• Packboating in southern France
In 2005 the Dordogne and nearby Vezere were my first multi-day rivers in my Sunny IK, all helped by the discovery of the inspiring White Water Massif Central guidebook. The Dordogne was a good choice but to be honest, a bit easy. Ready for something un peu plus sportif, I’d got it into my head from that book that the Ardeche was too hardcore, so I’d be better off on the less famous Allier between Chapeauroux and Brioude (big map, above).
In fact, as you can read here (admittedly at twice the normal summer flow; video too), parts of Allier can get tricky (see left; a plastic canoe folded against a rock). Even though a railway carves and tunnels right along the gorge, on the first two days from Chapeauroux there are places where the rapids come at you fast and with no easy way out of the gorge if you get in trouble. Over the years stranded paddlers have been rescued by helicopter.
Not fully comprehending all this, in June 2006 I set off from Chapeauroux in my Sunny, and at the very first bend was flapping about like a salmon with a seizure, trying to stay on track. It went on like that for a while, then eased up and actually got quite pleasant by the time I reached Alleyras for the night. This was more like it; a wild river rather than the broad Dordogne lined with droning pumps irrigating the adjacent farmland.
Next morning a taxi transported me past the then-closed section dodging the Poutes dam below Alleyras (more below) and dropped me at Monistrol. Here again I failed to fully appreciate the greater challenges immediately ahead, even if the guidebook was clear: great fun in a creekboat, but an open canoe will fill up on the longer rapids. And if I didn’t know it then, I sure do now: the white water abilities of open canoes and IKs are closely matched, while IKs might easier to control for beginners (like me).
This Monistrol stage is run by commercial rafting trips (above), also a telling sign about the nature of this part of the river. I scraped through that day, exiting a few rapids with a boat full of water, and on one ending up swimming alongside it. Looking back, I’m pretty sure this was the exit of ‘La Barraque au Ponnet‘ (KM3.5; more below) with that raft above coming through soon after I stopped. It was all a bit of a shock.
Unless you’re confident, I’d suggest not following my example in doing this section alone. Consider a recce in the commercial raft if there’s one going that day, or ask if you can tag along for safety.
A few kilometres before Prades (KM12 from Monistrol) it all becomes less of a white-knuckle ride, and what followed all the way to the Brioude take-out were fun, Grade 2 rapids and a couple of thought-provoking chutes or easy portages. All manageable in open packboats. As you approach Brioude on the last day, the paddling eases right up so that you start harking back for a bit of eaux vivants.
All along what they now call ‘one of Europe’s last wild rivers’ you’ll pass many striking outcrops of columnar basalt as well as pretty villages (like Chilac, below) with adjacent campsites, boulangeries, quaint hotels – and not a chain store to be seen.
Like the better known Ardeche and Tarn, the Allier is another Massif classic, still distinctively scenic but with non of the nose-to-tail traffic during busy holiday periods.
Although the daily trains aren’t frequent, with riverside stations at Brioude, Langeac, Monistrol, Alleyras and Chapeauroux, the Allier (left) is easy to get to with packboats. First, Easyjet yourself to Lyon, or Ryanair-it to Nimes or Clermont, two cities which are also linked by the scenic Ligne des Cévennes rail line (below). Brioude is an hour south of Clermont, and Chapeauroux is two hours over the hills from Nimes. Between them, Brioude and Chapeauroux span the scenic and paddleable 88-km section of the Allier.
One thing worth considering if you’re unsure about the half-day Grade 3+ Monistrol–Prades section, is coming up on the train from Brioude or Langeac. It passes right above the gorge where you get a good view of the Barraque au Ponnet and a few seconds later the ‘Roche qui Pleure’ drop a few hundred metres upstream (right; Gumotex Scout canoe). I’m sure glad I looked when I came back years later.
In 2018 I returned to the Allier, this time with a packraft. I flew to Lyon (cheaper and more frequent than last-minute Ryanair), caught the train via Clermont to Brioude (5hrs), and next day caught the first train to Monistrol (left).
I planned to miss out the Chapearoux–Alleyras stage to save time and the taxi faff around the dam**. It left me three days to cover about 70 paddling kilometres back to Brioude.
** In recent years (click ‘P5’, quite out of date) the long-closed section between Alleyras and Monistrol has reopened to paddlers, with a portage around the new Poutes dam (left), 3.5km from Alleyras station (the train line crosses the river right in front of it).
As part of the Allier resalmonification programme, the dam was substantially lowered and fitted with a ‘ladder’ to help the fish get upstream and propagate – plus give anglers something to do. Local environmentalists fought a long battle to get this done
The train heading upstream passed right in front of the Brioude weir (left) where I’d be taking out in a couple of days. The line then rejoins the Allier at Langeac before heading for Monistrol. Soon it enters the wild gorge and looking down at the rapids below I thought… ‘Hang on a minute!’ which, a rapid or two later escalated to ‘WTjoF!?’.
I recall being unnerved in 2006, but I’m sure they didn’t look this gnarly. I realised later that the first 100-m white plume was ‘Le Barraque au Ponnet’, easily recognisable on aerial maps, pictured on above in full winter spate. The other WTJ… was ‘La Roche Qui Pleure’ – two of the plus fruitif chutes on this stage (map below left).
I got off at Monistrol, scoffed a petit dej at a deserted hotel and wandered around town wondering what to do. The river didn’t seem higher than normal; perhaps it was low back in June 2006 when I came through in the Gumboat?
Either way, thanks to my train preview this stage seemed a bit too ripe for me; the Yak would be spilling over long before I was halfway through ‘Le Ponnet’.
For a while I actually wondered if I was suffering from false memory syndrome from 2006 and might have cause to claim compensation if I could find the right lawyer. But I definitely recall the old Monistrol hydro plant (right) and my photo record shows I took the picture of the board below at 9.03 and arrived at Prades beach by 1pm, invigorated but not inordinately traumatised. River pictures were few back then in that pre-water camera era.
Later, trying to work out what was different (other than my aged nerves), I wondered if I’d just glanced down on Le Ponnet during a particularly hearty pulse of dam-released water? Looking at the vigicrues website later, the flow graph for that day (at Prades) does show it was high as I passed by around 8am – before dropping six inches around midday.
I knew from the Tarn earlier this summer that following a stormy night, a six-inch rise makes a difference – it speeds up the flow but can also smother stony rapids and make them easier. The pulsed releases every 8 hours are the lumpy pattern you can see along the bottom of the graph below for the days before and after I came through. As you can tell, I am bending over backwards trying to find ways to rationalise my new-found timidity!
Above left: from the Eiffel bridge in town, you can see the first rapid (looking back upstream). Like the books says: if you don’t like how this or the next couple of runs look, turn back. Otherwise – strap in for the ride!
Annoyingly, my GPS with good maps was at the menders. I borrowed a look off a trekker’s map (Monistrol is on the GR65 Santiago trail) but at 1:100k, I was none the wiser. I’d have needed a 1:25k map to find any viable paths along the gorge.
In the end I decided to follow a path by the bridge on the right side of the river, signed: ‘Viaduct, 1 hr’. It might continue along or above the gorge to a point where I could put in with the worst behind me. If it didn’t I could turn back and hitch or bus – or if desperate, clamber uphill to the D301 backroad to Prades.
And that is what I did, but not without a huge amount of effort. Initially, the path followed the riverbank, passing a few Grade 3s (above, probably ‘La Benne’; KM1.8) which would have swamped my Yak like hot ‘creme anglais’ over a freshly baked rhubarb crumble.
Some three hours later, high above the valley and heading for dehydration (33°C in Brioude that day), I gave up trying to follow a path. Fallen trees, brambles, scree slopes, an intermittent path and the 1:1 slope all took their toll. After a failed attempt climbing a loose cliff, I managed to hack my way uphill and emerged a sweaty mess on the D310 backroad, looking like I’d just escaped from a teenage slasher movie. Scratched, bitten, stung and grazed to buggery, I’d covered 3km in three hours.
I washed in a cattle trough and passed through the sunflower hamlets of Conaquet and Conac, before splitting left down a side track and path leading back downhill, hopefully to rejoin the river below any enraged torrents.
This it did, just before Pont Gilbert and just below ‘La Petite Grille’, by chance nearly the last (and easy-looking) rapid, 8 river-kms from Monistrol. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, this turned out to be pretty darn good route-finding without a map (left).
At one point earlier, while thrashing through the bush or teetering across scree slopes, I heard the telltale whoops of hyper-excited rafters far below. I realised that’s what I should have done: taken the fun option in a big-arsed raft as far as Pont Gilbert (if they’d take me, with baggage).
I’d seen signs for a rafting centre near Monistrol station, but the town was so quiet I assumed they’d closed for the season. It would have been a great way to punch through the big rapids without a care in the world. Picture above: the ‘Le Ponnet’ viaduct down below with the long ‘Barraque’ rapid starting just around the corner and ‘Roche qui Pleure’ laughing menacingly from behind the trees on the left.
Dropping the kit bag and setting up by the riverside below ‘La Petite Grille’, it had indeed become hot enough to grill a salmon, but once on the water it sure felt good to flop down and float away like a stray log. Just like in the wilds of northwest Scotland, if you have the choice: float, don’t walk.
Obviously part of me wondered if I could have managed the gnarly rapids upstream. After all, I’d clearly scraped through years ago in the Sunny (still hard to believe). But I’d followed my gut and felt happy with that.
Watch Belgian packrafter Dzjow’s video below from 2014. He enjoyed the Monistrol stage so much he went back up on the train and did it again with GoPros rolling. Watching it, I’m glad I didn’t. From Monistrol starts at 1:57 and he shoots down ‘La ‘Roche qui Pleure’ (the image below) at 2:28, soon followed by ‘Barraque au Ponnet’ which starts at 2:34 (note the railway viaduct) and goes on for a while to the big rock (3:19) you’ll recognise on the left in the rafting pic, above. Dzjow was a hardcore adventuriste I’ve come across before. The following year he went on to do a self-admittedly tough and not so enjoyable trip in wild Patagonia. He hasn’t written about packrafting since.
Next time I’m here I’ll rent a bailing IK as wide as a bed and give it a go.
After about 4km I pulled into Prades beach (below left). I needed salt and I needed drink. And while I was at it, what harm would a handmade mini quiche, some bacon crisps and a tartes aux framboises do? None at all, mon brave.
Now dizzyingly revived but still worn out by the morning’s commando course, I knew there was a bit of a drossage (great word) just around the corner, but it was all fun knowing a few others were playing around too, including SUPs. What is it with these SUPs? I’ve never seen them doing anything more than goof about in the shallows but rarely actually go anywhere, yet they are clearly ten times more popular than IKs and packrafts combined. What does that say about the state of post-industrial recreation in the developed world?
Unusually, I had a hotel booked at Reilhac, about 18km downriver, past Langeac. With just a couple of canoes on the water, the afternoon passed without drama, bar the odd wetting. But approaching Langeac, the din from the weir just before town was unusually intimidating. The canoe chute here (left) is well-known as being a bit of a drossage because it’s about 3 feet too short and so pumps a plume of water into a nasty backwave which not all boats can easily escape.
And I do wish these Frenchies would mark the tops of their glissieres with two poles, indicating: ‘aim here’. Above, show me the chute entry point while wearing a pair of sweat-smudged specs! Maybe the idea is by not having clear markers, paddlers slow down and look carefully. I did just that above and portaged round off a little beach on the right. I could not be arsed with hitting the churning pile to get catapulted over the bow like a 40-kilo sack of dried beetroots. I felt that no matter how far back I leaned, my short, light boat would plough ‘n’ flip, unlike a longer IK. Back in the water, I paddled on through early evening Langeac and an hour or so later was slumped on my Reilhac hotel bed.
The next day was just what I wanted; a short, easy run of just 13km, ending at the UNESCO-overlooked village of Lavoute Chilac where the charming Hotel des Pecheurs tottered on the slender gooseneck bluff above the Allier.
Three clicks downriver (6km from Langeac) was a double-drop weir-chute (below left). Easy enough providing you steer straight for the lower drop, but I walked it as I knew it would be a bailing job, and today was some 10 degrees cooler.
Splish followed splosh followed splish down to Chillac (above, 11.5km from Langeac), another picture-perfect postcard village sat atop a striking basalt plug with dreamy views over the Auvergnois countryside from the terrace by the church.
Half a click downstream from Chilac is an easy, short chute (above left) on the far left. But once down it I realised the old weir passing below the mill on the right had pretty much been washed away, making the chute redundant and a fun ride down a long, shallow rapid. Clearly I was recovering my mojo if I was looking for some white water action again. Later, I read this weir has been flushed away for some years, but is another thing the new Canoe Trips, South of France guide had not updated.
Soon, the bluff of Lavoute Chilac rose into view. I pulled over left at the riverside park, let my gear dry, then walked into the village over the tall bridge (left).
Les Pecheurs (white building on the right, below) was still on siesta, so I left the Yak by the steps and walked over to Le Prieure, the other creaky-stair hotel in the village, for a mouth-watering ‘Salade Auvergnate‘.
Wandering around the old church and the imposing, 18th-century facade of the abandoned priory (right, due for luxury flat conversion), I was staggered to see a July 1866 flood marker at the church’s back door. In the photo left my hotel room would have been submerged by a few metres. Perhaps the river’s acute 180-degree turn causes floodwaters to back up.
It’s the last day of my packrafting mini-break and by my estimates, I had about 22km of paddling, plus a 4km walk to Brioude station to catch the 4:10 to Lyon. I didn’t want to miss that so set off briskly, passing a canoeing couple (the only other boat I saw all day) until I could estimate my pace against a landmark. Before 11am I’d reached the bridge at Villeneuve meaning I’d covered 9.5 clicks in 80 minutes which gave me plenty of time. This Allier flows quicker than it looks.
The book talks of another old weir to ‘shoot’ at Villeneuve campsite, but there’s nothing here except a ford with poles marking the car crossing. Many of the book’s ‘shoot an old weir’ descriptions are out of date. There’s rarely anything more than a line of rounded boulders and a drop of a few inches, making you wonder: ‘was that it?’ But at Ville Brioude, just before the tall bridge, the book suggests you can shoot a modern concrete weir (above left). Good luck with that and those boulders lined along the base.
Finally I was back at the public beach below La Bargesse campsite. Ahead was the big weir before the red brick rail bridge I’d crossed on the train a few days earlier (left). Here again the book now suggests ‘portage right’ and other convoluted options – perhaps a simple left/right mistake? Instead you simply take out at the grassy park, river left, walk over a little footbridge and put back in below the weir under the railway bridge and above a shallow rapid.
Once again, I’m amazed at the true amphibiousness of these packrafts, especially if not hauling camping gear on the trail. A long walk to dodge gnarly or closed stages is (potentially) easily done, even carrying an inappropriate kitbag.
With plenty of time to catch my train, I dried off, got changed and walked over to Brioude for a coffee and cake in the town square below the basilica’s decorated tower. In the hills all around the petrified volcanos and lush grassy valleys of the Auvergne countryside could easily withstand more exploring on foot, by pedal or with paddle.