THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE SOUND OF SCREAMING by Jill Stoking
‘Nope I can’t come with you, two weeks is one week too long.’
That was the response from my bestie – so it looked like I’d be going for two weeks on my own or not at all. But Fondo, at 1000m above sea level, with its alpine meadows and nestled beneath the Dolomite mountains, looked so inviting and I’d never been to Italy plus the holiday was cheap. I was going.
Admittedly, a coach trip from North Devon to Fondo via Dover, travelling through the night with no stopover, sounded like a recipe for deep vein thrombosis.
I was up for it.
I’d never done mountains before, apart from Leith Hill (if you include the tower). I had this romantic vision of drifting through ‘The Sound of Music’ landscapes.
The coach was full and although we’d been set free for the Dover crossing, by the time we’d got underway and were travelling through France it was too dark to see anything and we were urged by the driver to get some sleep.
Fat chance. I’d developed restless legs, an audibly grumbling stomach and a grumpy disposition.
My fellow travellers could be divided into three groups. The stalwart walkers equipped with Nordic poles and the appropriate footwear, a party of friends who liked the idea of being stuck in a hotel in the mountains, with nothing to do all day except drink and look out at the view and an elderly lady, who was having difficulty getting on and off the coach for the comfort stops. What she thought she was going to do part way up the Dolomites, I couldn’t say and I think she was beginning to wish she’d done a little more research.
I was the floating voter, unsure where to pledge my allegiance. I’d come with a cagoule, collapsible walking stick, trainers and a sketch pad.
Fondo sits very close to the Austrian border and once daylight came we were wending our way up mountain roads that were not designed for coaches.
Fondo and the mountain scenery were worth the trip, whatever the discomfort. Stunning didn’t come close. I tagged onto the seasoned walkers, who had maps of the trails, but soon realised that I didn’t have the stamina or the equipment to be taken as a serious walker, they were all incredibly charitable, but I was obviously holding them back.
I decided to go for a walk on my own using a map from one of the hotel’s brochures.
What could go wrong? It was a warm day with the hint of autumn in the air. I ignored the fact that I’m notorious for having no sense of direction whatsoever.
The trail markers were attached to trees and for the first two hours I followed the trail through the mountain forest, stopping to absorb the splendour and majesty of it all. In a clearing where trees had been felled and the logs were stacked, ready for transportation off the mountain, I sat down on a log pile and ate my packed lunch.
After devouring my crisps, chocolate bar and a somewhat pappy apple, I started on the route back to the hotel ¬ or so I thought.
Scenery always looks totally different from the opposite direction, so I wasn’t alerted by the fact that nothing seemed familiar. Half an hour of brisk walking and I was beginning to wonder why the trail markers had been removed.
I had no idea where I was. What now?
Well, I reasoned, it was a trail so it must lead somewhere.
I don’t know what I was expecting. These were the Dolomites. I was hardly going to come to a clearing and find McDonalds and a Travelodge. I walked on, aware of a knot of anxiety developing in my gut.
The trail came to an abrupt halt at a clearing where the forest gave way to a grassy slope, so steep that a narrow path had been dug into the side of the hill, which would aid a mountain goat to get to the other side, but a middle aged lady in a cagoule and trainers? I glanced at the sky. The sun was low and dusk was closing in.
Half way along the narrow ledge, walking foot in front of foot, clutching onto tufts of grass rising above me, the thought suddenly struck me.
I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. Nobody would know where to even begin to search and if I lost my footing now I was going to die.
I reached the other side of the clearing where the trail resumed and slumped to the ground until I’d stopped shaking. The forest had become gloomy, but if I stuck to the trail, I’d be okay. What was the worst that could happen? I might have to spend the night in the forest. I quickened my step, still hoping to arrive at civilisation before nightfall.
My screams bounced off the trees as a deer broke through the undergrowth and leapt across the path in front of me. It was at that point I decided that a night in the forest might not be the benign option I’d envisaged.
It was dark by the time the trail led me to a few houses and a road. I recognised it as being at the top of Fondo. I could see the lights of the hotel some way below me. I had to walk another half a mile but I’d survived. I was greeted with cheers as I attempted to creep into the bar. The hotel owner gave me a deserved reprimand for not informing him where I’d intended going that day. I absorbed the dressing down, too relieved to even think of excuses. I stuck to organised coach trips for the rest of the holiday. I could get lost just as easily in Bolzano or Verona.
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