the following morning. Not entirely sure how it would have turned out without them. Sometimes it just takes a little moment of inattention in the mountains or the misplacement of an important piece of gear to catapult you into a dangerous situation. It can happen to all of us, no matter the experience or expertise and that's why this was a good reminder to us, that looking out for each in the mountains is not a heroic act but rather a matter of course and requirement.
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