Explorer Belt Day 5 – Saou to Dieulefit

Photo 1 - Eglise St Roch
In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Friday 17th August 1984

Awoke in a dry antless tent for once. Ryvita for breakfast after the usual washing ritual. Walked into Saou and took photo of church. Bought coke and cake. Walked 10km to Bourdeaux. Waited there for a bit and then walked a wicked 13km to Dieulfit in hot weather. Above 80 degrees as always. Exhausted so camped at a good site and watched nearby tennis at a tennis club. Very hot. Had ravioli, mash and French bread to eat. Was best meal yet.

Blisters accumulating on right heel. Walked around Dieulfit. Probably best day yet. Locals even play boules at night (saw some at 2am) for god knows what reason. Nice town, larger for the area in terms of population and size. Got to bed at 10:30

On this day:

  • Film Tightrope released, produced and starring Clint Eastwood

Looking back…

Did I really subsist on coke and cake?! I recall those iconic vintage tinted green curvy coke bottles that were sold all over the region out of red plastic crates. Back home it was all (now also classic) red and white cans.

Our food for the most part was dry in order to save weight. I have barely eaten ryvita since 1984 but it served the purpose at the time. Evening meals were mostly dry trekking packs which we poured into an aluminium pan and rehydrated with water before boiling over the meths fuelled trangia stove.

Some of the recipes sounded quite exotic and I remember thinking they tasted good although back then I also thought biscuits and coke tasted good. What an evening meal – carbs, carbs and more carbs! We were burning them off for sure.

It’s likely I was taking photos of churches in aid of one of our EB projects. In a sense that’s a shame because with a maximum of 36 photos to play with over my 3 weeks in France (!) it would have been better to capture more images of Andy, myself and the dramatic landscape. Anyway, here it is…

Photo 1 - Eglise St Roch
Photo 1 – Eglise St Roch
Rediscovering this photo on street-view was simple enough…
Modern re-creation in street view

It really was extremely hot and we were paying insufficient respect to the advice not to walk during the hottest part of the day. Was it any wonder we were both suffering with blisters? A 23km walk in relatively new walking boots, mostly along firm roads, carrying over-packed rucksacks was always likely to spell trouble in such circumstances.

Dieulefit was a dreamily pretty little town – the kind of place you might consider if looking to move and live in France. It is easy to bemoan a lack of photos or description in my accounts but we didn’t have that much time to explore each day, what with the walking, finding somewhere to camp, pitching up, cooking and washing up.

Ramshackle charm of Dieulefit

The tennis courts adjoined our campsite and it was fun watching club players compete to an entertaining standard. We saw lots of tennis courts during our hike. At least anything seems like lots when you almost never see one in Britain. Also there were numerous table tennis tables in people’s front yards.

Since I went to bed at 10:30 how did I know they were playing boules at 2am? Perhaps they were playing in the campsite and I visited the bathroom in the night? There are some mysteries that can’t be unravelled.

Map
In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 14.1 miles (22.5 km)

 Key:
Start Saou
Via Bourdeaux
End Dieulefit
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Eglise St Roch
Tennis club Tennis Club du Jabron
Overnight Camping at Le Domaine des Grand Pres

Explorer Belt Day 4 – Beaufort to Saou

Photo 2 - Eglise Square

 

In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Thursday 16th August 1984

Got up at 7am. Washed feet in river. Ate ryvita with paste and drank orange juice. Hung out tent to dry on some football posts. Said goodbye to our hosts and when all was packed we left and walked to Aoust at a steady pace. Get there at approximately 11:10. Sat in café writing log. Played on a pool table.

Continued our walk through scorching heat and a large valley to a campsite near Saou. Camped in windy area. Good facilities (toilets and showers). Had very good food. Savoury risotto, liquid mousse and tea. Wrote log. Took things easy. Got to bed at 10:11.

On this day:

  • Car designer John De Lorean is acquitted of drug related charges
  • NASA launches Ampte space probe
  • Top Of The Pops is presented by Steve Wright and features Tears For Fears & Howard Jones

Looking back…

My diary says that we washed in the river – it would have been mountain fresh not to mention mountain cold. Brrr! As for drying the tent that was the dew that greeted us each morning. The rising sun soon dried things out.

After yesterday’s blister enforced break it was good to be back on the road again. Our early start meant that we could cover a fair distance before the searing heat made the business of hiking uncomfortable from late morning to mid afternoon. This stretch was a pleasure as we followed the scenic valley south through farming and orchard land. If I ever go back I want to try the wine!

The attractive valley road from Beaufort to Aoust

All of these years later I would like to belatedly apologise to the residents of Aoust for the despicable crime that I committed while caught short. With nowhere to go I utilised a dilapidated hut by the side of the road. Only upon exiting this disused shack did I notice the bus timetable on the wall… Merde!

Looking at google maps the route from Aouste to Saou followed a rocky mountain ridge that must have been spectacular, especially during the descent into the valley east of Aoust. It is typical that I would fail to mention this while proclaiming the food. Perhaps that is the French way.

Approaches to Saou…

Photo 1 - Saou mountain outcrop
Photo 1 – Saou mountain outcrop
The same view today on google street view
Modern re-creation in street view

It seems that much of our walking was along roads. This would have put more stress upon us than path walking but is unsurprising given that the mountainous terrain would be unlikely to offer many choices of passage.

My photo of the church square in Saou clearly illustrates the mountainous setting. This is one of many stop-offs that I would love to visit again.

Photo 2 - Eglise Square
Photo 2 – Eglise Square
They have cleared the ivy but nothing else has changed
Modern re-creation in street view

Where did we camp in Saou? It’s not clear but there are a couple of nearby camp sites and one thing’s for sure – the views would have been incredible. Here’s the vista from Camping La Graville near to Saou…

The great outdoors!

I’m glad I have photos to refer to because my nonchalant diary entry might as well have me tramping through Milton Keynes.

Map
In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 15.0 miles (24.0 km)

 Key:
Start Beaufort sur-Gervanne
Via Aoust-sur-Sye
End Saou
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Saou mountain outcrop
Photo 2 Street view of Photo 2 – Eglise Square

Explorer Belt Day 3 – Beaufort

Photo 1 - Our guests yard

 

In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Wednesday 15th August 1984

Got up late at 9:30. Washed feet in brook. Wore sandals for first time in France. We left rucksacks at house and took ant filled tent down (we found loads of ants crawling around tent). Killed scores of ants. Family went out for the day so we sat down and wrote log, drew maps, drank and shoed flies away.

This continued until 2:30 when pangs of hunger drove us to Beaufort where we found only the restaurant (too expensive) and newsagent open. We saw many people playing boules and took photo before very hot sun (approx 80 degrees fahrenheit) drove us back to the shade of the newsagents. We bought 1 pack of biscuits, 3 postcards and 2 stamps.

Went back to house where we wrote 2 postcards. Walked back and posted them in Beaufort and we also filled up water bottles and larger water container. Returned and attempted to make goulash. Andy spilled half a pint of it on the stone floor, but no loss because it was horrible anyway and the dog ate it. Frantically cleared up mess and then attempted mash which was OK except that there was too much.

Washed the mash container out in the river and surplus mash flew all over the place. Trees were white with mash. The stream bed had mash on it. I discarded the rest under a large stone whose inhabitant (a spider) was most surprised, distressed and soon drowned in mash. After washing up we made rice pudding which was actually edible and NICE! The meal ended well with delicious orange juice.

We left the rucksacks and wreckage from dinner but took just the tent to the most antless part of the field we could find. It pitched easily and for once correctly. I sellotaped every visible entrance which might allow an ant to enter and this done we settled down for the night. Will now sleep as soon as I’ve sellotaped up the door for the tent. Got to bed at 9:22

On this day:

  • Ray Parker Jr in US charts with Ghostbusters
  • IBM releases the PC-AT – (286 processor, 20MB hard drive & 256k of RAM – feel the power!)
  • Soviet Union opens its alternative games having boycotted the Olympics

Looking back…

With blistered feet in need of rest today became an unanticipated recovery day, which at least meant a lie-in. The ants really were a pest. I was rather freaked out when we first encountered them in the tent but with the modern Force 10 Mk IV having a sealed groundsheet there were only a limited number of entrances and these could be taped up.

All along our walk I was struck by the prevalence of boules (petanque as the people of the Rhone valley called it). Every village had a sandy boules area and older gents would spend hours playing or watching beneath the shade of trees. One sensed lifelong friendships were played out in these arenas at a suitably sedate pace. Here is that photo I took…

Photo 2 - Boules in the square
Photo 2 – Boules in the square
I’m pleased to see that little has changed in 30 years.
Modern re-creation in street view

The house and yard at Beaufort are burnt into my memory. I don’t recall the mash episode but I do remember feeling extremely awkward about spilling goulash in the yard and hoping our kindly hosts would not be offended. In retrospect they would probably have been more offended by the fact we were eating shoddily cooked goulash, mash and rice pudding.

My diary reveals that I was instead preoccupied with food – something true to this day. We spilled the goulash in this yard…

Photo 1 - Our hosts yard
Photo 1 – Our hosts yard
I have been trying to work out exactly where we stayed using google maps based on the photo of the house. We were obviously staying at a property with land adjoining the river Gervanne so I think I can narrow it down to one of 2 properties. I have a hunch that it is this one – it assumes a degree of modernisation…
Modern re-creation in street view

We grabbed an early night and hoped the walk could continue in the morning without the hinderance of blisters.

Map
No walk today but a few locations are referenced

 Key:
Photo 1 Street View of Photo 1 – Hosts yard
Photo 2 Street View of Photo 2 – Boules in the square
Overnight Suspected camping location

Explorer Belt Day 2 – Marignac to Beaufort

Photo 1 - View from Col de Marignac
In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Tuesday 14th August 1984

What a day! Got up at 7:45am, had ryvita, coffee and packed everything by 9:40. Filled water bottles and left. Kept up a good pace and reached St Julien after walking through much picturesque countryside. Stopped there 11:55 to 12:20 and had expensive cake. Walked in hot sun to a footpath that was hard to find. Eventually joined up with road again and walked for many many miles through very hot open landscape on long twisting roads until we got to l’Escoulin. After a short rest we pushed on at record pace to Beaufort. Had lemonade there. Took photo of restaurant and we bought orange juice and water.

Very nice family let us camp in their field. The aided Andy’s sore feet and let us cook on their land. Were very friendly and kind. Four adults and 2 girls (12 and 16) a boy and a girl (about 4 and 5 respectively). Andy’s foot is bad so we are spending tomorrow here as well. Got to bed at 10:42 after girls helped us to put tent up.

On this day:

  • IBM releases PC DOS v3.0
  • Indian cricket team complete 5-0 test whitewash against England

…well, some things don’t change.

Looking back…

A regular feature of our walk was to be filling our water bottles from fountains in villages and towns on the way. The mountain spring water was refreshingly cool and arguably superior to anything you could buy.

The views were getting better and better. Back then I was an idiot in charge of a camera but for once I pointed it at worthy subject matter, even if the composure was poor.

Photo 1 - View from Col de Marignac
Photo 1 – View from Col de Marignac
And that same view today…
Modern re-creation in street view

On reflection this was our first “proper” day of walking, fully laden in the heat over 16 miles. Andy’s feet were in a bad way with some serious blisters. Mine were faring a little better and I had to use one or two plasters to reduce friction.

We were taken in by such a friendly family. They provided medication for Andy’s feet and may even have persuaded us to take a day off for recovery. Neither of us wanted to fail any aspect of our walk but blisters can stop the most accomplished walker dead in their tracks.

Our boots were traditional leather beasts – hot and heavy compared to modern lightweight breathable ones. Were they properly worn in? Also consider that we were walking mostly on surfaced roads and that’s always harder on the body than walking off-road.

Here is the photo of that restaurant as mentioned in my diary…

Photo 2 - Beaufort Cafe
Photo 2 – Beaufort Cafe
The scene hasn’t changed much and what I described as a restaurant is now a bar.
Modern re-creation in street view

It says a lot about the mindset of a 15 year old that I hardly ever commented on the dramatic scenery and when I did the adjective “picturesque” was hardly a worthy metaphor for this stretch of the Massif Central.

The sort of scenery I was describing as picturesque (© Ton Peters)

Also my obsession with timings is increasingly evident. I knew I always used to note the time I went to bed each night but my diaries reveal an even more obsessive streak with time keeping throughout the day. Around this age I was a night owl, often awake until 1 or 2 in the morning so in this context getting to bed before 11pm suggests we were feeling the strain.

Map
In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 16.6 miles (26.5 km)

 Key:
Start Marignac en-Diois
Via Saint-Julien-en-Quint
Via L’Escoulin
End Beaufort sur-Gervanne
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 at Col de Marignac
Photo 2 Street view of Photo 2 of Beaufort Cafe
Overnight Suspected camping location

Explorer Belt Day 1 – Die to Marignac

In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Monday 13th August 1984

After much unloading, lightening the load and repacking clothes, food and tent we were ready for the Explorer Belt. Travelled in minibus a long way to Die and I was sick half way there. Water bottle leaked. Left at 5pm and the weather was scorching.

The very heavy load killed my shoulders and I stopped to repack because of plates sticking into my back. Walked 5 hot, painful, tiring and thirsty uphill miles and reached Marignac about 800m above sea level.

Drunk local l’eau potable and scrounged camping area from local restaurant owners. Pitched tent on unsuitable stony ground. Cooked rice and curry using lots of meths. Washed up. Took photo. Cold evening. Tonnes of big insects. Got to bed at 10:25pm.

On this day at the top of the UK charts…

  • 1) George Michael – Careless Whisper
  • 2) Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Two Tribes
  • 3) Black Lace – Agadoo
  • 4) Tina Turner – What’s Love Got To Do With It
  • 5) Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Relax

Looking back…

My walking partner Andy and I spent some time at base camp removing non-essential items from our rucksacks (including heavy tinned food – doh!) and if memory serves me well we then did the same a second time because we still had too much crap! Other hard-core unit members went to the extremes of cutting off excess lengths of rucksack strap in order to save mere grams.

The journey from Grenoble to Die would have taken a good couple of hours along winding roads in a cramped and hot Ford Transit. It’s no surprise that I was sick seeing as I had a track record of sickness on school trips. I’m sure that did my nothing for my credibility as an adventurer. Five EB teams were due to start their walk today. I know there were other groups in the van but did they all start from Die?

Hours on hairpin roads in an hot Ford Transit
Hours on hairpin roads in a hot Ford Transit

Whilst researching the route I was amazed to discover that our starting point of Die is twinned with Wirksworth up the road in the Peak District. Coincidence or was our unit leader Pete Mitchell up to something? As the route unravelled we passed through limestone gorges not unlike a scaled up version of the peak district.

Our opening short hike was a real shock to the system. Even in the early evening it was hot! Andy and I had over-packed and as I’ve learned over the years it takes the most seasoned walker a while to “find their legs”. Here’s a scan of my 1984 photo taken from the pass:

Photo 1 - Road to Marignac en-Diois
Photo 1 – Road to Marignac en-Diois
Throughout my Explorer Belt blogs I have attempted to rediscover the modern Google Map street view of the few (and poor) photos I took 30 years ago. This vista was particularly hard to locate but I believe this is it…
Photo 1 – recreation in street-view

The village we stayed in was actually Marignac-en-Diois. There is no mention on the internet of the restaurant in Marignac I referred to in my log but I remember we camped next to a boarded up lodge and that’s where Andy is cooking in the photo below:

Photo 2 - Andy cooking
Photo 2 – Andy cooking
Note the trangia cooking stove and collapsible water bladder we would fill at each stop. The Google street view isn’t exactly the same because my photo would have been taken from an elevated position at the location I have marked on the route map further below.
Modern re-creation in street view

Some truly magnificent scenery with which to start our walk. So far so good.

Map
In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 5.0 miles (8.0km)

 Key:
Start Die
End Marignac en-Diois
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 on the Marignac Road
Photo 2 Street view of Photo 2 on Les Martins Road
Overnight Suspected camping location

Destination Base Camp

Ready for the off
In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
Diary entry 11/08

Saturday 11th August 1984

Got up at 10am and slowly started packing stuff for France. Was monotonous, boring but energetic running up and down stairs. Finished packing at 4pm. Mum took photo of me in uniform carrying rucksack. It weighed 35lb! Left Derby station at 5pm with 20 others. Reached London St Pancras at just past 7pm. Caught underground and got to Victoria station where we waited for an hour.

Bought expensive can and walked around station. Took train to Newhaven where we boarded the Sealink ferry Senlac after half an hour wait. Left at 10:45pm and reached Dieppe 5 sleepless hours later.

On this day:

  • Bare footed Zola Budd disqualified & then reinstated after favourite Mary Decker falls out of the Olympic 3000m final
  • Carl Lewis wins his 4th medal of the LA Olympics in the 4x100m final

Looking back…

In the build up to leaving my attention was divided between packing and all the drama of the 1984 LA Olympics. Daley Thompson was ripping up the decathlon and I was ripping up my Atari console joystick playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon!

We were required to wear scout uniform while travelling as you can see from the photo from that morning. This rather wonderful Karrimor rucksack was purchased for the trip and I then used it 3 years running when InterRailing. It subsequently spent most of the intervening years in the roof before I brought it back into action when I visited the wilds of Knoydart and it has recently provided sterling service on a number of walks including the Cleveland Way (2013) and Norfolk Coast Path (2014).

If I look like I have too much gear it’s because I had too much gear
If I look like I have too much gear it’s because I had too much gear

An advance party had set off in the three unit transit vans the previous day loaded to the gunnels with gear and towing trailers full of tents and kayaks. They would establish base camp in the foothills of the Alps in readiness for the arrival of my train party. I was getting the easy option.

According to google the much-loved Senlac in which we crossed the channel was only decommissioned in 2010

The sense of excitement amongst us would have been overwhelming. It’s no wonder we didn’t sleep! The adventure was about to unfold.

Diary entry 12/08

Sunday 12th August 1984

Train left Dieppe and I managed to get an hour and a half of sleep. Left train at outskirts of Paris at around 5am. Used underground (metro) and missed 8am train by one minute. Took photo of another one. Caught train at noon. Arrived in Lyon and next train took us to Grenoble where we met Pete after a 35 minute wait.

Camped next to Grenoble at campsite. Pitched Force 10 Mk4 where me and Andy slept after food and unpacking the stuff we were leaving at base camp.

On this day:

  • 23rd Olympic games closes in LA
  • Taking for film Romancing The Stone featuring Michael Douglas & Kathleen Turner reach $74m at the US box office

Looking back…

At the time this modern French TGV looked like a spaceship compared to the creaking British engines. It still does.

This is the age of the train
This is the age of the train

This was my first trip to Paris and my first encounter with the Metro. We must have been very tired by the time we arrived at base camp, especially after the train delay. It was the height of a particularly hot summer but with daylight late into the evening we would have been grateful to pitch our tent in cooler conditions.

In desperate need of sleep
In desperate need of sleep

The modern brand of serious outdoor tent was relatively new to me since I was used to the ancient but classic wooden pole canvas variety. Before long I became very proficient with them to the extent that I won a non-too-serious tent pitching competition the next year. The Force 10 mk4 was lightweight for its time but would probably seem unwieldy by today’s standards.

Where was our base camp? A unit newsletter dated May proclaims that with just 3 months to go no base camp had been identified. In this pre-internet age the process must have entailed tirelessly sifting through camping journals and making phone enquiries.

I have scoured an area around Grenoble but can’t find a campsite that looks familiar or viable. A lot can change in 30 years,

It’s curious how underwhelming my diary entry was regarding arrival at the frenetically busy campsite in the shadow of the alps. This could be due to travel fatigue, or more likely being a teenager. Either way I was going to need to catch up on sleep. The walk starts tomorrow.

Expedition To The Alps

Chatting while the food burns

PrologueIn 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I set out to complete a 10 day hike around the alpine region of South France in order to attain my Explorer Belt award.

Why write about this now? The adventure provided me with a formative experience at an impressionable time in my development. I have long wanted to retrace these steps and piece together a jigsaw of what actually happened and that became much easier with the recent rediscovery of my diaries of the time. Over the coming series of blog posts I’ll attempt to relive those special days by drawing upon my notes, photographs and other documentation from the period.

As a child I had joined the cub scouts and progressed to the venture scouts when old enough along with many other boys (females weren’t yet admitted). Our thriving Viking VSU (Venture Scout Unit) was immensely popular and following much fundraising activity a new unit building was opened by Princess Anne in 1982 to replace the moth eaten old wooden shack we had called home. I remember her arrival by helicopter on the adjacent playing fields of Portway Infants – my first school.

My brush with royalty
My brush with royalty

Viking VSU had an iconic aura. You knew you were part of something special. Not some pampered or showy outfit but a truly ambitious and capable organisation with climbers and canoeists of genuine ability. The unit had mettle and this was forged by the legendary Pete Mitchell who, beneath his profanity spouting chain smoking demeanour, was a true outdoor man of action not to mention an organisational tour de force.

Every member was expected to take responsibility. Scouts gave up their time to organise events, work on the fibreglass canoes, supervise younger members, etc. This newspaper article nicely articulates the unit and Pete’s contribution

Me chatting while the food burns
Me chatting while the food burns

This dynamic environment encouraged people to push themselves. For some that meant physical achievement of national standard. For others like me achievement meant turning up and fulfilling the relatively menial responsibilities that I was unable to dodge having failed to volunteer for anything.

At weekends I had helped to man a skip at the unit building where visitors could drop off recyclables. For the most part this involved me and my mates chucking bundles of newspapers around and diving around in the paper lined iron play pen. Other responsibilities included fund-raising and at Christmas posting cards for the newly conceived Stamp And Deliver postal service – a cheap alternative to the royal mail for sending Christmas cards within the Derby area. The service runs to this day.

The VSU undertook annual expeditions and the 1984 three week trip to the French Alps was to be a major event. Almost 50 scouts would be travelling and activities were to include Hiking, Climbing, Mountaineering, Caving and Sub-Aqua.

Expedition bulletin (click to enlarge)
Expedition bulletin (click to enlarge)

Eleven teams of 2 were scheduled to embark on Explorer Belt hikes. My pairing with Andy was notable because we were the youngest team – Andy at 16 and me at 15. The objectives were to plan and walk 100+ miles over 10 days in a foreign country and to complete a number of cultural projects along the way. The project work and an account of the walk would be presented to a review panel at a later date.

Itinerary (click to enlarge)
Itinerary (click to enlarge)

My memories of our preparation are very limited but based on diaries we were expected to plan all aspects of the expedition and participate in some physical challenges beforehand. I had competed with my Viking team of 4 in the 22 mile White Peak Walk starting from Hathersage. We finished 37th out of 47 teams. Other preparation included enjoyable walking trips in Wales and also the Lake District where we walked the ridges around Keswick in 90 degree heat and then cooled off in the lake!

I had planned our Explorer Belt walking route. I loved maps even back then and the 1:25,000 alpine series hypnotised me to the point that I failed to realise that altitudes and distances were listed in metres and not feet. According to my diaries the initial EB route came out at 240 miles and had to be re-planned!

Andy and I finalised all aspects of our planning and then we were ready for the off…