When a friend suggested joining them for a walk naturally I agreed. We don’t get out on “proper walks” as often as I’d like and making a date with someone else is always good motivation. Said friend suggested tackling the Pic du Bugarach. Okay, I said. I checked the route she was thinking of, plotted it in GPSies to verify the ascent and distance info – 7km there and back with 500 metres of ascent. On paper? Fine.
The idea didn’t sit so comfortably though. We really haven’t done much walking as a four which meant that we didn’t know our own or each others limits. Was this mountain walk the best way to find out? If we were still in the UK the first mountain walks with the children would be to somewhere we already know and had walked without children in the past. I wasn’t comfortable that our first big walk would involve taking our two small children onto a mountain I did not know.
I Googled for pictures, hoping to find some reassuring pics of a the paths up to the top. Nope. The one walk write up I did find was from the route we’d decided not to take as was longer with 200 metres more ascent and also looked to involve a rocky scramble towards the end. Given we’d most likely be carrying the two youngest by that point, we all agreed that route was a definite No. I found lots of pictures of the peak. And I also found this video. Look, I love a good ride the mountain video. They give me the chills and make we want dust off my body armour and hit the trails. But this wasn’t about me or my bike. This was about my family tackling a mountain walk for the first time.
By now my perspective had shifted from being 80% sure it was do-able to about 80% sure it was a Very Bad Idea. I had an alternative route – en Pays Cathare from the excellent Les Sentiers d’Emilie walking book series – and we’d discussed doing that instead of the peak if the weather wasn’t ideal. It was a great relief to see that storms were forecast because it meant everyone was amenable to a change of plan and walking the lower level route.
The route we took, described in the book and signed locally as Sentier du Pont Romain, is clearly waymarked by a horizontal yellow line. It leave the village, past the school and the small bouladrome, onto a wide open track through fields with just cows, butterflies, crickets and the odd (lost) hunters dog for company.
As adults I think we would have marched along the track keeping an easy pace but for four children there were so many things to stop and see it took us about an hour! About 10 minutes into the walk we rounded the bend to find the three girls sitting on the side of the track with their backpacks open. Snack time, apparently. The book said it would take 2 hours 20 minutes but I had a feeling that estimate was a little on the low side.
After much stopping and starting we arrived back at the road, which we then followed up to the vulture observation point. Our friends had already been there that day, we were late to they’d popped up to kill some time, but no-one minded arriving there again. It was a great spot to stop, with picnic benches, and safely away from the road. Since everyone was hungry we decided to stop there and eat.
The vulture observatory is well worth a visit. There are boards giving information about the different types of vulture that have been seen locally (there are four species) as well as other birds of prey. For the children it’s a really nice to play and there’s an oak tree that’s perfect for climbing. Of itself it doesn’t justify a day out but by including it within all or part of this walk, you can easily fill a few hours. The birds are easy to see – you can use the fixed binoculars that are there or free to use. If you have some of your own, take them. I had the foresight to take mine, not even knowing about the vultures, and was glad I did. With clear optics you get a really good view: just scan along the tops of the rocks and trees of the ridge opposite the viewing spot and you’ll see them. When we arrived there were two sitting on the ridge and by the time we left about six were circling the rocks, possibly in anticipation of our sandwich remains.
Continuing on, we passed some sociable donkeys who came plodding across the field to say hello, before reaching the main feature of the walk: an Roman bridge. It’s not the original (it was rebuilt a few years ago) but it’s a replica. And the photo in the image doesn’t do it justice because it’s quite a feature. Take a look at the pictures below and you’ll see what I mean.
The first picture is from the book.
The second is one I took. And the third one, from the same spot as the second but with someone walking over it, shows the scale. Dramatic, eh?
Actually, marginally more dramatic than it appears because what the photo doesn’t show very well is that there’s a a drop the height of the bridge the other side of it. We were going to walk over there with our children. Hahahahaa. Not worried about that at all. Okay, maybe worried.
We’d promised the children another snack (DD knew I had biscuits) when we got to the bridge and also a paddle. At first glance it looked like the last place you’d want your kids to be but just around the corner, before the rapid descent under the bridge, the river was quite wide and shallow. It was a really beautiful spot, perfect for a future wildcamp and perfect for the pit stop we’d promised.
We sat for a while, cooling our feet in the river. The two older girls were busy trying to hatch their vulture eggs (we’d got eggs in our picnic and they’d decided they were vulture eggs) and the little ones were sitting and exploring the rocks. The water, being in quite a shady spot, was unfortunately a bit too slipping to paddle in safely, so we didn’t stay long. Plus we were still only half way on our walk and with all the stopping and starting it was nearly 3pm! Four hours since we left the cars.
Then it was time to pull ourselves together and cross the scary bridge. At least we knew there wasn’t anything hiding underneath it!
Crossing the bridge wasn’t nearly as heartstopping as we thought but it’s much more of a challenge than we were expecting. James walked over the DD and I was with DS, who was on foot. The approach was too steep for his little legs and since I wasn’t too keen on him scrambling up I carried him. I’d say that James hid his nerves well as he watched while I carried DS on my hip with one hand and the cuddly toy, a child’s rucksack and my walking book in the other, but he really didn’t. Our friend’s little girl, a natural climber, particulary enjoyed it – fearlessly looking over the edge and smiling away. (I spotted a few big fish down there as I walked over but for some reason no-one was interested in going back onto the bridge and taking a better look!)
From this point on it was a little tough as the path winds up the hill. There’s a clear path but it’s quite badly eroded by heavy rain. The older ones managed it – sometimes needing a hand to hold – but it was too difficult for the little ones who soon ended up on our backs.
Once at the top, the path bears left and leads back towards the village. For the most part this was an easy walk. I’ve noticed that children really lose themselves in the woods and the walks where you can’t see too far ahead go smoothest. The journey back was broken up nicely by finding some “dinosaur bones”. To you and me that’s the remains of a cow who met an unfortunate end at some point in the not so distant past. We couldn’t find the skull, unfortunately, but having picked over the rest we were soon loaded up with our treasures.
From here, after another short climb and another post-climb rest stop, it was a fairly short and easy walk back to the village, which was lucky because we’d just about run out of water by that point.
Just before arriving back at the car we found figs and blackberries, so we stopped one last time for a quick forage before finally making it back.
Despite the whole day being a significant deviation from our original plan, we definitely made the right call. The walk was just enough time and distance-wise with enough interest along the way and places to stop.
Since this was the longest walk we’ve done as a family it was a useful test in terms of kit and supplies. Taking advice from the Adventure Queens Mums Group on Facebook, I’d made sure to pack some sugary treats for when the going got tough. That worked out well. My friend had done the same (Pain au Lait, yum) so between us we had plenty of “bribe food” as well as proper food and healthy snacks. By the time we got to the end our picnic had all gone and not far from the end we were almost out of water. I wasn’t too worried because I knew we had some more in the car but James wasn’t happy about it so he went ahead.
Although I’ve had it a while (I bought it back in the UK when we were planning to do some “proper walks” with DD) it was the first outing for my shiny blue Vango Traverse 40L Rucksack, and it was brilliant! I’ve not carried a rucksack that size in a while but since I often have a small child on my back. It looks like they’re now only 50 quid in Amazon – a bargain! The best feature was “AirVent back system” which keeps the back of the pack away from your body, keeping you cool and dry, which was perfect in the heat (it was about 25 degrees for the sunny bits.)
The Vulture Observatory at Bugarach
Info about the Pic du Bugarach (WikiPedia)
Download the GPX File
Fancy doing this walk? Check out the route map or download the GPX file on GPSies.
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