Runaway Travel Stories

Day 18: Ghost towns

Fos – Eylie d’en Haut (990m)

Distance: 28km

Elevation: +1961m, -1515m

Fuel: Pain au chocolats, cafe au lait, mars bars, mini cheese, peanuts, chorizo and baguette.

We were on top of the mountain before we could say “pain au chocolat”. I don’t know how it happened – yesterday was a huge day, but somehow the first three hours of our morning ascent flew by. 

We hiked through the pretty little village of Melles and watched as the villagers strung up their flags for Bastille Day (today) and cheerily called out to us “Bon journee!”


We zig-zagged through their forest, swatting biting flies with glee. And we stopped for a peanut and sun cream break at Cabane d’Uls. It was here we started meeting lots more hikers. Not only was it Saturday, but it’s a public holiday and the sun was shining. Everyone and their dog was out. Actually, we passed a hiker with four dogs, following obediently as he hiked up to the Pas du Boyce at 2170m. 


Wondering whether we’d missed something (is there a mountain we should have summitted today? Why is it so easy?), we reached the Refuge de l’Etang d’Araing in record time. The sun was steaming hot by this stage, and it took all our strength not to just throw ourselves into the lake below.


Instead, we guzzled a couple of cokes and coffees and watched as the couple next to us searched for the baguette to go with their perfectly thought-out picnic. Tomatoes, pate, cheese, more pate, hams…but no bread. They were perplexed. When we realised what they were searching for, we revealed that we’d seen their baguette lying on the side of the path about 20 minutes back up the mountain (I’d had to convince Mat not to pick it up for us!).

Finally dragging ourselves away from the shady sanctuary, we started the second part of our day: a quick 300m climb to the Serre d’Araing pass and then down steeply to the village. 

This section exceeded everything I expected. As soon as we toppled over the pass, we entered an old mining area. The whole side of the mountain was dotted with  mining relics. We spied rusting equipment, looked deep into dark holes with no barriers, hopped over the remains of rails that travel nowhere. An entire village was deserted, the roofs caved in and stone walls disintegrating.


It was mesmerising. This area had been mined for zinc, the gite owner later told us and I wish I could have picked her brains more. All I know is that it’s left a lot of stories on that hillside. It’s easy to imagine people rushing to build a whole town on a mountain filled with the promise of precious metals – our home village Wandiligong has the same history with gold. But at what stage do people say “enough’s enough”? When do they leave? It looks like they left in a hurry – the machinery is practically midway through use. 


Far below, in the teeny tiny village of Eylie, there’s no sign that anything much has happened here. A few houses balance on the hillside with a river gushing down into the valley. These days, people come here to hike, but there’s still only one gite and a small area for camping. The gite owner sold us a huge chunk of bread and a couple of lemonades and we bathed our tired legs in the river.

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