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Cols and Cow Bells


We are in the Parc National de Pyrenees. This is a place where the animals and the environment take first place over humans. The animals wonder all over the road and you can’t hassle them. You must patiently wait whilst a herd of gentle, horned cows wonder aimlessly along chewing on the odd Pyrenean wild plant. And there is an animal I have never seen before; the marmot. This cute furry animal behaves a bit like a meercat but looks like a beaver. One evening we do a Col (Col des Tentes) the weather is terrible, but while we are cycling, below the fog line, the marmots watch us warily from look out posts by the road side.

‘Do you want to cycle up this hill?’ I hear from my travelling companion. ‘It’s only 6 K’s’

Despite being tired from the outings earlier, I’m curious as I have not done one of these Col ascents before.

We set off and soon pass a sign for the distance in K’s. I realise that it is rather more than 6K as the sign announces 11.

John is behind me taking photos of marmots and cows. Actually he is taking a photo of every 1K marker point. I dig in and plod on. And it is plodding, because we are on mountain bikes. I am amused to see the percentage of the hill marked on each section, and they aren’t as steep as those hills in Yorkshire (around 8 to 10%) There’s a surprise. Eventually he catches up but I soon pass him at the next K marker, when he stops for the photo. I’m plodding on but it’s getting dark and increasingly foggy. This time he doesn't catch me up.

One or two K’s from the top and thunder in great bursts crashes around me. The fog is so thick, I can only see 6 feet or so in front of me and I have to listen out for cars. The odd parked up camper van looms out of the mist. I have lost sight of John a while back, so I pause because although we are close to the top, I am not sure it is safe to carry on. He appears and after a bit of reassurance we get to the top. ‘Let’s go onto Spain, it’s only over there’ I hear between the bursts of thunder and the large drops of rain. The rain gets serious and Spain is not mentioned again. We put on all our layers, and head back down. John disappears rapidly on the descent, but I take it easy. The rain and then the hail stings my face, but as we descend it lessens. Every bit of skin, clothing and my shoes are soaked. The road steams and I can feel the heat coming off the black surface. The fog gradually lifts. The air is full of fresh scents and the mountains are silent. I can see John on sections of road below me, sweeping through the bends. I cruise down, enjoying the grip of the fat tyres on the switch backs.

Cow Bells

I awoke to the van gently rocking from side to side. I dismissed a few initial wild ideas and thought this can only be one of those big cows rubbing itself on the bike rack. Then I thought what if the horns scratch the paintwork. I was too lazy to go outside and request that the large beast leave my camper van alone, besides it could be dangerous. Instead, I woke up John.

The morning was perfect. We looked out the window to a cloud inversion filling the deep valley below us. Beyond we could see the mountains surrounding Cirque De Gavarnie, which we had visited the day before. A minute later the fog swirled in again and we could not see anything. 5 minutes after that, the sun broke through revealing the shifting cloud inversion again. A few people came out of their vans and took photos. The herd of cows, with their cow bells gently clanging, wondered backwards and forwards in and out of the few vans that were parked on this particular hill top. This was the hill top we had cycled up to the evening before (the Cold du Tentes). The storm having passed, we had driven back up the mountain to sleep there.

The mist and clouds swirled and reformed continuously for the next hour or so. As the day warmed, Eagles appeared circling above us. We had an easy view of the incredible wing span and deep rich colour of the feathers as they enjoyed the warming air currents. Each time I rushed out with the camera, too late they had veered away again.

Apart from the two sketches of skylines and rock forms, done in the twilight the evening before I am ashamed to say that over the next week, I failed to make any live drawings at all. In fact for a few days I was so awe inspired by nature that I forgot about my quest to make art altogether.

Most of the studies you will see for the Pyrenees were made later from photographs. I cannot hope to reproduce the beauty of the landscapes we saw. Cirque de Gavarnie, Cirque de Troumouse and our trek up Pic de Midi D’Ossau, were awe inspiring and on such a grand scale that sometimes we were reminded, ironically, of cinematic back drops made by CGI.

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