Picking my way along narrow, steep mountain paths in the French Alps, I found that I was being accompanied by tango music from our Melbourne Sidewalk Tango classes running through my head. The beat gave a rhythm to my steps which were often up and down and around awkwardly placed rocks. My peripheral vision was of an ongoing rock garden filled with Alpine flowers or snowy peaks or the valley below. However, my attention was always on my feet and the path they were about to walk on – too much scope for accidents otherwise. So I’d stop and stand still if I wanted to look up from the path.
It came to me gradually that I was dancing a sort of tango with the mountain as my partner. I embraced the mountain leaning slightly forward, feet placed firmly and cleanly. Grasping the walking poles, I took care to plant them one at a time in a steady balancing position. There is a direct contact with the mountain. The gaze varies according to the difficulty of the path.
In the open embrace, when the walking is fairly straightforward with the poles used quite lightly, the gaze is centred in a widish circle slightly ahead of the feet and monitoring where to step. The close embrace is used when the path is steep and rocky. Here the gaze becomes intent on the actual area of the feet and path and the pole grip is firmer and closer to the body. It’s intense and focused. I realized that when I was lifting my foot and leg cleanly and neatly over and around rocks so as not to trip, I was actually doing Decorations.
There’s a closeness between me and the mountain path where I have to be attentive to its every configuration and follow its lead. Sometimes it leads me in a steady, smooth walk, sometimes it will ask me to step over a rock, or, with more complexity, ask me to choose a series of short, safe foot places in a short rock climb.
My body and mind are totally engaged in this tango with the mountain.
You’ll note the dress code is very different for mountain tango.
I’ve come to realize that not only am I walking through a series of perfect rock gardens, but that very often a rock will have its own garden.
In the lower areas, a rock will support a mixed colony of flowers on it and around it.
Higher up, a rock might be embraced by a juniper or enveloped by an azalea..
Tiny plants squeeze into crevices..
Above the tree line and in the scree where the snow has only just melted, the tiny shrubs are just coming into bud, sheltered by the rocks they are crouching under.
I found myself almost at a standstill looking at these tiny ecosystems, each existing by itself and also as part of the whole ecosystem of the mountain..
And as for the rock and its tree!
Almost wherever you walk around here, there are beautiful brown cows grazing and clonking their bells on the hillside. They are moved from area to area each day and kept there by a slight cord held up by poles. Some ropes are electrified and I think the cows must have learnt that the rope means,’Don’t even try it!’.
They munch their way through flower after flower, plant after plant, and by the end of the afternoon, start gathering at the point nearest their milking trailer. The cowherd opens the rope and the queen cow leads her herd over to be milked.
It must be good to have a drink in the racing, fresh river before lining up.
The trailers are moved into position each day. Each one houses eight stalls and the milk is pumped into a round stainless steel container sitting in the back of a ute. This is then taken to the fromagerie to be made into Beaufort cheese. Summer Beaufort is much favoured because it is flavoured with the summer meadows. Winter Beaufort is made from the milk from cows eating hay in their barns further down the mountain.
There’s always a slice of Beaufort to be had at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
You can swoop up from the village of Pralognan on the Teleferique to Mt Bochur and traverse a slope to Le Refuge des Barmettes. From there, you can continue on the ancient Salt Route up to Le Lac des Vaches.
It’s like walking through a continual rock garden. We’re early enough in the last week of June to still have all the alpine flowers blooming freshly and the butterflies floating and bouncing around us.
The path initially drops gradually and then rises to pass through some pines before emerging onto the grassy ski slope at the Refuge des Barmettes. That takes about forty minutes.
As we approached the Refuge, we noticed a little dog barking furiously, jumping up and down on the spot. We got closer and saw a small snake backed up against the wall of the building. The manager came out, grabbed the dog up and called for the chef. It was a viper, dark grey with beautiful black markings. It was powerless against the chef who emerged with two walking poles and pincered it off into the grass below the Refuge.
After that, off course we needed refreshments.
Rain and thunder threatened so we walked only a short way up the ancient walled Salt Route before turning for home.