Here they tell The Local how they got lost. And how they survived.
Justin and Diane Bridges, a British couple from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, admit that they had doubts as they set off from the French town of Saint Jean Pied de Port on the first stage of their hike along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.
At the tourist office where they had collected their ‘pilgrim passport’ – the accreditation that gives all official pilgrims access to hostels along the route – the couple had been warned that the first stage involved hiking up and down mountain paths across the Pyrenees to reach Roncesvalles, the first town on the camino over the Spanish border.
The pilgrimage route is supposed to be easy to follow. Photo: Jesús Pérez Pacheco/Flickr
“The woman at the tourist office inspected us and said that our backpacks were too heavy and that Diane might struggle. She advised us that there were different paths marked by different colours and that we should choose the easiest route,” explained Justin, 46, who works in the radiology department at Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge.
“We knew it would be a difficult first day and we knew that we might not be able to complete the whole route to Santiago.”
He explained that Diane, 47, who is seated next to him in the café at Madrid airport as the pair wait to fly home to England, suffers from lymphedema “a condition that means her legs swell up like an elephant’s”.
But the couple, who have three children, had no idea just how difficult their walk – a pilgrimage route that attracts more than 100,000 people each year – was about to get.
For within hours of setting off on Saturday morning along the well-trodden path marked by the symbol of a scallop shell or yellow arrow, they branched off on what they believed was a less steep alternative that would take them to the same destination.
“We thought this was one of the colour-coded paths showing the easy route that the lady at the information had told us about,” said Justin.
Hours later they came across a woman in a farmhouse who seemed to tell them that they were on the path taken by horseriders and pointed over a mountain.
The views were spectacular…just peaks stretching to the horizon” Photo: J Bridges / The Local
“We refilled our water there and then we followed the direction she pointed in in the belief that we would soon rejoin the main camino,”Justin said. “But that never happened.
“Neither of us are sure at exactly what point we made the error but we found ourselves on a path criss-crossing mountains that seemed to just go on and on,”said Justin.
“We had a packed lunch and a tent as we were planning to camp along the route, at the end of the first day we thought, well we have run out of food but we can’t be far from the town now so we'll make an early start in the morning and be there by breakfast.”
The next day continued in much the same way. “The views were spectacular but we were just climbing hills and then descending into the trees to find some shade and then heading back up a mountain again. We seemed to be going round in circles.”
“Hour after hour we just drudged along in the heat,” piped up Diane, who works for a catering agency.
“It was 38 C and we were high up so the sun was fierce. We were guzzling water and refilling our camel backs (a specially designed rucksack containing water bags) when we could. Luckily there were troughs that provide drinking water for animals and it wasn't putrid but clear and fresh.”
“I kept thinking that when we reach the next peak we will see a village,” Diane recalled. “But then we’d get there and there was no village, just peaks stretching to the horizon and the occasional cow or sheep.”
By now the couple had long run out of food and were supplementing their water intake with sachets of Dioralyte, a rehydration powder designed to provide relief from diarrhoea that they had in their first aid kit.
Diane was also suffering from crippling blisters. “She was hobbling along at about 2mph. Clump clump. It was boiling, we were hungry and getting increasingly ratty with each other. In truth, it was a nightmare.”
“I kept looking on Google maps to try and find a way out but I didn’t have 3G on my phone and it wasn’t really any help,”he admitted.
Diane peeking through the trees while lost in the woods Photo: J Bridges / The Local
After four days of wandering aimlessly across the Pyrenees trying to get back to civilization, they finally came to the realization that they had to call for help.
“We came across what looked like a farmtrack and saw a building of some sort in the distance so felt hopeful and took the path.
“Imagine the disappointment when after about an hour and a half of walking the track ended at an abandoned barn. We had run out of water hours before and Diane could barely take another step.”
Justin called the 112 emergency number at around 5pm on Tuesday August 16th and explained to the person at the end of the phone that he and his wife were in a spot of bother.
“I honestly thought that we probably weren’t that far from a town and the forest rangers or police could just send a patrol car to pick us up. They kept asking me to send my coordinates but without 3G I couldn’t and trying to explain where we were took my battery down to one percent. Then they said they would send a helicopter to try and find us.”
Increasingly desperate, dehydrated and realizing that they were close to exhaustion just as help was at hand, the couple found a way to attract attention.
“We had these bright orange sleeping mats so we laid them out on a patch of ground in the shape of a cross, then we tried to make a wind sock out of an orange bag and stick it up on the roof of the barn.”
It took about 45 minutes for a helicopter team from the fire station in the nearby town of Burguete to find them but the steep terrain made it impossible for rescuers to so they promised to return in a 4 X 4.
“The helicopter appeared and the firemen threw down bottles of water and packets of biscuits, we just sat there gobbling them up while we waited for them to come back in a jeep,” recalled Diane.
The couple eating biscuits after being found by a team from Burguete Bomberos Photo: I Arbeloa
“When it finally arrived I was so weak I couldn’t even climb up into the vehicle and had to be pushed and pulled into it,” said Diane, who had shaved her hair off before the trip to raise money for Macmillan cancer support. “We owe a huge thank you to the rescuers”.
The pair were driven to Roncesvalles where they spent a few days recovering before deciding to continue on their way to Santiago.
“At the moment we were rescued I could only think that I would never attempt to walk again but after a few days rest and meeting all the other people doing the Camino we decided that we had to continue and try to get to Santiago.”
Path of pain: Diane's blisters got worse and worse. Photo: J Bridges / The Local
Last Friday they reached their destination after completing an impressive 652 km of the route on foot – not including the countless extra miles they covered while lost in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
“We ditched the tent and a lightened our backpacks by a lot and split the walking with am overnight train across the meseta (the flat land between Burgos and Leon),”explained Justin. “Diane’s blisters got worse but she has been an amazing trooper throughout this pilgrimage and I'm still astonished how much we achieved.”
So would they do it again?
“Absolutely yes,”said Justin, while beside him Diane gave an emphatic shake of the head and pointed at her bandaged feet.
Diane and her bandaged feet at the airport just before flying home, Photo: J Bridges / The Local