Close encounters of the furred kind

After spending close to two weeks in Spain, I decided to try and get to France by taking a train from Barcelona to the end of the Spanish line and hiking through the Pyrenees for a while. My plan was to follow the High Route Pyrenees (HRP), skirting around the small country of Andorra, before dropping down to a French town and catching a train from there toward Paris.

I needed to do a major reshuffle of my pack, as I was carrying everything I’d been carrying for the last few months. I knew it would be difficult because my pack was already heavy and full of unnecessary things for a hike through the Pyrenees and I still needed to buy a few essential items, like proper hiking boots, some form of shelter, maps, food and cooking equipment. It was ambitious, but I really wanted to hike the Pyrenees.

The first hiccup occurred when I didn’t take into account the fact that there would be a siesta in the afternoon in Barcelona, so, after much mulling over the decision to purchase all the equipment I’d need, by the time I turned up to buy it all, I found the camping store was closed until later in the afternoon. I couldn’t wait around and I figured I’d sort it out when I got to the border, so I headed to the station to catch my train.

I arrived in Latour-de-Carol late in the afternoon after a nice train ride with great scenery heading into the Spanish Pyrenees. I was just inside France. As soon as I walked out of the station I realised how little French I knew. I thought I’d have absorbed a bit over the years, but I had nothing, and switching between countries quickly had confused me to the point I was mixing some Spanish and French while trying to buy a space blanket to sleep under and some water treatment tablets at the Pharmacy just outside the train station.

I headed off up the road, looking for the red and white paint marks of a GR route to get off the main road. After a couple of hours, I found some of the famous marks and started following them off into the forest. It was getting late and I’d passed a good camping spot only just before, so I turned around and decided to set up my stealth camp back in a large field of tall grass. I set my mattress and sleeping bag up on the edge of the forest and covered myself with the space blanket, hoping it would be enough to keep the dew off.

I’d gone for a walk without my pack and saw some horses that stood together defensively when they saw me and I’d washed in the river before it got too dark to see. I headed for bed pretty happy with my set up and sleeping rough under the stars in my little hiding spot. I was just hoping the thunderstorms predicted for the next day wouldn’t come over earlier in the night. I was just about to doze off when I heard a sound coming down from the forest above me. It sounded big and I listened intently, half expecting the silhouette of one of the horses to appear against the moonlit sky. I lay listening carefully as the sound came closer, then a blood curdling snarl reverberated clearly through my body. I froze, my eyes wide open. The snarl was so clear and close it painted a vivid picture in my mind. I sat up and reached for my phone, fumbling to turn the light on. I stood up letting my sleeping bag fall off me and shone the light from my phone in the direction of the snarl. Standing about fifteen metres away at the edge of the forest and the tall grass, was a wolf staring back at me. I grabbed a branch that was lying beside me and held it out in front of me. I yelled at the wolf. I didn’t have any words, so I just made random sounds until I found some and yelled at it to go away. After about thirty seconds the wolf turned and walked back into the forest. My heart was in my mouth and I was starting to think about what to do next. I felt like I wasn’t at all welcome where I was and that this had been a warning of sorts that I’d crossed into its territory, so I started packing up my camp. I wasn’t sure where the wolf had gone or whether it was hanging around watching me, so I kept shining the light around making sure the thing wasn’t going to jump me from out of the dark. I shoved everything back in my bag as quickly as I could and swore as I tried to zip it up without success. I finally packed it in a way that I could zip it up and threw my pack on and started getting out of there. The horses were nowhere to be seen and I kept shining my crappy phone light as I walked through the thick forest trying to get back to the road. I made it back to the road thoroughly freaked out and started walking up to the next village on the map. Halfway up the road I started shaking as the adrenaline wore off and I started to process what had just happened. I’ve never been afraid of dogs, even after having been attacked by a Border Collie and a Blue Heeler when I was young, but this was different, and the menacing note of the snarl cut right through me.

I got to the town of Porta around 1am after walking up the road for over an hour and knocked on the doors of both the hotels there, but everything was shut and no one answered. I found the gate to the hotel courtyard open, so I walked in and made myself as comfortable as I could on a park bench then and didn’t sleep at all that night. I kept picturing the wolf suddenly appearing in front of the hotel, having followed the scent of my trail up the road.

Waiting for the sun to come up, exhausted, at first light I walked up the road again past a beautiful campsite on the edge of a river right in town. Bittersweet. I decided that I wasn’t really prepared for the HRP and it would be foolish to attempt such a serious route without proper gear. I decided instead to walk to the next train station and get a train down to Foix, a town I’d researched staying in because a stage of Le Tour will pass through there this year.

My camp site the night I came face to face with a wolf

My camp site the night I came face to face with a wolf

I walked to Porte Station but couldn’t find my way up to the platform. In doing so I walked around the back of a road maintenance shed to the entrance of a massive tunnel through the mountain. A lady ran out in hi-vis gear yelling at me in French. I knew I was probably in the wrong spot, but I couldn’t work out how to get up to the train station. She kept telling me I couldn’t be there and I kept saying I understood, but if that was the case, how do I get up there, I said, pointing to the train station. Apparently, I had to walk across a bridge on a main road to get there. Just as I was walking up there, a guy and a girl in a big road maintenance van pulled up beside me and asked where I was going. They didn’t speak very much English, but I got the message across that I was trying to catch the train to Foix. The lady said jump in and we’ll take you through the tunnel to another station that has more trains. So, we drove through the tunnel, the three of us sitting on the bench seat in the front of the van. They were both really friendly and got excited when they learned I was Australian. They dropped me at the station at L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre and I thanked them a lot. Unfortunately, when they said there were more trains from that station, it meant three a day instead of one, so I walked up to the only open pub/café and settled in for the five hour wait for the next train.

While I was having a coffee there, a guy walked in and immediately helped translate what conversation I was trying to make with the owner. He ordered a coffee as well and we had a chat. I was trying to ask which platform the train to Foix went from, so I wasn’t going to stuff that up and have to wait another five hours, when he offered to take me down the mountain to Ax-les-Thermes on his way to work, where there were many more trains, he assured me. We drove down the mountain and he told me he worked in organising cultural events and was originally from Spain. Ax-les-Thermes was beautiful. I thanked the guy in Spanish when he dropped me off and he smiled. ‘Good luck,’ he said and off I went to wait for a train to Foix. I got to Foix around midday, checked into my hotel room and slept straight through until 6pm. I was exhausted. It had been a long two days.

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