There were good reasons not to take five children on one of the best hikes in Provence.
Risk of death was the principle one.
The highest point takes you high along the face of a cliff so thin that it looks like a gormless rock giant has patted it together out of wet sand and tapped bits out of it with a finger.
The French call it Les Lames – The Blades.
Not recommended for children.
Hand-holds? Safety barriers? Non, non, non Messieurs-Dames. Just lean into the cliff and don’t look down.
Then there was the matter of the heat wave.
Marching five kids up a mountain in temperatures of 37-40° C is high on every madman’s list of 10 Best Holiday Activities for Kids in Provence.
I did try to talk Sabbatical Man out of it but our dear old friends The Kiwifruit Royals were visiting from New Zealand and he was implacable. The Norwegians had done it with their kids, he pointed out. And the Swedes.
The most difficult slog would be in the shade early in the day, he added, and he would bring rope (forgetting that he had already told me that rope was a psychological trick which would not stop anyone tumbling down the cliff).
I channelled yoga strength and Yoda calm. I reminded myself that this is also my favourite hike in the world and I would postpone worrying until our children were on the precipice. Also I’m a little bit competitive with Scandinavians, who can be almost as tough as New Zealanders.
We lost Large at the first hurdle – getting out of bed. The “leave no man behind” mantra was abandoned along with the adolescent when we agreed that he was too heavy to carry to the car.
Medium was also looking dazed, having woken us at 3am complaining of insomnia and growing pains. We spooned sugar into his mouth and patted him on the head encouragingly.
We headed south to Marseille, catching a glimpse of the dazzling white stone of the ancient port before descending into the labyrinth of tunnels and emerging 15 minutes later into the sunshine and corniches south of the city. The cafés were busy and the Marseillais already settling into their spots on the beaches, giving a resort feel to France’s second largest city.*
We finally pulled up at a tiny coastal village at the mouth of the Calanque de Callelongue – one of the many beautiful steep-walled inlets found along France’s Mediterranean coast. The city seemed far away.
As you walk up behind the village , you catch your first glimpse of Les Lames du Rocher des Goudes [The Blades of the Rock of Goudes] high above.There, right at the top, you can see a tiny notch through which you will climb…if you make it that far.
The notch is called Le Pas de la Demi-Lune, because at a certain time of year you can see the rising half-moon poised prettily in the gap. I think. Or it might be that the gap cuts the full moon in half. Don’t judge. French is not an easy language and hiking texts here are surprisingly florid.
I didn’t point out our destination to the children – all four were already complaining about the heat and we had only been walking seven minutes.
A few moments later there was a full-throated, uvula-rattling, tumbling-down-a-cliff scream.
We spun around to see nothing at all. The Kiwifruit Princess was finding the rocky terrain a little slippery underfoot, is all. Her parents appeared not to notice.
Medium and the Kiwifruit Prince trotted off like a couple of mountain goats with Sabbatical Man close behind.
Small walked slowly and talked fast. Unless he had something important to say, which meant stopping, turning and blocking my path until I listened with both eyes.
My ears were already bleeding and still we had barely started to climb.
The first challenge is a short ascent of hand-over-feet vertical climbing through a narrow crevasse.
My anxiety was so firmly focused on the dangers higher up the mountain that I failed to notice that the three boys had charged ahead up the more difficult right-hand-side. Sabbatical Man’s worried voice sent me clambering up behind them to provide cushioning in case they let go. They didn’t.
At the top of this section we were rewarded with the first of many unforgettable views of the massif, the sea and the village far below.
From there it was a short climb to another highlight – La Grotte du Deserter – The Deserter’s Cave – dark, cool, damp and so refreshing. Time for a drink, to explore and take a snack of madeleines and coconut cookies bought from the Aix-en-Provence market the day before.
After everyone had cooled down, we descended a little, took a breath and stepped out of the shade, rounding the corner into the sun and our first good look at Les Lames.
Despite how terrifying it appears from a distance, the track is actually wider than you think. The problem is that one misstep would be disastrous with no hand-holds of any kind.
We picked our way toward the pass.
Every so often a blood-curdling scream would let rip behind us to let us know that the Kiwifruit Princess was fine.
Fifteen minutes later, before I had time to realise what was happening, Medium and the Kiwifruit Prince were accelerating onto the most dangerous part of the track. Sabbatical Man was not so much guiding as trying to keep up.
The fear for the other boys was just starting to rise when I realised that Small was also speeding up ahead. I called out to him in my most urgent but also completely calm voice.
“Slow down please. Keep your hands on the rocks.”
I watched my precious little man stride purposefully ahead then my blood froze when, half-way across, he spun around and grinned, in search of my listening eyes.
“Mum, is this the bit of the walk that you’re scared of?”
I reached a hand out toward him and tried to magic him frozen.
He did the single shoulder shrug and that annoying little mini raspberry he has learned from the French (annoying because I can’t do it).
“What’s the big deal?”
“Stop with the back chat. While you’re looking in the wrong direction I might as well take a photo.”
Funny how your kids can give you courage. There was no way I could have taken my hands off the rock to take a photo the first time I walked this track.
Medium and the Prince had already climbed through the notch and were whooping about the view opening out to the other side.
Two minutes later the remaining Kiwifruit Royals had climbed through.
“What was scary about that?” asked the Princess, who did the most dangerous part of the track without a whimper.
The next hour downhill was hard – full sun, unstable terrain and still a long way from our destination – a beach where we could swim and a lunch in the shade.
The Princess was back with the screaming. There was a particularly good one that had something to do with a spider. “I’m glad you’ve all stopped turning around,” said her mother. “You do get used to it after a while.”
The heat. Never in my life have I wanted a swim so much as I did during that hour. I could not believe the children were soldiering on so well. I wanted to complain bitterly but setting a good example requires that cheerful boxing on that drives kids crazy.
Sabbatical Man was sensibly trying to shepherd everyone to the boat-free end of the beach but I only had eyes for blue. I lurched straight ahead, shedding layers as I went straight out and deep into the water.
Half an hour later we were blissed out in the shade, salty and damp, eating Salade Nicoise, sipping iced water and agreeing that no one was really scared back up there.
“What’s with the screaming?” I asked the Kiwifruit Princess.
She and I both know that she’s tough. She swims like a fish, is a mean hockey player and drives a tractor in the weekend. Also, I once saw her trudge bare-footed through a heavy frost to dive into a freezing cold lake just to win a bet. With me, as it happens.
So I bet her. I knew she couldn’t resist. I bet her that she couldn’t walk all the way back to the car without screaming. I knew it would cost me, and I was happy to pay.
She led the walk back without a single scream. It was gruesomely hot. Even the “low” road of this circuit takes an hour and at 40°C it felt much longer. The other children grumbled but I was still astonished at their grit.
On the last, steep, downhill stretch, Small took a seat under a scrap of a tree. His face was beet-red, sweat pouring down his neck.
“This feels a bit dangerous,” he said.
“Ya think?” I said. “Drink up. We’ll rest for a bit then we’ll go down for a swim.”
Five minutes later we were back at the Port de Callelongue. The water sizzled when we jumped in. It was a good swim.
Was doing this hike crazy, stupid, ill-advised, risky, irresponsible? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.
Was it a wonderful day?
Yes. Yes it was.
*It still makes me shake my head to think that so many French people regard Marseille as a 21st Century Tombstone where outlaws are forever stripping innocents of their gold when they’re not busy shooting each other or riding over the hills to rob the Aixoise gentry at gunpoint. Yes, there are dangerous quartiers but the old port, the fort and the corniches are as safe as any modern city can be and they are beautiful.