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.

NZ4WD - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tos by Richard Soult.

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.

Bon­neval 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!

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