Category Archives: Travel Reports

Travelling with air boats

Kayaking and packrafting the Allier (France)

See also:
• Chassezac
Ardeche
Packboating in southern France
Tarn

allier-mapIn 2005 the Dordogne and nearby Vezere were my first multi-day rivers in a 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 more sportif, I’d got it into my head from the book that the Ardeche was too hardcore, so I’d be better off on the less famous Allier between Chapeauroux and Brioude (big map, left).
malgreyIn fact, as you can read here (admittedly at twice the normal summer flow; video too), parts of Allier can get tricky (see right). 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.

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Not fully comprehending all this, in June 2006 I set off al-stationfrom al-12Chapeauroux (right) 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 water 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 do now: the white water abilities of open canoes and IKs are closely matched, while IKs might easier to control for beginners.

al raftThis 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. Below left, notice the baggage al-15floating in the swamped boat. 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 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 became less of a white-knuckle ride, and what followed all the way to Brioude 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.
al18 - 3al18 - 27All 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, inexpensive 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 less of the nose-to-tail traffic during busy holiday periods.

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allimapGetting there
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 Grade 3+ Monistrol–Prades section, is coming up on the train from Brioude or Langeac. al-rochpleurIt 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 in 2018.

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al18 - 1Twelve years later I finally return 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.

al-poutes** I have just read that since August 2018 (click ‘P5’) the long-closed section between Alleyras and Monistrol is now open to paddlers, with a portage around the Poutes dam re-construction site (left), 3.5km from Alleyras (the train passes right in front of it).
As part of the Allier resalmonification al18-woodsalmonprogramme, the dam is being substantially lowered (video) and fitted with a ‘ladder’ to help the fish get upstream and propagate – and give anglers something to do. Note that local environmentalists fought a long battle to get this far so act sensibly, especially around the Poutes dam site. Don’t get run over by a digger!

al-brioweirThe 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 al18 - 43gnarly. I realised later that the first 100-m white plume was ‘Le Barraque au Ponnet’, easily recognisable on aerial maps, pictured on the right in full winter spate. The other WTJ… was ‘La Roche Qui Pleure’ – two of the fruitiest chutes on this stage (map below left).
p1290746I 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?
Either falsememway, 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 found the right lawyer. But I definitely recall the al-monihydroold Monistrol hydro plant (right) and my photo record shows I took the picture of the board below left at 9.03 and was at Prades beach by 1pm, invigorated but not indordinately trauamtised, iirc. River pictures were few back then in that pre-Lumix FT2 era.
alli06-monisLater, trying to work out what was different (other than my nerve), I wondered if I’d 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 round 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. al-monichutThe 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 see, I am bending over backwards trying to find ways to rationise away my new-found timidity!
Right: 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 on in for the ride!

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al18 - 4Annoyingly, 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.
al18 - 6And that is what I did, but not without a huge amount of effort. Initially the path followed the riverbank, al18-5passing a few Grade 3s (right, 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. Fallen trees, brambles, scree slopes, an intermittent path al18-10and 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, like I’d just escaped from a teenage slasher movie. Scratched, bitten, stung and grazed to buggery, I’d covered 3km in three hours.
al-sunfI 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. This it did, just before Pont Gilbert and al-monimapjust 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 (right).
al18 - 9At one point earlier, while thrashing through the bush or teetering across scree slopes, I heard the telltale whoops of hyper-exited 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 the 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 left: the ‘Le Ponnet’ viaduct down below with the long ‘Barraque’ rapid starting just round the corner and ‘Roche qui Pleure’ laughing menacingly from behind the trees on the left.
al18 - 12Dropping the kit bag and setting up by the riverside ‘La Petite Grille’, it had indeed become hot enough to grill a ‘croque monsieural-gonfleurs‘, 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.
floatdontwalkObviously part of me wondered if I could have managed the gnarly rapids upstream. After all, I’d clearly scraped through before 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 is a hardcore adventuriste I’ve come across before. The following year he went on to do a self-admitedly 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 ami.
al18 - 14Now revived but still worn out by the morning’s commando course, I knew there was a bit of a drossage (great word) just round 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 more popular than IKs and packrafts combined. What does that say about the state of post-industrial recreation in the developed world?

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al18 - 17Unusually, 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.
al18 - 16And I do wish these Frenchies would mark the tops of their glissades with two poles, indicating: ‘aimez-vous ici!’. On the left, 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 and, after beetitthe day I’d had, 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 leant, 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.

Today was just what was 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.
al18 - 23Three clicks downriver (6km from Langeac) was a double-drop weir-chute (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.
al18 - 28Splish followed splosh followed splish down to Chillac (below, 11.5km from Langeac), another picture-perfect postcard village sat atop a striking basalt plug with dreamy views across the Auvergnois countryside from the terrace by the church (big picture, top of page).

al18 - 29al18 - 34Half a click downstream from Chilac is an easy, short chute on the far left (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 overlooked.
al-44Soon, 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 at Le Prieure, the other creaky-stair hotel in the village, for a mouth watering  ‘Salade Auvergnate‘.

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Wandering around the old church and the imposing, 18th-century facade of the abandoned al18 - 37priory (right, due for al-priorluxury 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 flood waters to back up.

It’s the last day of my packrafting mini-break and by my estimates I had about 22km of paddling, plus another 4km walk to Brioude station to catch the 4:10 to Lyon Part Dieu. 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: 9.5 clicks in just 80 minutes which gave me plenty of time. This Allier flows quicker than it looks.
al18 - 38The 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 al18 - 39boulders and a drop of a few inches, making you wonder: ‘was that it?’ But at Ville Brioude, just before the tall bridge (right), the book suggests you can shoot a modern concrete weir (above left). Good luck with that and those boulders lined along the base.
al-brioweirFinally 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? 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.

al18 - 41All done. 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 food, by pedal or with paddle.

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Kayaking Hayling Island

hav - 6Time to knock out a long-planned circumnavigation of Hayling Island near Portsmouth while this amazing summer lasts! P-Day came along and by chance the weather and tides lined up: high 20s °C with a 3-m neap  and a calm morning before a 10mph onshore afternoon breeze.
I’d ridden down and recce’d the harbour entrances a couple of years back and last year we’d tried to reach the harbour along the canal from Chichester, but that plan didn’t work out. You’ll find lots of useful descriptions online, but it pays to recall (as I hav - 1learned on a run to Brighton) that on the English southeast coast the tide (which flows eastwards and ebbs to the west) turns eastwards from two hours before low water to four hours after. So while the water is still dropping the current reverses. hav - 2The Brighton post explains it (and I’ve since found an interesting animatable graphic here) and it may also explain why we passed deserted beaches and got to turn north into Chichester harbour entrance (right) surprisingly quickly, even if it was near calm. Occasionally a rogue wake rippled in from a distant freighter out in the English Channel.

haylingmapIt was soon clear that my estimation to cover this 22km lap was way too long. Shav - 3hooting along the channels visible on the map above, mudbanks to left and right limited side exploration and we ended up under Hayling bridge (KM13.5) in just 2½ hours including lunch and a few drifts.
hav - 5On the way we passed a lot of moss-covered sailing boats, lots of birds including oyster catchers (didn’t know you get them down south) and up nearer Northney marina, a brace of SoTs and a young couple struggling to control an under-inflated (or leaking) Sevy K2. Our high-pressure Seawave glided smugly by.
With less than half the tide in, there was already plenty of water to pass under the road bridge and between the stumps of the old railway span alongside. A huge rusting hav - 8drum suggested a swing bridge to allow boats to pass; online later, sure enough that’s what it was (left, see inset); a railway running from 1865 for just short of a century. When we drove off the island at about HW, it was the drum was only thing above water.
Chichester harbour is packed with parked-up sail boats (‘moored’ some might say); Langstone is virtually empty, possibly because it has much less deep water and a much narrower entrance. These natural harbours formed after the last Ice Age and take about seven hours to fill, but drain in only five. And because they drain right down to unfathomable mud flats on which even a gannet in snowshoes can barely walk, exploring side creeks can only be done with the high water clock ticking.
To aim for Langstone exit channel from the bridge, head for two tall poles visible to the SSW. By now the wind was in our faces giving a greater impression of speed, but the tide was coming in for another two hours (or do I add/subtract two hours? My brain hurts). We were way too early to catch a roiling ride out the 250-metre wide Langstone channel back into the Solent. We’d have to hack our way out along the side, like a Maori war party.
Long before we got there we could hear the intimidating wail of jet-skis hairing up and down the channel. They have such a bad rep and the two-stroke din doesn’t help endear them. If they sounded like Ducatis or Bonnevilles we’d be queuing up for a go.
hav - 10We passed the famous Langstone Pumpkin (left; a lost novel by Wilkie Collins), and soon after, hopping out to wade against the tide over the shallow Sinah Bank saw me sink into the vile black quicksludge which Collins used for the demise of his fickle heroine.
Nearing the channel I sought to dodge the in-pouring current by passing under the gantry of the Hayling Island ferry. Then I announced ‘All hands on deck! Prepare for ten minutes of full steam ahead’.
That ended up more like twenty, because keeping close to shore was made trickier by frolicking bathers, parked-up jet skis and inflatable goofballs. To the right the tide streamed past way faster than we could’ve paddled, but along the sides we managed to inch forward at a stroll’s pace; a yacht motoring out mid-channel was no faster. I kept eyeing up points where the current might splay out, but hav - 11it was getting on for a mile out over the East Winner sandbank before the effort eased, the seas slapped us about a bit and we were out in the Solent for a choppy paddle back to the beach (left), now packed with frolicking sunbathers, paddleboarders and inflatable goofballs. Quite worn out, we beached the kayak on and jumped back into the warm sea to wash off the salt and sweat.


It’s fun to try new stuff and paddle on a sunny day but overall I’d say round Hayling was a bit boring compared to a sunny day in the Coigach and it’s Northwest Highland backdrop. Who wants to pass Funland and beach houses, mudflats, marinas and more mudflats? Reminds me of Darwin harbour but without the crocs and mangroves. I suspect west of here, the Dorset coast may have more promise.
I still think the morning start anticlockwise from West Town is a good idea: knock out that exposed seafront stage before an afternoon breeze (and concomitant rise in bathers, paddle borders and hydrofoil kite boarders hitting the sound barrier). But I’d aim to leave West Town 3–4 hours after LW. The unintuitive tide may be turning but once in the harbours it gets you up and around to the Langstone exit channel around HW for a short paddle along the seafront back to West Town. There’s probably a formula for doing it clockwise from Eastoke and running the flood tide through the Langstone channel, but I’ll let you work that out.

hav - 12

 

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.

tarne - 1

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.

tarne - 9

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 ;-)

 

Skerries of the Summer Isles

summerskerrriesmapI paddled out into the Summers the other afternoon to see how far I’d get. What I was really eyeing up was Stac Mhic Aonghais or ‘Precipitous rocky feature of Angus’, one of three skerries bobbing just south of the Tanera islands.
I only really clocked it on last year’s crossing from Carn nan Sgeir to Tanera Beg. I suppose now I’ve visited just about all the Summer Islands I’m looking more closely at the bits in between.
But I knew before I got on the water the tide was not with me and nor was the wind. Hauling myself through the Tanera channel, by the time the cheese-wedge profile of Angus came into view to the southwest it looked a long way away, with only Glas-leac Beag (on the right, below) between it and the inky depths of the Minch.
Stac Mhic Aonghais

horsesoundSo I swung east around the south side of Tanera Mor and, now with the wind and tide behind me, at the last minute decided to make a ‘training dash’ towards ‘Goat Sound’ (left) – the tidal passage between Horse and ‘Goat’ island which I guessed was flooded by now. From there it was a weary hack back against the squalls to the beach and an XL dinner.

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A few days later I persuaded visiting paddlechum Jon that a tour of the Summer Isles Skerries was good use of his holiday up here. He’d just returned from a gruelling, two-day bike ride through the Assynt – part of the HT550 – so his arms were in need of some exercise.
As skerries go, the supposedly 78-foot-high (26-m) Stac of Angus (see below) has a dramatic profile. From some angles a homesick Norseman pining for his mead might even call it a dragon’s tooth. It also looked fairly easy to climb to the top to get a nice shot of a kayak below.

summerskerriesStac Mhic Aonghais, Sgeir an Aon Iomairt and Sgeir Ribhinn or Revan. All three line up with about a kilometre between each; long thin skerries aligned on a SW/NE axis, as is much of the lower elevation topography up here; valleys and trenches carved I assume, by glaciers advancing from Scandinavia. This report suggests that 12,000 years ago during nwh-mapan anomalous cold spike following the end of the last Ice Age ‘…climatic factors, combined with the availability of large quantities of subglacial debris, led to the development of distinctive glacial landsystems, which may have no direct modern analogue.’ As we know, the dramatic Assynt has no topographic analogue elsewhere in Scotland and the angular claw of Stac of Angus is one of its many remnants. (Btw, that marine chart screenshot above left is from a very handy and editable online nautical ‘mapp’).

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skerryhighPlanning paddles up here is of course a lottery but came the day, by some miracle a High had parked itself over the northern British Isles, put on the handbrake and tipped the seat back. The 4.5-m tide may have been at the peak of its fortnightly cycle, bottoming out at 2.30pm, but that could be handy if we used it right. If we left Stac around low tide, it should be an easy ride back up to Old Dornie, assisted by the rising afternoon breeze.
We paddled down between the Taneras with the tide, passing some other kayakers on the way. I mentioned the Tanera Beg arch just round the corner to them, but after a quick check the tide was too far gone to thread the arch.
stacmikIn little more than an hour we were approaching the gnarly, storm-wracked northern prow of Angus. It’s hard to think how the 1:25,000 OS map arrives at the oft-repeated height of 26m. The picture below of Angus’ high point is about 90 minutes before a low spring tide at around 0.5m above Ordnance Datum – which is the lowest astronomical tide – ‘LAT’ – at Newlyn. So even if you add about 2m or 6 feet to measure the skerry at LAT, or just use the more likely MSL, there’s no way that adds up nearly 80 feet; it’s more like half that. It’s odd because the two other skerries we were heading for had entirely plausible heights.

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Anyway, we paddled along the exposed west side looking for a landing spot but found nothing but 45-degree slopes. I was sort of hoping that low tide might reveal a platform or at least give us more rock surface to choose from, but very low tide also exposes seaweed, kelp and other crap; there’s probably as much chance of getting alongside a handy ledge at higher tides.
Stac Mhic AonghaisAs we passed between the two outcrops on the south end, Jon smacked me in the head with his paddle (left). Lifted through by a 1-m swell, on the inshore side we found the least unlikely looking parking slot, where between bigger swells I could crawl out (right). If you think about it, sitting as you are on the floor of a bobbling Stac Mhic Aonghaisnarrow boat at sea level, there’s nothing harder to get out of than a kayak, especially once you’ve attained a certain age. IKs are easier than a proper sea kayak of course, but even a canoe’s bench seat might be easier to spring or step off.
angus - 6Stac Angus is nearly bisected by a punched-out breach (left) through which storm waves tumble; the higher part is in the north. Problem was getting there from the lower half of the skerry where I’d landed. Even if it wasn’t 26m above MLWS or LAT or even M&S, accessing that northern spike was a lot more of a rock-climbing challenge than I was prepared to take on. So I left it to the squawking guillemots and settled with just enough elevation to get an OK shot of Jon gliding by (below), then scrambled back down to the slot and hailed down my water taxi.

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With Stac of Angus ticked off, we scooted over towards Sgeir an Aon Iomairt (in the picture above, on the right), hoping angusionmarslotit would provide an easier landing for a civilised terrestrial lunch. Iomairt has a similar NW-facing cliff and on its NE corner has a parking slot of sorts (right) where a kayak can wedge itself as the tide drops away below it.
angus - 16The surprise here was the thick cushy duvet of soft grass and thrift flowers which capped the island. Picture left: looking south from, near the summit towards the Carns, Bottle and Priest Island. Whatever it is that makes Iomairt agreeable to lush vegetation and sea pink thrifts, while Angus makes do with lichen and bird shite, it’s found here. Perhaps because it’s less of a jutting flake and flatter, with many crevices where rainwater and sludge can gather and foment.
Who knows, but it was nice angus - 17to be able to walk around, rather than teether on acute, barnacle-covered slabs, as I’d just done on Angus. We settled down out of the breeze – May temperatures are still barely in double figures up here – and unpacked our munchies. We had with less than an hour before the tide turned and lifted the Gumotex away. As we ate we spotted another couple of paddlers enjoying the calm conditions out to the southeast, near the two Carns which join up at low tides, like today.
angus - 13Though you’re not spoilt for choice out here in the Summer Isles, you could easily camp on Sgeir an Aon Iomairt. There’s brackish water in some angus - 14pools, good enough for a wash, and enough flat patches to sleep in comfort. Hardshell or IK, for peace of mind you’d still want to lug you’re boat above the high water line unless you can find a bombproof anchorage. And the elevation of around 16m is, you’ll be pleased to know, about right.
angus - 18When our time came the tide had dropped a metre but was on the turn. Getting back in  was as always an angus - 19awkward shunt, slipping around on kelp and slimey molluscs to get the Seawave back on the water, but once in the pool it did manage to paddle itself out over the slimy kelp towards Sgeir Ribhinn (‘Maiden’s Skerry’), the last of our Summer Island skerries.
angus - 21Coming round the eastern side of Ribhinn, even this skerry managed to sustain a small capping of grass. We nosed into a kayak-wide geo and found ourselves in a twin-arched cave, another angus - 22paddleable arch (right) to add to my list.

All that remained was to paddle back the way we came through the western passage of ‘Tanera Sound’, between Tanera Beg and Eilean Fada Mor. With the spring tide still low, all the tanbeg2006shell beaches were out sunning themselves. After looking for it for years, I finally recognised a cove and beach on Tanera Beg (left) where we’d spent a lovely afternoon 12 years ago with my Gumotex Sunny and ancient Safari when we first started coming to the Summers.
Back to now, I hopped off at Eilean Fada to top up the air that had purged while out of the water over lunch, and to get a shot of Jon floating over the azure Bahaman sands (below). My kayaks have got a lot better since 2006, but the Summer Islands remain the same great place they always were for a quiet paddle.

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Loch Sionascaig and Eilean Mòr

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First paddle of the year and it’s nearly May! I need to get out more. It was a calm day but as we’d not been there for ages, we decided to go inland to the ever-reliable Loch ‘Sion’, spread below a cirque of dramatic Assynt peaks. From the lay-by on the WMR it’s a half-a-mile’s trudge down to the west shore at Boat Bay, dipping through the hazel woods then tip-toeing over rotting walkways spanning slimy quagmires.
gumoneeight2sionDown at the bay – bother! The skeg – clipped to hull through a zip tie was MIA. The zip tie had probably succumbed to the UV, as they do. Oh well, I claimed years ago these IKs are controllable without a skeg, let’s see if that’s still true.
On a flowing river, finessing the paddle strokes while solo, it works well at the cost of some flat-out speed. But two-up and with a tail breeze – that aeolian nemesis of paddlecraft – we scratched a scruffy traverse out to the mouth of Boat Bay where it was quicker to let the funnelled wind push us out gumoneeight1into the main loch. Suilven sat to the north, Cul Mor was straight ahead and the ever-popular Stac Polly was to the south where panting lines of day-trekkers were eyeing us right now, some with what I liked to think was mild envy.
By and by we reach Eilean Dudh, the islet just north of Eilean Mòr, where I went for a solo spin to see if the boat was easier to track solo. It was a bit, especially once off a tailwind.

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That done, we paddled over to Eilean Mòr, parked up on the east side out of the breeze and found a flatish, dryish patch where some woodsman had made a rudimentary camp. I went off for an explore through the mossy-barked woodlands, like something from a fairy tale, then up to the unusually bald summit which in a month or two will be waist-deep in thick, green ferns. All around the heather-clad hills still clung to the tawny hues of late winter and the branches of gaunt, leafless trees, deformed by the prevailing winds, reached northeast like some toga-clad heroine in a Romantic painting. May’s reliably sunny spells will soon put an end to all this drabness.

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When the time came to paddle back, set against the wind the skegless Seawave was much easier to handle and satisfying to paddle. In fact I got so engrossed in the effort that amid the perspectiveless blur of yellows and browns I missed the small entrance back into Boat Bay and was steering us west towards the Polly Lochs.
ROVAFLEX‘This doesn’t look right’. And I was right, it wasn’t. A quick glance at the map and a turn to the northwest delivered us back to the right shore. Back home, the skeg lay in the gravel by the wall alongside a broken zip tie. Have I mentioned tough, TPU RovaFlex reusuables yet?

A fortnight later (that’s the frequency of sunny days up here) we looked down on a new perspective of Suilven and Eilean Mòr island from the windless 2800-foot summit of Canisp mountain, still clinging to the last of the winter snows.

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One Million Sharks

 

ethj.jpgThis weekend IK&P went supernova and broke through the one-million hit barrier, making it possibly the kkwwmost read non-commercial website about inflatable kayaks and packrafts. Find a niche and they will come, as the bloke from WaterWorld is said to have said.

The last time I congratulated myself on being such an internet hit searchalltimewas in 2011 when I reached 50,000 hits. Back then visitors seemed preoccupied with sharks and shark attacks, as the all-time Search Terms table on the right shows. I always assumed the only hitsaltime2reason they’d even stumbled over this blog was because they’d been lured in by my most read post: Walking with Sharks – about kayaking in Shark Bay, Western Australia with my Gumotex Sunny. At 380 hits or 5%, that was the top search term about actual IKs.

sharko17Six years later and it’s fascinating to see how the search priorities of the packboating public have matured. Now I can say with some pride that the most popular search terms that bring visitors to IK&P is still
SHARK ATTACK’
, followed by
SHARK ATTACKS’ and even an over-excited
SHARKS ATTACKS.

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Interestingly, the top real search is now ‘packrafts’ which have caught on in the last few years, but the long defunct Gumo Sunny is still in the top five, who knows why.

The most read pages (left) apart from the front page is… SHARKS!! [Walking with…], followed by Packrafts (also walking with) and a few technical and boat review posts, plus my Bombard post. It took days to write that one.

Thanks to all you shark fans for visiting IK&P.
See you at two mil.

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Chichester Canal & Pagham to Bognor

Forgot camera; pix WYSIWYG

We set out to paddle from Chichester Town Basin, down the old ship canal into the tidal Chichester Harbour at Birdham Lock. Lois and Austin in two do-it-all, drop-skeg Venture Flex 11s (right) Robin and Elliot in an old Gumo Twist 2 and a newer Nitrilon one, both ventflexof which fitted into carrier bags. Plus my Seawave lashed to a trolley.
Nearly two hundred years ago Turner depicted tall ships gliding serenely along the then new 4.5-mile canal (left). During the canal boom preceding the railways, it linked Roman-era Chichester with the huge natural inlet of Chichester Harbour and the adjacent naval fleet at Portsmouth. To the east was a canal to the Arun & Wey navigation (right), a short-lived inland link between London and Portsmouth commissioned at a time when Napoleonic fleets threatened the English Channel.

Our original plan had been no less grand – a 15-mile lap of Hayling Island (left) – but today the tides and winds were all wrong for that, and even with Plan B we’d arrive at Birdham at low tide to face an undignified sludgey put in.

On Google maps the canal looked clear, with maybe a quick carry around a lock or two. But just two miles from the basin, a thick mat of Sargasso frogweed clogged the channel at the B2201 Selsey Road bridge (left), reducing speeds to a crawl. Worse still, over the bridge this unallied carpet of errant biomass ran on forever, and probably all the way to Birdham Lock too.

Was it a high-summer frogweed bloom? The initial two miles are kept clear by rowers, paddlers and the 32-seater cruise boat which hooted past us with a lone passenger, tapping at his phone. But nothing bar the Solent breeze stirred the chmallardcanal west of the B2201, allowing the thick Sargassan spinach to fester and choke navigation to even the pluckiest of mallards. A picture from 2008 (left) shows less weed at the bridge and a rather squeezy thrutch through a spider-clogged culvert under the road.

Abandon Plan B all ye who Venture Flex here. Austin called in anchuber Uber: ETA 4 mins; ET back to his Volvo: 6 mins. Total elapsed recovery time: 16 mins, give or take. The internet of things – how modern! Soon the hardshells were lashed to the roof and the rolled up IKs heaved into the spacious boot of the Swedish landraft with class-leading crumple zones.
chwilfA quick map check and I proposed Plan C: Pagham Harbour just down the road and out of the rising southwesterlies. I’d never heard of this  medieval-era port which was now a bird sanctuary-cum-sludge bank but Elliot had been spotting here so knew the way to the chapel at Church Norton, thought to be the mythical 7th-C source of the overdue Christianisation of pagan Sussex.

chpumpA 5-minute haul led to the shore, except the tide – which should have turned over an hour ago – was still way out, leaving only chgoresnaking channels accessible down muddy banks.  We ate lunch, waiting, like Al Gore, for sea levels to rise. But when the time came nothing but irksome clouds of marsh gnats stirred as we padded over the springy salt-scrub to the nearest channel (left).
All around, chjetcollapsed jetties, concrete groynes and other arcane structures (right) recalled Pagham’s 19th-century heyday. Back then, the sea had been successfully sealed off and the land reclaimed for farming until a storm in 1910 broke through the embankment, reflooding the harbour for fair and fowl.

chspitneyAnother portage over a shingle bank got us to the main outlet leading to the sea and where the water was rushing out when it should have been filling. I realised that narrow-necked inlets like Pagham Harbour act like reservoirs, releasing their tidal fill gradually for hours after the sea tide has turned. In the tropical fjords of northwestern Australia’s Kimberley it can produce chhoribizarre spectacles like the Horizontal Waterfall (right).
We drifted and boat-hauled through a strange, desert-like landscape of barren shingle banks speckled with forlorn fishermen and demure nudists, until the spit spat us out into the English Channel like five bits of unwanted, flavourless chewing gum.

ch-harriAccording to images and video on Save Pagham Beach (left), it’s staggering how fast the spit has grown once shingle management ceased around 2004; part of a new ‘natural coastline’ policy. The spit has repositioned tidal erosion eastwards and along the shore, accelerating the scouring of Pagham’s foreshore and endangering the homes immediately behind. Recutting the Harbour’s outlet to the west (bottom picture, left) is thought to be a solution, but may transfer the flooding risk inside the harbour. Add in the protected SSSI status of the Harbour and the ‘homes vs terns’  debate becomes complex. Who’d have thought we just went out for a simple paddle.

Eastward along the coast, the assembled infrastructure of Bognor Regis rose from the horizon, while behind us the promontory of Selsey Bill kept the worst of the wind off the waves. With a helping tide and backwind we bobbed with little effort in the swell which gradually grew and started white-capping once clear of the bill. But as I often find, a sunny day and not paddling alone reduced the feeling of exposure and imminent chbogwatery doom. Only when a stray cloud blocked the sun for a minute did the tumbling swell take on a more threatening, malevolent tone. The buoyant Twists – hardly sea kayaks – managed the conditions fine and the lower, unskirted Ventures only took the odd interior rinse.

Talking of which, All Is Lost (right) was on telly the other night. Lone yatchsman Robert Redford battles against compounding reversals in the Indian Ocean after a collision with floating cargo container wrecks his boat. A great movie with almost zero dialogue.
Just near Bognor all was lost for real (above and right). Only a fortnight earlier, a similar, lone-helmed sailing boat had lost its engine and unable to sail, drifted onto Bognor’s serried timber groynes.
Less than two weeks had passed and already the hull was now cracked like an eggshell and the masts were gone (maybe removed). But unlike the doomed Redford character, on the day the Norway-bound sailsman had been able to scramble ashore.
These groyne stumps – designed to limit longshore shingle drift – could also be a bit tricky in a hardshell if the swell dropped as you passed over one. And just along the shore was another wreck (left) protruding gnarly, rusted studs which may well have sliced up an IK. Mostly submerged when we passed, some post-facto internetery revealed it to be the remains of a Mulberry Harbour pontoon, one of many built in secret during WWII as far as northwest Scotland, then floated out on D-Day in 1944 to enable the sea assault on Normandy.

chhidiOur own beach assault ended at the truncated remains of Bognor pier, proving the sea eats away at this whole coast. Bognor is a step back to Hi-de-Hi! Sixties Britain when we did like to be beside the seaside. All together now!
So ended a great day of paddle exploring. Uber!

 

Paddling to Brighton

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Tuesday was set to be a scorcher – no less than  30°C predicted in mid-September (in the end over 34°C, the hottest September day for over a century). No excuses then to try my first south coast paddle if the winds and tides lined up. Could be my last paddle this year.
With bands of chalk cliffs and the Atlantic getting funnelled in, the Sussex coast feels a bit exposed compared to northwest Scotland where I usually sea kayak. With little of interest, it’s not exactly a sea kayaking mecca, even though it’s highly populated. At least if you have a shipwreck, it won’t be far to a road or even a bus and I bet a phone works everywhere.
Wind direction for Tuesday was ESE – an ideal onshore-ish backwind, if a bit breezy (for a lone IK) at 13mph. And by chance the tide was just right too: high at a handy 9am with a moderate 3.5m drop. (good tide times website). In five days time the spring tide would be nearly twice that. Clearly this was shaping into a westbound day.

doverI learned an interesting thing about Sussex and Kent tides while planning this run earlier in the summer. For the last two hours of the incoming (eastbound) flow, the tide keeps rising but reverses westbound along the English coast as it backs up at the Straights of Dover and spills back down the sides.
This makes a more usual easterly run with the prevailing SW winds a bit tricky (or short) on an incoming tide. The nearer the Straights the more skewed the tides. At Dover it falls for nearly 8 hours, but fills in less than five. At Brighton, where the Channel is four times wider, ebb and flow are equal but you still get that 2-3 hour backwash at the end of a high.

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Anyway, that was academic as wind and tide made Newhaven west to Brighton and beyond the way to go. With lots of rail stations, I could go as far as the arms lasted. The Newhaven train took me over and along the South Downs where sheep nibbled in the early morning sunshine. It sure was nice to get out, even in southeast England which isn’t exactly terra incognita to me.
On the steep shingle beach below Newhaven fort, the tide was topping out as I topped off the Seawave and the Dieppe ferry backed out of the harbour. These shingle beaches have steep ramps bashed out by stormy seas. At high tides this terracing kicks up the surf and means wading in can quickly put you out of your depth, as I recall well from childhood holidays on the Southeast’s shingle beaches. But probably more by chance, I timed my put-in on a lull, hopped in and PLF’d out of the surf zone.
As usual, alone on a new shore after a couple of months off, the first few minutes or more required managing an agoraphobic anxiety. I reassured myself the wind was blowing me along- and towards the shore, and the dropping tide would gradually expose beaches below the cliffs if I needed a break. On the beach I’d inadvertently pumped the seat right up, and in trying to deflate it on the water, the annoying sticky twist valve stuck and I was soon sat flat on the floor. Oh well, it will make me more stable if it all gets too rough, I suppose. I’d forgotten my rudder too, but wasn’t too bothered about that. One less thing to concentrate on.

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The trouble with backwinds is they give no impression of movement and soon I was dripping like a dewy fern. As you’d expect out here, the seas were jaunty, with occasional swells rolling by that looked higher than me. But there were no tell-tale whitecaps, the stern wasn’t pushed about, and half an hour in, a long concrete ledge/seawall below Peacehaven cliffs offered a way out if needed. That would have to be in extremis though, as at times the swell slapped hard against the walls and there were only steps to get out.

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No need for that yet. We were moving along probably faster than I felt. I tried to keep away from the shore so as not to get caught by a rogue swell – I saw one break up ahead way off the shore and steered well behind that point. There seemed to be no pattern to these choppier episodes. Was it a set coming through or just seabed related? Later, looking at an OS map and what the sat map below shows too, a wave-cut sub-sea platform of the soft chalky cliffs extends quite far out. Where the jade green sea turns blue is where it drops off? Who knows, perhaps it’s just the sea, but it created an uneven rhythm considering the linear nature of the paddle.
Another thing I noticed was that I drifted out to sea if I didn’t concentrate. It was probably the tide which not only ebbs westwards but goes out too. Hence the well-known expression and phenomenon: ‘the tide is going out’. Every once in a while a quick spurt inshore (but not too far inshore) put me right.

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A few miles ahead I could see the whitewashed conurbation of Brighton, but the old backside was now beginning to feel the strain. I passed by a couple of serious-looking sea swimmers heading upwind, then put in between some groynes at Saltdean, where another cliff-protecting concrete walkway resumed and ran all the way to Brighton; a fun cycle or hoverboard, I dare say. I timed my landing well enough, but after pumping the seat and a rest, re-entry required flipping the swamped boat a couple of times to drain it. Probably because getting back out between the surf can’t be done as briskly as coming in.

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Next obstacle: getting round Brighton marina where the seas really felt quite lively. The southeasterly swell was bouncing off the marina walls like Brighton revellers on legal highs. Nothing for it but to PLF; at least the wind was helping. Round the back of the breakwater all was calm, bar the odd oversized swell. I found a piece of coal and a child’s wet shoe. It was a good omen: follow the shoe!

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Up ahead lay Brighton pier and the effort and early tension of only a couple of hours was starting to show. I hacked away towards the pier, then decided I must pass underneath it with my new shoe if I was to reach salvation. SUPers were gliding by and wetbikers were gunning about, making a grating, aggressive din.
A surfy beach landing was performed ‘with aplomb‘ in front of the basking crowds. I recall an apocryphal American’s view of Brighton Beach
‘Beach? Where’s the saynd? It’s all stones!’.
GPS check: ten miles at 4mph average, peak 6.5mph. Quite fast really. Time to pull the plugs.

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In case you don’t know, Brighton is an unusually groovy and arsty enclave by English south coast standards; ‘London by Sea’ some call it. I met up with a young entrepreneur who was hoping to start-up an innovative  coffee-by-drone delivery service. So far the response had been excellent and the odd sunbather who’d got a scalding espresso shower merely thought it was an amusing prank. If coffee-by-drone could work anywhere in the UK, Brighton would be the place. Apparently he’s idea is on an upcoming Dragon’s Den.

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As for the paddle. It’s good to get a salty tan while exercising, but the run was as ordinary as I expected, not like the wilds of the northwest or even the rural southwest, and without much intriguing geographic detail to explore. I bet looking down on the passing Seawave from the clifftops was a lot more alluring.

West beyond Brighton it’s built up pretty much all the way to Selsey Bill before the Solent. In the other direction Cuckmere Haven around the much bigger cliffs of Seven Sisters and Beachy Head to Eastbourne pier (8 miles) would be a good one on a calm day.
You can’t get lost – just follow the shoe.

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Gumotex Twist on the Tarn Gorge

twistarn1tarn16mapOn the way back from some riding in the Pyrenees I persuade my lift that a day’s paddling in southern France’s famous Tarn Gorge would be a good use of our time. The 20-odd kms between La Malene and Le Rozier via Les Vignes (see map) is about as good a day in the gorge as you’ll get. We last did the full 75km from Florac to Le Cresse in 2007 with a Solar and the Sunny and had a great time.
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This time IKing chum Robin was baptising his new Gumotex Twist 2, an entry-level IK which in the MkII version has gone back to shiny Nitrilon Light inside and out. I do read here that one unhappy customer found out it was ‘70% less strong and only 30% lighter’ than the regular Nitrilon as used on Seawaves, 410C, Helios and so on. His boat flipped in the wind and punctured on a stick which does sound like a gale combined with an exceedingly sharp stick.
According to the Gumotex graphic (left) it appears like Nitrilon Light uses the same layering as the Nitrilon in the higher spec Gumboats, but due to a lower-strength fabric core Nitrilon Light has about a third of the tensile strength. Many older Gumo IKs were over-built with tough, commercial raft fabric and so the result is a light and affordable IK with a slick interior that wipes down and dries fast. As a reminder the T2 is 3.6m long, a generous and stable 83cm wide and weighs 11kg (2kg more than the old model). Payload is said to be 180kg. Robin has the original Lite Pack Twists but found they weren’t so practical or robust, at least not on the submerged light industrial detritus found in his neighbourhood. Nitrilon Lite was dropped from the Gumotex lineup in 2018.
twist-seatThese MkII Twists also have detachable and adjustable seats – a big improvement (or return to former practises) because it means they can be easily replaced with something twistfootrestbetter. There’s nothing wrong with the blow-up seat base but the inflatable back section lacks support. Robin’s fitted some sort of SoT seat pad (left, in his T1). Another improvement on the MkIIs is making the top seam on the side tubes overlapping flat, not just pressed together which maybe simplifies assembly in the factory but looks cheap. There’s a mushy inflatable footrest for the front paddler; the back paddler adjusts their seat to use the back of the front seat as a footrest. And there’s now also a PRV in the floor chamber which the Lite Pack Twists didn’t have. We like PRVs here at IK&P. We even like PRVs all round.
twistarn2The £350 T2 could actually be a good lightweight alternative to the 60cm longer 410C which costs £200 more (in the UK), as it still has a useful length for a solo touring paddler. Problem is, using just the back seat tips the weight back and the bow up unless there’s a hefty counterbalancing load on the front. The boat paddles OK like this and probably turns quicker, but yawed more twistarn4than my packraft so seemed slower and just looked wrong. For a while Robin knelt canoe-style which looked more balanced but isn’t a really a sustainable way of paddling without a bench.
On the old Sunny (and maybe the 410C which replaced it), to paddle the double boat solo you just flipped the front seat to face backwards, put the skeg on the bow end (skeg patch came fitted on a Sunny) and paddled off balanced in the middle of the twistarn3boat. The Sunny and the 410 are possibly symmetrical boats with an identical bow and stern. I’m not sure the twistsymTwist 2 is (right), though I doubt you’d notice any difference paddling it stern first. If you do do this front seat flip/paddle ‘backwards’ trick you’d need to stick on a second skeg patch (£12, easily done) under the bow. Or, to paddle bow forward, you’d need to stick on a couple of Gumo d-rings (€15 in Germany) midway between the current two seat mounts to sit you in the middle of the boat. I’d also recommend using the various floor fittings to mount something like a solid footrest tube. The mushy inflatable Gumotex ones were never much cop, need inflating and weight more.
twistarn6We set off, me assuming my Alpacka would be a lot slower, but Robin likes to bimble along, waving his bow around. The Tarn was shallow and so his skeg took quite a beating, made worse by the rearward weight bias. They’re pretty much unbreakable but I’d have removed it even if the tracking may have suffered. packsag
With careful scanning the Alpacka just about scraped through the shallows, with me occasionally resorting to ‘planking’ where you lift your butt by leaning back on the stern to improve clearance. As you can see right, the derriere is the lowest point which I why I glued on a butt patch. On the Twist Robin could only shove forward or get out and pull. By the end the Twist’s skeg patch was a little torn which takes some doing.
soucytwistarn5It took 90 minutes to cover the 9km of Grade 1 riffles to the Pas de Soucy where a rockfall blocks the river (left) and makes some very nasty strainers. Midway en portage we nipped up to the lookout for the view then had lunch and put back in for the 12km stage to Le Rozier and the van.
lesvigsSoon after Pas de Soucy is the chute or glissade at Les Vignes where a typical indestructable rental brick tends to plough in at the bottom, while an airy inflatable surfs over the pile. The missing fourth frame in the pictures below is the blue SoT flipping over. ‘Prends pas le photo!’ No harm done on a 30°C day in sunny France.

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This section of the gorge has some juicier rapids, but it’s still nothing that would freak out a first timer; that’s what makes the Tarn such a classic paddle: great scenery, some white water action, easy camping and the fun of splashing about among the flotillas of SoT rentals. There are several campings below the road right by the river, though this time of year they’re all packed out. On arrival we got the last pitch between two noisy young groups at Le Rozier and a free lift next morning up to La Malene from the kayak rental agency next door. There’s also a shuttle bus running up and down the gorge.
There’s an old post on southern France paddling here. Hop on the TGV with your packboat and get down there.

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