Monday, 18 April 2011

Tussac and the Grande Pigne, Vercors Plateau

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Another week passed, occupied with necessities that we would have preferred to postpone rather than getting out and doing what we wanted to do.  For sanity's sake the hills were calling again and on Sunday we drove to Benevise, about half an hour from here, beyond Chatillon towards the Col de Menee.  Benevise is a largely unspoilt little village, sitting up on a promontary at about 700m and usually bathed in sunlight.  From Benevise a relatively unfrequented track leads, by one of the shorter routes, up onto the Vercors Plateau at Tussac.

The Plateau has some resemblance to Conan Doyle's 'Lost World'.  Not quite as wild and forbidding but intensely atmospheric and romantic and easy to get lost in.  Walking to Tussac is not taking any chances.  Ours was a relatively easy four to four and a half hours circuit  -  walking time that is, but wonderfully varied.  Tussac is a little peninsula that, like a finger, points south from the Mountain of Glandasse and the main Plateau. In winter the Plateau is a wild and wonderful place and not for the faint-hearted; it used to be the training ground for French Arctic and Antarctic expeditions because of its climatic similarity.  In summer it's a centre of transhumance acting as a grazing ground for thousands of sheep and a few cattle from the surrounding valleys.  Tussac has several huts used by the shepherds during the grazing season and, in places, the strangely manicured look of a Japanese garden.

We passed by the huts and the open grassland and cut through a forest of mountain pine (Pinus Mugo) to the edge of the cliffs on the west side of Tussac, looking down into the valley towards Archiane.  The pine forests were in large part the reason for the establishment of the National Park.  The trees had been threatened by a health fad based on an extract from their bark and the wonderful forests of these amazingly hardy little trees were fast disappearing.  Now they are flourishing again.

Walking by no particular path through the forest along the edge of the cliffs calls for a certain concentration as the limestone geology is haphazard and treacherous, the trees pushing their way through deep grikes, the vegetation often concealing the edge of the cliff and deep rifts.  The cliffs fall in huge terraces down to the valley 1 000m below.

Looking over the cliffs from Tussac, 1 000m into the valley at Archiane.

Apart from the annual visit of the sheep, the forests are left alone and the cliffs are home to a variety of wild life including chamois and successfully re-introduced mouflon.  We know they're there but somehow we rarely see them.  The other recent and wonderfully successful re-introduction has been vultures which had been absent for around half a century.  Of the four varieties introduced, the first two have formed secure breeding colonies and it's difficult to spend time on or near the Plateau without seeing these magnificent birds.  Also various eagles which we usually fail to identify.

The mountain pines tend to be chaotic and dense.  They live and die on the Plateau and there are fresh saplings everywhere.  It isn't a ghoulish fascination that prompts us to photograph their skeletal remains, rather the graphic outlines and dinosaur-like carcases that fertilise the woods.

Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus) sustaining itself from the remains of a decaying tree stump.

Vertigo: leaning over the edge of the cliff to photograph these weird pinnacles promotes giddiness and an other-worldly feeling.

The strange world of the Mountain Pine forest.

From the Grande Pigne we turned back towards Tussac and the view down the valley towards Mont Barral, The Jocou and, in the distance, the Parc National des Ecrins, the snowline defying the early summer-like weather.

Partially protected from the wind, wild narcissus grow in profusion on short stems between Tussac and the Grande Pigne.

The long walk back to Benevise provoked a certain thirst, sated at the Cafe de la Mairie in Chatillon-en-Diois on the way home.

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