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A digression: the refuges

We got our first taste of refuge crowding technique that evening. There were other factors, but when all is said and done, in the final analysis and all that, it was probably refuge crowding that ultimately did us in. This was a big refuge, which meant it probably held fifty people. By six o'clock we thought the place was overflowing, another dozen arrived before nightfall. This was typical. Often dining would have to be in two sessions, with the first rounders having to retire to their bunks to make room for the others. If you were as tired as we were, and most people seemed to be, this was no great hardship. In fact, what was generally worse was the second sitting bunking down later, and waking the early shift. Then of course everyone was sweaty and wet, or wet and sweaty, depending on the exact clemency of the weather. So the dormitories were like a wash-house, except that the clothes hanging everywhere were dirty instead of clean. Even if the weather had been good, socks were everywhere (two pairs per person remember). If a token effort had been made to clean them, they certainly didn't smell like it. As a result, one developed a rather odd ambivalence about the refuges. Throughout the day they represented a warm and inviting harbor, a water-proof sanctuary, a cozy nook to spend the night. It was heaven to arrive safe and sound, to sit around drinking unlimited cups of tea, and to swap the day's war stories. But by morning, the cramped conditions, the queuing (or at least scrabbling) for facilities, the lack of privacy, and let's face it, the lack of peace and quiet, drove us out of the door earlier and earlier. Martha and Alf tried sleeping in their tent, but paid for this luxury by setting off late enough to be caught out in the rain (which was so bad that they were forced back inside the refuge the next night). Claudia and I eventually found a solution. We got up when we were woken up, packed up and set off. One day this got us on the road at 7:00 am. Then an hour or two down the road, when we had covered some ground, we stopped for breakfast.

Oh, and the mice. The first time one helped itself to our bread I thought no more about it-these things happen, the bread was open, in an empty room, and so on. But the second time it seemed hooked on plastic. Despite being in the dormitory (and in one case, in my sack) our furry friend chewed his way through about a dozen bags. To get at what? Nothing as far as we could tell, except the muesli, which was in my sack. Everywhere. Not even emptying it and shaking it out upside down would get rid of it all.

Alf and Martha were not amused at my learning curve, so when I heard the dreaded scratching a third night, I was out of bed like a shot. This time I even saw the little basket. He was not interested in my sack. Content that someone else was receiving the lesson this time, I smugly returned to my pit.

These negative points should not be allowed to sway the reader into thinking that the refuges were awful places. They were not. Only one had running water inside (the others had a stand pipe somewhere close), none had hot water, and the latrines were an incredible distance away (once across a stream), but that is the way it should be. Just having the water on tap is a luxury when you have to carry possessions and provisions on your back. Every refuge had gas rings, which meant that not only did you not have to use the little stoves you carried, but your meal, or your tea, heated up in half the time. And they (the refuges, not the stoves) were built in spectacular places, not least because they were just where you needed a night-stop.

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