So our travels have ground to a halt. Or have they? I have argued before that the essence of travel lies not in physical motion but in curiosity. Never-ending curiosity. The mind is a butterfly.

But still… We had wanted to head towards Turkey, and from Turkey further east. It doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon.

Late December, on my own in Portugal’s southwest corner while Charlotte was in the Netherlands for a couple of weeks:

Night had fallen without making a sound. The clouds I had seen forming below me, just above the surface of the water, had moved in to shroud everything around me in a fine mist. And there in that misty darkness, not three meters away, stood, immobile, a fox, waiting for me to notice it, gauging my posture, anticipating my moves. It must have been waiting for food, but that never came and in the end the animal retreated into the fog, as stealthily as it had come.

Fast-forward to early February. We’ll get to what is affecting us all in due course.

I arrived at the airport of Lisbon after four weeks of skiing in the French Alps. Charlotte had decided to make a detour via the Netherlands. The Car stood waiting patiently where I had left it, uncomplaining, reminiscent of the horses that cowpeople used to tie to a beam outside saloons, waiting for their owners to reappear, be it under their own steam or with the help of a few unfriendly locals. Cars, of course, are the natural successors of horses.

With a pang of guilt I noticed that it had been ‘tagged’ by birds who, in their rather finite wisdom, had found no better way to show their disdain for all things earth-bound than dropping their poo on it. The excrements in question were mostly black; there must have been trees with berries around. In spite of its somewhat dishevelled looks, The Car had retained its dignity. Like in that turn-the-other-cheek story in the old book, its superiority had shown in not striking back. You may ask how a car is going to strike back against poo-dropping birds, but one should not underestimate a Land Cruiser, least of all a Troopy.

I found someone who could ‘unmake’ a mistake I had made in Morocco. You see, I had given in to what all car mechanics in Morocco try to talk people into: add another layer to the leaf springs. The first mechanic who had proposed to do that had done an oil change for us, had looked at the car and said, it’s a bit low. I had paid him for the oil change and driven off. Then, as we drove into Zagora, several people had tried to get us to stop. We were told that they were all mechanics who were eager to have something to do, like add a layer to leaf springs. I checked on the Internet and found that for heavy vehicles (we are constantly at our maximum weight) some thought it was a good idea. There was one mechanic in Zagora who had a good reputation. He did the job for us and proposed a few more that even I knew were perfectly unnecessary.

We drove through Morocco in a car that tilted forward, had become more difficult to get into at the back and bounced at the slightest unevenness in the road, and we told ourselves that this would pass. It didn’t, of course.

So when I found a Portuguese mechanic willing to undo that for us, I was happy because something that had been weighing on my mind would no longer weigh. He actually took a different layer off, striking a balance between good performance and a comfortable ride.

Charlotte arrived at the Lisbon airport, so I went to pick her up. The virus had been in the news but was still very far away.

Photo: Charlotte

We spent a few days in Sesimbra, well known for its beaches and its seafood, as well as its relative proximity to Lisbon. Every day, we watched fishing boats returning to port, laden with fish that would be on our plates only hours later. Massada de tamboril (pasta cooked in stock, with monkfish and prawns), feijoada de gambas (bean stew with prawns), sole, shared with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years, and life was good.

Pine processionary caterpillars emerge from their nests in February.

They have been surviving by eating the needles of the trees they’ve spent the winter in.

Now it is time to descend from their tree, form a head-to-tail procession and look for a place to burrow.

Having found a suitable patch of soft soil, they begin to burrow. This photo: Charlotte.

In December, I had got in touch with someone who said he could renew the canvas of the roof of the car and do a few other things we wanted to get done. But now that we were back in Portugal, he took us to someone else who was going to do the job and who turned out to be busy for the next couple of weeks. In fact, it was only going to be a week at first, but then it became two days more, and two days more, and so on. This was our introduction to the flexibility of Portuguese time.

We went further north, to Nazaré, where big-wave-surfing world records are set and broken and where, on that day, the biggest waves of the season were expected.

The hill that overlooks the small area where big waves are amplified into monster waves by the presence of an undersea canyon were crowded with photographers with impressive-looking gear and people who had, like us, come out to witness heroic deeds being done. The water was abuzz with surfers and the jet skis that were there to tow them to the top of a wave and pick them up at the bottom before they would be smashed against the rocks. People on the hill used walkie-talkies to pass on information about the waves to the surfers.

Occasionally, one of the surfers would get towed into a wave, but there was too much wind and the waves were unpredictable. Just weeks earlier, a Portuguese surfer had been wiped out by a rogue wave and had very nearly been killed. Surely, that must still have been on everybody’s mind. In the end, the attempts were abandoned. There was not going to be a new world record. On the following day, with smaller waves and even more wind, there was no one.

We took a different way back, further inland, and drove through blackened country that had still not recovered from the devastating wildfires of 2017. Initially, eucalyptus trees had been blamed for that. First planted only decades ago for their usefulness in the pulp industry, they had spread, pushing out many of the native trees, and had come to be seen as foreigners that had overstayed their welcome.

But studies showed, not long after the fires, that the causes were a bit more complex. They pointed at the mix of eucalyptus and pine trees, both equally flammable, as well as the fragmented structure of forest ownership and a multitude of owners who had not maintained their plots for years, thus creating an environment in which an abundance of combustible material was only waiting for the right atmospheric conditions to burst into a firestorm.

Inland, fish was still very much on the menu, although here, it was all freshwater fish, and it was offered in abundance.

The virus had by now reached Spain and seemed to be thriving there, but Portugal did not have any reported cases. We felt safe.

In Setúbal, after a two-week wait, work began on the canvas. It would be another three weeks with multiple delays and a lot of frustration before the job was finished. We went to spend a couple of weeks in Lisbon while The Car, as patiently as before, waited for us to return.

Two weeks in Lisbon: not enough! We walked through narrow streets that could suddenly open up to reveal a park, and in the park, a DJ would play vinyl records with fifties jazz. Someone else would arrive, carrying an electric guitar and an accordion, and join in. The ambiance would be mellow and they never asked for money.

Or we could come across a tiny “restaurant”, standing room only, where two pots contained what was on the menu: soup and bifana, a Portuguese pork sandwich that seemed to be, above all, a workman’s lunch but also attracted the occasional foreigner.

We kept returning to Time Out, a centrally located upmarket food court that was visited mostly by tourists but with good reason, as its many stalls offered delicious takes on Portuguese food, such as bochechas de porco (braised pork cheeks from Alentejo pork, a local “branch” of what is commonly known as Iberian pigs) and bacalhau à Brás (a dish based on shredded cod, potato, onion and egg).

The first case of COVID-19 was reported in Portugal on 3 March, in Porto. Italy, France and Spain had many more cases. It began to dawn on us that we were not living in real time. Viruses are crafty buggers. While everyone thinks they are still safe, viruses have been silently invading and at the same time, multiplying. They have been entering houses and carrying off the furniture so to speak. By the time the owner of the house (to stay within the metaphor) realises something is wrong they have a one-week head start and bewilderment is all that is left. We may think we are dealing with now, but in reality we are dealing with what happened a week ago.

So when the time came to pick up The Car (they had done a terrible job), it was obvious to us that it would be a good idea to get groceries for two weeks and find a secluded spot to camp. We went to the spot where I had spent Christmas (see photo at the beginning) and stayed there, in perfect isolation, for nearly two weeks. Until…

The National Guard came to tell us that all foreigners who were camping would have to leave the country within five days. Campsites were closed and camping in the wild was officially not allowed, although it had been widely tolerated. The officers reluctantly conceded that renting a house would be permitted (“if you can find one”). By this time, however, Charlotte had begun to wonder if all borders might be closed. How would she go see her mother?

On our way to the Spanish border, we passed a group of dark-skinned people, women and children huddled together on horse-drawn carts, men on horseback. A somewhat excessive number of police cars escorted them – to where?

The Spanish border guards made us promise them that we would drive straight home, gave us a message to show to the police in case they stopped us and let us through. We drove and drove but were not stopped once. And then, suddenly, all sorts of warning lights came on on the dash. I continued for a few kilometers, stopped at a rest area and started scratching my head, thinking that with so many warnings that seemed to have nothing in common, there must be an electrical problem. That’s when steam began to rise from the engine bay. Two fan belts were missing. We were not going to go anywhere on our own.

A tow truck arrived. A man hopped out, walked briskly right into my comfort zone and began to joyfully bellow out a few pleasantries. In my face. Stunned, I took a few steps back. His country was, already then, one of the hardest-hit by the virus. How could he not be aware of the danger?

A Cuban mechanic (“they treat me like a dirty foreigner here”) installed new fan belts the next morning. The French border guards, seeing our Dutch number plates, waved us through. We had decided to head for the Alps, to our co-owned (with Charlotte’s sister) apartment, and go into quarantine there. We did not want to be a risk to anyone. Somewhere in the very heart of France, we were stopped. The gendarme, after hearing our explanations, said, “but… that’s not allowed!“ and then waved us through.

We’ve been in the French Alps for a almost three weeks now. We had, again, bought groceries for two weeks and we avoided all contact with others during those two weeks. We can be reasonably certain that we were not infected in Spain.

I’m convinced that we can handle the lock-down better than many others. We have developed a way to defuse arguments before they arise. We like to say that we’ve learned to live on three square meters, although that needs to be put into perspective by something else that we like to say: we may have little space inside the car, but when we open the doors in the morning, the world is our backyard. And this backyard, this backdrop, keeps changing: forests, beaches, mountains, desert… Not many people are as lucky as we have been.

There is still a darkish cloud behind the silver lining. The mayor of the village we’re staying in has come to the conclusion that there are people who are staying in their holiday homes and who therefore risk infecting “our most vulnerable citizens”. He has issued a decree making it illegal for those people to stay. After three weeks in isolation, who are we going to infect? Will we, once again, be turned into scapegoats? Will we, once again, be forced to leave?

People: kind and helpful.
Food: largely fish-based, mostly simple and very tasty.
Language: when spoken takes time to get used to. When written, easily understandable. If you know French and Spanish, that is.

Here’s something that left me speechless. We rented an apartment in Faro for a few days to sit out a spell of bad weather. I went grocery shopping in a nearby Continente supermarket and found wines on sale with discounts of 70%, valid until Christmas. Now, I know that something that seems too good to be true usually is, so I bought just two different bottles, to try, thinking I would spend less than I normally would and perhaps still get wine of more than average quality.

The wines, of course, were disappointing, hardly worth what I had paid for them but definitely not more.

An Internet search yielded an article in the Jornal de Negocios (in Portuguese) that explained everything.

The Continente supermarket chain, it said, approaches wine makers and asks them to make a new wine with a fancy name and a fancy label, something that nobody knows and that the supermarket is willing to pay between 2 and 2,5 euros a bottle for. They will put that on the shelves for, say, thirteen to fifteen euros for a couple of weeks. Nobody will buy a totally unknown wine at that price, but that doesn’t matter. It is then put ‘on sale’ for less than four euros and for a limited time only. Difficult to resist! And so, a wine that customers are made to believe is worth a lot (ish) is sold at close to its real value and makes a good profit for the supermarket.

As the article continues to say, nothing illegal has happened here, although one can ask obvious questions about the ethics of this practice. In fact, it also says something about customers who leave their brains in the car when they go shopping or who are blinded by the sales signs… So that would be me, but in my defence, I have only been in Portugal for a few days. How am I to know that Portuguese law allows supermarkets to dupe their customers?

Portugal is Europe, but only just… By the way, rumour has it that more consumer protection will be signed into EU law any time now.

Before reaching the Moroccan coast and following that north, we took a last look at the interior that had been so inspiring, so captivating.

(most of the photos in this post were taken by Charlotte)

The mountains and steppes were still the home of people who live precariously with few resources and much labour. Being poor, they continue to follow age-old traditions. We might once have thought that education would be the way to lift them out of their poverty and end what we saw as backwardness. But with global warming dominating the political and public discourse, education (as in: showing the way to modernity) has been somewhat discredited.

In the countryside, there is nothing that contributes to global warming. Flights to holiday destinations are what foreigners do. There are very few private cars. In the mountains, donkeys are far more useful, as are camels in the desert. Cows, which we now know threaten the planet with their methane emissions and the vast quantities of water they need to produce a few decent steaks, cannot live in arid conditions. Nor can pigs, which are, of course, very ‘not done’ in muslim countries anyway. Houses are built from natural materials, last for a few generations, begin to crumble and return to the earth. Clothes are made from the wool of goats and sheep that thrive where other ruminants don’t or from plant fibres that are naturally available, then dyed with local, natural pigments or not at all, and are worn until they are threadbare. Imports from faraway countries – imports? What imports?

From what we saw, a traditional society cannot exist without women. Besides bearing children and doing all the household chores, women seem to do most of the physical labour. Where there are fields, women can be seen working in those fields with their youngest child strapped on their back. Where there are no fields, they weave carpets. When they get older, they collect and carry bundles of grass, to be used as animal fodder. The bundles are so big and some of these women are so old that it is sometimes impossible to say whether a woman stoops from the weight of the load, old age, or both.

Men build the houses their wives can live in and their sons can be born in. They also plough the fields with horse-drawn ploughs. That is, what, once a year? Perhaps more often, depending on crops. Old men spend their days in a café, sipping tea. By this time, they have, hopefully, procreated enough to be taken care of until they die.

You will not see women sipping tea in a café. You will not see old men carrying loads. It would look comically incongruous. This is not a bad country to be a man in.

We saw differences as we travelled on. From areas where women would cover their faces when we passed and girls were nowhere to be seen we drove into other areas where older women would wave at us energetically and young girls giggled and laughed, with the boldest ones coming to greet us, shake hands and try out some French or, occasionally, English.

The Atlantic coast harboured a few surprises. Starting in the south, where towns feel like frontier settlements, we gradually moved north, where cities are home to mainly Arabs (while in the interior you are far more likely to meet Berbers). Deliberately staying clear of the cities, we found small fishing towns that were frequented by an international crowd of surfers who came for the long waves that come rolling in from the Atlantic. The visitors had made sure smoothies and pizza had been added to the locally available fare that had, until their arrival, mainly consisted of the day’s catch.

We met up with friends we had made earlier and made a few new ones. Other than that, the further north we went, the less Morocco seemed to have to offer us. It was time to cross back into Spain.

This, apparently, is a tourist attraction that people come to see. Look up ‘goat’ and ‘argan’, and you will see pictures of argan trees full of goats. Two things are wrong in those pictures: all the goats are white (so they stand out against the background), and none of them are eating. In fact, it is said that the animals are tied to the trees all day, so that unscrupulous goatherds can ask for money before allowing tourists to take photos. This photo that Charlotte took is the real thing. The goats were actually eating and moved from one tree to the next. We were not asked for money.

Back in Spain and surrounded by cheeky sparrows, we soon missed the endearing (Thekla’s and crested) larks, the bold (Moussier’s) redstarts, the adorable, always happily warbling (Sardinian) warblers and all the other birds that had accompanied us for almost two months on our tour of Morocco.

But also: my first meal in Spain consisted of spare ribs and a beer. Pork and alcohol. I cannot tell you how good it felt to be able to order that, for lunch, at the first place we came across. No longer being subjected to the spurious constraints imposed on us by a repressive religion felt very, very good.

We had enjoyed Morocco. And after Morocco, Spain was… liberating.

I had been ruminating for a while about our impressions of Moroccan people, of how old people tend to be kind, even sweet, how young men have all too often hustled us, tried to take advantage of us and deceive us, and how young boys have, in some areas, been pests that I had found (if I may say so) very eloquent and very damning allegories for.

We have a hundred anecdotes to illustrate the reasons why we prefer to stay away from people and why we have thought several times of leaving the country prematurely, only to end up staying because of the natural beauty of the landscapes. As they say, every anecdote has a story to tell, and telling one would naturally have led to telling many more. But how does one tell these without painting an undeservedly bleak picture? Undeserved, because one-sided and generalising.

And then something like this happens.

We were driving on tarmac for a change. By the side of the road stood a car and a young man signalling for us to stop. Normally, you ignore the young man and keep going, but this was different: this was in the middle of nowhere. In the middle of nowhere, you help those in need.

So we stopped, cautiously, ready to drive off at the first red flag, and asked him what the problem was. He had taken his father’s car, he said, the fuel gauge was broken, he had run out of diesel. Did we have some to spare? We did, but had no way to transfer it from our tank to his. Nothing to pour it into from below the tank, no hose to syphon it with. Could we then take him to his village, a few kilometers back? Sure.

We took him to his father’s house, where an old man, wondering why a car with foreign plates would drive into his courtyard, greeted us with surprise. Then, after his son had explained what had happened, we were thanked abundantly and invited for tea. Since it was lunchtime and there were no restaurants around, the invitation was naturally extended to include something to eat.

While a tajine was being prepared for us and the son had apparently gone off to see if anybody had any diesel to spare in the village, we chatted with the old man. When asked how many children he had, he said, putting up three fingers, ‘three sons and three daughters’. And then, ‘no wait, four sons and three daughters’. His wife, with whom he had had the first six children, had recently died and his children had urged him to remarry, so he had taken a new, 37-year-old wife and had a son with her who was now a few months old. Was he going to have more children? No, he had given her a son, that was all that was needed.

He told us a bit more about himself. He was a middle man. Once in a while, he would go out on a donkey into the mountains to find the nomads and buy their wool from them. Or no, not buy. He traded for things the nomads needed: clothes, medicine and so on. He would take the wool to the village, where the women would make carpets. Travelling merchants came regularly from bigger towns to trade the carpets for clothes, medicine, even diesel. If the carpets were sold in, say, Marrakech, the traders would bring money, although really, both the people in the village and the nomads had little use for it.

We were shown a few of the carpets the women had made, and as they were rolled out for us, both Charlotte and I asked ourselves with alarm: had this all been an elaborate set-up? But no, this was just to show and explain local work.

He left us to eat from the tajine that his wife had brought in, the contents bubbling furiously when we lifted the lid. A simple egg and tomato tajine, herbs from the garden had been added to make this one of the tastiest dishes we’d had in Morocco.

A trader was expected to visit the village any day now, and he would bring diesel. Meanwhile, the son had come back, an empty 5-liter bottle in his hand that had once contained engine oil. No one had any diesel left. But we did, of course, and we only needed to place the bottle under our spare tank, open a valve and fill the bottle.

We thanked the old man and his wife for the meal, took the son back to his father’s car and watched as he poured the diesel into the tank and squeezed the handpump in the engine bay a few times to get diesel all the way to the engine. ‘You have done this before’, I observed. ‘Yes, the fuel gauge is broken’, he replied apologetically.

He had no trouble starting the car and we each went our way. We thought of the welcome we had been given at his father’s house and felt very different than earlier that day.

That same evening, we were at a campsite, with a young Moroccan couple in the spot next to ours. Their small tent was flapping wildly in the buffeting wind: their pegs were useless in the hard ground and so they had half-secured the tent with rocks. I gave them a set of pegs that we sometimes use to put up a tarp, thin, angular, pointy ones for use in just this kind of soil.

He and I talked for a while. He said he worked for a company that had not paid him in four months, and since he could not look for another job as long as the company had not been declared bankrupt, he and his wife had decided to travel through their country and live from what little savings they had.

He offered me a few twigs with dates on them, fresh off the tree. I tried to decline, saying he needed them more than we did, but he insisted I take them, saying, ‘when we have nothing left, Allah will provide for us’. That must have been meant metaphorically, another way of saying: we’ll see. Something always comes up.

That is actually true. Take the young man who had run out of diesel. Something had come up. We had come up. The way people help each other, the informal economy in which goods and services are traded, the stoicism with which hardship is accepted, it is somehow all connected.

It took just one day for us to see Morocco in a different light… That makes being pestered and hustled and cheated a tiny bit more bearable.

Some recent photos:

Sharing a couscous with mechanics who are working on our car.

Sandboarders in Erg Chigaga. Sandboarding itself is a bit of a joke. We saw people slogging up a dune, get on a board and slide straight down the fall line with insufficient speed to make any turns.

Sunrise at a bivouac.

Erg Chigaga (or Chegaga). Erg means area of sand dunes in a desert.

It looks tacky, but these are not decals we have pasted on our side windows – this is a reflection of the evening sky.

Whenever this happens, stop. It only takes a few minutes of digging and off you go. Persist in trying to drive your way out of this and you may be looking at hours of digging. Photo: Charlotte.

We saw the first one off the trail, waving at us as we drove past. He had got stuck in the sand and had not been able to get out on his own. His friends, he complained, had gone on ahead and had not come back to look for him. I pushed his motorcycle while he revved the engine and let the back wheel spin through the fine sand, slowly gaining enough traction to continue on his own and go catch up with his friends.

We followed him and saw him turn left onto another trail. We continued straight ahead. Soon after that, we spotted another motorcyclist who looked like he might need help and who started waving when we stopped to look at him through our binoculars. He had taken a fall with his 300 kg bike and was unable to get it back up on his own. He had no idea where his friends were but wanted to know only one thing: how far to the nearest asphalt road? Our reply seemed to send him straight into an incredulous kind of despair: 75 km. This could not be true. Or was it? No please, let it not be true.

We told him about the other biker we had helped and he asked us where he had gone to. We pointed. He left to find ‘the others’; we followed him. After some time, we saw a group of bikers somewhere to our left and honked our horn to get their attention and warn the one ahead of us to stop. It took a while for the others to come over, there had been some regrouping with another one who had got stuck and had had to get out on his own. That one, too, was complaining about nobody coming to look for him.

Some of them had 400cc off-road bikes and at least some off-road experience. I also saw an Africa Twin. The others were on 1200cc touring bikes and had, as far as I could tell, no off-road experience. They carried very little water, so we passed ours around. Most had no maps of any kind. Many asked us what the trail was like up ahead. We didn’t know, we hadn’t been there yet. They were worried, the trail had been much harder than most thought, they had got separated, and on top of that, they had taken a wrong turn.

We told them about the nearest village where they would be able to spend the night and let everything sink in before carrying on. At first, one of them said to me, ‘just point me in the general direction of Zagora’, but eventually, they agreed to ride to the village named Sidi Ali first. We stayed behind them in case we were needed, but they were now riding in small groups and looking out for each other. There were more falls and more riders got stuck in the sand, but they now stopped to help each other. At the village, we said goodbye, wished them good luck and drove on.

Charlotte had a look at the Instagram account they had set up for this trip. On it, she saw shots of riding on asphalt. She said they had had t-shirts made before setting off. They posted a few things hours after we had left them, photos taken of picture-perfect sand dunes and something about you’re not living if you stay at home. Not a word about the trouble they’d been having in the desert.

It seemed we were the more experienced ones, although we do not have that much more experience with off-roading and certainly not with deserts. We had just taken more precautions. That is not to say that we think of everything – having t-shirts made is something that never even crossed our minds…

Some more photos of the past few days:

Tourists on their way to the sunset. Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

“Elle ne me quitte pas d’un pas, fidèle comme une ombre” (Georges Moustaki, Ma Solitude). A dust cloud is like a shadow.

Left: the sign. Right: the casualties.

A ksar (plural: ksour) not far from Boudenib. Ksour are villages built from earth and straw that, when abandoned, slowly erode away until there is no sign left of their existence.

East of Errachidia lies the small town of Boudenib (it has to be remembered that transliterations are mostly French in the Maghreb. If the town’s name were written in English transliteration, it might come out as Boodneeb). South of Errachidia lies Merzouga. Both towns can be reached from Errachidia via paved roads. In fact, although tour buses don’t visit Boudenib, they do frequent Merzouga.

These two towns are also connected to each other by a web of trails that lead right through the desert. Navigating one’s way along those trails typically results in a journey of around 170 km.

We wanted to do that, and what is more, we wanted to do that on our own. At first, we had hoped to find kindred spirits with whom to hook up for the duration of a drive through the desert, but there were only rallies organised in advance and groups of friends who we did not feel at ease with. And besides that, one has to start somewhere before setting off through darkest Africa, the endless expanses of the Gobi desert or the Uyuni salt flats. Right? We were told others would pass on the same trails, so there was nothing wrong with doing this on our own.

We did make sure we had everything covered, though: both diesel tanks full, about 60 liters of drinking water in the fresh water tank plus twenty liters in jerry cans in case the water tank ruptured, plenty of canned and dried food, plenty of propane and petrol for cooking on our two stoves, sim cards from two different providers, several smartphones with gps and duplicate route descriptions… Plus, of course, all the redundancy that is built into the car.

In hindsight, this was overkill. On day one, we saw three cars, eight motorcycles and one dune buggy. They all could have helped us in case of trouble. On day two, closer to our destination, we encountered more cars and buggies than we had bargained for…

We found a good spot to spend the night and sat for a long time looking at the stars and feeling good about being exactly where we wanted to be.

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

The following day, several lines of earth walls and guard posts placed at regular intervals to our left made it clear that the Algerian border was not far off. After driving for two hours, we arrived at one of those quintessential oases, looked around and decided to stay for a few hours.

Charlotte had just begun to cook lunch when three Spanish dune buggies arrived and, of all possible places in the oasis, parked next to us.

Spanish people generally like to talk. A lot. In a loud voice, and often all at the same time. Many talk not to have a conversation but to fill the air with their voices and be heard.

So we sat there with those Spaniards who were making sure they were being heard, and we started getting ready to leave. But then they left, and so Charlotte continued to cook lunch.

Then about ten Spanish 4×4’s arrived. They also parked right next to us. Men, women and children poured out of them. And they started doing that Spanish thing. Charlotte, knowing how I felt about that, abandoned all hope of finishing lunch and began to pack up. We managed (just!) to manoeuvre around one of their cars which had been parked squarely across the trail and continued to Merzouga.

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Merzouga is a playground for grown-ups. People arrive with their 4×4’s or with dune buggies on trailers, or they arrive on tour buses, rent buggies and quads and go play in the sand dunes. Short camel rides seem to be popular, as is watching the sun set from the top of the dunes – with a guide. People dressed like real bedouins offer services and wares.

Merzouga is also where I take the car for an oil change and a small repair and watch first-hand what I have heard before: problem? no problem. Anything can be fixed with a bit of ingenuity and the tools that happen to be available.

We are ready for some more desert.

It is imperative. No really, these photos need to be published now. Today, we will undoubtedly be taking more and we cannot swamp the hapless reader with images. Ebloui… It is French for blinded, but also for dumbfounded. We are blinded, dumbfounded by so much beauty. Most of these have been team work, where we discussed how to take them and then ran them through the software on our phones. Clicking on them, as always, will produce a version of slightly better quality, with most of them limited to 1500px height or width.

Have a look:

At the end of a stretch of toll road, I gave the man at the toll booth some money and he handed me the change. It could have ended there, a routine exchange that could be (and often is) handled by a machine. But then I thanked him in Bask: eskerrik asko. His face lit up in surprise, a big smile was my reward and I could not help but smile back. In only an instant, something had happened, there had been a connection. It took me as much by surprise as it had taken him.

Navarran landscape

Without a shepard to keep it moving, a flock of sheep reacts very differently to an approaching car. These sheep froze, put their heads down and closed ranks. Occasionally, one would look up to see what we were doing. It took a while for them to become dimly aware that we did not pose a threat.

Photo: Charlotte

We had left Aragón and moved into Navarra. There were obvious changes: houses were predominantly whitewashed but with bits of timber framing or rock masonry visible, Bask names were now everywhere. For a few days we had retraced familiar terrain. Ten years earlier, we had cycled through Lumbier (Navarra) and nearby Sos del Rey Católico (Aragón) on our way to Valencia. Now, we had revisited this area, had hiked parts we had not seen before and had driven a last challenging stretch of dirt road that, muddy and with deep ruts, had been passable only because of our new tyres. We had made a small detour into France, to Saint Jean Pied de Port, where hikers on their way to Santiago de Compostela take time off to get a decent meal, buy new hiking gear, and mingle, and where we had, ten years ago, looked with trepidation at the mountains we were about to cross on our bicycles.

In Sos del Rey Católico. Top: 2009. Bottom: 2019.

So back in Saint Jean after ten years, we had parked the car near the old town and enjoyed a good meal. We had reinflated our tyres for the first time in a few weeks and headed for the coast.

San Sebastián (Donostia in Bask language) was a gem. With several beaches and an ocean filled with surfers waiting for a good wave, a park on a hill with unparalleled views of the city and a pedestrian zone where people stood ouside bars enjoying pintxos and wine, and not a tour group or trinket shop in sight, what was there not to like?

Colourful area on the outskirts of San Sebastián

Moving on to Bilbao, we dutifully admired Calatrava’s footbridge and visited the Guggenheim museum. And sampled a lot more pintxos.

Pintxos are essential. Pronounced approximately the way you would pronounce ‘pinchos’, they are not just hors d’oeuvres (like tapas are in other parts of Spain), consumed standing with a glass of wine or beer, be it in the early afternoon or the early evening, before moving on to a restaurant for a real meal. They are also works of art that first please the eye and then the palate. The counters of bars abound with them and all you have to do is point. They are a celebration of Basque cuisine and a clear statement against Spanish cuisine, which tends to be uninspired, greasy and the realm of overcooked meat and absent vegetables. In San Sebastián as well as Bilbao, each bar has its own pintxos and they all try to outdo each other, leading to a foody paradise that the foody finds impossible to leave.

But it was time to move on. In a reversal of our earlier plans, we had decided to drive through Spain rather quickly, spend what was left of October, November and December in Morocco, then return to the Iberian peninsula, fly to Geneva in January for a month or so to ski in the Alps, fly back south to where the car would be waiting, and only then slowly work our way up through Portugal. And then… who knows? Scandinavia, Baltic republics, Eastern Europe? Turkey, probably, and on into Georgia, Armenia, Iran. It is often difficult to distinguish between wishes and plans.

So we drove through Castilla y León, Extremadura, Andalucía, stopping only near Salamanca, Cáceres and Sevilla, each time at a campsite outside the city but with a regular bus service to the city centre.

In Cáceres

And then we crossed the Gibraltar Straight to Ceuta. Ceuta, of course, is a Spanish exclave in Morocco, so we were still technically in Spain and there was still a border to be crossed. We had not expected the border crossing to be smooth, and it wasn’t. First, while on our way to the border, we were waved down by what looked like a homeless person, who pointed away from the border and up a hill, saying something about buying a ticket first and could we spare some money for his kind advice? Others pointed up the hill as well, so we took that seriously, although we had not understood what this was about. After a lot of driving around and some more advice (free this time), we arrived at a parking lot where, it turned out, border candidates were herded and released a few at a time, apparently with the aim of reducing the lines at the border itself. We were given the green light (and a piece of paper with our permission to proceed) after an hour. And this was still in Spain…

All in all, crossing the border took close to three hours. Since the car is registered in Charlotte’s name, she had to temporarily import it, making it difficult for her to fly to the Netherlands to visit her mother without getting arrested for leaving the country without the car. There is a workaround, but it’s a bit of a hassle.

Before heading off to the parts of Morocco that have an excellent reputation for off-roading, we visited Chefchauoen, which is known for being… blue.


A German told us he had seen Japanese tourists everywhere. We only saw Chinese. One of them took a photo of an old woman, prompting a young man to leap to his feet, point at her camera and repeat with more than a little insistence what may well have been the extent of his English: Delete! Delete!

Freshly painted street in Chefchaouen. Choosing the colour was easy.

On our way south, dirt roads led us through cedar forests and into more arid terrain. We arrived in the small town of Midelt. From here, a wealth of options opened up.

Bivouac at lake Afnourir

Making new friends in Midelt

We pored over our maps, trying to make sense of the number of areas we had heard about and the multitude of trails running through them. But like a few times before, whatever plans we might have come up with were quickly revised. Something came up and I needed to seek medical help. OK, sure, fine.

As luck would have it, there was a hospital just around the corner from the campsite that we had spent the night at. But after hearing what I had come for, they said, you have to go to another hospital.

As luck would have it, that happened to be on the other side of town. There, we were ushered straight into the emergency doctor’s office, in spite of the crowd that seemed to be waiting for their turn. But not all the tests that I needed could be done there. It would be better to go to a bigger city.

Meknes was only 177 km away. It took us the better part of the day to get there, what with road repair and trucks that, laden with far more sheep, straw or other heavy cargo than the constructor would have allowed, crawled along on the winding mountain road.

In the hospital the same thing happened: straight into the doctor’s office, in spite of a sizeable number of people who were waiting. Only those who were carried in with injuries were attended to more swiftly. Not much more result, though: the doctor asked a few questions and then concluded that a tumour would be the most likely explanation. He gave me a referral to a (any) laboratory for tests, one for any place that could do ultrasound, and one for any specialist with a private practice. Where will we find all this? Yellow pages.

Charlotte outdid herself when she found accomodation on the edge of the old town. A riad, it used to be a family mansion that housed several generations, all of whom had their personal, richly adorned space but who met and shared meals in common spaces that were even more spectacular than all the private rooms.

(I am reminded of Isabel Allende’s Casa de los Espíritus, of which I once read a part during a two-hour stopover at the airport of Santiago de Chile, under the disapproving eye of the station manager, a staunch Pinochet supporter: you are reading that???)

The rooftop, converted into several seating areas at various levels, quickly became one of our favourite places. Every day, shortly before sunset, hundreds of storks would appear on the horizon and fly directly overhead in musters of up to a few dozen, just above the houses and all on their way south. Swifts would noisily flutter while making sure they avoided the storks which, much bigger and thundering past in a straight line, had every reason to expect the smaller birds to get out of their way. As the sun set, mosques called the faithful to prayer, for the howmanieth time that day? Then, tiny bats came to dominate the now rapidly darkening sky, while first Jupiter and soon after that other celestial bodies lit up to fill what would have been a dull voûte céleste without them.

Musters of storks… that’s what they are called. Personally, I would have preferred droves. Or squadrons.

Were the storks migrating? Probably. They traditionally spend the winter south of the Sahara, although recently, at least some of the storks have tended to stay in Morocco. The explanation researchers have come up with: an increase in rubbish tips means there is enough food available, and migrating to the tropics before the northern hemisphere winter to find food is no longer necessary.

Left: Friday. Right: Saturday.

Moroccan fashion. Photo: Charlotte.

Meknes has an ancient underground prison that is reputed to have once had a capacity of forty thousand prisoners and/or slaves, who were kept in one giant vaulted space without cells. The light that shines down on Charlotte comes from a skylight through which also fresh air could enter and food was dropped. The orange-coloured light in the background comes from light bulbs that have been installed for the benefit of visitors, who would otherwise have trouble seeing in what is a much more tenebrous space than this photo suggests.

We stayed in Meknes for a few days. I had tests done and saw a specialist. False alarm: no tumour. Phew. So we are heading south again. We have a lot of offroading to do.

With Charlotte in the Netherlands for five days, I went back to camping in the wild. The arrière-pays, or back country, to the north-west of Nice was rugged and largely devoid of both inhabitants and tourists, a perfect retreat from a world that is increasingly hanging out the “sorry, we’re full” signs. A few days in a stony riverbed, some weblog maintenance and a fair bit of pondering, and I was good to go on.

On the way to Marseille to pick Charlotte up at the airport, a detour via the Gorges du Verdon meant a chance to get close to a colony of vultures that nest in the steep cliffs, fly out around midday when reliable thermals have formed, ride a thermal to its ceiling, go off in different directions to find something dead to eat and come back late afternoon, before the thermals die down. These big birds may not inspire much sympathy when on the ground, but in the air they are majestic.

Egyptian vulture

Griffon vulture

I nearly didn’t make it to the airport in time. Stopping at a scenic spot near a stream to have lunch, the right-hand front wheel dropped into a hole in the river bank that I had not seen, causing the car to rest on the chassis, with the wheel stuck against a vertical wall of earth.

A group of French tourists came to see if they could help. One, a retired army man, assessed the situation and sprung into action. Happy to relive the days in which he would be presented with challenges to find solutions to, he started thinking about winches, length of cable, angle of pull and immovable objects, and went as far as wading into the stream to attach the winch cable to a steel pedestrian bridge. His plan worked: once he had everything in place, I operated the remote control for the winch while at the wheel, simultaneously working with clutch, diff lock and low gearing, and the car came out of the hole as if it had always been meant to be that way.

There is always discussion between 4wd-ers about, for instance, what should be considered essential gear. A friend of ours removed his winch from his car because he saw no need for it, but he would not leave home without two spare tyres, whereas we do have a winch and carry only one spare tyre. This little incident set me thinking. It had happened near a town and I could have called a tow truck. But not long after that we found ourselves driving on tracks in very remote terrain in the Spanish Pyrenees, with little or no traffic. In the not too distant future, we hope to leave Europe and drive through even remoter terrain. Sure, the winch has its drawbacks. You need to have something to attach the cable to. But the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. The winch stays.

From Marseille, now together again, we drove through the Camargue, which was much less the wetlands where wild horses spend their days galloping with manes flowing and hoofs kicking up water than one is led to believe, and on to the small border town of Cerbère. This happens to be the French name for the six-headed dog that is known in English as Cerberus, but Cerbère has long ceased to guard the entrance to Hades. It was only a relentlessly thundering, buffeting Tramontane that made us cross quickly into Spain to get to the lee side of the mountains.

On Wikiloc, we had found a 4×4 route through the Pyrenees, from east to west, and we were going to follow that.

Photo: Charlotte

Beginning rather benignly, it became increasingly challenging. We crossed other 4x4s and found there were other routes that people were following, both west to east and east to west but almost entirely on the Spanish side of the border. We began to mix routes, following one for a while because it offered good off-roading, then doing a loop from another that seemed to have a preference for paved roads but led through some spectacular scenery we would otherwise have missed, and eventually even deviating from that deviation to follow advice from Spaniards who lived in the area we passed through.

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

We camped in ridiculously beautiful spots, with no one else around. In Catalonia there was a mountain top at something like 1600m above mean sea level that would have received high marks with its 360° views. But a forest ranger came up, surprised to see us there. He had not come because of us, he said, he had come to check on the trees that were slowly dying, victims of climate change. But since we were there, he had to tell us that camping in the wild was prohibited in all of Catalonia. He suggested we go somewhere else where we would be less visible. I said, ‘I did not just hear you say that.’ ‘And I did not say that’ , was his smiling reply.

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte


In Aragon, we had lunch once in an unlikely, out-of-the-way restaurant that had taken in an Afghan refugee cook who produced dishes that were a welcome change from Spanish fare. The Afghan had, back home, worked for American forces, until the Taliban tried to recruit him to kill Americans with a convincing argument: you don’t do what we say, we kill your relatives. He had fled his country. It had taken him six months to reach Greece, where he had spent time in a refugee camp before moving on to Germany. After six months there, he had been told to leave and he had found a temporary place to stay in the Spanish Pyrenees. He was still waiting to find out whether his home country was considered by the Spanish authorities to be sufficiently dangerous for him not to be sent back. How is anyone going to assess that?

Photo: Charlotte

Griffon vulture. Photo: Charlotte

Throughout the Pyrenees, we kept seeing vultures, up to a hundred at a time. We would watch them fly out and try out different strategies, given the ever changing weather conditions. They seem to be sociable animals, always flying together, watching each other, following the lead of those who find thermals and then, as they see those at the top of a thermal begin high-speed transitions in various directions, following those. Some were less lucky than others, less experienced perhaps, losing too much altitude during a transition and ending up ‘scratching’ a hillside until finding that thermal that would get them back to where the others were, a couple of thousand meters higher. For an animal with a wingspan of two and a half meters, climbing on its own power is out of the question. At one point, we saw many of them flying very high, but not circling. Could it be that they were flying in a mountain wave? It is a technique that glider pilots use to gain more altitude than thermals would allow them to, a technique that is notoriously difficult to master.

Looking ahead…

… and back.

We were told the story of the river that disappeared. Water from a glacier on Mount Aneto, at 3400m the highest peak in the Pyrenees, flowed down the mountain side, down a waterfall, into a hole in a hillside that should have acted as a barrier, and… was gone. Nobody knew for certain where all that water went, until in 1931 someone decided to settle the matter once and for all and poured dye into it. It resurfaced on the other side of the mountain, on the other side of the border, thus becoming one of the sources of the Garonne, which, further along the way, has seen Toulouse being constructed on both of its banks, traverses Bordeaux and joins the Dordogne to form the Gironde before ending up in the Atlantic Ocean.

We went to see for ourselves. It is a bit unsettling. You hike up, there is no water. You cross a small ridge, a mere ripple in the landscape, and climb on. There is now a stream to your right, a waterfall a bit higher up, and you arrive at a marshy plain where you see water coming down from several of the surrounding slopes. And then you go back the way you came, from the plain, down past the waterfall, over the ridge and downhill again, and as soon as you pass the ridge, you realise that there is no more water. It takes time to sink in. But… Where did it go?

The river that disappears is not the only thing that is interesting about the Benasque Valley. Benasque, it turns out, has its own language, with influences from Aragonese, Catalan and Gascon. And a cuisine that relies heavily on local produce, game, fowl. And it is a hiker’s paradise. Did I mention plant and animal species, which change with every turn you take?

View through a hole in a bird watching platform near Riglos in Aragon.

Sorry, can’t tell you where this was. Camping in the wild – not allowed.

Tandem paraglider overflying the Loarre castle. Photo: Charlotte

The picturesque town of Agüero in Aragon. We saw climbers who had just reached the top of a pillar begin to abseil.

Not quite done yet in the Pyrenees. We’re loving it.

Before and after. Can you spot the differences?

First of all, there is the change from white (French) number plates to yellow (Dutch) ones.

You may have read about how, two years ago, we bought this car in Italy and then needed four months to import it into France. At the time, I came very close to pushing the car off the nearest cliff and walk away, that’s how frustrating and endless the whole process was. Eventually, following protocol, it was registered as a fourgon, a commercial vehicle. Then, only a few weeks later, a law was changed and it became clear that we would need to go through the whole process again (and more), this time in order to register the car as a camper. As long as the roadworthiness certificate was valid, we could drive and try not to think of it. Drive we did, but this sword of Damocles was hanging over our heads: when the roadworthiness came up for renewal, we would be taken off the road for having the wrong kind of registration. But going through that hell again in order to comply with the new regulations was out of the question.

It wasn’t about safety or some such almost justifiable goal: it was about maintaining a tangled, bureaucratic mess. It was about a multitude of documents that needed to be produced and to get each of those, more documents needed to be shown, more authorities visited. It was about nobody taking responsibility, about maddening indifference. It was about cheques that needed to be written (cheques???), and when finally everything could be done online, even payments, this was launched overnight, with no more recourse to people when something didn’t work, and immediately, the system ground to a halt. It was about incompetence at every level. It was about four months of growing despair. And we would have to go through all of that again? Over my dead body. Absolutely not.

We decided to import the car into the Netherlands. We thought it would be easier and faster, and that turned out to be… true. From applying for Dutch registration to actually receiving it took not four months but less than a week… It was only because the insurance company refused to insure the car until our cooking gas installation was compliant with regulations, and a few other repairs were made, that we ended up staying in the Netherlands for six weeks, hosted all this time by Charlotte’s sister and brother-in-law.

OK, so that is one of the more obvious changes. Another difference that is clearly visible: the orange sandplates that had proved to be unmitigatedly useless every time we had tried to use them to get us out of trouble were unceremoniously dumped. In their place came a pair of genuine Australian-made Maxtrax™ which found a perfect niche on the roof, behind the solar panel. Also, the winch received a new window, with rollers this time, so that the cable would not cut into the window when the winch was in use.

One of the most satisfying changes can also be seen, though less clearly, in the picture above: bigger wheels, new tyres. BFGoodrich KO2 235/85 R16. We had not been allowed to put those on in France even though everywhere else in Europe, it’s a bit of a go-to tyre. With a profile that is suitable for many types of terrain and made of a rubber that is soft enough for it to be used as a snow tyre, I don’t think there is a better all-terrain compromise. Our Troopy sits confidently high on them, the size is a much better match with the gear ratios than our old 205 tyres, and the handling of the car has improved noticeably.

We went to see various professionals while in the Netherlands. Rijk of RV4WD in Harderwijk (they do only Toyota Land Cruisers) surprised me by suggesting that we go for a drive before doing the oil change and a few other things that we had come for. During the drive, he explained that he had Paris-Dakar rallye experience and then let me in on what he had found. Something in the steering wasn’t right. I knew that, but had ignored it. Clutch, too, not right. Standard clutch, put in only a year ago by a Toyota dealer in Spain after our old clutch had given the ghost. With its aftermarket turbo, the engine had too much power for a standard clutch, but the Toyota dealer had apparently not known about that. Was he trying to sell me a new clutch that we didn’t need? I don’t think so.

Interesting, though. I had worried about the weight of the spare tyre on the rear door. He said, ‘forget the door. If you are going to spend money, spend it on a stronger clutch. You don’t want to burn your clutch while trying to get out of a sticky situation’. That made sense.

Tyres and rims: I had been thinking about aluminium rims (light weight, no corrosion) and not only higher, but wider tyres. He said, ‘Rims? Get steel rims. They last forever, and in the unlikely event that they do break, they can be welded. As for tyres, 235/85 are not wide, but they will give you good height. In mud, rather than get stuck in the top layer like a wider tyre might do, they press through the soft stuff onto the hard ground and find grip there. In sand, it is not width you need, but a longer footprint, which you get by airing down. And 235’s are sold everywhere, in case you need a replacement’. Point made, advice accepted.

We had new seats installed by a professional seat installer. Big difference: the seats are firmer, offer more support and, together with the new tyres, give me the impression that I’m driving something solid, trustworthy. You would not believe how much of a difference that makes.

And so on. New fridge: this one uses much less power than the old one and doesn’t keep me awake at night. The gas supply for our cooking stove was upgraded and a thermocouple replaced. We bought a better table, and replaced a push-pull lock that had broken on a drawer.

Meanwhile, Charlotte found all sorts of useful stuff online (like the fridge that had exactly the same dimensions as ours and had been hard to find, or the only hiking boots that fit me but that were sold out in shops, etc etc) and had it delivered.

After leaving Albania, we were reminded that the Netherlands is one of those consumption-driven countries where ‘I buy, therefore I am’ can be an important reason for some to leave, as well as a good reason to return, from time to time. Should we draw conclusions, draw up principles? But no. No need to get existential about that. A paradox, that’s all it is.

After that was all done, we drove off towards the French Alps. Three weeks in Châtel, filled with hiking and visiting old friends in and around Morzine, some of whom I had not seen for a couple of years, others for much longer.

Charlotte during a hike above Les Contamines-Montjoie

We then followed a trail found on Wikiloc through the Alps towards the Mediterranean. Neither the Route des Grandes Alpes nor the Route Napoléon, it consists of a series of dirt roads that are connected by highly scenic sealed roads. None of this really 4×4 terrain, but sufficiently off the beaten track to give us a sense of adventure as well as some stunning scenery.

High above Val d’Isère.

Strada dell’Assietta, in Piemonte.

Strada dell’Assietta, in Piemonte.

There was a permanent police presence to make sure no one continued past the rifugio to the Colle Sommelier. That was OK, the parking area of the rifugio was a perfect place to camp. Signs had already warned us that the road was ‘interrupted for course milling’. Confused? It must have been a machine translation. ‘Frana in corso’ can also be translated as ‘frequent rockslides’.

Occasionally, we came upon towns, villages, hamlets that I had passed during my hike through the Alps to the Mediterranean, two years earlier. Memories came flooding in. Les Contamines-Montjoie, my feet had healed sufficiently to carry on. Val d’Isère, where, nearby, I had had my first encounter with a couple of ibexes. Briançon, the only way that anyone should ever consider entering the city was on foot, on the GR5, crossing the bridge that connects the two parts of the fort that had protected the city against invading Italians for centuries. Ceillac, smack in the middle of the Queyras, surrounded on all sides by mountains and with only one way in and out, yet with a wonderful vibe. And then…

No, hang on. Not yet. First, we followed a dirt road up, and up, and up, and the further we climbed, the less likely it seemed that there would be a passage anywhere in the rock faces that towered above and ahead of us, there was a continuous, vertiginous wall all around us, no pass anywhere, how on earth were we going to… And then we arrived at the solution that had been found at the end of the 19th century to cross over into the next valley: a tunnel. A tunnel at over 2600 metres altitude. Built without the use of power tools, its purpose had been to enable the quick transfer of war equipment from one valley to the next. Think about that. In an attempt to counter a possible Italian invasion, the Tunnel du Parpaillon was built by men who swung their hammers, braved the cold and the snow and were fed soup, at 2600 metres above sea level.

At the entrance of the tunnel, looking back.

After passing the tunnel, descending towards Jausiers. Photo: Charlotte

And then…

Laurent and I used to fly paragliders together in Morzine. He had worked a temp job in Avoriaz as a night watchman, wanted to be a pilot, worked his way up the hard way: private lessons, instructor on small planes, small charters, an overseas stint in the jungles of French Guyana. Speaking no English, would he be able to progress? I lost sight of him for a good ten years, we met up again in the south of France while I was hiking and he was on his way to Barcelonnette to go glider flying. He was a captain at an Air France subsidiary then, and he had learned to speak English.

Barcelonnette again, second half of August this year. Sun is shining, clouds burgeon. Grapes and figs will soon be ripe. Never mind that. In Laurent’s words (he works for Air France by now): five things come together. I am in Barcelonnette. You are in Barcelonnette. The weather is perfect. And duo gliders are available.

Laurent has offered to take me flying. A friend of his will take Charlotte, but for various reasons, she will have to wait and ends up flying for an hour and a half. Still, pretty good. Laurent and I take a gamble by deciding to take off while the westerly valley breeze that should be in place by late morning is still countered by an easterly flow. The gamble pays off and we fly for five and a half hours.

Being towed to where hopefully, we will find a thermal.

One of the highlights: paying a visit to the White Glacier (Glacier Blanc) that flows from the Barre des Ecrins (4100m). We approach it, fly over the glacier at 3500m, turn around and fly back to find Pascal and Charlotte, who have by then taken off and climbed to a similar altitude.

Flying towards the glacier. The Barre des Ecrins can be seen in the top left corner.

Approaching the glacier. Over 3500m: sufficient altitude to go on.

After turning around, looking back at the Barre des Ecrins.

Another highlight: sharing thermals with several vultures. Our masters, we take our cues from them. And get clues from them, yes. Surprisingly, they seem to take their cues from us as well.

Throughout the flight, Laurent patiently described what he thought of doing next and why, where to find thermals, how to read the signals the changing weather was giving, where to turn to if we happened to lose too much altitude to carry on, and so on. And he listened to my input as a former paraglider pilot and tried things out that I suggested. For five and a half hours, we were a team, with him obviously being my teacher as well as my companion. It was unforgettable.

Laurent and I. Charlotte took this photo from the glider that she was flying in.

Charlotte and I continued south and returned to hiking as well as lazing in the sweltering late-August heat. I dropped her off in Nice, from where she flew to the Netherlands for her mother’s 90th birthday, and I will pick her up in Marseille. We would then like to go further south and cross the Pyrenees from east to west, continue via northeastern Spain to Portugal and spend some of the colder months in Morocco. More stories coming up!

In the Mercantour National Park. Photo: Charlotte