It’s not a desert in the sense of a vast sandy or rocky area like the Sahara, Gobi and Kalahari that I’ve visited in the past. But the Corsican map does indeed show the Desert des Agriates at the north of the island. But there’s no sand – other than the magnificent beaches you can only reach by 4x4 or boat – just rocky, scrub-covered hillsides. And there are no camels.
There are, however, a couple of G4 Challenge vehicles – my Defender 110 and one of its Tangiers Orange close family, the L322 Range Rover of our Europe Editor and photographer Jérôme André.
We’re on the beautiful adventure island with a group of enthusiasts led by Atlas Overland’s Peter and Jo Girling. Atlas has been coming to Corsica for 10 years, and has found the best routes, campsites, beaches and restaurants and the most picturesque scenery.
Bastia to Zonza
Highlight: Solenzara river gorge
We’ve driven south through France to Toulon, where we caught an overnight ferry to Corsica. With two vessels disgorging into the bustling port of Bastia on the island’s north-eastern peninsula, we join a traffic jam on the coast road heading south. Fortunately, things quickly improve as we stop for breakfast in the sunshine by the sea at Moriani Plage.
We continue south, with the Mediterranean on our left and snow-capped mountains inland on our right. It gets even more beautiful as we climb inland on the D268 towards the Col de Bavella, through the fabulously picturesque Solenzara river gorge.
After cresting the col at 1218 metres (almost 4000ft), we drop to the inland village of Zonza, to check into our campsite.
We then venture out for a couple of hours of late-afternoon off-tarmac action, looping out to the north through woodland from the village of Quenza. The track starts out sandy, but gets rougher, rockier and steeper as we go through an area covered in vibrant yellow gorse. Then we climb through dense pine forests to 1080 metres (3543ft) before dropping back down to the campsite for a cold beer and a steak cooked on the site’s barbecue. This is the life.
We’re with a lovely group of people. Chris Arnott and Jane Smith have a white Td5 110 that’s been converted into a camper. New Zealander Dennis Brown and his English partner Jen Cole also sleep in their green Td5 110. Dennis has been driving Land Rovers for many years, and reveals that he travelled with two pals in a Series IIA on a six-month adventure from the UK to New Zealand back in 1970.
Mike Rice and Anne Wilson are in a Mitsubishi Delica, the van-like shape of which belies its off-road capability. And group leaders Peter and Jo Girling are in a Toyota Land Cruiser 80 Series, which they borrowed while their latest Toyota camper is being built.
Later in the adventure we’ll be joined by photographer Jérôme André and family in his G4 L322 and their friends Gerard and Michelle Martin in their extensively kitted-out 2.4 TDCi-engined 110 overlander.
Days two and three
Zonza to Aleria
Highlight: Colourful forest tracks
It’s another gorgeous sunny day as our convoy sets out west on the D420 through dramatic scenery towards the Col St Eustache, the road hugging steep mountainsides through countless hairpin bends.
We’re here in springtime and the wild flowers clinging to the rock faces are dramatically colourful. There’s wild lavender, white and pink rock roses, hellebores, cyclamen, honeysuckle, poppies and much more.
Just after passing the highest point there’s a small café where we take a turning to the left. Here there’s a series of tracks etched into the mountainsides, with views across a vast valley. As we climb we can see the sea glistening to the west of the island. Corsica measures just 114 by 52 miles, and from its mountainous spine you can get some wonderful views of the picturesque coastline.
The area we’re in today was devastated by fires in 2009, which has left a legacy of lifeless, blackened tree trunks. But six years later nature is fighting back strongly and the ground is carpeted with rich vegetation.
Eventually we descend, passing seemingly precariously balanced rock formations down to the D19 road, which will take us to the ancient town of Sartene for lunch. The picturesque streets of this historic area, busy with tourists,
are lined with granite buildings that date back to the 16th century.
On the move again, we loop round past the port of Propriano, noticing how some of the dual-language (French and Corse) road signs have had the French words either defaced or shot at by disaffected locals. Corsica has a population of 322,000 (for comparison, that’s about the same as the city of Wakefield in West Yorkshire), and clearly not all of them are happy about being governed from Paris.
Through the ages the island has been ruled by the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Saracens, Genoese and – since 1769 – the French, with a spell under the Nazis during World War 2 after which it became the location for a number of allied air bases.
We pick up a track that looks down on those we drove this morning, passing the 1400-metre (4593ft) Mount San Petru as we head north-east. Black kites ride the thermals above us. It’s rocky and washed out on some of the hairpin bends, but there’s nothing too demanding.
We’re back at Zonza overnight, but next day we head to the coast via a circuitous route of forest tracks to the south and east of Zonza. The area is carpeted with bright yellow-
flowered alpine asphodel – its leaves are used for wrapping local Burrata cheese – and many of the trees are festooned with blossom. We see cork oaks and then climb through forests of chestnut trees, which proliferate on the island. In fact farine de châtaigne (chestnut flour) is one of the ingredients in Corsica’s popular Pietra and Serena beers.
Dropping back on to tarmac, we take the D268 through Levie. Next we head south-east, driving more tracks through the Forêt de Barocaggio-Marghese area. The tracks heading east towards the coast are the best we’ve travelled so far, rising and dropping through pine forests, with plenty of hairpin bends and some tricky washouts with exposed jagged rocks. A forestry truck has crashed off one track and is wedged against trees – that’ll be an interesting recovery challenge for someone.
Eventually we descend towards the rich blue waters off the Côte des Nacres at Porto Veccio before heading north to our campsite near Aleria. It’s a big site, but delightfully located alongside a sandy beach, with the bonus of some nearby fish restaurants.
Days four and five
Aleria to Venaco
Highlight: Ancient chestnut trees
It’s an official rest day, but we can’t resist taking a drive up the track that runs north alongside the white sandy beach, before nipping into Aleria for essential supplies and a fuel top-up. The strength of the UK pound against the Euro means that diesel here costs less than £1 a litre.
Next day we take the coast road north to Port de Campoloro before turning inland on twisting narrow roads, passing through small mountain villages. The snow-capped Monte Cinto, Corsica’s highest mountain, can be seen ahead of us across the verdant valleys.
After Pianello we join the D316, which
changes from smooth tarmac to rough, unmaintained tarmac and eventually a rough track. Unfortunately, one section is too badly washed out to get everyone through, so we about-turn back through Pianello and join another series of tracks that eventually take us to the D39 in the direction of Corte. One off-camber track through woodland is slippery in places, demanding sensitive driving. This route would be treacherous in wet weather.
The track wends is way past some gloriously gnarled, ancient chestnut trees with massive trunks; they must have provided chestnuts for
the local wild boar, and flour for human food and beer production for many centuries.
Our campsite for the next two nights is south-east of Venaco. It’s a lovely natural site with views of the surrounding mountains. Jérôme and his family have joined us along with friends Gerard and Michelle, and tomorrow we’re heading for the slopes of Corsica’s highest peak, the 2706-metre (8877ft) Monte Cinto.
Venaco to Monte Cinto and back
Highlight: Fabulous mountain views and the Santa Regina Gorge
We head through Corte, continuing north until we reach the Santa Regina Gorge that runs south-west towards the mountain track. It’s as picturesque as gorgeous gorges get, with beautifully dramatic rock formations.
Heading north towards Lozzi, we get on to the track towards the mountain. The backdrop of the snow-capped Monte Cinto is stunning, with bright sunshine highlighting its magnificence.
Our idyllic drive seems to come to a premature end when a digger driver working on the track gives a very negative grunt when politely asked if we can pass. Fortunately, after Jérôme has a quick chat with him in French and hands over a couple of bottles of Pietra, he not only trundles out of our way but smooths the area he’d been working on so we can get through.
As we continue climbing, the area reminds me of the Andes – all that’s needed are some alpacas on the mountain slopes. The track is quite demanding in places, with rock sections, washouts and extreme cambers. But eventually we reach the refuge hut at 1595 metres (5232ft), which is as far as we can get by vehicle. It’s worth the drive, with delightful views all round.
Back at the campsite, owner Michael is cooking for us tonight – local charcuterie and his speciality, civet de sanglier – wild boar casserole.
Days seven and eight
Venaco to St Florent
Highlight: Désert des Agriates and the beaches
We’re driving north today to the Désert des Agriates which, as I’ve already explained, isn’t what you would perceive to be a desert. The locals used to grow wheat and fruit here, but these days there’s not much except scrub. There are some beautiful beaches to the north of the desert – and travelling by land they can only be reached by 4x4. The white, rocky track from Bocca di Vezzu to Ghignu beach was graded a couple of years ago, but it’s deteriorated badly in places to the extent that no normal road vehicle could drive along it and stay in one piece. It’s shake, rattle and roll most of the way, and there are some testing rock crawls – a little too testing for the rider of a BMW 1200GS trail bike, who’s lying dazed on the track, trapped underneath the heavy machine. It’s lucky for him we’ve come along when we did because his five-foot-nothing lady friend couldn’t lift it off him. Happily, he’s uninjured and able to continue his journey.
Anyway, what could be better than driving along a 13km (8-mile) track through rugged countryside to paradise? It’s a dream beach, with white sand and blue sea. We’ve been to some beautiful parts of Corsica, but this is the best yet.
And it’s equally good the next day when we take the other major track through the desert from Salone to Saleccia beach, where we spend a couple of hours. This is a famous place because it was one of the locations for the 1962 film about the D-Day landings, The Longest Day. A huge cast of top film stars, including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Todd, Richard Burton and Sean Connery were all here for filming. And that, sadly, was our last off-tarmac drive of the adventure. So it’s back to our beachside campsite near St Florent, followed by an evening meal in one of the town’s many restaurants.
To sum up, it’s been another enjoyable, well-organised trip by Atlas Overland. Corsica is a beautiful place, with stunning, colourful scenery. The weather has been wonderful and the off-tarmac driving got better each day, building up to the excellent mountain and desert tracks.
But it’s an adventure that’s open to all Land Rovers; Freelander drivers might have to be careful with their lines through the toughest parts, but none of it is too difficult.
The campsites have all been good, especially the beachside ones if you enjoy an invigorating dip in the ocean. Corsica gets the thumbs up from me.
The full story can be found in the October 2015 issue of LRO. Download a digital issue, or order a back issue by calling 01858 438884.