12 km south of the town of Arcachon is a huge sand dune. In fact it is the highest in Europe. 2.7km long, 500m wide and over 100m high it is one of the main tourist attractions in the region along with many beautiful beaches. I visited once before and the dune was crawling with people, like ants building a nest. Many slowly climbed the steps to the top of the dune while others ran or rolled down the dune face. To the west lies the Atlantic Ocean whose winds form the dune and cause it to move inland by 4 m every year, swallowing the pine forest which lies behind it.
I’m visiting once more but this time out of season and it makes me aware of the advantages and disadvantages of travelling at this time. The car park barrier is open. No ticket = no charge. The enormous car park is also empty except for a few cars near the entrance. The route to the dune is lined with small snack bars and souvenir shops but only one of each is actually open and they have no customers, probably because their wares are still set at high summer prices. It’s midday but I see no other visitors – I love having the place to myself. As I reach the dune I realise that the vehicles in the car park must belong to the staff, several of whom are currently dismantling the plastic steps up the dune with the aid of two tractors.
Climbing the dune is hard enough with the steps but without them it seems like too much effort for what will surely be a non-existent view on such a drizzly day. But it makes me wonder why they are doing this and a lovely lady in the information centre has the answer. Because the movement of the dune occurs mostly in the winter when the winds increase, it is necessary to remove the steps until Easter as they would disappear under the sand. It makes me think of glacial ice flows and how the ice moves downhill like a slow moving river, carrying whatever may be trapped inside it. I wonder what is trapped inside the sand and if next year someone’s lost sunglasses or flip-flops will reappear at the base of the dune and be swept out to sea.