We awoke on the Col de la Serre du Cot to the impressive sight of mist in the valleys around us and the sun rising above the peak of one of the distant mountains. This was the heralding of an excellent morning, making the long but beautiful descent through a beech forest towards Saint Lizier d'Ustou. However, when Tim consulted the GPS, there was a nasty surprise awaiting: all the pre-loaded tracks had disappeared along with the detailed topological maps. Panic!!!!!! And the the application of reason; yesterday, Tim had changed the batteries and probably dislodged the memory card. Sure enough, that was the problem and all was quickly restored - nevertheless, it was good to know we had traditional (paper) maps.
At lunchtime we had another surprise. Vermeil rolled, as is his wont...and stayed lying flat out. He even appeared to fall asleep but that lasted an unusually long time. When we checked, we found that he had rolled himself against a tree stump and was stuck! We had to pull on him using a rope to allow him to get up again but he remained calm throughout and all he had to remind us of the incident was a little resin stuck to his chest.
At Saint Lizier, we decided to leave the GR10 to reach Aulus-les-Bains by way of the road; faster, shorter and more comfortable. It was a good decision since the rain started to fall around 3p.m., as we passed the Col de Latrape, and we would not have wanted to encounter such conditions at altitude. Another reason for it being a good decision was that we later noted the route via the Cascade d'Ars would have been impossible for the horses having a metal footbridge to cross. It just goes to show how important it is to consult the Route Guide before every stage.
Our reception in Aulus was nothing short of charming: the lady in the local supermarket, when asked the address of a gîte, immediately picked up the telephone and started to make arrangements for us: a chalet for two nights on the village campsite and a nice grassy spot for the horses next door. Our thanks to her and to the director of the Toulouse(!) Summer Camp who let us use the ground for the horses. Just to complete the story, the campsite managers had previously run the campsite at Sesquières, next to Fenouillet, and their daughter was a regular of the Fenouillet Pony Club for some five years...
This time, we took the decision to stop for a complete day, a rest for both the horses and for us - all of whom, probably, had succumb to some stiff muscles thanks to the climb of the Col de la Serre du Cot. The programme for the evening was quickly arranged - wash and dry the laundry and above all, a good meal: an aperitif accompanied by a golden ale from the Ariège, a leg of lamb from the local butcher Pistol (delicious), sautéed potatoes and green salad, washed down with a superb local wine (bio) and followed by a couple of perfectly ripe nectarines.
A check of our horses hoofs after seventeen days on the road revealed little overall change: in general the length of the hoof wall was more or less level with the sole; the frogs were in excellent condition; the only point to note was that Vermeil's bars were showing their natural tendency to push flat and not wear as much as the rest of the hoof wall.
Our day of rest was not a day of complete inactivity. Just leaving the horses to stand around all day would not have done them any favours and for us, a bit of exercise to keep loosened up would do no harm.
Aulus-les-Bains, as its name would suggest, is a thermal spa town with its heyday in the 1920s, when rich patrons visited on doctor's orders to take of the waters -both by bathing and by consumption. There is still a spa bath but the 'Buvette', for the consumption of the waters,. is but a monument.
We explored the town a little further and came across a herd of cows that were being moved from their summer pastures to the winter grounds.
(Turn up the sound for the best effect...)
That evening we celebrated our day of rest with a meal at a 'Bistro de Pays', l'Agouadis. The Bistros de Pays are noted for their use of local/regional and bio produce.
Sunday dawned sunny and we set off again, slightly later than planned. While purchasing the bread in the village, we realised that we had left the cheese and some herring in the fridge in the chalet! Nathalie went back and managed to rescue the cheese but the herring had already been committed to the bin .
We travelled along the road, over the Col d'Agnes, just as far as a small plateau called Coumebière where we rejoined the GR10 which follows an ancient track that clearly linked Aulus-les-Bains with Vicdessos. A track a good two metres wide and well grassed - a real pleasure to follow. Unfortunately this could not last and we found ourselves on narrow, rocky and exposed sections that were not easy for the horses. Nevertheless, we arrived at the Col de Saleix after a climb of some 1000m (!) under the amazed stares of the hill-walkers.
There was no question of continuing along the GR10 - described in alarming terms by the TopoGuide and confirmed by the walkers we passed. One hill-walker, who recounted that he drove mules, and among those strongly advising us not to follow the GR10, remarked -with relief- that our horses were not shod! Our descent continued thus on the ancient track with its supporting walls and passages cut in the rockfaces to the Carol shepherds' refuge. Such a shame that this path has not been maintained in any way for such a long time.
The day was marked by absolutely stunning views, Aulus-les-Bains below us and Mont Vallier to the west; the golds and reds of autumn rapidly gaining ground; the sun bathing us in a gentle warmth and the horses, refreshed by their day of rest, regained their energy on the high paths. At times, the passage was difficult, the grass slippery, the route narrow and rocky and Fleur's independence was of great help since guiding three horses under such circumstances is not always easy.
There were moments when Fleur's independence could cause some anguish when she appeared to disappear off in completely the wrong direction but, almost every time, she would rejoin us having found a much easier route (for her, at least).
With a steep descent and the sun setting early - due to our changed aspect relative to the surrounding mountains - we stopped for the night earlier than usual, about 250 metres below the col next to a shepherds refuge and a number of orris (a sort of drystone hut particular to the Ariège and Catalonia), all of the same style having a grassed roof.
We decided to economise on setting up camp for the night and decided to use the corral associated with the refuge rather than erect our own fence. The horses clearly understood our intentions, making their way into the corral with no need of asking whatsoever!
Having had the best possible weather for traversing the Col de Saleix, we were once again plunged into the wetness of steady, persistent and unrelenting rain. One thing we had not encountered up until now was probably our greatest fear out in the open mountains, a thunderstorm. Our descent from the Carol refuge was accompanied by worsening weather -our luck being that as the weather worsened, so did the tree cover increase- until, upon reaching the village of Saleix, in an absolute deluge, we were greeted by an enormous clap of thunder from clearly very close by. Happily, it was a single clap and we heard no more.
The descent continued to Auzat where, we knew from our planning, there was a supermarket where we could stock up on essential supplies. As we came into the village, we decided -with the inclement weather- that it would be most prudent to ask directions rather than initiate a search – only to be told that the supermarket was closed for the next 14 days due to annual holidays! However, there was also a Spar in Vicdessos, a little more than a kilometre further in the direction we were intending to go.
Once in Vicdessos, we saw a sign indicating where the shops were but, not seeing anything like a supermarket, we decided again to ask directions. Being a more 'modern' supermarket, it was located almost at the exit of the village – but it was closed on Mondays...
And so, we continued on our way, with diminishing victuals, heading in the general direction of the Ariège valley. The route took us towards Sem, renown for the Rancié mineral mines which date back to the 14th century. It was to these mines that wood from and minerals to Spain were transported, over the ancient tracks that we had followed up and over the Col de Saleix.
Once passed the mines, the path became less and less pleasant and the going steadily tougher. We eventually reached the road at Lercoul and began the long, almost interminable, descent to Siguer, where we arrived an hour later than we would have liked (we always aimed for 18:00 giving us time to set up camp and prepare our dinner while there was still daylight).