The idea of walking is as simple as it is natural, however planes, trains and automobiles have meant that we now rarely allow ourselves the time to enjoy a good old-fashioned stroll.
Remember that it wasn’t too long ago that using our feet was the only way of land transport.
With this in mind I decided it was time that I go for a walk, a walk that I would not forget, so I decided to walk across France.
A balmy 33 degree day greets us as we take our first step from Chancy on the mid Eastern border separating France and Switzerland. Our bible, a print out from Google Maps, tell us there are 650km of roads to walk before we reach La Rochelle and the Atantic Ocean on the West Coast of France. Matty, my walking partner who stands at 6ft 10, sets a ripping pace as we pass through quaint country side before hitting some mountainous terrain near to Belle Garde. A train runs past us as we stop walking at 10pm, it gives us an idea for tomorrow
Matty snores, a lot! But apparently I do too- we’re even. We wake up with feet feeling as if we walked the whole day before, we should get used to this. Sleeping outside with only a sleeping bag means that we’re both tired but our food shop of banana, bread and honey hits the spot. To navigate through the mountains, we decide to follow the train tracks cutting directly through, avoiding all steep and winding roads. We think we save time. We’re lucky that there are hardly any trains as we pace through our first tunnel. It’s pitch black inside and freezing cold; a nice change actually. Popping out of the other end of the tunnel we find ourselves crossing a narrow railway bridge which hovers hundreds of meters above a beautiful blue lake. Later we pass Lake Nantua where we are invited by local hippies to play music with them on a small wooden jetty offering a view of the mountain behind us. We dip our feet in the lake; amazing. Hitting a small town by nightfall, a friendly landlord lets us stay in a room above a pub.
Our feet are killing this morning. Our bodies are not used to walking 12 hour days and morale is low. We hop back on the train tracks and head west, the sun rising behind us as always. By midday its caught us as we enter our longest tunnel yet, 2.8km. 40 miniutes later we pop out the other end to be confronted by railway workers. I can’t help but laugh at the thought of these men seeing two men emerge from a railway tunnel asking for directions to the Atlantic Ocean. We finally hit flat ground near to Bourg-en-Bresse where we find a lawn next to the hospital to sleep on. We are shattered!
The road to Macon is long and straight. We continue our habit of eating chocolate croissants at every patisserie. We are sick of banana sandwiches. We walk from 7am-1pm and rest before again hitting the road from 5pm-11pm. The middle of the day is too hot to walk. Today is uneventful. Our backpacks seems heavier and the road seems slower. Our first calculation since leaving tells us that we need to be walking 42 km a day, a marathon. We are behind and our blisters mock us!
A late stroll through Macon offers some magic as we find a shopping trolley. With sore backs from carrying weight, we throw our bags in and start pushing. Before long we name the trolley Trojan. Trojan, it turns, out is quite mischievous and against the advice of Google, leads us onto the N79 (National Freeway) saving us precious kilometres. It’s not long before we are escorted off the Freeway by a rescue team who chuck the three of us in their truck and take us to the next exit. Enter small winding roads of the beautiful French country side! Tractors make way for us as we again confuse farmers who gaze at Trojan in disbelief. A tiring day ends as we collapse in a small village park near Trivvy. 3 am lighting storm forces us to move into nearby public toilets for shelter. That’s a first!
Emotions, although always positive deep down, are swaying with every hour. A silent first hour is followed by an up beat rap-battle. Unlike Matty, I am terrible. Personal stories are shared and views on life exchanged as we walk along side a canal in Paray Le Monial. A massive thunderstorm dampens our conversation but an Australian flag on the back of a nearby Dutch-barge fills us with hope. Steve and Peta own the boat and invite us for a coffee. The coffee soon turns into shower, a map check and some sandwiches! Amazing people. Two hours later head off into more countryside loving life and Australian generosity.
Leaving Diou village green at sunrise, drenched with dew, Trojan, Matty and me spend scenic morning strolling through more French country side. There’s not much else in these parts. By 1pm we cover a good 20km and clamber over some hedges to find lunch-time refuge on a private lake. Rogue mosquito decides to bite me eyelid causing massive swelling and complete closure with in 1 hour. Hospital visit at Moulins is crucial. Delays us for 3 hours and we decide to treat our selves to hotel for the night. I look like elephant man!
Rest day- eye is better bit still no vision. With downtime we decide to have a 10 Euro Fashion Challenge. Costumes are to be worn on Day 10
Catch-Up day. An early start gets us back on track for the day. Having left Trojan the trolley at the scene of the mosquito bite, we reach another supermarket and replace him with Prospect a slightly rustier, but road-worthy trolley. The roads from Chateaumeillant noticeably change from country lanes to main roads. We decide to walk on the left side as to face traffic flow, however large articulated trucks drive past at speed, on occasions missing us by 1 metre . I have developed an itchy beard and our feet are now numb by days end.
Sleeping in a field of cows offers us possibly the best nights sleep yet and we hit the road ready for 10 Euro Fashion Day. Having spent 10 Euros in a clothes store two days earlier, we aim to out dress each other. Somehow we both end up wearing bright pinks shorts, pinks singlet’s and headbands. Prospect is also dressed in an Australian flag which we tie to the front of him. We looks amazing! Cars passing by offer toots all morning and occasional waves from the windows. By midday we spy a private airfield as we close in on Argenton and say hello to the pilots who gather around our trolley with curious looks. 5 minutes later after explaining our cause we get invited for a free flight around the region that sees me gain control of the plane. I even get to land it! Sadly though, even at 2,500ft, we still can’t see La Rochelle. We push on now well over halfway on the map!
Tonight we stay on the floor of a pub, next to the pool table. The landlord gives us a free beer and a pizza.
Reflecting on days becomes more difficult as they now all seem to blur into one. We have showered twice since staring and we feel like vagrants. Having said this, our legs have got used to walking the distances and now the days almost feel easier. Accustomed to constant car horn tooting we can now tell which car toots are encouraging and which are not. It seems that early morning drivers are less friendly than afternoon drivers. We even start get recognized by the truckers who all now offer friendly toots and waves. We figure that these guys would be passing us each morning and night. We feel loved.
This journey has become our lives, our singing contests now even revolve street names that we encounter. They all sound the same (the songs that is). A big milestone is reached as we pass Poitiers, a large city that presents us with the first street sign to La Rochelle. Our smiles are ridiculous. We are just 130 km away! The busy streets force up onto the pavement. This city seems monstrous compared to the quiet villages of days gone by. We camp out about 20kms out of town next to a beautiful river and look at a map. We decide that we will aim to finish the walk in 2 days.
An early start sees us make great ground before we realize we have lost the Bible, our map. With St Maxient Ecole approaching we regroup at an internet café and decide to take another route which seems quicker on-line. It’s a bloody fraud. 2 hours into our new route and we’re lost, walking down tiny lanes long forgotten by human touch. We hear music being played in the distance and follow it. Amazing lush Sunflower fields offer some great photo opportunities and sure enough we eventually pop out ever closer to the city of Niord. By making it here by nightfall, we are within striking distance of La Rochelle tomorrow. Haybells and agriculture fall away behind us as we march powerfully with Prospect, reaching Niord on dark.
The A-10 Freeway heads straight to La Rochelle from Niord but it’s a massive road and one not meant for pedestrians. With Prospect though, we decide that we have a vehicle and we cling to the side of the freeway with salty air filling out nostrils. It will take a huge 14-hour day of walking to reach the coast. Horribly, this is just a 45minute trip in a car. Vehicles whizz by full of people with wet hair still drying from a leisurely ocean dip. Local Gendarmerie (Police) soon pull us over and question our intentions. It’s a welcome break for us and their smiles tell us we’re not in trouble. In fact they offer a lift to us, including Prospect, to a more direct road.
The outskirts of La Rochelle approach and the countdown to finishing begins. At lunch a friendly local offers us a place to stay for the night and takes us to his house which sits on the ocean front, we agree and are escorted to the finish line at an artificial beach. Something’s not right. We have reached the West coast of France but we don’t feel fulfilled. This isn’t even a real beach! The ending was not right and when told of a near by Island connected to the mainland by a bridge we decide that our journey is still not finished. Tomorrow we will walk across the bridge onto the Ile de Re.
The final day! We discover by chance that a friend of ours is holidaying on the Island and we march purposefully from the city to the bridge. But there is one thing we have to do; we have to drop off Prospect at the local supermarket and get our 1 Euro back! A journey across France with a trolley has forged a friendship between two blokes and an inanimate object, we are genuinely sad, but excited. Running into the car park amongst busy shoppers hooting and hollering, this is a big moment for us. We put Prospect back he belongs amongst other trolleys less fortunate to travel and take back our Euro. All that’s left is a bridge crossing. Along the way we have written a song about our journey and we sing it loudly as we walk proudly across the bridge towards Ile de Re. We are emotional as our friend takes a photo of our last steps. Matty and I embrace, and then drop our bags before running down the real beach into the salty Atlantic.