High water in the Gorges du Tarn
Late spring and early summer paddling in Southern France is all about gently flowing rivers, and warm, friendly white water at a moderate grade, paddling beneath the limestone walls of the many steep-sided valleys that cut through the southern flanks of the Massif Central. Except this year, that is, when the rains of spring had been non-stop, and the rivers of France were full or flooding.
It was therefore with a bit of a sense of trepidation that I headed on the long road south, with a canoe strapped to my roof. I was meeting up with a bunch of friends from Northern Ireland, Al, Nick, Andy and Hugo, on the Tarn, hosted by our good friends Mark and Louise, who have a house a couple of hours away on the Lot. They've started a canoe hire business, offering bespoke packages to paddle genuine open canoes, rather than the usual French plastic sit on tops.
After nearly 800 miles on the road, I was glad to arrive at the campsite, and be handed a cold beer immediately. I've used Camping La Blaquiere a few times now, positioned right in the middle of the most magnificent part of the Gorges du Tarn, and with very friendly and helpful owners. Looking at the river flowing a few yards from our tents, it was clear that it was much higher than it was when I'd spent a week there last year. This could be interesting. We therefore planned to take it one step at a time, building up to the more exciting stuff by starting on the slower moving, but utterly spectacular, sections nearby.
The first section then, would be in the heart of the Gorges, the easiest paddling, but in the most dramatic scenery. Setting off from the village of La Malene, it was quickly clear that even this easy half day was very different to my previous visits. Though there were no real technical difficulties, it being only a grade 1, the high water made the river boil and swirl, and some of the eddies needed great care as you crossed the very distinct line. All the time, though, the magnificence of the scenery kept trying to distract you, eyes drawn upwards to huge limestone walls. It was a short day paddling back to camp, but immensely enjoyable, as we got used to paddling moving water in this fantastic place.
Each evening, Mark and Louise would produce a feast, an outstanding standard of cuisine coming from the stove and barbecue, as well as a constant stream of other little items, like melon and local ham on return to camp. This was often eaten under the tarp, for heavy afternoon showers were something we'd become used to.
The second day's paddling would be a longer route, from St Enimie back to La Malene, just a tiny bit harder than the day before, but a fair bit longer. Once again, the grandeur of the Gorges was impressive throughout, but on this day, its also the amazing villages and bridges that you pass that catch the eye, especially the remarkable little hamlet of St Chely-du-Tarn, where a vast stone span leaps from cliff to cliff, framing the most perfect curtain-like cascade where a tributary stream drops straight into the Tarn below.
The third day was one of the best days paddling I can remember. This section always is; the more exciting whitewater between Les Vignes and Le Rozier. Here the canyon opens out, the limestone walls still huge, but now they lined the rim of the valley far above us. As you paddle down this mighty gorge, there's a definite feeling of going downhill, and all the way down are little drops and innumerable eddies. There is also La Sabliere, the only proper named rapid on this stretch. Normally, this is a modest rock dodge, but with the water a metre higher than I'd run it before, we weren't entirely sure what to expect.
After a couple of hours of fabulous paddling, hitting as many eddies as each of us wanted to, ferry gliding until our arms ached, and generally messing about in the most amazing location, we were approaching La Sabliere. Hugo and I nosed carefully towards the obvious horizon line, hugging the right bank, to find a massive tongue heading straight into a very large, curling standing wave, followed by a very big and bouncy wave train, of the sort that would almost definitely swamp an open canoe. Just to the right of the top wave, but close to a large rock, was a line. A narrow one, but as long as you hit that spot on, we thought we'd then be able to continue down the right-hand side, avoiding the biggest of the wave. I went for it, not without a sense of trepidation, for there were waves everywhere, and rocks underneath them! In the end, with a careful line choice, I made it down with Hugo close behind, and we eddied out one on each side. The others followed, looking very small in this mass of seething water beneath the towering walls of the Gorges.
The next rapid was almost as fun, and Al and Andy added to the excitement by attempting to share a wave together. After that, the difficulty eased, but there was constant entertainment all the way to our final stop on a sandy beach by a surf wave, where we could alternate lying in the sun with playing on the water. A final mile took us, happy and buzzing, to the finish.
After a day where some repeated the first half day, and others drove up the valley on a recce, the fourth new paddle was to be further upstream, from the bridge at Montbrun, back to St Enimie. This wouldn't be as hard as La Sabliere, but there were lots of grade 2 rapids, some of which were quite exciting with big wave trains and lots of fun to be had. These high waters had proven to be fabulous, not only were we paddling on a fast, exciting river perfect for open canoes, but we were also constantly awed by the limestone shapes around us, pinnacles, walls, overhangs and slabs. Above all, vultures wheeled constantly, massive wings spread to catch the thermals. This day was almost as good as La Sab!
Our final paddle was a new one to me too, Le Rozier to La Cresse. Low in grade, the valley here becomes more open, the main gorge over, but the scenery is still beautiful, if less dramatic. There was a final sting in the tail; a broken weir with a huge wave beneath it, which 3 of the group ran and 2 of us portaged round!
This had been a fantastic week. I'd been worried that the much higher water would have washed out many of the features, making it a less interesting paddle. I was wrong. It had taken the paddling up to another level, both in difficulty and in fun! The paddling was fantastic, but I was glad we were an experienced group as it took it out of the comfort zone for open canoeists without a good whitewater background. Yet the water also somehow remained crystal clear, none of the brown sediment we come to expect when UK waters are up. The region also offers up fascinating villages, and beautiful flora and fauna, there's plenty to do without a canoe, too!
Of course, there was also the constant "craic" that comes with paddling with mates, who also happen to come from that island across the sea to the west, and from old friends who've adopted the French way of life and keep training me to embrace it.
Each day on Paddle Points:
We stayed at Camping La Blaquiere in the heart of the Gorges
Mark and Louise of Canoe Massif Central provided the Irish contingent with their canoes and paddling kit, and looked after us like kings.