South of France, September 2019
There was something there.
He peered closely at the pixelated image on the screen and pressed the pause button.
The frame was blurred and ill-defined even though the light was good, and the drone had the latest high definition camera.
He frowned, rewound the footage and pressed slow play. Something was out of place, or was it a trick of the light?
He leant back perplexed, staring at the computer without realising night had fallen, the only source of light in the cramped room was the screen. The pale light emphasised the lines on his silhouetted face.
It was difficult to make a living out of photography, and although drones added an extra dimension to photoshoots, French bureaucracy complicated matters considerably. He supplemented his income by filming pale-skinned, flabby tourists as they pretended to be action heroes canyoning in the Loup Gorge.
Erratic GPS signals in the gorge made accurate flying difficult, but he had flown a high spiral followed by a sweeping zoom towards the group of Scandinavians scrambling up a waterfall. They posed for him on the rocks and he took some action-shots with his trusty Canon as they leapt screaming into the cold rock pool.
It was a simple process. Edit the drone footage, insert the still photos and add some dramatic music to complete the souvenir.
It paid well.
The drone was too high; the group was too small at the start of the spiral and he was about to delete the first 15 seconds when he noticed something odd. Something caught the light.
There seemed to be movement.
What was it?
The computer hummed faintly as the pale pink of the sunset behind Plascassier washed insipidly through the grimy window.
“Where is that?” he wondered.
He knew the area well and often hiked the trails with his Bouvier Éclaire in tow.
He opened a drawer and pulled out a hiking map, switched on the light and spread it on his desk. He leant over, straightening it with his hands.
“It must be there” he murmured, prodding the map with a stubby finger.
The nearest feature was the Aqueduct de Foulon a couple of hundred metres below.
He moved his finger from the point on the map. There was no trail, it was on the edge of a steep drop and completely isolated.
He returned to the computer and opened his browser. After 5 minutes searching, he found an old hiking trail map, “Randonner de trail du Loup” dated 1954. Unfortunately, it was small scale and when he zoomed in to the canal area it was blurred and indistinct. He traced the canal northwards. Halfway towards the spring at Bramafan, he noticed a faint zig-zag dotted line heading away from the canal up the cliff to the west.
He glanced at the modern chart and looked closely.
There was nothing there
.He played the footage repeatedly in slow-motion. It intrigued him.
Behind a large gorse bush something moved.
The Road to Paradise
Over millennia an insignificant brook carved a deep gash in the soft sedimentary rock of a high plateau in the maritime alps of southern France. On the way to the Mediterranean, the Loup River meanders down the narrow gorge between 2,000 feet high limestone cliffs which rise vertically either side of the sinuous stream.
He parked by the small stone chapel under the remains of the railway viaduct in Pont Du Loup and switched off the engine. It died with an asthmatic agricultural clatter. Not for the first time he wondered why Jeep had sold the macho-looking CJ7 with a puny, 500 pigeon-power Renault diesel engine.
It was early in the morning, a gossamer veil of high clouds shrouded the sun, painting the face of the cliffs at the entrance to the gorge in a wash of pale citrus. The uniformity of the grey calciferous strata of the cliff was marred by random brown striations of soft sandstone. Vegetation clung precariously in the meagre terraces and crevices.
The ancient fortified village of Gourdon peered imperiously down from a rocky outcrop 1,800 feet above him.
The cool still air belied the forecast of yet another hot, humid day.
He pulled on his hiking shoes, laced them tightly and opened his backpack, the drone was small and fitted perfectly between two water bottles. Clutching his hiking poles, he strode towards the start of the Chemin Du Paradis.
Le Pont Du Loup sits astride the Loup river at the mouth of the gorge. The remains of a railway viaduct tower over the small village which, in an act of Teutonic tantrum, was cynically demolished by the retreating Germans in 1944.
In more God-fearing times, the congregation of the village were too numerous for the little ‘chapelle’ so they made the parishional peregrination to the 12th Century church of Saint-Vincent de Gourdon on top of the cliff every Sunday, hence the name of the trail; Chemin du Paradis or Road to paradise.
Just imagine, he pondered, trying to get a spotty teenager to church these days, let alone coercing them into climbing 1,800 feet to get there.
The trail was remarkably well preserved. Worn stone steps and paviours lined the steep track as it snaked through Mediterranean oak, chestnuts and hornbeams. Fallen leaves covered the piste in a soft brown carpet.
After an hour of hard climb, he reached the large rusty pipe of the Aqueduct de Foulon. It followed the 1,600ft elevation contour, so at least the going from now on would be easier.
The town of Grasse expanded dramatically towards the end of the 19th century and the existing water supply was insufficient for the increased commercial activity. In 1889 an enclosed concrete canal was opened connecting a spring at the top of the gorge to satisfy the ever-thirsty tanneries and perfumeries.
The 22 tunnels, hand hewn through the cliff faces, and the 20-kilometre length of the canal are a testament to the importance of the supply.
Constantly damaged by rock falls, the canal was replaced by a metal pipe in 1950 which is still in use today.
He filled his water bottle from a small fountain and turned to follow the 3-feet diameter pipe which had been installed on top of the old concrete conduit. In places it was in a bad state of repair, the top was frequently dented from falling rocks and leaks had been poorly repaired with black bitumen bandages. Patches of moss grew on the condensation on the bottom of the pipe and drips from the joints formed small pools along the path. Sections of the pipe had been replaced by stainless steel which reflected the bright sunlight, hurting his eyes.
The sun had burnt off the haze and it was becoming uncomfortably warm. The air was quiet and still with little birdsong; a motorbike rasped in Pont Du Loup far below. In the distance to the south, an aircraft climbed away from Nice airport.
The first tunnel was tiny with hardly enough room for him to follow the pipe. A draught of surprisingly cool air greeted him as he bent down to enter. The rocks brushed his back as he walked sideways into the darkness, fluttering bats were briefly illuminated by the feeble flashlight of his iPhone, cobwebs brushed his face.
He squinted as he emerged into the bright sunlight, the terrain had become more rocky and rugged.
The second tunnel was larger and longer. It was partially filled with water and he waded through it up to his ankles. The uneven rocks beneath the surface were slippery and he stumbled through a jet of water pouring from a crack in the pipe. The tunnel exited onto a narrow terrace on the cliff face and the ground dropped away 500 feet vertically to his right.
He rested with his back to the pipe, the village of Courmes on the far side of the gorge added a dab of colour in the shadow of the peaks of Courmettes and Tourettes.
He had only been this far down the path once before, on a photoshoot for a Japanese tourism company.
He turned and walked towards the next tunnel. On his left, a streaked, yellowing marble plaque was cemented to the rocks.
ICI FURENT FUSILLES EN PATRIOTES
PAR LES ALLEMANDS LE 10–06–1944
LES DEUX FRERES
ALBERT ET MARCEL SOLER
AGES DE 29 ET 20 ANS
“On this spot, two patriotic brothers, Albert and Marcel Soler from Vence, aged 20 and 29 were shot by the Germans on 1oth June 1944.”
‘How sad’, he thought, ‘so young,’ as he slowly re-read the text.
He reached the area he was looking for after two more tunnels. The terrace was now much wider, and the undergrowth was thick and tangled on the uphill side. He carefully examined the edge of the path and eventually found what looked like a stone step protruding slightly from underneath a thick thorn bush. He clambered over the pipe and kicked away the spiky branches with his feet, glad that he had worn his long hiking trousers. There seemed to be a rudimentary path leading through the tangle of thorns and bushes up the front of the cliff. He struggled as he pushed upwards, the thorns tore at his trousers and it was difficult to forge a way through the gorse bushes. Mosquitos and horseflies attacked him in droves.
After half an hour and barely 100 metres, the way was blocked by a landslide of scree 50 metres wide. He gingerly placed one foot on the steep, rock strewn slope and set off an avalanche of rocks and pebbles which accelerated and cascaded over the cliff with a dusty clamour.
There was no way forward. Exasperated, he turned around and descended slowly to the pipe below.
Thermals danced in the afternoon heat, and dark clouds began to form over the mountains as he gathered his breath in the shade of a stunted oak. There was only one way forward. He open the backpack and pulled out the drone and goggles. He unfolded the propeller arms, placed the drone as close to the cliff edge as he could and switched it on. It chirped and beeped as it whirred into life. He pulled on his googles and adjusted the controls, the picture from the camera in the drone was crystal clear.
The GPS signal was poor in the gorge, but he pulled back on the control stick and the drone rose unsteadily 2 metres into the air and turned towards him. He could see himself looking like a complete dork in his oversized white goggles.
He turned the drone towards the path and it slowly climbed. Signal drop-out warnings activated a couple of times, but he was able to follow the path to a point above the scree where the drone paused. His field of view was limited so he swung the drone from side to side and moved the camera up and down to get his bearings. He briefly felt nauseous and disorientated but eventually he spotted a familiar shape high above him.
The drone had a 27-minute battery life, so he quickly climbed it towards his target. The visuals flickered erratically as he swooped towards an immense gorse bush growing on a large flat area in front of the vertical cliff. As he closed, a sheet of what seemed to be faded camouflage netting flapped limply in the wind.
“Battery 50%” rasped in his headphones.
The drone moved to the side and he saw a large open rusty metal door in the flat rock face. He flew it slowly closer, hovering just above the ground to avoid the waving camouflage.
It took all his concentration and sweat ran down his face inside the googles.
“Shit!” he groaned.
The drone was almost at the threshold of the door, out of range of the netting so he climbed it up a metre. The signal interference increased, and the image flickered on and off.
He moved the drone forward a little.
The sun was low in the west and shone directly through the door illuminating a large dry cave.
An amorphous shape flickered into view.
No time for caution, he moved it further forward and he saw what appeared to be a bundle of rags.
The drone was now inside the cave and the visual dropouts increased.
It wasn’t a bundle of rags; it was two partially clothed skeletons propped up against the wall by the door.
He disabled the automatic return to home function.
The bones were clearly visible through shreds of clothing, strips of dried tendon and skin were stretched taut across the ribs. A skull from one skeleton had fallen off and lay on the floor upside down.
At the feet of one skeleton lay two black, men’s brogues.
He turned the drone slightly.
A pair of tan women’s loafers were under the bones of the other.
The bodies were leaning against each other.
He backed away to focus the camera.
They were holding hands.