Sean Rothery is a retired architect and architectural historian, he still lecturers in Ireland and abroad. More importantly Sean is an Honorary Member of the Irish Mountaineering Club and a lifelong lover of walking and mountaineering.
A Long Walk South is the story of a journey, the entire GR5, the “Grande Randonnèe Cinq”. Sean travels the 2,300km route from the Hook of Holland through the Dutch Lowlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The Vosages and Jura mountains are traversed before Sean reaches the Alps and continues his journey towards Nice, on the Mediterranean.
This book recounts the ups, downs, frustrations and elations encountered over the four month walk. The book is in diary form starting on the 10th May where a naked run into the North Sea begins the massive trek to the Mediterranean. Freed from the slavery of the workplace and under a doctor’s “advice” Sean starts to walk a few miles a day, complete with full backpack and passport! The early sections of the journey are flat and travel through small villages, suburban landscapes and along canal pathways. He journeys along meandering rivers and through forest trails in the Ardennes, site of the Battle of the Bulge.
By the start of June Sean is fitter and convinced that he will reach Nice and complete the journey. One night in a hotel he is awoken, by an annoying noise, which he describes as a “radio taxi”, Sean responds by shouting (and more than likely waking the entire hotel) that the noise is keeping him awake, “I stop” is the response. We could do with Sean down in the IMC Hut some nights!
Having travelled for nine days with walking companion Sally, Sean finds himself travelling alone again. A sense of that solitude is reflected when in June he reaches the Vosges Mountains, a natural frontier between France and Germany.
The way-marks change as Sean encounters a maze of marked trails, this is certainly bewildering to most Irish people who only have to negotiate the likes of the “Little Yellow Man” as our way-marks! Later on travelling with two companions Sean reaches a “squalid” gite in the town of Novel from where they journey through Alpine pastures moving in the direction of Mount Blanc.
With over 1600km completed, new boots are required before the mountain challenges and thunderstorms that the northern Alps gift to the long distance walkers. Before reaching the Chamonix Valley Sean recounts the story of how his climbing career was cut short in an accident in the Alps.
By the end of August Sean is in the Alps Maritimes, its warm the mood is good (how could it not be?) in one of the nicest places in Europe. Walking through the aches and pains the body demanding a proper rest Sean continues. There is a smell of the sea in the air, where a swim in the warm Mediterranean awaits.
Hikers from all over the world take on challenges involving GR routes each year, I know many people, myself included, who have hiked the GR5 from Geneva to Nice, but reading Sean’s journey I feel like I took a short cut. For anyone with an interest in hiking, backpacking, travelling and long distance walking this is a great read. Sean leaves the reader with an understanding of what long distance journeying all this is about. If Nicholas Crane’s “Still Waters Rising” is on your bookshelf then Sean’s book should be beside it, if not, go out and buy both.
Reviewed by Niall Ennis