Unwanted Company on an Isle of Wight Solo Hike
I have fought cancer. I have been burnt, broken, bruised and bloodied. But these black bugs, these tiny beetles, that are crawling along my arms, over my face, even up my nose.They have won. I surrender.
It is day four of a six day solo hike along the Isle of Wight coastal path, and I am under attack from these viscous winged commandos. And there is nowhere to hide.
This narrow strip of path I am walking along is in the most isolated part of the Island. I am a few hours past the jagged white chalk rocks of the needles. To my left are fences of barbed wire enclosing fields of cattle, parched grass and wild flower, and to my right the limestone cliffs drop sharply into the ocean below. And there are sail boats. Lots of them. Today is the Round the Island boat race, and what started off as a chance to stroll alongside this spectacle of sails, has turned into my worst nightmare.
I am sweating, quite possibly dehydrated, having drank most of my water after scrambling up the sandy banks of a narrow chine, or gorge to you and I, a common feature on this ever eroding coastline. I am carrying a very overweight backpack, having prepared for every eventually of weather and ending up instead in a Saharan heatwave. I have been chased by an overprotective herd of cows, bitten twice on the ankles by the dreaded horsefly, and stung so many times by nettles on this overgrown section of the walk, that it is fair to say this is not a well trodden path.
And, today aside, why more people don’t walk it, I have no idea. The route around the island, even today until fly-mageddon struck, has been stunning. One of my favourite sections has been a stroll through Fort Albert, just outside Yarmouth, glimpsing Hurst Castle on the mainland through the trees, so close you could almost call out to the dog walkers on the other side. The approach to Alum Bay and then up to Tennyson Down, the highest point on the island, was hard on the calf muscles, but I was rewarded at the end with a dip in the clear yet chilly waters of Freshwater Bay. And tomorrow I can’t wait to walk the land slip from Ventnor to Shanklin, an aptly named piece of land if ever there was one, the constantly eroding cliffs, re-mapping the footpaths all the time.
The sun hasn’t stopped shining for me, the turquoise blue of the sea at Totland reminiscent of an Island in Greece, rather than one off the South Coast of the UK. Yet the thatched pubs, dotted in little villages along the way, are so quintessentially English, and also make perfect lunchtime stops for some Ventnor crab sandwich and a sparkling water and lime. And with my headphones in, I have hummed and sometimes skipped my way around 50 odd miles of the 70 mile trail so far.
No skipping today though. No pubs. No crab. Just these irritating, awful flies. I can no longer look ahead, the village of Chale, a tantalising mirage in the distance. If I do, they will fly up my nose again. So head down, I battle on. Literally. Swatting as many as I can as soon as they land. And just when I’m sure I can’t take anymore, they disappear as suddenly as they came. A few remaining on my sweat soaked arms are brushed aside, the carcasses of their comrades leaving black splodges on my white T-shirt. And finally I can slow my pace and my heart rate down.
I walk on in caution, waiting for the next onslaught but it doesn’t come. Instead I find a bench to rest on, take my final sips of water and a celebratory nibble of a protein bar.
‘Lovely day, isn’t it’ says the coastguard posted several feet ahead on the path, their binoculars trained on the final few boats of the thousands that have overtaken me on their race around the island. Accomplishing in one day, what I will finally finish in just under 48 hours time.
‘Mmmm’ I reply, taking a moment, to wet wipe my arms. Tonight I will shower the remaining few bug shells off of my sticky skin, and drink several pints. First of water, then of beer. Tomorrow I will wake early, layer on the Deep Heat, sun cream and then finally the somewhat redundant bug repellant. Then I will hoist my heavy pack onto my weary shoulders, and before I have even had my first coffee, I will climb Niton Down. And then I will keep going. I am a fighter after all.
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