A mountain looming over a French commune with a population of just 200 is being touted as a modern Noah's Ark when doomsday arrives – supposedly less than nine months from now.
A rapidly increasing stream of New Age believers – or esoterics, as locals call them – have descended in their camper van-loads on the usually picturesque and tranquil Pyrenean village of Bugarach. They believe that when apocalypse strikes on 21 December this year, the aliens waiting in their spacecraft inside Pic de Bugarach will save all the humans near by and beam them off to the next age.
As the cataclysmic date – which, according to eschatological beliefs and predicted astrological alignments, concludes a 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar – nears, the goings-on around the peak have become more bizarre and ritualistic.
For decades, there has been a belief that Pic de Bugarach, which, at 1,230 metres, is the highest in the Corbières mountain range, possesses an eery power. Often called the "upside-down mountain" – geologists think that it exploded after its formation and the top landed the wrong way up – it is thought to have inspired Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Since the 1960s, it has attracted New Agers, who insist that it emits special magnetic waves.
Further, rumours persist that the country's late president François Mitterrand was transported by helicopter on to the peak, while the Nazis, and, later, Israel's Mossad, performed mysterious digs there. Now the nearby village is awash with New Agers, who have boosted the local economy, though their naked group climbs up to the peak have raised concerns as well as eyebrows. Among other oddities, some hikers have been spotted scaling the mountain carrying a ball with a golden ring, strung together by a single thread.
A grizzled man wearing a white linen smock, who calls himself Jean, set up a yurt in the forest a couple of years ago to prepare for the earth's demise. "The apocalypse we believe in is the end of a certain world and the beginning of another," he offers. "A new spiritual world. The year 2012 is the end of a cycle of suffering. Bugarach is one of the major chakras of the earth, a place devoted to welcoming the energies of tomorrow."
Upwards of 100,000 people are thought to be planning a trip to the mountain, 30 miles west of Perpignan, in time for 21 December, and opportunistic entrepreneurs are shamelessly cashing in on the phenomenon. While American travel agents have been offering special, one-way deals to witness the end of the world, a neighbouring village, Saint-Paul de Fenouillet, has produced a wine to celebrate the occasion.
Jean-Pierre Delord, the perplexed mayor of Bugarach, has flagged up the situation to the French authorities, requesting they scramble the army to the tiny village for fear of a mass suicide. It has also caught the attention of France's sect watchdog, Miviludes.
A genial sexagenarian, Mr Delord says: "We've seen a huge rise in visitors. Already this year more than 20,000 people have climbed right to the top, and last year we had 10,000 hikers, which was a significant rise on the previous 12 months. They think Pic de Bugarach is 'un garage à ovnis' [an alien garage]. The villagers are exasperated: the exaggerated importance of something which they see as completely removed from reality is bewildering. After 21 December, this will surely return to normal."
Masking his fears of what might happen on 21 December, Mr Delord jokes that he will throw a party and supply vin chaud and cheese. "I'm sure we'll have a little fete to celebrate that we're still alive," he smiles. "I suppose it's up to each of us to find our own way."