Flash floods, Unlucky Jim, Killer Sheepdogs – & The Kamikaze Chemi Khazi!
19th August – We are beneath a bowl of mighty peaks, so close to Switzerland that we could yodel over Les Dents Blanches to order a cuckoo clock, an army knife and some smooooth milk chocolate. The views are amazing; rocky peaks, patched by bright green hanging valleys with snow-melt cascades free-falling for hundreds of feet down sheer, limestone walls.
We have finally crossed France and have reached the end of the line; the head of the Giffre valley. The only way forward is straight over the top of 3000m peaks.
We are a little bit wary of the campsite’s rather ‘League of Gentlemen’ warning about evacuation. In the ‘unlikely’ event of flash flooding, we need “to leave in walking, bring only passports, money and precious things – and leave the car and equipment of campsite.”
I caused some consternation getting off our tricky pitch in Challes. There was a hairy moment for the gathered crowd when they saw me climb into the driver’s seat. Then I backed onto the hitch. I had considered performing elaborate manoeuvres to avoid the leaning trees, bench and table tennis table; in the end, I disappointed my public by simply pulling Kismet onto the road and pivoting her by hand. Then, I got my fixed flange ball in position perfectly, first time. So. Nothing to see here.
Bloody women drivers!
It is quite funny rocking up here in a huge caravan. We are miles from anywhere and all the people here are hardy mountain types in tiny tents or slightly battered micro-caravans. We are British though. We have a stereotype of latent eccentricity to uphold! Maybe the fact that we have unknowingly marinated all our vegetables in cooking brandy (the bottle emptied itself in transit!) could aid our cause in this direction. Our potatoes now smell like a pub the morning after!
OK. I admit it. WE USED SOME TOLL ROADS ON THIS LEG. Big Blue was a bit hot-under-the-bonnet when we arrived in Challes les Eaux. Her oil and water were fine, so we figured that it could be her clutch, which has obviously seen a lot of action on the mountain roads. We thought that a few tolls would be considerably more economical than a burnt out clutch! However, €16 to cover 60 miles shows how quickly toll charges rack up!
We passed some graffiti demanding that the Savoie be released from French oppression! It is certainly an area with a distinct personality, which is not surprising when you consider its history. The River Giffre, which gives its name to the valley where we’re staying, takes its name from the Burgonde word meaning ‘Big Water’. The Burgondes were a Germanic people of Scandinavian origin who, in 443, created a kingdom in what is now Savoie, with Geneva as its capital.
Our campsite is at 1000m and by accident, we managed to avoid the rookie mistake of caravanning at altitude – the exploding toilet! Luckily, I opened a bottle of water and it reminded me about pressure differences and the importance of pressure equalisation between the exterior and the interior of the sealed toilet cassette. In a wine area of the calibre of Savoie, a caravan toilet is WAY down my list of methods of, well, getting sh** faced!
After managing to level Kismet on the mountainside by shoring up our levelling ramps with foraged blocks of wood, we went for a lovely, evening walk around the Cirque du Fer-à-Cheval. We ascended above the river, the roar of rushing water getting louder even as we went away from the river due to the amplification in the natural amphitheatre of the rock walls. As we strolled through the woods and alpine meadows, the chirping crickets were even louder than the sound of the river!
Which is worse? Wolf, Lynx – or Dogs who protect sheep from them?!
We were beautifully relaxed, drinking in the majesty of jaw-droppingly high mountains. Then we saw a sign telling us to beware of the guard dogs released to protect the flocks from lynx and wolves! The sign warned us to approach these dogs with caution; we are truly out in the wilds. I am not sure what is the scariest prospect; lynx, wolves – or the dogs running free who are capable of seeing off such top-level predators!
The Sixt Fer-à-Cheval is the largest limestone amphitheatre in Europe, 5km long and rising to 2985m on the summit of Tenneverge. Mysterious underground rivers emerge from the mountainside, probably melt-waters from the glaciers. They cascade spectacularly down the rock walls, although truthfully, no-one is sure of the exact source of the waters.
One of the waterfalls is called the Fontaine de l’Or – the fountain of gold. Another is less romantically called the Cascade de Pissevache; if it means what I think it does, I suppose that in its own Bovine way, it also means golden fountain!
You have heard of ‘La Vache qui Rie’; ‘The Laughing Cow’ – ubiquitous plastic cheese triangles. A bit of clever product placement, possibly beverage related – what about La Vache qui Pee? I will give you that one. I think it would sell!
We saw an information sign stating that the first person to ascend Mont Blanc, Jacques Balmat, spent most of his life looking for gold in the mountains surrounding Sixt Fer-à-Cheval and Vallorcine. He died here in 1834, aged 72. While iron was later found and extracted in small quantities from the mountains, gold has never been found (other than in the naming of waterfalls!)
We later read the less-romantic-not-for-the-tourists version of poor Jacques’ life. His daughter died as he was making his attempt on the summit of Mont Blanc and all his money, including his prize for the first ascent, was stolen. His great-nephew, who launched an expedition to find out what happened to Jacques, also died in the Sixt valley following an illness.
Jacques and his partner Pache were looking for gold in Sixt following a rumour that a man from the Valais had found gold in the hoof of an ibex that he had shot. They set off towards the glacier but Pache returned alone. Jacques never returned. The speculation is that he fell down a crevasse. Jacques’ body was never recovered and there is a theory that having discovered a seam, his partner pushed him into the void.
However, iron is very much in evidence in the area and the likelihood is that if anything was discovered, it was Iron Pyrites – Iron Disulphide or ‘Fools’ Gold’. Jaques is the French equivalent of the name James, so he really was an Unlucky Jim.
Iron has actually been mined in Sixt since 1655, although generally not with great commercial success. The English took over eventually, however and with astute British inventiveness, devised a brilliant system to save time and manpower. Instead of men carrying heavy baskets of ore down the mountain on their backs, they hurled it down from the summit of the Boret! The local farmers, fearing damage to their alpine pastures reacted strongly… Iron mining in Sixt was soon abandoned!
But this is PROOF of early European interference with Elf and Safety! And unequivocal evidence that our predecessors upheld the idea of English eccentricity in Sixt CENTURIES before we came on the scene with our feeble offering of a caravan filled with brandy-soaked spuds!
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For a guide to the campsite and things to do in the area, see my 30s Site Review – Campsite Municipal Le Pelly, Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval, Rhone Alps, France.