Hiking the Chemin de la Liberte 2015 travel blog


“I don't know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I'm telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It's a thing you don't want to go wrong over, because one false step and you're sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you. Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can't make out what you're talking about.” Wise words from the master narrator himself, Bertie Wooster in Right Ho, Jeeves.

So, how to avoid that tricky first step (apart from borrowing somebody elses)? I’ve written in these journals before that every trip has its genesis somewhere. So picture the scene, we were sat amongst the heavy wooden tables and chairs of the open air bar at the Weru Weru Lodge in Moshi last January looking out on a floodlit swimming pool surrounded by banana trees while savouring the delights of our hard earned Kilimanjaro beers. The latest Discover Adventure brochure had appeared on the tables, so we were flicking through this trying to find our next adventure and there was one trip that instantly jumped out at me. Then the celebrations of the groups’ success on Kilimanjaro began and the discussions were put on hold. Barring the odd Facebook chat that is where they have remained for 12 months or so until one cold, wet February afternoon I was sat in my office looking out from the 12th floor over a cold, wet, grey Birmingham trying to get my head around a knotty problem on my bosses PC when my mobile rang (and as it was a known number I actually answered it).

“Hi Dave, can I ask for your help setting up a Justgiving page?” (1)

“Of course you can.” Important questions first. “What are going to do?”

“Oh nothing that big, I’ve just signed up for DA’s ‘Freedom Trail’ trek in July.”

“Sounds interesting. Give me a few minutes and I’ll call you back”

Of course, that was the trip which had caught my eye back in the Weru Weru Lodge. Cue three minutes quick internet searching on Google (other web search engines are available) and then it was time to pick the phone back up.

“Sorry about that, I’d been thinking about that trip myself and have just booked myself on it.”

“Oh Dave, that is marvellous.”

So here we are again at the outset of a bit of a jaunt. The phone call, in case you are curious, was from one of my regular walking group who was part of the group who trekked to Everest Base Camp all those years ago.

So what exactly is ‘the Freedom Trail’ and why am I doing it? Well, it is a 4 on DA’s challenge scale for starters (to put it into perspective, the Everest Base Camp and Mount Kilimanjaro trips are top rated with 5) so it promises to be challenging but with none of the really high altitude concerns of previous trips. This time the maximum altitude we will reach will be 2,522m (in Western Europe the opportunity to go really high is restricted by a lack of high mountains and so is limited to trained and experienced mountaineers – and Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) only really makes itself known above 3,000m/9,000ft). If you do a quick web search for ‘The Freedom Trail’ you will find that it is 4km trail around Boston, MA celebrating their freedom from ‘tyrannical’ Britain. It shouldn’t surprise you to read that that isn’t what I’m going to be doing! If you search for its proper name “Le Chemin de la Libertè” then you will find what awaits me. Following the Nazi occupation of free southern France in 1942, many people who had taken refuge there suddenly needed to find a way to escape across the Pyrenees into Spain. Among those searching for their liberty were Jews, denounced resistance fighters, British airmen, (2) and refugees who had, a few years earlier, used these trails in reverse to escape General Franco’s advance into the region at the denouement of the Spanish Civil War.

The fear of deportation to Germany really established the route that today’s trek follows. ‘Husbands were separated from their wives and children from their parents all rounded up by force and shipped out in railway wagons … It was against this backdrop of hate, misery and despair that Le Chemin de la Libertè” was born”. The Belgian resistance fighter Jose de la Barre noted that “… Everyday I feel the joy of being free – but sometimes I am still astonished when I find that I can speak my mind without having to glance around me, without the fear of the Gestapo” The route is one of many that existed during the war years (getting progressively more complex as the other routes were betrayed. It was maintained by a series of guides who looked after individual sections of the trail (I’m guessing so that the route as a whole wouldn’t be closed or compromised if one guide was betrayed, as happened to 19 year old Louis Barrau for example) and the route was chosen to avoid German checkpoints and patrols. 782 people (including very young children and pensioners) during the war years escaped France over the Pyrenees. The writer, poet and resistance leader Jean Cassou, wrote that for them “…the wartime experience was a way of life, a style of living, a life invented for ourselves. It stays in our memories as a unique period … something impossible to relate to or explain, almost a dream”.

Some of the literature that I’ve read has said that anyone who walks the trail will at one point or another get emotional, and as it’s happened to me on previous treks then forearmed is forewarned and hopefully I'll be better able to cope with it this time. (3) No matter what happens I do realise that I am getting off very lightly, because as Rebecca Solnit wrote “…the places in which a significant event occurred become embedded with some of that emotion…and sometimes to revisit the place uncovers the emotion”. A few years ago there were a group of adventurers who attempted to recreate Ernest Shackleton’s epic journey across the Southern Ocean from Elephant Island to South Georgia using the technology available to them in 1916. The only difference, and this really is a biggie, was that Shackleton and his group had spent the previous winter in the colds of Antarctica watching their ship slowly crushed by the encroaching pack ice. For good measure, in 1916 South Georgia was very much an unknown landmass, with the exception of the small scale whaling settlement on the coast, so once they landed they had to break new ground across the mountainous interior of the island. The modern day explorers arrived fresh and fighting fit directly from the UK with a radio link to a support ship (for weather forecasts and the like) and of course they had the knowledge that it could be done and what to expect. As I said earlier, forewarned is forearmed. Golly, Tristram Shandy would be impressed, but where did that ramble come from?

Oh yes, I know that in the moments when the going gets tough I will be able to take comfort from those who have gone before and under far more trying circumstances than I can ever imagine. The widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, Alma recalled that “…it was sheer, slippery terrain that we crawled up, bounded by precipices. Mountain goats could scarcely have kept their footing on the glassy, shimmering slate. If you skidded there was nothing but thistles to hold onto.”

No matter how many times recently I’ve found myself banging my head (metaphorically) against the office wall in frustration at one thing or another then this trip really will show me that my life is a walk in the park in comparison to what it could have be and what others have survived. As has frequently been discussed at work, is the fact that a computer worked allowing a Social Sciences paper to be written going to save the world or cure cancer? Of course not, and so these trips are really good at reminding me that the world does continue without me and puts everything into perspective. The mountaineer Gaston Rebuffat in 1956 noted that “In this modern age, very little remains that is real. Night has been banished, so have the cold, the wind and the stars. They have all been neutralized: the rhythm of life itself is obscured. Everything goes so fast, and makes so much noise, and men hurry by without heeding the grass by the roadside, its colour, its smell… But what a strange encounter then is that between man and the high places of his planet! Up there he is surrounded by silence.”

Many times I’ve seen these trips that I’ve done advertised as ‘A trip of a lifetime’ (4) but it really is a pleasure to take part in and challenge myself with these trips. (5) Realising this, and imagining the story of those who’ve done this before me I have decided to try and raise funds for ‘Make-A-Wish UK’, a charity who make the dreams of terminally ill children come true, whether it allows them to be a knight for a day, meet Iron Man or go swimming with dolphins. As Tesco say ‘Every little helps’ and any money donated goes to help bring a smile to a young child’s face.

Edith Pye reported that “there is also a road on the Spanish side, but only mountain paths at Prats de Mollo which is above the snow line, and there were pitiful cases of women and children lost in a snowstorm and being picked up half frozen”. This is the description of an earlier, easier route than the one that we will be following and was used in the early years of the war. The demand for exit and transit visas was vast, and as a result Hiram Bingham, the US vice consul in Marseille, was told that he could ‘issue all the visas that you want, but not to those people who apply for them’. Apparently, Chinese visas were readily available although it was later revealed that the characters read “[I]t is strictly forbidden for the bearer of this document under any circumstances to set foot on Chinese soil”. A perfect example of masterly inactivity or giving the appearance of activity while doing considerably less than nothing.

Archbishop Saliège of Toulouse wrote in an open letter in 1942 which was read from pulpits in his diocese on 23rd August 1942 which said “Lord have mercy on us…Jews are men and women. They are our brothers. A Christian cannot forget that”. Unfortunately it has been too frequently, and mankind is still trying to find ways to brutalise each other as the silent majority innocently stand by.

This scarily it seems isn't that difficult, and talking to a young lady in Berlin earlier this year we discussed the prison experiments at Stanford University in the 1970's which proved that it really doesn't take much to send good people bad. We'd both just been to Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin and we started the discussion in the hostel bar that evening (see, there was a reason we had that discussion and we are both normal people). The experiments were quite startling in that 12 normal students (with no psychological extremes, towards either passivity or aggression) were randomly assigned the roles of prison guards or prisoners and without outside monitoring the effects were dramatic. Within days there were prison guards were using sleep deprivation and other "enhanced interrogation" techniques. The experiment was due to last for 3 weeks but was abandoned after 6 days when there became a real possibility of permanent psychological damage to one of the prisoners. There is plenty of evidence and information out there on the web if you are interested in this. Unfortunately this shows that the Nazi experience maybe wasn't all that inexplicable as mankind has proved and continues to prove that without (or with morally wrong) guidance then some people will go out of their way to take advantage of others.

Golly, that's a serious note to end on. For those of you who are interested, the BBC reporter Edward Stourton did a series on the Freedom Trail a couple of years ago, and his two 30 minutes shows with some interesting interviews with those affected can be listened to here.

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(1) To avoid spending too much time setting the scene as Bertie says, we can safely skip the pleasantries as they don’t help to make an interesting narrative. There is always the counter argument of Tristram Shandy though who wrote that ““Digressions, incontestably, are the sun-shine; -- they are life, the soul of reading; … All the dexterity is in the good cookery and management of them, so as to be not only for the advantage of the reader, but also of the author, whose distress, in this matter, is truly pitiable”.

(2) Nothing that I’ve read unfortunately says that they were trying to smuggle Von Klomp’s “Fallen Madonna with the big boobies”.

(3) After my experiences at the Everest memorial ground above the Nepalese village of Dugla then it is useful to know. Dugla was one of the most emotional moments that I can remember, it was all I could do not to find a snow covered rock to sit behind and burst into tears, purely out of absolute exhaustion though. Not for the first time, misquoting Shakespeare to myself got me through “Once more unto the snow, dear friends, once more/ Or close the hill up with your English pack./In peace there's nothing so becomes a man/ As modest stillness and humility / But when the blast of wind blows in our ears, / Then imitate the action of the Eiger; / Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, / Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;… / I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, / Straining upon the start. The game's afoot: / Follow your spirit, and upon this charge / Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’”

(4) Are we not really guilty in this day and age of overhyping everything? From these ‘trips of a lifetime’ to the latest chocolate bar being a ‘taste sensation’, surely as taste is a sensation then anything that touches the taste buds is a taste sensation? For the Sherpa in Nepal, the Everest Base Camp trek is their reality , and for the pioneers of these routes it was truly a trek for their lives.

(5) Besides I still have to maintain my role as an ‘explorer uncle’ and cannot afford to rest on my laurels. Indeed, we went to see the comedian Milton Jones back in June and he came on initially as his ‘explorer uncle’ (complete with unkempt beard and walking poles) and I could see Ste & Mikey look at me and laugh. Me, my reaction was ‘the plonkers got his walking poles all wrong. You don’t use them like that!’.

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