Just like their bikes and many other things, in southern France those Frenchies dig their recreational paddling. Unlike the UK they don’t care if it’s an inflatable, a canoe, kayak, packraft or two bin bags and a stick. An unlike the UK, no river permits or licenses are required; just adhere to sensible regs. Add the fresh 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? Yes: the long-overdue second edition of Rivers Publishing’s guide which originally opened up this area’s potential to me. Generally aimed at ‘family’ canoeing, Best Canoe Trips in the South of France (formerly White Water Massif Central, 2002) has river descriptions so you don’t have to worry too much about what’s downriver. As a serious guidebook it could be better, but it’s all there is in English.
Extending south from the city of Clermont Ferrand 200km to the former Roman colony of Nimes, the Massif Central is an undeveloped and relatively unpopulated upland region of extinct volcanoes and 1000-metre limestone pleateaux or causses. About the size of Belgium, the highest peak is the 1885m (6184ft) Puy de Sancy in the Parc des Volcans near Clermont. Now you know where all that Volvic comes down from.
Getting there from the UK
The key airports to access the region include Clermont, Montpellier, Nimes, Lyon and Rodez with Easyjet, Ryanair and FlyBe, among others. Nimes is probably the most useful, but Easyjet (Lyon, Montpellier) has daily rather than weekly Ryanair flights with better prices when booked late.
There are also fast TGV trains to Nimes via Paris, taking just 6-7 hours from London (red lines, left) but elsewhere or beyond, things slow down considerably as you head for the Massif (blue area on map, left), so it’s unlikely you’ll get to a river on the same day as leaving the UK. And while fast or slow, a train is a much more agreeable prospect than flying, even in summer and once you pay for baggage, budget airlines still work out much cheaper and as fast or faster, depending on where you start.
Take your pick from the easy Dordogne and Vezere, more challenging but easily accessed Allier, a Herault day trip, Tarn, Ceze, Chassezac which joins the Ardeche. Then there’s the Gardon and little-known but slightly greasy Lardon. Come August the biggest danger on the Ardeche is getting nutted by an out-of-control plastic rental. In 2018 I did the Tarn again, from Florac all the way to Millau in a packraft, and a few weeks later the Allier too. Map below from the Best Canoe Trips… guidebook.
They’re all fun in an IK provided the boat is not too long. With a long boat problems occur when the front noses into slower water or catches a rock, while the back is still in a fast current; the boat swings sideways, high sides and tips you out.
In a slightly slower but much more stable and agile packraft I’d pick the frothier rivers like the Allier, the Tarn and Ardeche, because a packraft makes sub-Grade 3 whitewater so easy and safe. Packrafting the Tarn in 2018, I’m pretty sure I’d have struggled to control my 4.5-metre Seawave IK in some rapids.
But then again, packrafting the Allier a few weeks later, I was pleased I decided to walk round an 8-km gorge section of relatively sustained WW3 rapids (left; a self-bailing Gumotex Scout) which would have swamped my Yak again and again. Here a decked or self-bailing packboat works better. And from what I’ve seen, two-up in a kayak or canoe makes things even more complicated unless both are experienced. If you do these rivers early in the season (June, July) there can be more flow, frothier rapids and certainly fewer crowds than early August. But summer storms can raise levels overnight.
Maps and river levels
There’s a very good official website for live river levels here with more about it here. For general maps of France right down to 1:25k scale and beyond, IGN have an online portal to zoom in and view all their paper maps (right). As the Best Canoe Trips… guidebook says, they’re better than Google Maps. All that’s missing are markers identifying canoe chutes on the weirs.
The Allier is a good choice for packboating as you can get a train from Clermont via Brioude all the way to the village of Chapeauroux, where the easier section flows right back to Brioude. Note Alleyras to Monistrol is now open (see link) but beware the first 8km out of Monistrol to Prades through the gorge. Long version in the link, but you’ll see it from the train coming upstream and may be alarmed, as I was in 2018, even though I’m pretty sure I kayaked it 12 years ago as a clueless newb.
The Ceze and Herault are car and shuttle-with-bike day trips. The classic Tarn Gorge starts from Florac (noon bus from Ales) and cuts 85km below the Causse Mejean to Millau with its famous viaduct just beyond. A great run with easy rapids, bar one or two not mentioned in the guidebook.
Being out of the Massif, the Dordogne-Vezere (map above) are easier paddles, but iirc took me a bit of bus and train’ing after a Ryanair to Rodez and out from Bergerac. Perfect for your first IK adventure, but could be slow, agricultural (lots of riverside irrigation pumps) and dull 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 an SoT for as long as you like. It’s all set up for you. Click the river links for more galleries.
Eats, Chutes & Lodges
On any big Massif 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. Plus, at any time you can pull over to wander through a village which will very often have a basic hotel from 40 euros, like the one left on the Allier.
Some of these rivers cut through spectacular gorges and are strung out with easy rapids up to Class III, weirs to portage round or tip over and which often have a glissiere or canoe chute (left and below) which shoot you down the face of a weir without the need to get out and carry. Great fun and often easier than they look. There are no locks until you leave the Massif and enter the intensively farmed lowlands by which time the fun is over.