25 Jan 2024

8 things I learned after hiking France’s Hexatrek

12:06 pm on 27 January 2024

In May 2022, Kiwi journalist Claire McCall and her partner set off on an epic walking adventure to tackle a freshly minted long-distance trail called the Hexatrek in its pioneer year.

The 3034km route connects the highest, most spectacular mountains and national parks in France and travels through the Vosges, the Alps, the Écrins and the Pyrenees among others.

The book is a frank account of the physical and mental journey: a tale of two almost over-the-hill people trying to get over a fair few more. It’s a story of highs and lows, miles and milestones, of once-in-a-lifetimes and never-agains. With a total elevation of 136,000 metres this is no Camino-style pilgrimage. Rather, it could be likened to New Zealand’s own Te Araroa trail or the Pacific Crest Trail which follows the west coast of the US.

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Photo: Claire McCall

This is an excerpt from Claire McCall’s Hiking the Hexa: The Ups and Downs of France’s Newest Long-Distance Walk

1. You will discover your sense of innovation. No matter how well you have packed, you cannot carry every item that would come in useful. Instead of lugging all that weight along, you make a different plan. For instance, when I wished like crazy that we’d decided to bring the hiker’s wool so that my curly little toe didn’t cosy up with its neighbour causing discomfort and risking a blister, I used a squishy ear plug between them instead. Hiking poles dug into the ground with a camping strap strung between them became an overnight clothesline (many’s the time my still-damp knickers were flapping like a flag on the back of my backpack).

Cups doubled as bowls. Rocks became mallets. Our concertina sleeping mats were also good for sitting on when eating lunch; folded up, they made a functional stand for propping up the phone when watching pre-downloaded Netflix shows or typing the blog. The tea tree oil is both disinfectant and welcome deodoriser (a few weeks in and James professed his backpack straps had taken on the aroma of whiffy French cheese). And it goes without saying that the tiny bottle of dishwashing liquid was also our soap and shampoo.

2. You will become an accomplished pilferer and purloiner. Move over the Artful Dodger – the hungry, desperate long-distance hiker here. It’s not something we are proud of but, hey, needs must. No visit to a WC goes by without a square or six of loo roll being shoved into our shorts. If we pay to stay in a hotel or at an Airbnb, you can be sure we’re leaving with the individual cake soap or decanting some of the liquid variety into aforementioned dishwashing/shampoo/soap bottle. Condiments in small packages are fair game because, come on, they are surely MADE for long-distance hikers. A sachet or two of salt, pepper, mayo or tomato sauce delivers a world of flavour to a dehydrated meal, and lifts the cheese and tomato baguette to the next level. Sticks of sugar are always ferreted away and if, on the rare occasion we have paid for a buffet breakfast, it would be criminal not to stuff a boiled egg, piece of bread or an apple into our pockets.

3. Something will always ache or aggravate. The first five minutes after setting out in the morning is a period of internal assessment. Is that twinge of the instep going to walk itself out? How bad is the tug between the shoulder blades today? Why does my hip feel odd? Is that piece of grass that has inevitably worked its way between the warp and weft of my sock going to flatten? Will that teensy stone settle into a gap? Most times, all is well or at least bearable. And the kilometres continue. 

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Photo: Claire McCall

4. There is not much room for vanity. Okay I will admit to bringing along a comb, an eyeliner, a pencil to draw in my fading brows and a lippy. But I only ever bother to use these on town days (along with a dress I can put on that is made from 100% polyester so it never looks scrunched. It wraps up tightly to nothing and is practically weightless). The loo break is another aspect I have grown far more blasé about. At first, I would struggle to head way off path, bashing through the undergrowth, risking ticks and superficial scratches, to a spot that would assure my modesty, then hanging on to a trunk to take pressure off my water-logged knees and help me up once the deed is done (an unexpected bonus of hugging a tree). Six weeks later, I still do what I can but if the terrain doesn’t permit, I take my chances that no one will pass by. The high-level hiking trails have been all but deserted, so I have only once been sprung.

5. The last few kilometres are always the worst. It’s probably human nature but once I know the end is in sight, I want it to happen NOW! And there is no point comparing, say, a two-kilometre walk in your neighbourhood at home with what is on the trail. I frequently find myself saying, ‘that’s as far as the train station and back’ only to discover that it feels and takes sooooo much longer. The rule of thumb is: a kilometre in the wild, particularly at the end of a long day, is equal to at least quadruple that in your local setting. 

6. Be kind to yourself. There will be times when your mental state is tenuous. When you feel exhausted and beaten and doubt your sanity. This too will pass. 

7. Keep an open mind. Even if you’ve spent a year planning the exact route you will take and how many kilometres you will achieve every day or week or month, live on the trail, things change. The weather might preclude your original plan. A local hiker might invite you home for dinner (in which case — accept!). An injury could slow you down or even stop you (there are a number of people on the HexaTrek who have already dropped out including one who had a spill and suffered torn ligaments after day eight, and another with two fractured elbows who slipped over on tarmac). Or you might just decide to divert from the path because you’ve found an alternative you think might be more majestic, or shorter, or easier. For our part, we have taken a lower route through valleys because others ahead of us warned that crampons and ice axes were needed. While it felt a bit like we were letting the team down, it gave us one of the most memorable experiences of the trip so far. Meeting Rolf who let us pitch a tent at the back of his farm store. Safe to say, it was magical and one of those moments when the kindness of strangers simply blows your mind. The much-repeated saying is true: hike your own hike. You never know what could happen.

8. James is a saint. Why he hasn’t pushed me over the edge of a cliff quite yet or poisoned my morning coffee, I will never understand. 

This extract was originally published on Kete Books and is reproduced here with kind permission. 

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