The Pic De Bugarach, which is where the aliens were supposed to fly out of on December 21st.
Bugarach. The white hot core of the global media Mayan-apocalypse armageddon fuck-fest. For reasons no one was quite sure of, this tiny town on the Franco-Spanish border was alleged to have been the only place able to survive the end of the world. (You know, the end of the world that didn't arrive a couple of days before Christmas.) Because of this, reports were pumped out in the press that it was being overrun with new agers, cosmic seekers, cults and assorted weirdos. But was it really?
I went down two days before the sky fell in on itself and the clouds started raining blood to see what the mood was like.
The first sign that I was entering Bugarach was a sign telling me to stay the fuck out of Bugarach. Clearly, the local mayor is a greedy sort who didn't want other people to survive the apocalypse alongside him. Fearing an invasion of those who'd rather not die, he announced the town would be closed from Wednesday, the 19th until Sunday, the 23rd of December, when the whole messy business was scheduled to be over.
Eight kilometres outside Bugarach, the nearest functioning settlement, Rennes-les-Bains, seemed oddly deserted. Though this could be because it is always deserted, being a tiny French town on the edge of nowhere.
This corner of the world is sometimes described as "the French Glastonbury". Its half-dozen shops will barely stretch to selling you washing-up liquid, but you can buy all the crystal skulls and astrologically-precise tea leaves you could ever need. Well, you could do, were any of the shops ever open.
This is what happens when society lets hippies drive cars. I guess you can live with the idea that you're slowly choking the world to death when you know The Almighty's gonna be along soon to kill us off for sins more heinous than global warming.
Curiously, for a town where you can barely buy milk, Rennes-les-Bains seemed to have its own film production company.
Oh, hang on. Mystery solved. It wasn't a real film production company. It was just some hippies who seemed to have landed on enough redundancy package to plough their time into making up videos to support their delusions. “Why 2012? Responses Between Science And Consciousness,” asks the title of this production from the Alain de Botton of millennialist bogus talk, Philipe Bobola. I'm no expert, but I imagine he probably has a powerful effect on vulnerable young women. Here he is with more hair, talking about how all things are connected.
I would have liked to have stayed and asked questions about how the store's owners felt about 2012, why they used ferns to decorate their window displays, where they got their fabulous graphic design done and who exactly was going to pay 20 Euros a throw for these high-quality products, but this wasn't going to be possible, because – as with everything in Rennes-les-Bains – it was shut, shut, shut.
Was this the figure who would lead the world to salvation on 21/12? Or was it just a 12-year-old who had placed second in a magic competition in nearby Aveyron? It was hard to tell by this point. What did those cards mean? Was one of them a tarot reaper, the death's head for all humanity, casting his scythe across the entire Eurasian landmass in one fell blow? Or was it the four of clubs?
This is the mayor of Bugarach, Jean-Pierre Delord, a man clearly relishing his 15 minutes of fame. He'd obviously developed good technique when it came to answering the same questions over and over for every news team that ploughed up his front lawn looking for a few lines of cute "and finally" stories before their two heavily-cheekboned anchors could cut to more footage of Newtown child funerals.
This was just some of Monday's lot. French, Italian, German and a couple of girls from Chinese radio. “We will have some of your friends from Japan here tomorrow,” the mayor chuckled, to their mystification. There was already a vague tang of panic, as everyone began to realise that nothing was happening here, there were no hippie hordes and it was going to be very difficult to build a story out of interviewing each other.
Which is why everyone scrambled to record him replaying the day's messages on his answering machine. He only got through the first 15. He had quite a few from journalists. He had one from someone who wanted to make a speech on top of the mountain on the 21st. Then a lot of people had just phoned up to laugh in his face.
If I were an extraterrestrial being, the Pic de Bugarach is exactly the sort of mountain that I'd come flying out of on doomsday. No one seems to know the exact source of the Bugarach myth-prophecy, which could be what has made it such a sustainable story. Apparently the rock at the top is older than the rock at the bottom – it laughs in the face of the laws of geology.
The legend said that aliens were going to break out through the centre of the Pic, then scoop up any humans who happened to be in the neighbourhood and piss off back to their home planet. Which, when you're waiting thousands of years for the chance to pull a stunt like this, does seem like a bit of a slapdash selection process.
Sadly the good people of Bugarach didn't really give a damn about the myth, as this sign pointing out how miserable the whole thing was making them illustrates. “No journos, no interviews, thanks for respecting us.”
One of the most pervasive myths about the Bugarach phenomenon was that the locals were all madly profiting from it – the Daily Mail said they were selling spring water for 15 euros a go. The Sun said they were selling stones from the mount, when – in fact – the people there seem to have all the raw capitalist instincts of those guys they found living in the Brazilian rainforest a couple of years back.
We decided to head into the coffee shop, as we'd heard it contained human beings. If only one of those human beings wasn't a journalist, cameraman, associate producer or breakfast radio DJ. Rumour had it The Man From The New York Times was somewhere in the area. What did he look like? No one knew. He was the Scarlet Pimpernel in our lives – the rabbit on a rope we were all running towards. I taught some new Swedish friends I'd made the phrase "massive incestuous media fuck-fest". They seemed both pleased and puzzled.
Finally – after hours of noodling around aimlessly, suddenly, an unidentified flying object pushed itself into our field of vision. What a sight! Classically "cigar-shaped", zipping past Bugarach's famous peak. This was the right sort of thing.
The only issue was that we were observing it on the coffee shop owner's computer. Deep within this picture is another speck. It's a still from a short video he took of the peak and, in the space of a few fractions of a second, the little dot crosses direct left-to-right across the screen in a fantastically straight line. This makes it much easier to see, but the odds of a thing crossing straight left-to-right, perfectly aligned with a camera that's there because you're "making a nature film" of a bit of rock, are obviously exceptionally small. He was clearly a very lucky man.
The guy who ran the store kept banging on about how accidental his involvement in all of this was. How he'd moved to Bugarach eight years ago simply because he liked nature, completely unaware of its voodoo associations. How, despite holding court all week with the hacks – who nodded with furious indulgence as he banged through his pet theories and faked photos – he'd basically be happy when the journalists all pissed off after the 21st, so that he could continue his research into these UFOs he'd fabricated.
Stood at the black heart of the media swarm, not actually holding a TV camera in our hands meant that pretty soon we had become part of the story for a German news team. It was time to go.
On the way back, we passed through Rennes-les-Bains again. This time, even though it was eight o'clock, we spied a light in the windows of the hippie video emporium. Inside, a few people of a new age hue were milling around, so we went in. Before I could take any more photos, there was a rustling of curtains and a man and a woman appeared from the back of the shop.
“I'm afraid this is a private soiree,” the man said. He was short, leathery, intent. “It is only for a few friends. It is necessary for you to leave.”
“You were certainly taking a lot of photos this afternoon,” the woman said. “You like to take photos?” From behind a curtain, she had clearly been watching me poke a camera through her window, unnoticed. My blood ran cold.
After being gently ejected, we left the hippies to their Ken Russell shit, decided it was definitely time to go and set the GPS for As Far Away As Humanly Possible.
Thanks to Maria Kempe and Sigrid Cederberg.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes
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