Saturday, 26 August 2017

Ode to Catalonia


Mountains revisited.


The ruins at El Brull.
Not much shade at the top.
As mentioned in my last blog entry, I’m moving to Africa – in fact, I’m actually sitting and writing this in my new home in South Africa, a place called The Valley of 1000 Hills. I’ve moved to a rural Zulu community in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, roughly an hour from Durban. I’m working with a local community centre who provide after school care for the local children, as well as cultural events for visitors, tourism activities and also training for the youth in the community to become tour guide and trainers. But more on that in the next entry – I would like to talk about my last few weeks in Catalonia, which has been my home for 5 years out of the last 13, longer than I’ve lived in my own country in that period. It’s a strange thing sometimes when I think about it, how many years I’ve spent overseas. People ask me why, why don’t you live in Australia where you get good money and have a great lifestyle, why do you live here where the money is bad? My answer is always ‘Why not?’ There is far more to life than a job and money. Since leaving Australia the first time, way back in 2004 to the UK, to work in pubs and travel around their little island, I guess I have changed a lot. Everyone talks about travel as being the best educator, and sometimes that is true – it opens you up to new languages and cultures, new people that you would never have met before and new experiences that you would never have got before. Whether you let these things change you, or let yourself go with the changes, it’s up to you – just because you travel doesn’t mean you become this educated, mature and sophisticated person, just like wisdom does not come with age. My accent has probably changed too – learning a new language can do that, so does the fact that I teach English and speak to non-Natives, but it’s still funny how you revert back when you meet someone from your neck of the woods.

The start of the hike to Matagalls.

Stunning weather for a hike!
A large and very beautiful butterfly.
Sant Segimon.
To ‘celebrate’ my life in Catalonia, I decided to climb a mountain or two – very fitting I think. I truly got into the hiking scene over here, with places like Montseny and Montserrat so close, continuing in South America with The Torres del Paine in Chile and Fitz Roy in Argentina, and since then it has become more and more a part of my life. If I don’t get out and hike or climb every few weeks, I start to go mad. Catalonia has some wonderful mountains, inside the country as well as the Pyrenees that run along the border with France. Back in February, fresh from hiking in Switzerland with snow, I hiked to the top of Matagalls in the Montseny National Park. At this time, the country had had a bit of cold weather and snow, just the right amount to walk in without snowshoes. It was beautiful – a 2 hour hike up in fluffy white powder, deep blue skies with a wisp of cloud here and there, a view of the Pyrenees on one side and a view of the Mediterranean on the other. I had such a great time that I thought that I’d come back and do it again in Summer. On a sunny July day, myself and 4 good friends headed out to climb the mountain again – but before that, a good, hearty breakfast was needed! We sat down at the only restaurant in El Brull, a tiny village just before the start of the hike at Collformic. Tostades (thick toasted bread) with pernil and cheese, a good coffee and we were ready – and we also knew where the post-climb beers would be, which is very important! Although not a very tough hike, it’s still decent, and the weather was quite warm. It’s impossible to get lost, as there is a clear path and markings all the way, but there is very little cover, so the heat would be the problem here – but water had been packed, and also a snack for the top, which turned out to be peanut butter sandwiches!

We weren't the only ones enjoying the fresh air.
The little stone 'hermita.'

The crew.
The monument at the top.
Along the way, I looked up at the top, where the large cross sits, and there was a huge crowd. I still have no real idea what it was, but by the time we reached the peak, there were pack horses loaded up with food and other things. I think there was some sort of service here, as it was a Sunday, but I can’t be sure. Luckily the crowd had more of less dispersed enough for us to get in our selfies and photos at the top – to celebrate, commemorate and remember the wonderful feeling of making it all the way to the top, all 1692 metres in this case, whether you’ve done it before or not. A quick drink and bite to eat was all we really had time for – some dark storm clouds were moving in and I was slightly worried, even more so because we’d decided to return a different, and slightly longer, way back to the car. We headed down the trail, walking towards Sant Segimon, a small ‘hermita’ right on the edge of the mountain. Built of stone, this little hermitage has seen better days, it’s roof sagging and on the verge of collapse, and the door completely missing. But, it’s still standing, despite being completely open to the wind, rain and harsh Spanish sun. If there were a storm to come in, this is where I’d be waiting it out. We then went down a steep path of loose rocks and sharp angles, but after the hard part was done, it was an easy road all the way back to the car. Normally I don’t like gravel or even paved roads to hike on, this was a pleasant way to finish of the last few kilometres, giving my tired legs a chance to just walk, stretch out a little, and ease done before lunchtime, when I’d be sitting down for a while and my lets would stiffen up. Lunch was the second highlight of the day – traditional Catalan food, topped off with beer, wine and some good friends. The beer at the end of a hike is always the best!

Matagalls in Summer - hot and no real shade, but beautiful.

The mystical Pedraforca.
How are we getting u there?
The road to 'The Forked Rock.'
I had one more mountain on my list of things to do before I left. This one has been on that list for some time – a favourite mountain of mine, and one that I’d visited before, but only hiked to the refuge. Pedraforca, in the mountainous area around Berga, is something special indeed. It’s name comes from the shape – a towering two-peaked stone fork. Following the curving road to get there, I love seeing this beautiful form of nature pop out amongst the trees – so big but you only see it at the last minute! A quick coffee is a ritual I have with my friends before we hike or climb, so the 3 of us had ours, made sure of our plans, then headed off. I knew this would be a long, hard day, but I had no idea what I was in for to be honest! The plan was to hike around the smaller peak, angling up and climbing through a hole on the side of the mountain, then climbing (without ropes) up a steep and gravely ‘path,’ then finally reaching the shorter of the two peaks, the ‘Pollego Inferior,’ at 2444m (compared to 2506m for the ‘Pollego Superior’). It started off well and a fairly standard hike, but things go a little hairy when we hit the gravel paths. It’s hard climbing over rocks of various sizes, the big ones can move and roll, and the smaller gravel is loose under you boot and can make you slid back down the path, bringing rocks and debris with you. After a good hour of this, we made it to the hole – we strapped on our climbing harnesses as this part required some safety ropes. Sometimes when you’re hiking, all you look at is the path right in front of you, or your final destination – I like looking back and seeing what I’ve accomplished so far! Looking up can also make you lose heart sometimes, thinking that it’s too hard and that you won’t make it. This is what the next part looked to me.

Straight up!

The hard climb to the top.

The sheer walls of Pedraforca.
Setting up the ropes to abseil down.
The next part of the climb, and yes, it had turned from a hike to a climb, was tough and also a little scary. We couldn’t use ropes, as there was nowhere to tie on to, nor could we tie on to each other – if one person fell, he would pull the other 2 with him. I didn’t know this part existed or how hard it would be. I’m fairly fit, tough and stronger than I look (mentally and physically) in my opinion, and this climb put all that to the test. The climb was steep, more than 45 degrees and I’m sure nearly 90 in some parts, the rocks were either too lose to hang onto, too flat or worn to get a proper grip and the grass was also sharp – there was no winning here! I made a mistake about half way up and got a little stuck – I couldn’t go up, nor left or right. I had a moment of panic, no helped by looking down, and thoughts ran through my mind like “I’m not going to make it!” to “I just need to hang on till my friends call the helicopter for me” and then “I think I’m going to fall,” and if you fall you know what happens. It felt like a long time, my mind running away from me, stupid thoughts, my legs had started to shake, but I managed to pull myself together – with the help my good buddy who came back down at his own risk and helped guide me down, then to the right path. A truly hairy moment that I could’ve done without. After this was accomplished, it was a shorter, but still tough, climb to the top. But the top! My sore arms and legs immediately felt better, my mind clear, my heart pumpin not out of exhaustion but out of the thrill of being 2444m high, having made the tough and long climb to get here. I’m not a true mountain climber – those guys and girls are absolute beasts, and true athletes – but I do feel the ‘allure’ of the mountain, the need to climb, and the addictive feeling to it. After 6 and a half hours, we’d made it! After a 30 minute ‘lunch’ break, we abseiled 3 30m ropes down to where the gap in the forks lay, then the walk back down to the bottom would begin. This took at more than 2 hours – again, loose rocks, gravel, steep angles. This part of the hike I dubbed “The Knee Breaker,” and it was true – by the time we reached the car and had our ‘hallelujah’ moment (when you’re so tired and you just make it to the car), my legs were so sore, my knees shaking, and I was very much in need of a beer or three!

The view from the top.

Winter is coming... or is it Summer?

My two companions on the climb, Manel and Joan.
The taller of the peaks, but the easier one to reach.
So one again my time had come to an end, the time to pack up my life and move on again was here. After living in South America for a year, packing up my life in Sydney and moving there with a one way ticket, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t do it again. Chile was a tough time for me – it was hard to make friends, hard to learn their funny way of speaking Spanish, and the weather where I was living was miserable. After returning to Barcelona, I thought that I would be here, as much ‘for good’ as is possible with me. Things change, people change and opportunities arise. I visited South Africa way back in 2015 for the wedding of my good friend Donovan to his long-time girlfriend Bonnie. I had a great two weeks – catching up with Don, who I’d met in Scotland in 2005, meeting the truly awesome Bonnie, along with all their friends, and of course, the wedding was amazing! I visited a Lion Park and also went on a week-long safari, managing to see (and photograph) the Big Five in one day. The excitement was there to return, but of course I would be leaving behind some really amazing people here, who have become my second family. I will miss many things about this country, the Festa Major, the food and traditions, but most of all the people. Thank you to everyone who has enriched my life – anywhere I am, you are welcome, no questions asked, and the next Gin and Tonic is on me. It’s never goodbye for good friends, only ‘see you later.’

Incredible view from the top.


Goodbye mountains of Catalonia... or should I say, 'see you later.'

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