Packrafting the Tarn Gorge

See also:
• Chassezac
Ardeche
Packboating in southern France
Allier guide

Just tarnpottback from Tarn Gorge with the Yakraft, All the way from Florac to Millau; about 86km. Amazed the beating this boat takes, scrapping through the shallows and bouncing off the scenery.  Took me two days plus two half days each end, so about 18 hours of actual paddling. Surprisingly, I saw only day-renters or youth groups on the river – zero other private tourists like me. And pegasoidjpgfrom Florac to Montbrun, and Rozier to Millau I was the only boat on the water of any kind, unless you count an inflatable flying Pegasus.
There are two + one unavoidable portages: Prades (KM23.4) and a longer haul at Pas the Soucy (KM51.6), plus the bridge being repaired at Ispagnac (KM8.9) which will get fixed eventually. There are also two canoe chutes (Les Vignes; KM54.1 and just before Millau; KM83.3) and an odd, unsigned low weir drop at La Malene (KM42.2). See the map below.
tarnrdBesides a quick 1-day-er two years ago, we last did the Tarn in 2007 in the Sunny and a Solar: Florac to I think Rozier. It’s worrying what I’ve either forgotten, conflated with other Massif rivers or has changed, but the Tarn is actually a perfect first-time packrafter’starne - 50 camping adventure. There’s a road alongside (not always accessible without pitons); daily villages for resupply and enough WW challenges to keep things interesting. The scenery and la belle France you get for free. I shipped a few litres on rougher drops but never came close to flipping, unlike a few hardshell SoTs I observed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGetting to Florac (KM0)
I took the cheapest redeye Easyjet to Montpellier (there are 2–3 a day), got a train from Gare St Roch to Ales (changing at Nimes) and next day caught the only bus at 12.10 from Ales for Florac, getting on the water at 2pm. You might also try Ryanair to Nimes but the way the timetables are, you’ll still miss that key 12.10 Ales bus on the same day.
Another idea might be the way I came back: express bus between Montpellier St Roch and Millau (2 hours) then non-direct train and several buses back upstream towards Florac. You might just manage that in a day. Work it out with the Millau tourist office or the internet.
Eurostar London to Nimes in 6-7 hours sounds so much more relaxing apart from the change in Paris, but usually costs more than the cheapest flights and you still won’t get that noon from Ales same day from London.

Knives & Gas
gasgasopinelAt least on a train you don’t pay extra for baggage, but they won’t allow a useful-sized knife or camping gas cans.
On a plane camping gas is also a no-no, so I planned to buy a can for my threaded burner in France. No luck as outdoors shops like Decathlon were all in out-of-town retail parks. Your classic blue Camping Gas is widely available in bigger supermarkets but has a different push-and-twist fit. I thought we sorted all this out years ago! After traipsing around Ales finding only blue cans, I ended up buying the can and push-and-twist burner in St Enemie (probably could have bought in Florac too). At least next time in France I’ll have the burner and know I can get blue gas easily enough. I didn’t actually use my 10-function survival knife, but you know how it is; taking one makes it more of an adventure. You can buy inexpensive wooden-handled Opinels easily in France.

River levels
Not being a crusty demon of white water, I’ve never been that bothered about river levels, but a very good website is vigicrues.gouv.fr. You will see live measurements for  the Tarn recorded at Florac (KM0); Montbrun (KM18) and Millau. Generally in mid-summer Florac will read minus something and Montbrun will be between 0.3 and 0.5m. Let me tell you, once Montbrun gets towards 0.7m the Tarn is moving along very nicely indeed – up to 8kph is places – but 0.7m is usually a summer storm peak which subsides within a day. They say anything up to 1m at Montbrun is safe enough; beyond that things can get hairy.

tarnlevel

Note the spike following a prolonged storm on Friday night/Saturday morning. Things sure sped up from then – last day I averaged 8kph –  but never felt unsafe.

massif1tarnpatI found the old 2002 Massif Central book (right) not so helpful this time round. Even though I sort of knew what to expect – no outright Niagaras – I would have appreciated better, bigger maps with each bridge, weir, portage and so on clearly marked to help orient myself. Also, the descriptions at each end, from Florac to Montbrun (first 18km) and beyond Les Cresses to Millau (last 12km) are either skimpy or now inaccurate, presumably because rental outfits don’t cover these sections of the river. On both these stages are rapids you’d really rather know about (see my map below). There is a much-awaited new edition out any day now – renamed Best Canoe Trips in the South of France but with a near identical cover (below right).
MAssif2Thing is, on the Tarn you can pretty much blunder along in the dark; you won’t get lost, the rapids are never that technical, especially in a stable and agile packraft, wild camping is easy and proper bankside campsites, from basic to full-blown Hi-de-Hi holiday camps are plentiful and the main villages – St Enemie, La Malene, Les Vignes and Les Roziers are handy for snacks, drinks and pool toys.


tarnmap

Click to enlarge, it’s a big map.

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Le Tarn road bridge, a mile north of Florac. Put in below the old stone bridge just upstream.

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KM0.1 • View from the bridge. Not much to float on down there.

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Soon enough things improve.

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But the double floor on my Yak took a lot of grinding in the shallows. After 3 days it was barely marked; amazingly tough stuff.

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KM8.9 • Portagio at Ispagnac. Looking back upstream at a temporary road bridge while the old stone one gets a refurb. There are a couple of thought-provoking drops just before here (see main text or map).

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Ispagnac: 200-m portage around the bridge repair. Might be fixed in a year.

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Note this pretty waterfall after Ispagnac, around KM13.5.

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Opposite is the basic but friendly Le Petit Monde campsite. €7.40 to camp, yummy real burger + frites for a tenner and not teeming with hyperactive kids (till August). Took 4 hours from Florac including 4 low-water wades.

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A storm next morning so I didn’t get moving till 10am. Saw an otter around here.

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KM17.2 • Montbrun village with a canoe camp and a river-level marker somewhere too. But no baguettes to be had.

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The start of Tarn SoT rental country. Buuundle!

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KM20 • ‘Portage obligatoire a gauche’ it said, but under the bridge on the right between the no-entry signs was easy enough after a recce. Just remember to quack when you duck.

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Looking back up – as usual you wonder what all the fuss was all about.

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KM21.5 • Soon another portant obligée?

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Do me a favour! Just lower head to avoid bashing teeth in. Quite simple really.

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KM21.7 • Zombie revellers near Castelbruc.

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Late brekkie at the Castelbruc resto. Just what was needed.

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‘Gaston, FFS stop dicking about!’ Respect to all long-suffering youth group leaders.

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Prades. Could do with some Dulux but UNESCO would stop the cheques.

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KM23.4 • Portage right. I suppose a raft could slide down the weir face.

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Alternative route for people terrified of water.

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You’re never far from a Sevy slackraft!

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Tarning along.

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Another false warning just before St Enemie. Too much of this Wolf Boy of Aveyron can end in bites.

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KM28.5 • Parked vans block a portaging route but the Enemie weir is easily shot. German canoeboy expedition on a smoko.

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KM28.8 • Stone bridge at St Enemie, a bit of a tourist babylon, but has camping gas and a burner and warm chausson aux pommes. Forgotten how yummy they are.

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SoTs stacked ready for the August rush.

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You often find yourself nudging herons downstream. Didn’t spot any of the famous griffin vultures, though.

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KM33.8 • St Chely du Tarn with a bridge that knows how high the floods can get.

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The cascade.

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St Chely with cascade. You see it all here.

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KM36.4 • Stardate 6pm. I wild camp on a shingle bar just as the rain starts. 19km in about 5 paddling hours.

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Soon it’s pelting chats et chiens…

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… and it barely relents all night. Lightning, hail, a tree crashes down, unearthly squawks and splashes. I discover that a 3000mm hydrostatic head only copes with pitter-patter rain. When it really hammers down a light spray descends. Annoy Inc.

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But you know what they say: after a storm cometh the clear-up operations. I watch the tent dry. Good thing with camping on shingle is it’s self draining.

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Could have camped in here. The run-off streams down and in two hours the river rises 4-6 inches. Downstream it will be more. Will the WW be trop gnarlant?

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Km 39.3 • Haute Rives. Look at the blue plaque – flood, September 1965, a good 10m up the old gauge. Holy moly.

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Beautifully restored stone village accessible only by cable trolley, boat, foot, condor or mechanised mole.

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Nice stonework. Would have been streaming waterfalls last night.

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KM42.2 • No portage signs before La Malene weir. Odd. Just keep left and edge over? 

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It’s not that high, but still.

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I get papped by Franco Gill.

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Still Tarning along. The river is flowing fast and is full of eddies and sinister upwellings, as if out of equilibrium. Weird and a bit creepy.

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KM51.6 • Low-key but critical take-out before Pas de Soucy boulder death choke. Note the faded  pdfs of the damned hanging on a wire. Orange with skulls and crossbones would be better.

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Downstream Soucy from the road. It’s a 1.3km walk past the gift shop and panoramic viewpoint along the narrow road.

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KM52.4 • An old Gumbie Helios! Must be 20-30 years old. Still as ugly then as they are now ;-)

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KM54.1 • The exposed mid-weir chute at Les Vignes – a tricky aim with a strong backwind and light packraft.

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Looks steep but actually dead easy fun, even with the higher water. Barely took on water.

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I know all you got to do is follow the river but one of these would have been handy. So I made one (see above).

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KM60.5 • The famous and lengthy Grade 3 Sabliere rapid – easier in higher water as the many boat-flipping boulders are submerged.

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But I still took quite a dousing, maybe 10 litres.

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Lots of currents and whorls in the ever more turbid water.

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Looking back upstream, the gorge slips away into the horizon.

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KM64.3 • Le Rozier half bridge. Where’s Eddie Kidd when you need him?

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Last morning. The river is full to the brim and swift as a whipped eel.

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Peyrelad castle. Never let a prominent outcrop go to waste.

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KM74.2 • Watch out for this white sign just after La Cresse girder bridge. Gnarly rapid on the left (high bouncy waves/low branches). Or portage right.

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Then boulders to dodge on the way out (looking back upstream). Trickier than it looks in highish water but easy to parallel the hidden wavetrain in a packraft.

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Aguessac already? I’m totally confused how far I’ve come. 

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Millau viaduct. WTF? Even more disoriented now. Turned out I averaged 8kph over 3 hours.

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Danger of electrocution? Didn’t know about this one. Oh well, I was heading this way anyway.

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KM 83.3 • ‘Boat ladder’ near Millau – looks a bit narrow for a wide packboat.

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I recce it. All in order but there’s a burning smell as I shoot the chute.

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KM84.6 • The first Millau road bridge up ahead. That was quick.

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The town park on the right just before the second bridge. Easy take out here.

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A packed raft. Amazing where that little TPU binbag has brought me.

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I walk downstream a bit and cross a pedestrian pontoon bridge to an island…

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… and the short whitewater course. Darn, would have been a fun finale. Edict #338/8: please do not throw terriers in the rapids.

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Local rafters attack the froth with their paddles.

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After three days down the Tarn Gorge, this would be easy enough.

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Sacre bleu, that’s the Tour de France shooting through Millau! Go Geriant!

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Town weir on the other side of the island. No chute so it’s WW course or portage.

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KM86.7 and that’s your Tarn Gorge in a nutshell.

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Down from the Lerouge bridge, next weir has a chute on the right, but beyond the viaduct several big dams break the rhythm on the way to Albi.

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Millau old town. Viva Oc!

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A hot sweaty dusk descends over Montpellier. 

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Easy come, Easy go ;-)

 

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