It’s another glorious day in the Midi-Pyrénées. The afternoon temperatures are still in the high twenties, although the mornings are getting chilly. Today we’re off to the Portet d’Aspet, to walk a five-hour boucle along the ridge and down through the forest.
The climb to the summit is uneventful, along a hardcore track used as access by the forest rangers. We pass no-one on the ascent except a couple collecting the wild mountain blackberries. They assure me that the berries, though tiny, are well worth the effort of collection. “They make the best jam!” declares the elderly gentleman, showing me a basket of tiny purple berries the size of peas. “You can mix them with the cultivated blackberries for bulk, but these have twice the flavour.” On this recommendation, I pick a handful myself to eat on the way up, taking care to choose berries well above spaniel height. The taste is intense, but my hands are left indigo stained with juice.
There’s a fantastic panoramic view from the top, and the leaves are just starting to turn gold.
We start to walk along the ridge, and are faced with a sharp descent followed by another climb to the ultimate peak. At the foot of the descent, we have our second encounter of the day – another pair of hikers. I stop to chat about the walk, and Monty immediately wanders over to join in. The couple warn me that they’ve just seen a ‘patou‘, or local shepherd dog, on the ridge, and tell me to keep Monty on a lead in case the patou decides he’s a threat.
We’re excited about the patou, as in all our walks in the mountains we’ve never seen one. We put Monty on his lead, and keep a sharp eye out for the shepherd dog. Despite our vigilance, he spots us first and barks sharply in warning. He comes padding towards us from the trees, a huge white shaggy dog looking not unlike a sheep himself. His flock is resting behind him in the shade of the forest. He stops a little way away and barks again, the sharp sound a little offset up the huge plumed tail starting to wag. However, we’ve been warned not to get too close, so we stop a respectful distance away before taking photos.
As soon as we move away, the huge dog turns round and pads back to his flock, lying down next to them.
These extraordinary dogs live out on the mountain with their flocks – we can’t begin to imagine the level of training involved in this partnership. We pass a couple of large plastic bins presumably containing dog food, but there are no other signs of home comforts.
Coming down from the summit, we scout around for the path clearly marked on the map. There’s no sign of it, and we end up pushing our way through the scrubby undergrowth to try to meet up with the main path. Monty scrambles gamely through the brambles, pausing occasionally to waggle his ginger eyebrows at me reproachfully. We eventually emerge onto the main path, only 10 yards from the mouth of the official route.
As we head back down towards the town, Monty trots ahead. He’s already forgotten the patou on the mountain top, and he’s thinking of dinner and his bed.