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Thread: Les Gorges Gourmande

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Apr 2014
    Peak District

    Default Les Gorges Gourmande

    Les Gorges Gourmande

    This year, the boys went to France. A nine-day trip, six days paddling, three rivers and three gorges. Here is a taste of a fantastic tour of three French rivers.

    We had spent some time over the winter reading Fluffy’s guide to the Massif Central and studying some of the excellent blogs on this forum, so thought a change from our usual Scottish trips was in order. We initially planned to pick out the best sections of the Ardeche and Tarn, but in the event, we also added parts of the Allier. There were three of us in the party, Smudger, Apache George and myself, so we were able to travel in one car with a trailer expertly modified by Smudger using previously undisclosed woodworking expertise. In the bottom of the trailer was a bike to help with shuttles if needed.

    We took the relatively cheap option of a Dover/Calais ferry so could enjoy the evening sunshine setting over England.

    George felt compelled to do a Kate Winslett Titanic pose even though he was at the stern!

    We then put in a few hours of travel down France before finding a municipal campsite for a break.

    The Ardeche

    After a long drive through France we set up camp in St Martin de l’Ardeche and drove the car up to our start point in Vallon Pont d’Arc the following morning. On route we called in to the tourist office to book ourselves a night in one of the bivouac sites part way down the gorge. Here we are finally getting onto the water.

    The beauty of the limestone cliffs was immediately on show ……..

    …… and there was clear water with intermittent small rapids.

    We were very quickly at the magnificent Pont d’Arc, a magical place.

    This is a popular river and, amazingly, the local economy is based largely on canoeing tourism. This means that opportunities for ice cream stops on the side of the river are available!

    The shapes and colours of the limestone cliffs are stunning – this one adorned with an insect nest (wasps?) about 1 foot in diameter.

    The scale of the cliffs is deceptive in the photos – look carefully and you can see Smudger in his boat near the far bank, just right of centre.

    After about 12.5 miles we arrived at the bivouac de Gournier, approximately half way down the gorge and this shows our track for the day.

    This was an interesting site within the oak woodlands but was slightly marred by a plague of caterpillars (the dreaded oak processionary moth) and a group of noisy French teenagers (the dreaded plonqueurs). There were also feral goats that took a fancy to George’s legs.

    We set off fairly early the second morning, before the sun had filled the gorge.

    This shows the rocky outcrop ‘la Cathedrale’.

    We were told that the water level was high for the time of year because of substantial rain the previous week (this was also true for the Tarn and Allier). As a result, some of the rapids described in the guide were barely noticeable while others produced some pleasant wave trains. The biggest difficulty came from a persistent but unpredictable wind that made steering tricky, occasionally even blowing you back upstream. This shows ‘Windy Corner’.

    The wildlife in the gorge was wonderful. The first thing we noticed was a loud chirruping coming from the banks that Smudger and I assumed to be bird chicks, but which George correctly identified as frogs. They were sitting in the shallow water near the banks and making Donald Duck noises at each other! There were many attractive beetles…..

    ….. and spiders…..

    ….. and lizards…..

    …… and terrific birds that I was unable to photograph. We identified numerous kites, occasional peregrines, and we think we spotted eagles (there are Bonelli’s eagles nesting in the gorge).
    All too soon, after another 10.5 miles we had reached the bottom of the gorge and this shows our track.

    We felt compelled to celebrate with some serious ice creams this time!

    We had not managed to arrange a lift back to the start to collect the car, but George and I also felt it would be good training for Smudger to cycle the 37km (with 300+m of climb) in 30C heat. Meanwhile, George and I had a swim and rested.

    The following day involved a trip down some limestone caves to look at some spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, followed by a drive over to the Tarn.

    The Tarn

    Our time on the Ardeche had shown us that the sections in Fluffy’s guide were a little shorter than we were used to for a day’s paddle, so we made some changes to our initial plans. The first day on the Tarn therefore included two sections, starting at St Enimie and ending above the Pas de Souci. Here we are at the start in St Enimie.

    The flavour of this gorge was distinctly different; less wild and dramatic but with its beauty enhanced by buildings perched on the rocks.

    The water was even clearer than on the Ardeche but came with a slightly fishy smell in some areas. The wildlife was again abundant – we had the same frogs but there seemed to be more dragonflies and the presence of vultures overhead concentrated the mind!

    There were opportunities to explore wonderful old villages in search of a beer for George and an ice cream for others.

    We bought food from the local boulangeries for lunches and prepared delicate sandwiches on route. George eventually realised that it was wise to remove the plastic wrapping from the brie……

    There were some bizarre rock formations on the banks.

    We ended the day where the local bateliers where winching out their boats, a few miles below La Malene.

    This shows our track, about 15 miles.

    On this occasion Smudger had managed to arrange a lift back to the start with one of the canoe hire companies, so while he made that trip George and I walked down the road past the Cirque des Baumes ….

    …. to look down on the rockfall at the Pas de Souci (non-navigable).

    Smudger arrived back with the car minus much of one wing mirror – apparently knocked off by a speeding 4x4 going the other way.

    The second day on the Tarn involved two more sections from the guide, starting at les Vignes and finishing at Riviere sur Tarn, a little above la Cresse.

    There were numerous signs warning canoeists not to use the glissiere above the start, and it does not appear to be the same as the one shown in Fluffy’s book.

    There were some nice little rapids on this section, nothing too challenging.

    More pretty villages and rock formations.

    This shuttle was again down to Smudger on his bicycle while George and I had beer and ice cream….

    This day’s track was 12.5 miles.

    And so, having done the sections of the Ardeche and Tarn that we had planned, we moved on to another river.

    The Allier

    The first section we aimed for is described in the guide as ‘the Jewel in the Crown’, with 40 rapids in 18km. We camped at a lovely site in Alleyras and drove to the start at Chapeauroux.

    It was immediately apparent that we were on a different type of river. Now the gorge was basalt, not limestone, it was a smaller river and the water had a brown tint.

    Having rarely touched a rock for several days, we were now unable to avoid them, despite the fact that the river was supposed to be fairly full. All efforts were directed to finding a route with fewest boulders and least boat scratches. After a short distance I decided that cooling was required and that my boat would descend more comfortably upside down. George undertook a similar philosophy on several occasions but, annoyingly, Smudger didn’t. The picture of me with my legs in the air emptying my dry trousers remains discretely on Smudger’s camera.

    George did extremely well as shown in these pictures but unfortunately one topple resulted in him hitting his side on a boulder. Pain worsened over the next couple of days and I think he has probably fractured a rib. It was difficult, but we did try not to make him laugh…..

    The river slowed eventually, and the rock formations were again dramatic. Birdlife now included several pairs of common sandpipers and the ubiquitous herons.

    The track shows this section to be 12.5 miles.

    We were happy to relax back at the campsite as we planned to catch a train back to the start for the car shuttle.

    However, there turned out to be a French train driver’s strike, so no train arrived!

    After pondering options over a beer, Smudger and I decided we would have to walk up to collect the car while George rested his rib (we had intelligently left the bike in the car boot at the start). Perhaps taking pity on the stupidity of the English, the charming French campsite owner offered to give Smudger a lift back to his car and so we were relieved of this ordeal. In return for this kindness, please make use of the Alleyras campsite if you are ever in the area – it is cheap and excellent.

    George needed to rest his rib the next day but was happy to do the car shuttle while Smudger and I did another section – Prades to Langeac. There were magnificent basalt cliffs at the start and at several points on route.

    This shows a nest site (probably peregrine) on some cliffs, identified by the white streaks.

    A lovely section with some pleasant rapids, again requiring some careful manoeuvring.

    A glissiere above Langeac had a hefty swamping stopper and sharp edge so we decided to give it a miss.

    Arrival into Langeac.

    This section was just 9.5 miles – a short day.

    Traditional celebratory team photo!

    Then a visit to the bar for George’s medicinal beer.

    And back on the road for a grade 3+ drive around the Paris peripherique, up to Calais and across to the white cliffs in the sunshine.

    A wonderful trip which will last in the memory. We covered a lot in a short space of time and it was interesting to compare and contrast the three rivers. I found the Ardeche the most dramatic and wild, but I doubt if that would be true in the school holiday season – June seems a good choice and we were blessed with perfect weather. With the exception of some of the rocky sections on the Allier, the water was interesting but not challenging – less challenging than some of the Scottish rivers we have previously visited. The wildlife was fabulous. The French were almost universally friendly and helpful, and the southern campsites were great. Most importantly though, I was lucky to go on the trip with two great blokes who provided excellent company and entertainment, so many thanks to them. I recommend the trip, it is worth the effort.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    Newtownards, Northern Ireland.


    Sounds like you had a great adventure.
    You covered more river than we did on our week on the Tarn,
    the water level was a bit lower on your trip, revealing more rocks !


  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2008


    Nice one chaps!

    Nice foraging skills being shown there with the ice creams.

    That lizard looks like its eaten plenty of the beetles and spiders.

    Good shuttling, is it possible to hire Smudger at a reasonable rate (paid in beer and ice cream)?

    Fitting all three in one trip is impressive, and you've arguably done the best river sections in the book already. There are, though, plenty of fabulous other paddles on each river, so you definitely need to return, and having been out there a few times now, I can honestly say that the changing levels bring a completely different character to each trip.

    I recommend the upper sections of the Tarn (Florac to Montbrun, and then to St Enimie). The top bit includes a few harder rapids until after Ispagnac, but most is that great 2-2+ sort of grade with a bit of water. Less than you had, and the top bit might be a scrape.Given you were out there just a little bit after us, its interesting how much lower the levels were on the Tarn (0.75 for you, 1.2-1.5 for us). More rocks to dodge for you, but less wavetrains I guess! At that level, you've still got lots of water though, so rock dodging isn't too bad.

    The "Jewel" on the Allier looks much lower than when we did it a few summers back, and checking on RiverApp, seems it was about 15 m3/s, rather than the 29 ish we had.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Dec 2005
    Bangor, Co Down.


    A great blog of what was an excellent trip. Great to see the Tarn laid bare compared to our time there. Having seen the way they drive in the gorge, I wouldn't have wanted to do the shuttle on a bike.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Big Al.

    Only when the last tree has died
    and the last river been poisoned
    and the last fish been caught
    will we realise we cannot eat money.
    ~Cree Indian Proverb

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Apr 2011
    SW France


    Enjoyed that thanks.
    im sitting in a camping car aire at Massiac on my way over that way now.
    Open Canoe hire/outfitting in the Massif Central
    ”We will make your trip work”

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Nr Hampton Court, West London


    I'm not going to divulge Smudger's history en bicyclette, but take my word for it, it isn't as cruel to be made to do the shuttles as it might appear. However, as one who rode up the road to Vallon pont d'arc, and then paddled the whole gorge back to St Martin by kayak both in the day (when I was very much younger and fitter) its a fair old ride.

    As always from this crowd, excellent photos and narrative and nostalgic as I have paddled all this during the last two summers, without a swim!!!

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Sep 2012
    On the bank of the Basingstoke canal


    What a great time you all had, very jealous. I can't wait to go back to France.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Nov 2015


    Fantastic blogg, thanks for that.
    "I'd far rather be happy than right any day"..........Slartibartfast

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Apr 2014
    Peak District


    Thanks for your comments folks.

    Mr Nick/Big Al/Mal, I've just been catching up with the excellent blogs from your trip which appeared while we were away. I assume that you were on the Tarn the week before us and you were very lucky with the higher water levels - we would have enjoyed that. Curiously, the 'high' level we had on the Ardeche meant that some rapids such as 'la Dent Noir' seemed to have disappeared completely so would have been more of a challenge at lower water levels. Conversely, we would certainly have benefitted from much more water on the Allier to avoid tripping over rocks.

    I'm not sure if Smudger is for hire, I'll leave you to negotiate with him. However, I'm happy to hear from Peter Impcanoe that we weren't being too cruel!

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Apr 2016
    Dordrecht, The Netherlands


    Great blogg!
    Caesar si viveret, ad remum dareris (If Caesar were alive, you'd be chained to an oar).

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Nov 2005
    Lochwinnoch, Scotland
    Journal Entries


    Great blogg. The sunshine almost made it look like Scotland

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Feb 2007
    Yalding, Kent


    Very nice combination and still a few more good stretches to go back and do another time.

  13. #13
    Join Date
    Apr 2010
    prestatyn,north wales


    Well done Peter. ive fully recovered from my exertions 'a bicyclette', another excellent account of a fantastic trip. hopefully George is fully recovered as well. many thanks once again to both you and George for your company . its such a shame Mike couldn't make it , lets hope he's fit and raring to go for the next outing... which is when and where ?
    The answer is blowin' in the wind......

  14. #14
    Join Date
    Jul 2012


    Brilliant Peter..... But surely you would rather have been much happier on the Ouse at York
    All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

  15. #15
    Join Date
    Apr 2014
    Peak District


    Thanks folks.

    Pleased you enjoyed the account of our exploits Smudger! Not sure what is next on the agenda......

    Quote Originally Posted by mayobren View Post
    Brilliant Peter..... But surely you would rather have been much happier on the Ouse at York
    Quite obviously I was terrified of the fierce competition Bren!

  16. #16
    Join Date
    Jan 2012
    Shefford, Central Bedfordshire


    A trip of a life time, great pictures and blogg.
    Simms ..

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