Packrafting in France 2 ~ Ardeche Gorge

Part 1 here ~ see also this. Includes pix by Steve L

The story so far. We’d nursed the cheapo Intex Boat Hawk II for three days from Les Vans down the Chassezac river as far as Vallon on the Ardeche, but following a brief reprieve, that boat was now a bundle of plastic stuffed into the campsite bin (right). Former Boathawker Steve was now astride a rental sit-on-top, like 98% of paddlers heading into the Ardeche Gorge.
With the river already packed with day boaters, we joined the melee towards the moderately technical rapid of Charlemagne, near the Pont d’Arc (above left).
Recce’ing the Ardeche a year ago, we’d sat at Charlemagne rapid watching the boats come through, not all as neatly as the canoe on the left. But at that time (late May) the river had been at least a foot higher. Today, the surfing wave at the exit (above) was much flatter and the 200-metre dog leg channel to get there was pretty easy to follow. Traffic was much higher though and I had to queue up and take my turn to drop in.
As I rode through, in front of me a couple of teenagers in a double rode up onto rocks and slowly flipped over (left), but in the packraft it was easy to steer out of their way and complete the run. First time SoT-er Steve also had no probs.
That done, we pulled over to watch the fun for a while. Most slipped through like us, but the double SoTs were far less agile. There’s no mystery why; put a teenage boy and his eight-year old sister – both new to kayaking – in a 4-5 metre hunk of plastic SoT weighing 30 kilos and they’re bound to cock up any rapid that requires co-ordinating a sharp turn or a bit of elementary river reading. So it was that boats piled into boats (left) and a train of flotsam flowed out of Charlemagne towards the arch: vacant kayaks, loose drums and paddles, kayakers with no paddles, and the odd swimmer. Some very young kids were not seeing the funny side of it, but the crowds applauded their dad’s rock mounting antics and I don’t recall any single SoTs flipping. Remember that next time you do the Ardeche!
Just beyond we passed under the famous arch (left) close to where the Chauvet cave had been discovered in the mid-90s. Full of fabulous prehistoric rock art (right) dating back 30,000 years, it’s exact location is little known and it’s locked up for protection. The cave was the subject of a recent Werner Herzog film and, as has been done elsewhere in France, a replica ‘tourist cave’ is planned nearby.
Up to this point was the regular half-day fun run on the Ardeche. The next 25kms entered a conservation reserve with only limited exits, and to rent his SoT for two days Steve had had to prove he’d booked a place at one of the two overnight camps or bivis in the gorge (see map below). Wild camping is forbidden, although we did spot a few doing so and I imagine you could get away with it if you don’t want to get bogged down in the need to book the bivi in advance. You’re also supposed to be off the river by 6pm. As soon as we left Pont d’Arc paddling traffic dropped off dramatically. 

I’d been put off the Ardeche for years by the rather intimidating description in the Massif book, but Charlemagne had been a doddle and levels were low or perhaps just normal and i was a brilliant paddler? I don’t think so. That book had over-egged other rivers and rapids over the years, but it is aimed at Brit families in canoes (not a huge market it must be said, never seen any). While my old Gumotex Sunny would have swamped harmlessly here and there, and also been tricky to turn fast in some rapids, the Alpacka Yak has the effect of reducing the WW grades by a factor of one. You can turn the Yak with one swipe and you’re so low and stable, especially with the UDBag sat over the bow, it’s hard to think how it could ever flip. The only times I feel in was getting in and out of it on the slippery river bed. In a way it made the Ardeche a bit too easy; with another foot of water it would have been more exciting. We wound our way along the meanders, passing the odd knot of kayakers as well as hikers following the gorge on foot, something which includes the odd bit of via ferrata (right).
The rapids ahead held little dread now and even the notorious Dent Noire mid-river rock (left) passed without incident. I managed to pass to the right, the correct way but which the current makes quite difficult; Steve took it on the left, grabbing a small bite from the Black Tooth on his elbow as he passed. A pair of river rescue firemen are stationed here each day, but with a ‘chicken run’ channel dug out of the shingle bypassing the rock altogether, they’d be having a pretty quiet time as long as the less controllable doubles took that line, as the signs advised.
We arrived at the empty Gard bivi early and took our pick of the pitches. After days packed like sardines in holiday camps, it was a relief to spread out over a sloping field as on a normal farmer’s campsite. There’s nothing here but toilets, water, free charcoal for the BBQ pits and a 2km track up to the road, as well as warnings to keep food sealed against the wild boars. The field filled up towards evening but it was still far from the overcrowding for which the Ardeche is notorious. A weekend here may have been another matter.
Friday was another wonderful day, hitting the frothiest lines we could find (left) and drifting with the breeze under the overhanging limestone walls. Only one rapid flipped Steve’s rigid SoT out of the blue, while the following Yak just hung up on the same rock, pivoted round and slid off.
At times stiff a breeze blew along the gorge, either in our face or our backs, depending on the orientation of the meander. As the walls subsided towards the take-out at Sauze near St Martin (left), that turned into a strong backwind which rushed us downriver. At one point after a break, I swam out with my boat and planned to get in it off the water just to remind  myself it was easy, but the little tab I was holding onto broke and the boat was gone like a balloon in a gale. Just as well Steve was downriver to catch it.
At Sauze beach the rental outfits’ vans and trailers line up to retrieve their clients and SoTs. Me, I didn’t want to get off the river, but our original plan to paddle on for a day to Pont Saint Esprit was only possible with our own boats. Steve could have bought another cheapie from a toy shop but it would have meant rushing for tomorrow’s train from Avignon. So it was time to roll up the Yak on this mini adventure and head for out allocated patch in the Camping Municipal.
Our week in the Ardeche was all a bit of a holiday, not the sort of thing we normally do, but a fun run on which it was safe to take a chance with the cheap dinghy. There wasn’t a mark on the Yak but I was shocked how easily and quickly the Hawk had got mashed. Conclusion: you do indeed get what you pay for. With some duct tape we could have kept it going and for the £35 it cost, it was still worth it as a one-trip wonder, compared to the commitment of buying a proper packraft.
Combined with the brilliant Watershed bags, the Yak made light work of it all and makes me realise I be happy to do the Massif rivers I’ve done in the Sunny all over again with the Alpacka. It would also be fun to do the Ardeche again at higher levels and maybe start from Aubenas to make a meaty 100-km run down to St Esprit.

Getting to the Ardeche
We took an infrequent Eurostar non-stop service from London to Avignon – just 6 hours but £260 return each. An Easyjet to Lyon or Ryanair to Nimes may have been cheaper but not quicker and much less fun. From Avignon we backed up to Montelimar by train and from there took the connecting bus service on to Ruoms (one ticket about £15 – 1.5 hours). At Ruoms, just north of Vallon, an empty minibus turned up bang on time and took us on to Les Vans for just €3 (30 mins). Simply getting a TGV train to Montelimar may be a better and cheaper way, but from the UK would probably require changing stations in Paris (40 mins walk) – or maybe just platforms in Lille.
Coming back we got a lift from St Martin to Pont St Esprit (no buses – taxi €15 for 9km – 16km by river). And after wandering through the Saturday morning marche (above left), took the bus on to Avignon for just €2.50 (90 mins) for another 6-hour train ride back to London.
Tracking down Pont Saint Esprit timetables online unearthed a sinister history to the town: the Incident at Pont Saint Esprit. A recently published book (right) claimed that in the early 1950s, as part of what later became their MK Ultra mind control program, the CIA drugged the town with LSD with predictably terrifying results. Several people killed themselves in the hallucinogenic torment, many more were locked up in asylums. If it’s true then CIA stunts like that make an exploding cigar sound positively benign!
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