At Quillan three years ago I explored many of the tracks in the hills surrounding the town. On my very first foray into a forested mountain area I felt a little on edge, not knowing for sure what dangers I might encounter. Hans Christian Anderson tales had taught me from a young age that Europe’s forests were to be feared. Should I watch out for snakes? What were the chances of encountering a wolf? And what of the people in these remote hills? As time went on, and reassured by a little internet research, I became more confident and saw that the only risks were familiar ones: getting lost or breaking an ankle. On this current visit, the winter weather adds the risk of hypothermia.
Quillan is a river town in a topographical bowl. The Aude river enters the bowl through a narrow gorge. To the north, there are sharp-pointed peaks a few hundred metres above the town. These are the ‘three quills’ that are the origin of Quillan’s name. To the south, larger hills rise up to limestone cliffs where vultures roost. Beyond those cliffs, out of sight from Quillan, is ‘the plateau’ – the Pays de Sault. I had seen on various maps a route leading up to the plateau village Quirbajau. I had enjoyed views from many locations around Quillan and had imagined that the view from those cliffs must be the ultimate around here. I hoped to get up there. But three years ago I failed. At my most determined attempt, I followed a forest break of power pylons uphill from an old log cabin in the forest – the Chalet de Carrach. From the break I spied a narrow track leading up into the bush to the east. Another track, a wider but overgrown track led west along the hillside. I decided to head west, since that seemed a better direction for the gap in the cliffs above. However, that track had not turned uphill at all, so I attempted to bush-bashed directly uphill – if there was a track up there, I hoped I would come across it. The terrain became too steep and I considered this would be a bad place to slip and be injured – high up the mountain and well off any track – so I reluctantly abandoned that attempt and returned home. Quirbajau remained an unattained goal.
This time I do a little more research before leaving home. Being mid-winter on a north-facing slope, the route would get no sun and would be very cold in the morning, so I wait till after lunch. Quirbajau would be too far for the few hours of daylight remaining but I hope to reach the cliff tops before turning back. The route will be shorter if I start from Belviane, so I drove there and park the car at the top of that village. I encounter various interconnecting tracks above Belviane and regret not bringing my new map. How could I forget that? No matter – I can’t go far wrong if I take the uphill option at each junction. The tracks here are frosty, even at the warmest time of day, and the few puddles – December has been rainless – remain iced over.
The track is good – twisty, tree roots, frozen mud. I gain height quickly and soon join an unsealed road. A road! This is a surprise and a slight disappointment, as it means, I guess, that I am too low on the hillside. I need to be higher up than any road. I turn left and walk up the road, hoping to find a side-track leading uphill. The road puzzles me. Could it be the road that leads to the Chalet de Carrach, which is below my intended route? Three years ago that ‘road’ had been just a rough mud track. Could they, since then, have turned that into a proper road? That seems unlikely. What is this road?
Wrong turns and ending up on the road have cost me time on this lower part of the hill – I will not make the top this afternoon. Perhaps on my next attempt – there will be a next attempt – I will find the bottom of this road and drive part-way up. The road looks driveable. As if to confirm that thought, I see a vehicle parked ahead at a switch-back. A small white newish car. If that can drive up here, then I could drive our car up here too. There is a knocking sound from somewhere nearby. Tap-tap-tap. A wood cutter with an ax? I turn the corner at the switch-back and see two people, a man and a woman, walking up the road ahead. The man has a walking stick. Tap-tap-tap. I catch up to them. They are French. They are locals but they too are unsure where the road leads. After a few minutes of walking together, they stop, bid farewell, and head back down the road.
I continue upwards. It becomes clear that I am now high up the mountain – higher than Pic de Bitrague – the tallest of the three quills – across the valley. I hear a motor vehicle approaching from below. A red Peugeot 206 with two people soon arrives, puttering up in second gear. The driver waves but does stop. The hillside is steep now above and below the road. Rocks have fallen onto the road and remain there as obstacles for any vehicles. The red Peugeot has driven past these obstacles but that must have been a nervous affair for the passenger, given the steep drop-off. I kick some of the rocks out of the way but some are too big to budge.
Now, high up the mountain, the lie of the land becomes obvious, especially when I find a track with a signpost pointing downhill ‘Chalet de Carrach 1 km 20 min’. That must be the top of the narrow track from the forest break that I saw three years earlier. And leaving the overgrown track to bush-bash uphill? If I had stayed on that track, I would very soon have found the road. My bush-bash had taken me up towards the road but I would never have made it that far – the slope would have become impossibly steep.
After reaching a switch-back at the base of cliffs I turn back. Later inspection of maps shows that I have reached about 900 m altitude. The top is about 1000 m. Next time I’ll get there.