It has been a busy few weeks here in Les T.
We had a visit from a lovely family looking to buy some land in the area. We hope they are successful because we would love them to live here. They have two little girls, twins, aged three.
Living in their Merc they have been touring the area in search of a home. It was thanks to Graine de Vie, the alternative school in Quillan that they heard about this area.
Then after they moved on (to visit friends in Galicia), we were visited by our old friends Manu and Pimp whom we met in Morocco. We first encountered them in Essouiria over Christmas. Then we followed each other down the coast to Paradise valley. They have traded their Merc 508 for a blue Merc 1831 with palatial living quarters inside. It was good to catch up but we were all falling ill with colds (the entire Hameau!) so I felt we were a bit stagnant. Nevertheless we took them to Renne-les-Bains (the hot spring is once again re-opened after some activists drilled into the floor to burst the pipe) which was lovely as always.
Now they have left and it has started snowing! When Anika gets back from school we shall get out the sledges.
Yesterday we took time out to do a family outing. Things here can be so busy it is good to reconnect around Anika. Going for a walk in the mountains is also great therapy for that ‘step-back’ perspective. Django came along too. Partly to motivate Anika who is still not keen on using her legs. He is also her best friend.
The walk begins in the valley of Moulzoune. Already just getting there is a magical break from the world of people. We pass through the market town of Belesta. Then the road climbs up towards the Sault. We pass under the shadow of the Pog, on top of which is Montsegur. Passing Montsegur we head down the D9, turning onto the D909. Rising into old forests, the D909 continues on to a ski station. We turn off onto a rough track marked by a hand painted notice about a commune forest and a mine.
The rough track in the snow and ice is pretty sketchy. Best done with a 4×4. In place north facing – the snow drifts had built up on the road. After a few kilometers the track ends at a carpark with a picnic area. It feels surreal. A tiny encampment of civilization in the wild. Perhaps in summer the feeling is different but right now we feel remote, far from anywhere.
The trail starting at the carpark goes up to a lake, now drained. It is used in the summer for salmon breeding as part of a re-populating program. A sign informs fishermen that they can keep any trout but to please put the salmon back in the water.
The lake has a foot of water under the ice. A network of flowing streams. One after another, we find our boots break through the ice into the water. The snow here fell heavy a week ago and is now frozen under the blue sky.
Above the lake is a lost quarry. It was for talc. Abandoned in the forest are machines once used to extract and transport the rock. Iron cast frames, cogs, motors, train carriages. Above the quarry are some ruins, perhaps the crew sleeping quarters.
Our walk ended here in a fantastic snowball fight. If we had the energy, we could have continued upon to the col, where a natural doorway opens through the shoulder of solid rock (Carrière de la Porteille (1650m)). That leads onto the Jasse de la Taula, a round mountain top overlooking Montsegur. Not the tallest mountain but spectacular. Then there is a path back down to the car making a 3hour loop. That is for another time.
This is got to be the hardest cave I have tried out. Its not the wriggling in the ground nor the scrambling over slippery rocks. Its a cave of potholes (chimneys they are called here in France) that takes you down, then up, then down, then up.
The cave is called Gouffre des Corbeaux. It is south of Belesta going up into the Plateau de Sault. The landscape around the cave is stunning. Fir forests, the branches heavy with snow. We had to tramp for half an hour through the snow to reach the Gouffre – an enormous hole, a wide open mouth that swallows the unsuspecting. Not surprisingly, there were plenty of bones scattered around its gullet.
The initial drop into the Gouffre is about 35 meters. Then another 11 meters into the first salle. A few more short drops takes one into the main room from where there is a 12 meter pitch ascending. That is as far as we got. Finding our way round that short area (and back out again) took nine hours. We reached 130 meters below ground.
From the top of the 12 meter pitch there is a further series of descents totaling 85 meters to end at the shore of a subterranean lake. That would be 165 meters down.
We emerged exhausted, and in the dark of the night – mentally preparing ourselves for the final climb of 35 meters out of the hole. I had a scary moment when my kroll popped open, but luckily there was a safety line. It was a comfort to reach the rim of the gouffre and see the glow of the moonlight on the snow.
I would love to see that lake. But my arms still remind me of how tough that climb was.