A Postcard from Greg French

Since her teenage years Frances has had a fascination with the Pyrenees: it’s grandeur, history, languages and food. One dream was to hike in the Ordesa National Park, which is famous for its limestone massifs and alpine walking trails. Sounded great to me. For a start, it would provide an opportunity to improve my Spanish. Even better, it is close to Biescas (FL#69), one of the last remaining strongholds of the zebra trout. (Zebra trout are native to rivers draining from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean, but they hybridise with introduced Atlantic brown trout.) Even more alluring than Ordesa was Andorra: Frances had always been enchanted by the very thought of a country so small and alpine. “The longest distance from one side of the country to the other is barely 30 km.” Andorra is home to less than 100,000 people, but I was alarmed to learn that each year it is visited by 10 million tourists. “That’s mostly during the ski season,” Frances assured me. “The hiking is said to be excellent. I could only download basic maps, but there are countless lakes and the distances between them are short.” I did some internet research myself. The landscape looked a bit like Tasmania’s Western Lakes. The disappointing thing was that there were no surviving populations of zebra trout. On the other hand, everyone seemed to agree that North American brook trout thrived in the alpine tarns. Better still, the consensus was that even in high summer you rarely find more than one or two other anglers at any one lake. The only real shortcoming was that the native language is not Spanish but Catalan. Andorra la Vella After a successful week in Biescas and Ordesa we drove east, arriving at a small camping ground near the Andorran border just on dusk. Great, we thought, we’ll get up early and be in the capital, Andorra la Vella, by 8.00 a.m. The main road through Andorra (there’s only one) winds between towering peaks, and we were a little dismayed to find that the capital has been forced to expand up and down the valley, crowding itself close to the road, merging one village into another. Summertime may be the off-season, but the bumper-to-bumper traffic moved at snail’s pace. Apparently this is all due to Andorra’s duty-free status: hundreds of people drive up from Spain and France for a day or two of retail therapy. I’ve never seen so many swanky shops, so many tourists carrying branded shopping bags, or so much illuminated cigarette advertising. It was almost midday by the time we managed to find the Tourist Centre, where we were able to buy fishing licences and a 1:25 000 map of the whole country. Next we bought some camping supplies from a small grocery store, and settled ourselves into a blue-collar coffee shop. No one seemed to object to my Spanish, though they had trouble with my accent and sometimes Frances had to throw in a bit of French or even English. Still we enjoyed the friendly down-to-earth banter of the customers and staff. The only thing we didn’t enjoy was looking at the contours on the map. Grau Roig Back in the car we soon discovered that you only had to deviate a few hundred metres off the main drag to enter an entirely different Andorra, the delightfully rural one of Frances’s imagination. There are only a few roads leading from the foothills to the high-alpine meadows — all little-used — and we chose the route to the Grau Roig ski resort. The views were now entirely natural, and the resort’s giant car park was abandoned except for a couple of cheerful school groups playing soccer and rollerblade hockey. The weather was perfectly calm and blue, and the grassy slopes were tinkling merrily with the sound of cowbells. We figured we still had time to walk beyond road’s end to the headwaters of riu dels Pessons. We’d only have to ascend 200 m over 1 km to reach the first lake – imaginatively called ‘estany Primer’ (First lake) – and from there ascend another 200 m over 2 km – past a string of six more lakes – to reach the base of a dramatic cirque. At estany Primer we stumbled upon a small restaurant and would have been tempted to have a beer if it wasn’t for the fact that a dozen trout were leaping for mayfly spinners. We had to perform long casts over rush-choked shallows, but our presentations were eagerly accepted. Rather surprisingly, all the trout we landed were browns, and many were 0.5 kg or a bit bigger. If a breeze hadn’t put down the fish, we might never have mustered the resolve to leave, but ultimately we managed to walk all the way to estany de les Fonts. Although there were no rises in the lakes along the way, we caught some diminutive browns in the connecting creeks. We also saw frogs, marmots, skinks, newts and, on a distant ridge, a proud isard (chamois). The meths we bought for our Trangia stove – ‘93% ethanol’ – proved to be too weak, and by the time we finally heated enough water for drinking and cooking we were too cold to properly enjoy the spectacular night sky and simply went to bed. At first light I was awoken by a crack of thunder. I poked my head out of the tent. Wispy clouds had appeared over the mountaintops, and they were thickening, roiling. Then came the wild, forking lightning. The metallic stench of ozone. The echoing cacophony. The Spanish word for thunderstorm is tormenta, and my god I was tormented. Frances, on the other hand, found everything, especially my fear, quite amusing. When a massive hail storm finally drained the storm of its anger, we resolved to climb almost 400 m to the ridge, then descend 350 m to estany de l’Illa. From there we could spend several days exploring many tarns, including Bova and Forcat. But when we finally reached the pass, more storms began rolling in, and we were forced to retreat to the excessively swank hotel at Grau Roig. Estanys de Juclà The weather abated early the following morning and the receptionist, who could speak surprisingly good English, recommended that we drive back down the main drag to Soldeu, and then explore the Incles valley. “You cannot take your car up the valley – too many tourists for such a narrow road. They operate a little solar-powered ‘train’. It’s really a small open-air bus. It will take you 3 km. Then you can walk another 3 km uphill to the estanys de Juclà. It’s not a big climb. Only 500 m.” The train tickets were cheap and the driver jovial. As he drove up the road, he rang a cowbell and encouraged all the passengers to moo at the tourists walking back down the hill. And everyone got into the mood, the mooers and mooed. The valley was exquisitely beautiful. Here and there the road ran hard against a quaint stone farmhouse, the drystone fences were reminiscent of Scotland, and the riu d’Incles (Incles river) twinkled between lush grassy banks. After disembarking, we walked a kilometre along a well formed track to a stone-arch footbridge where we stopped to fill our water bottles from a stone fountain. Our fellow walkers were aged from 3 to 93, and regardless of age most used walking poles. It was all very jolly. Above the first falls, where the Juclà runs through a small meadow, we quickly caught three fat brookies, and were applauded by passers-by. Then we continued on to refugi de Juclà, a ‘guarded’ hut – one run as a low-profit business. A bunk for the night would have cost 12 euros and there was also the option of beer and a hot meal. We chose instead to walk around the first (Primer) and second (Segon) lakes, and during a midge hatch we eventually managed to land a few one-pound brookies and a slightly bigger brown. The only good lakeshore tent site was occupied, so we retreated back to the small meadow beside the outflow stream, where we discreetly set up our own tent behind a rocky outcrop. Riu del Siscaró Next morning we walked 2 km around a scarily steep mountainside – occasionally clinging to specially installed chains – to a large meadow known as the basses del Siscaró, which bloomed with purple irises, white edelweiss and a pink flower reminiscent of the truffula trees in The Lorax. All around we heard vague bells from distant goats, and loud whistles from nearby marmots. Frances thought she spotted a white Pyrenean mountain dog, the famous protector of sheep. Then again, maybe it was just a family’s pet Labrador. Nearby was a ‘free’ hut, the stone-walled cabana del Siscaró. No doubt it would be welcome in a tormenta, but we found it more pleasant to camp on the grass in the sun. A French family passed by while we were setting up our tent, and the 3-year-old girl told us how yesterday she had walked up to estany de Cabana Sorda, where she saw birds and deer and frogs. “She loves animals,” her dad explained. So we gave her some Australian coins: an echidna, a platypus and some kangaroos. The stream running through the meadow proved to be full of spooky brown trout but a few eventually succumbed to our persistence, long casts and fine tippets. That evening we had the basin to ourselves. A roe deer with a fawn came down to the stream, and several hares too. Then a nonchalant boar startled at the sight of our tent and ran away squealing. It was a pity the animal-loving girl hadn’t stayed around. After sunup we climbed 200 m over 1 km to estany de Baix, where we polaroided countless little brookies. We ended up catching quite a few, and one ‘big’ brown as well, but neither nymphs nor dry flies worked consistently well. The next day we walked down to the riu d’Incles, and fished our way back to Incles village, taking several browns along the way. Estany de Cabana Sorda It was nice staying in a hotel after all our camping, but over a very lazy breakfast we decided to follow the advice of the 3-year-old and do a day walk to estany de Cabana Sorda. Just for the heck of it, we took the train 1.5 km to the trailhead, then walked uphill into a stunted but shady forest of black pine. By the time we emerged from the trees and trekked across a kilometre of grassland to the lake we had ascended 500 m over 3 km. A bunch of walkers were sitting outside the ‘free’ hut, and at least one young couple planned to stay overnight. They excused themselves, and set off to collect firewood from the pine forest. Several dads had come up with their kids for a day’s fishing. “You will see small brook trout everywhere,” insisted one. We did too, and they were pushovers. Any generic dry fly seemed to work: not even teenagers jumping into the water from a high cliff could put them down. Late in the afternoon we walked all the way back to the village, and by 7.00 p.m. we were ensconced in an open-air restaurant enjoying beer and tapas. Tomorrow, would we go south-west to riu d’Ós, or north-west to riu de Rialb and the estanys de Tristaina? One thing had become patently clear: a fortnight in Andorra is not enough.

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