My Travelling Life

They all went over the Alps — on elephants & e-bikes

Matthew Holt hops on an electric bike and tries to emulate legendary Carthaginian general Hannibal's astonishing crossing of the Alps in 218 BC

23 December 2017 - 00:00 By Matthew Holt
Francois Lombard tackles a verdant Alpine hillside on an electric bike.
Francois Lombard tackles a verdant Alpine hillside on an electric bike.
Image: Matthew Holt

As a schoolboy, I was reared on heroic feats in the ancient world. There was the story of  Leonidas and the 300 holding Thermopylae, and Pheidippides’s fatal marathon run. There was the tale of  Alexander the Great taming Bucephalus, his horse. And then there was the Catharginian general Hannibal, who led his army over the Alps. In 218 BC, in a bitter war between Carthage (modern-day Tunis) and Rome, Hannibal marched the Carthaginian army from Spain, through France and over the Alps to launch a surprise attack on Rome.

Hannibal’s army crossing the Alps.
Hannibal’s army crossing the Alps.
Image: Supplied

Historians are divided on his precise route, with half a dozen alpine passes mooted, but recent scientific research supports the Col de la Traversette, despite its being the highest and gnarliest.

With a few spare days in Europe, I decided to join the debate by testing this route.

Whereas Hannibal’s army comprised 50,000 well-drilled mercenaries, including Numidian cavalry, Balearic slingers — who demanded payment in women — and 37 war elephants with their Indian handlers, my force was less formidable. Besides Fiona, my wife,  there was Francois Lombard, a former climbing world champion —  lean, sinewy, exactly my height and embarrassingly 15kg lighter —  his girlfriend Cathy (also a top climber), and my old varsity friend Beesley, whose modest mountaineering prowess was offset by a house and car in Geneva.

We spent the night in L’Argentière-la-Bessée, where most of the residents — like Francois — were alpine guides.

SOLDIERS OF THE SADDLE

Over dinner, Francois and Cathy inducted us in local customs such as scooping ice cream with two heated spoons, slicing blue cheese without offending the hosts and maintaining eye contact while toasting “Salut”, thereby avoiding seven years’ bad sex.

Early the next morning, we collected our rental cycles. If Hannibal could lead 37 elephants over the Alps, I reckoned we should be able to take five bicycles. Besides, these weren’t everyday urban trundlers, but electric mountain bikes, with fat knobbly tyres, front suspension and powerful booster packs.

With the bikes loaded aboard, we drove up the Combe du Queyres, a precipitous gorge offering sporadic glimpses of the Guil River’s torrents far below.

INTO AN AMBUSH

According to some historians, Hannibal had intended crossing into Italy via the mellow Montgenèvre pass, 30km to the northwest, but was led up the Combe du Queyras instead by treacherous guides from the local Gaul tribe, who planned to attack his column.

Once Hannibal’s army was crammed in the narrow defile, the Gauls rolled down logs and rocks from the slopes above.

We make it through unscathed to Château Queyras, a 13th-century castle perched on a large, bare, white rock. Historians championing the Col de Traversette theory say this is the same rock referred to in the earliest account of Hannibal’s feat (written 70 years after the event by the Greek historian Polybius), where the Carthaginian army regrouped after the ambush. Having lost his supply train, with winter setting in and retreat cut off by hostile Gauls, Hannibal’s only option was to press on.

Here, we mounted our e-bikes and set off along a broad, gravel track, zipping effortlessly past irritated hikers

We also continued up the valley, for 20km,  to the end of the road at L’Echalp.

Here, we mounted our e-bikes and set off along a broad, gravel track, zipping effortlessly past irritated hikers — with Francois looking slightly incongruous with an ice axe strapped to his pack.

After 6km, the gravel track ended at Belvédère du Viso, and we were confronted by a rocky rise leading up to a rutted trail. Francois surmounted this obstacle with panache; the rest of us didn’t, to the delight of some picnickers who watched on with spiteful interest.

Though the e-bikes were designed precisely for this terrain, we weren’t accustomed to the sudden spurts of acceleration that caused them to rear up like elephants on their hindquarters. Halfway up, Beesley’s bike leapt into the air, performed an alarming 180° spin and set off down the hill as if running amok. Just when it looked like he was heading into the river, he  skidded to a halt.

UP AND OVER AND DOWN AGAIN

With some pushing and a few mishaps, we reached a large, grassy plateau at 2,500m, where recent digs have unearthed ancient horse and, possibly, elephant dung — though no Carthaginian armour to seal the debate.

Matthew Holt takes a breather at the top of a pass.
Matthew Holt takes a breather at the top of a pass.
Image: Fiona McIntosh

Above here, painted rocks and cairns mark the route, which zigzags  up loose scree and occasional patches of snow. Mindful of the hefty deposits, we decided to stow our bikes. While Francois seemed genuinely sorry to leave his, the rest of us — sporting cuts, bruises and mental scars — were delighted.

Proceeding on foot, we clambered up the steepening slope, till we reached a narrow notch in the ridge, with a sign proclaiming “Colle delle Traversette 2,980m”.

As we arrived, the clouds conveniently cleared to give us views down the Po River valley into Italy — which, according to Polybius, Hannibal used to spur on his faltering soldiers.

THE ALPINE SLAUGHTERHOUSE

To Hannibal — who, as a child, swore an oath of life-long enmity to Rome — it might have been a welcome sight, but it’s not clear how enthused his troops would have felt, especially on seeing the precipitous descent.

It took his army four days to get down, with thousands of men and horses plunging to their deaths, though allegedly all of the elephants survived.

Clambering down the icy rocks on all fours, we were greatly relieved we hadn’t brought our bikes and — assuming they had  come this way — marvelled at the elephants’ dextrous footing.

A few hundred metres down, we found the entrance to a small foot tunnel, built in the 15th century so travellers could avoid the snowbound col.

The adventurers descend  from the Col de Traversette.
The adventurers descend from the Col de Traversette.
Image: Fiona McIntosh

RETURN TO FRANCE

Fumbling through the dark passage, we emerged back in France, stomped down to our bikes, rattled back to the car and were in L’Argentière-la-Bessée  for dinner.

Admittedly, we hadn’t decisively proved whether Hannibal had crossed the Col de la Traversette, or even got our bicycles over it, but we felt we deserved our red wine and tartiflette.

We hadn’t decisively proved whether Hannibal had crossed the Col de la Traversette, or even got our bicycles over it, but we felt we deserved our red wine and tartiflette

As for Hannibal, after he’d crossed the Alps, his journey wasn’t so straightforward. Despite his winning three major battles, he never took Rome and, in the meantime, he lost an eye, two brothers and all his elephants, who succumbed to the cold and a pachyderm version of athlete’s foot.

When, after 16 years of war, Carthage surrendered, Hannibal fought on as a mercenary till he was 64, committing suicide to avoid being captured. 

After all, you don’t get to be remembered for 2200 years just for leaving a bicycle halfway up a hill.

Elephant can reach a speed of 35-40km/h when running in short bursts.
Elephant can reach a speed of 35-40km/h when running in short bursts.
Image: Supplied

BIKE VS BEAST

Paul Ash muses over what mode of transport is best suited to a perilous journey over the Alps - an elephant or an e-bike?

ELEPHANT

Weight: African bush elephant 6,000kg; African forest elephant, 2,700kg.

Speed: 35-40km/h in short bursts, such as when running down a fleeing human. 

Endurance: 10-12km a day when browsing but can cover more than 100km a day when the mood — or necessity — strikes. But you will need to find 150kg of food and 40l of water per ellie per day — and fodder will be  scarce in the mountains.  

Will it scare the enemy? Ever been “run at” by an angry elephant? Let’s just say the end result of an elephant charge on a platoon of Roman infantry would likely have been  broken sandals, dropped javelins and many soiled uniforms.

Some e-bikes can travel about 30km-40km on one charge.
Some e-bikes can travel about 30km-40km on one charge.
Image: Supplied

E-BIKE

Weight: 22.8kg (for the carbon version of the LaPierre Overvolt). That’s about the same as an adult elephant’s heart.

Speed: 25km/h. Attempting top speed on the Col de Traversette, however, would likely do the Roman army’s job for them without any of them needing to toss even one javelin.

Endurance: About 30km-40km on one charge (that’s a battery charge, not an elephant charge, something altogether different).

Will it scare the enemy? The average Roman soldier would probably be amazed at the contraption, giving you a brief moment of surprise during which you could run him down. But you’d likely have a better chance of making the Romans die laughing if you came barrelling down a steep Alpine mountainside on one of these. 

PLAN YOUR TRIP

STAY

There are several mid-price accommodation options in L’Argentière-la-Bessée, including Hotel Glaizette (about €65 (around R982) per double room).

RIDE

Hire mountain e-bikes from Guil E Bike in Guillestre for €80 (around R1,210) per day. 

HIKE

If you’d rather explore the Col de La Traversette on foot, Francois Lombard offers guided hikes and climbs in the Queyras.


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