A KIWI IN THE ALPS PART 1
Before he returned home to NZ ‘for good,’ NZ4WD mag contributor Richard Soult took a fascinating 4x4 trek through the French/Italian Alps from Chamonix to Nice. Here is the first of two-part feature on the trip.
Using my 2005 Range Rover, nicknamed by my mates the Drive-By, I wanted to explore the French and Italian Alps. Having followed various companies offering guided 4WD trips on Facebook, I knew that there were many old military roads and forts along, what used to be the border between France and Italy. Being the good sales people that they are, they posted tantalising photos of high altitude routes, idyllic freedom camping sites but never divulged the routes... I was living in Burgundy, about 200 kilometers west of Chamonix- Mont Blanc. At 4808m, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe and on a good day, visible from my house. Chamonix is France’s Queenstown – a mecca for skiers in the winter and mountain climbers in the summer. It boasts the Vallée Blanche, one of the longest ski runs in the world. Starting from Aiguille du Midi lif t station, 3842m, you ski 22kms down an active glacier before returning to Chamonix. This is a serious high mountain route and only to be done with a guide experienced in crevasse rescue. Nice is located on the Cote d’Azur, France’s Mediterranean coast and playground for the rich and famous. Between the t wo are the French and Italian Alps. Hundreds of kilometres of impressive mountains bisected with old military roads at high altitude, linking disused forts from times gone by. I bought and studied maps, searched the Internet and had a general idea of where I wanted to go but lacked the detail.
A lucky chance encounter
The breakthrough came in the least expected place... my local supermarket car park. Having returned from a weekend scouting routes around Provence, I headed to the Supermarché for something to put on the BBQ that evening. In the car park was a lif ted Land Rover110 with serious t yres, bullbar, a highlift jack and a winch. I parked next to it to have a look and was a bit embarrassed to find its owners inside looking at me. Olivier and Sabrina got out and told me how nice it was to see a Rangy covered in mud! We struck up a conversation and within five minutes I had received an invitation to dinner and the key that I had been looking for... ” Road Book”. Olivier was a member of the local 4WD drive club and the French for routes of this t ype is “Road Book”. A few minutes on the internet and a few tens of Euros later had a copy of the Chamonix to Nice Road Book on it ’s way to my place. Yes! If this wasn’t good enough, Olivier lent me a GPS into which, the club president had entered all the waypoints and lent me a complete set of 1:10,000 maps of the Alps... They were such fantastic helpful people. I regretted that I had not met them five years earlier and was starting to reconsider my decision to leave France...
Assembling the team
The next job was to find a wingman. My kids were at school, most of my mates had expended their holiday allowance over the summer and I was keen to have company. What to do? I put the following post on Facebook with a photo of me sitting on the bonnet. “Chamonix to Nice off road. I’ve got a truck, a route and a week. Who wants to come?” The response that I got was totally unexpected. Alex, an old mate of mine from school, whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to since our last day of school in 1987, contacted me and said he was keen. Alex runs an environmental consulting business in London and had posted lots of FB photos of himself on site in Africa and lots of countries that end in “stan”. I was sure that he would be good fun and handy to have a board. We arranged a time to Skype and he asked me if Imogen, his 14 year old daughter could tag along. I told him that it would be a week without a loo or a shower and that we would be camping up in the mountains, sometimes over 2,500metres. He said she would love the experience, so we arranged a time to meet at Geneva airport and the trip was on. Richard, Alex, Imogen and George, my Jack Russell, was the team. Olivier had explained to me how to make a double bed in the back of the truck, see previous article ( Budget Prado fitout) and I had done a very quick job with some left over plywood for the truck. I arrived early and spent the night before
their flight camped next to the lake at Annecy. As I pulled up and got dinner on whilst making my bed, I was conscious of another camper watching me. Once I’d finished he came over to have a look. Turned out he was German and was very impressed with my set-up. Must admit to feeling slightly proud at have received a compliment from a German on my DIY engineering achievement.
Driving the ski fields
The next morning I was at the airport to meet my team mates. I had totally forgotten how tall Alex was at nearly 6’5! We went off to have a coffee and very quickly picked up on the last 27 years, such it true friendship. Imogen turned out to be a legend, ready for anything and expedition entertainer. Our first day took us from St Gervais to Bourg St Maurice via Les Contamines and Beaufort. So strange to find ourselves driving up ski slopes that a few months earlier I had been whizzing down on skis with the kids. The scenery was outstanding with great views of Mont Blanc and no major difficulties apart from one or two navigational errors, despite the GPS. Before leaving, I had met someone on a Land Rover forum who had circumnavigated the Baltic in an old Series 1 and had done a lot in the Alps. I had asked him if he thought that I would be OK in a Range Rover that was basically straight out of the showroom with no mods whatsoever. His reply was simple. Yes, you’ll be fine and at every Col (Saddle) that you reach, you will find a white Fiat Panda...” Bizarre, I thought, but turned out to very accurate. The white 4WD Panda seems to be every Alpine herders car of choice and they are everywhere. It became a game to see if there would be one at the top. We were seldom disappointed. The campsite that we found for the first night was amazing. A flat piece of land perched on the side of a hill overlooking Bourg St Maurice and looking straight across the valley to the Les Arcs ski resort. The flat ground and steep drop off down the valley created an effect akin to an infinity pool and we sat and watched the streetlights slowly become brighter in the valley below. Day two would see us travelling through Val d’Isere, deserted in summer, over the Col d’Iseran, 2764m, and down to the beautiful village of Bonneval before heading into Italy. A childhood friend from Christchurch had previously owned a bar in Val d’Isere called Ramskis and I was keen to see if I could find it and send her some photos of what it resembled today. We found it quite easily and the photos were duly sent and appreciated. Travelling through the Alps, it ’s amazing how the architecture changes within a relatively short distance and from one valley to the next. Having crossed the Col d’Isere, we left behind the t ypical wooden chalets and found houses made of stone with huge stone roof tiles. Bonneval is definitely worth a stop, although the locals rightly discourage people driving through the village.
Our first difficulty arrived just before the Italian border. Driving around a lake, we came around a bend to find a huge pile of rocks blocking the track, which was only wide enough for one vehicle. I wasn’t relishing ten kilometres in reverse to get back to the road... We all descended and Alex decided that the Rangy would easily get over it with a bit of co- pilot guidance. I selected high suspension mode, the truck lif ted up and over we went with Alex giving me hand signals on which way to turn the wheels. A couple of kilometres later, we came across our first military fortifications. We stopped to have a walk around and a comfort break. As soon as the doors were opened and George jumped out, there was a deafening screeching noise. I rushed back to the truck thinking that the alarm had gone off. Then it dawned on me as I watched George chasing around the rocky outcrops. We had also just found our first marmots. These are like mountain beavers, for want of a better description. They hibernate in winter and live in groups in holes under rocks at high altitude. They are very shy and mount guards like you will have seen meercats do on TV. Wherever you look, you will see marmots perched on rocks looking out for trouble, and watching you. As soon as they saw George, the panic button was pressed and the valley erupted.
And, we’re in Italy
We continued and a simple road sign told us that we were now in Italy, such as it is in Europe. We spent the night in the valley southwest of Sestriere, host town of the 2006 Winter Olympics. At 1900 metres, we
camped next to a small river, collected some wood and enjoyed the evening around a campfire discussing the day and wondering what the next day would hold. We weren’t disappointed. The Italian Alps are amazing! We followed narrow tracks carved out of the mountainsides with massive drop- offs and mist leaving to our imagination the thought of the consequences of a wheel going over the edge. All this to the constant ringing of cow bells and the occasional glimpse of the impressive Mt Viso, 3,841m. In Part 2, in the October issue of NZ4WD we continue our journey into Italy before crossing back into France and towards the Mediterranean.
The Rangie lighting up the night's darkness.
Glad I’m sitting on this side. Big drop off!
Tall order. The author, left, who is 6’1!
The ubiquitous Fiat Panda.
Fort at Col de Tende. One of the many disused mountain forts on the route. 1,870m on the French/Italian border.
Mont Viso 3,841m & 80 kilometres away...
High altitude camping 2800m in the Italian Alps, looking towards the French Alps.
Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!