Just like their bikes and many other things, in southern France they dig recreational kayaking. They don’t care if it’s an inflatable, a canoe, kayak or two bin bags and a stick. Add the food, good camping, inexpensive ‘creaky stair’ hotels, great weather, natural spectacle, easy access by rail or bus, plus beautiful medieval villages with weekly markets and you’ve got a great packboating holiday with as much easy white water action as you like. Did I miss anything?
Extending from the city of Clermont Ferrand (birthplace of Homo Michelinus) and rolling 200km south to the former Roman colony of Nimes, the Massif Central is an undeveloped and sparsely populated upland region of extinct volcanoes and 1000-metre limestone pleateaus or causses. About the size of Belgium, the highest peak is only 1885m (6184ft). On any big Massifian river there’s a well-established riverside campsite and canoe/kayak/SoT rental scene, so that by August flotillas of holidaymakers pack out popular rivers like the Ardeche and Tarn.
Some of these rivers cut through the causses below spectacular gorges and are strung out with easy rapids up to Class III, occasional old weirs to portage round, but very often a glissade or canoe chute (below) which shoots you down the face of a weir in a rush. And all are manageable without having to know how to roll a creek boat, plus at any time you can pull over to wander through a quiet medieval village which will very often have a basic hotel for 40 euros. There are no locks until you leave the Massif and enter the intensively farmed lowlands by which time the fun is over in a slow boat.
Aimed at family canoeing, the White Water Massif Central guidebook (2002, out of print; new edition in the pipeline?) is full of ideas and detailed river descriptions (summarised right) so you don’t have to worry too much about what’s down river. The front cover of edition 1 (left) is usually about as hard as it gets and although it’s getting on, nothing much has changed in this part of France; the rivers still flow downstream and the summer sun still shines. The book details shuttling back to your start point, something to which we packboaters are less prone. This may be backcountry France, but there’s a great network of rural public transportation and where there’s a river, there’s a bridge with a road along which runs a bus or even a train.
Last time I used it I was reminded it makes some rivers sound a more difficult than they are. It put me off doing the Ardeche for years, but in tourist high season that river was a piece of cake in a packraft and would have been nearly as easy in a longer IK. It’s possible that levels are lower than when the book was written and you’d think there must a good reason to advise caution. There’s also the faint possibility that I’ve evolved into a proficient packboat paddler.
Below my gallery from 15 years of packboating with IKs and my packraft on the lovely rivers of the Massif; the Dordogne, Vezere, Allier, Herault, Tarn, Ceze, Chassezac, Gardon and little-known but slightly greasy Lardon. In 2011 we ticked off the Chassezac which flows into the famous Ardeche. Come August the biggest danger here is getting nutted by an out-of-control plastic rental.
They’re all fun in an open IK; in a slower but much more stable packraft I’d pick the Allier, Tarn or Ardeche; if you do them early in the season (June) there’s more flow and frothier rapids. The Upper Allier is a packboating favourite as you can get a train from Clermont via Brioude to the little village of Chapeauroux, right where the sub-Class III section flows right back to Brioude (although a taxi ride is needed around a big reservoir). The Ceze and Herault were car and shuttle-with-bicycle day trips. The classic Tarn Gorge run starts from Florac (bus from Ales train station) and cuts through the Causse Mejean to Millau with its famous viaduct.
Being out of the Massif, the Dordogne-Vezere (left) are the easiest paddles but took me a bit of bus + train’ing after a Ryanair flight to Rodez and out from Bergerac; perfect for your first IK adventure, but could be slow work in a packraft.
And if you don’t have a packboat or can’t be bothered to bring yours, no worries, get down to a river and rent a canoe or SoT for as long as you like. It’s all set up for you. Click Ardeche and Chassezac for more galleries and Vive la France, vive les gonflables!