It was only a few weeks ago that I was afflicted by an inflammation of the lower lumbar joints which made walking so painful that I couldn’t make it to the corner shop. The condition is now much improved. Maybe it was my recent trip to Arles - which is not so far away from Lourdes - that brought about the cure but, in any case, mountain hiking is back on my life-agenda. So, as in days of old, my companion and I stuffed the campervan with kit and fired up for a journey to the mountains and a tentative attempt at a peak or two. While the south and east of the country experienced a sun-drenched heat-wave, we headed, resolutely, north and west towards Snowdonia, where the cooler air coming in off the Atlantic was turning into mist and light precipitation on the very slopes of our aspirations.
Our first evening there was spent in planning a two-day expedition which involved ‘wild’ overnight camping. A large part of the enjoyment of this type of activity derives from the anticipation and planning of it. Another part comes from the assembling of equipment and kit and, yet another, from the satisfaction of using the stuff. The final part comes from the actual hiking. It follows that it is important to get the balance right: too much equipment means a burdensome rucksack and a curb on one’s pleasure; too little and one is exposed to the vagaries of mountain weather and terrain. Some people pack sawn-off toothbrushes and portion-controlled paste in sachets, thereby saving a few grams towards the accommodation of essentials such as flasks of wine and malt whisky. Those who are inclined to be obsessive should take heed: days can be spent in attempting to resolve this equation and there is a real danger of their never leaving the camp site.
We did eventually get going and walked up to and around a remote lake where we pitched our tiny tent (weighing in at only 1.3 kg) on the only piece of level ground we could find – a grassy ledge overlooking the lake. The clouds had cleared and a photo of our beautiful site would have made a perfect cover for a brochure advertising tourism in Snowdonia. It would not, however, have shown the midges which live in the grass. They like to emerge every evening and morning to plague campers who are intent on eating al fresco. There are several species of midge, only some of which bite and, of those, just the females. This might be useful information but for the fact that they are so microscopically small you cannot distinguish one from another.
Those parts of our bodies that we could not clothe were smeared with bug-repellent but midges are very successful at driving people to distraction, regardless of counter-measures, and so it was that we were obliged to retire early (seven o’clock) to the tent. There was relief and a moment of smug satisfaction at the fact that the ventilation panels are micro-mesh and midge-proof, but this was followed by the realisation that we were now prisoners in an extremely small nylon bag. We whiled away the time talking over our day, eking out our quota of alcohol and taking turns at sitting up, stretching out and turning over until sleep finally overcame us – at around eight thirty.
At eleven thirty I was awake, listening to a little creature scratching at the tent and hoping it would move on. At twelve thirty I decided to venture outside and shoo it away – only to find no creature but a clump of rough grass brushing against the gently flapping fly sheet. Thus disturbed, continued sleep was elusive, so I looked forward to the daylight (five thirty) and the resumption of hiking.
After a quick breakfast of green tea, cereal bars and midges we struck camp and moved on to enjoy some glorious hiking and some discussion, like others before us, of ways to beat the midges. Back in town I read about a device which is effective at attracting and trapping midges by the million. I just have to figure out how to get it into my rucksack.