Walking El Camino de Santiago

Former nzherald.co.nz news editor Simon Winter takes on the 775-kilometre Spanish Pilgrim Trail

Crossing the France-Spain border on foot

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Looking towards the snowy Pyrenees - and the Spanish border. Photo / Simon Winter
Looking towards the snowy Pyrenees - and the Spanish border. Photo / Simon Winter

Day one is brutal.

We stay the night before setting off in St-Jean Pied-de-Port, a lovely village near the French-Spanish border at the foot of the Pyrenees, full of narrow cobbled streets where two cafe au laits and two chocolate croissants for breakfast costs five euros. It fits our budget nicely!

Twenty-seven kilometres up and over the Pyrenees is one of the bigger days on the 775km trail.

I've been contemplating today's climb for months - about going 'vertical' on day one. Much of the other 35 or so days are relatively flat.

But not this one, and I'm no climber.

'Just imagine it's Mt Maunganui' is my mantra - what I conjure up to combat the mental struggle ahead.

And the first four-and-a-half hours are perfect - a few small climbs, plenty of rain but no snow. The scenery is breathtaking.

It's not crowded, alternating between path and road, passing through a few small villages, we see only a handful of other pilgrims.

For a while I even wonder if the big climb will come, or if we'll just follow a valley through the middle.

Of course I don't really believe this, but it's amazing what the mind does.

At the 21km mark I start to go and at 22km my energy levels slump - 'the climb' arrives and life as I know it takes on a whole new dimension.

Lisa sees it and goes for the chocolate - I just haven't eaten enough. But it's too late.

'Just imagine it's Mt Maunganui' isn't doing it for me, and I'm gone.

I think about the The Tour de France - it comes through these parts. Lisa's Lance Armstrong and I'm The Pack. I need EPO.

And I think of Lisa Tamati, NZ's ultra-distance runner, about our vast reserves of untapped energy. I'm searching for mine, I'll take anything.

My heart is racing and I'm worried about a heart attack. It's pissing down and I don't even notice.

I won't give up but it's a devastating hill - 3km, and steep. Up, and up and up... and the end's nowhere in sight.

At some stage in the late afternoon, I get the 100 metre call from up ahead. All nightmares come to end. I make it, and collapse.

I'm lying prone atop the Pyrenees, with views in all directions. Overwhelming relief floods in. And it occurs to me we've crossed the border, we're in Spain. Voila!

Our hostel in Roncesvalles is 1500 metres straight down the mountain on the other side and 30 minutes later I'm in it, asleep.

Later, I'm revived for the pilgrim dinner, three courses including including vegetable soup and bagette, trout and chips and yoghurt for dessert, with unlimited red wine. Nine euros.

The gradient for day two is a 500m decent over 22km, and day three to Pamplona is flat.

It's just what I need.

Route marker: 27km down, 748 to go.

* Simon Winter is a former nzherald.co.nz news editor. He and partner Lisa are following the sun through Europe. They're finding the weather somewhat colder than expected.

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