Tag Archives: Best Canoe Trips in the South of France

Book review: Best Canoe Trips in the South of France

See also Packboating in Southern France
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Back in print after 16 years, Rivers Publishing have updated their 2002 White Water Massif Central canoe guide, now less scarily titled: Best Canoe Trips in the South of France. Packboats aren’t mentioned, but what’s doable in a canoe is well suited to IKs and easier still in packrafts.
Compared to a Pesda Press paddling massifrivers1guide, Best Canoe Trips still looks a bit old school and amateurish, but there’s nothing else like it covering France’s inspiring Massif region (right). It’s a good example of: ‘write it and they might come’. Even now, let alone back in 2002, trying to amass this sort of information would take days of effort and translating. This is why there’s still a place for proper, well-researched paper guidebooks.
massifriversVisiting over the years with packboats, using planes and trains, I’ve ticked off just about all the original book’s big rivers. Like a lot of activities in France, the whole scene is so much more fun, open and less rule-bound than the UK. You can’t help but smile as you bundle into a Tarn or Ardeche rapid alongside floating barrels and screaming teenagers clinging to upturned rentals.

What they say:

BAKSouth-of-France[Best Canoe Trips in the South of France] is written for the recreational canoeist, kayaker, or stand-up paddle boarder going on holiday to the South of France. Rivers include the famous Gorges du Tarn, Gorges de l’Ardèche, Dordogne and Lot, besides some lesser known jewels such as the Allier, Hérault, Orb, Vézere and Célé.
The Massif Central is renowned for its canoeing and the rivers in this guidebook are some of the best in the world for canoe-camping. This guide book targets those rivers that have easy white water and assured water levels in the summer months of July and August, when most families have to take their holidays. New dams, reservoirs, and guaranteed water releases means that canoe tourism is now huge in the Massif Central and this guide covers over 800km of class 1-3 [rivers], with all the details needed for a fabulous and truly escapist, holiday.
This new edition has details of two new rivers, 22 detailed colour maps, updated river descriptions, recommended campsites and lots of inspiring photographs. 


What I think
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• Great selection of brilliant rivers – there’s nothing else like it
• Loads (and loads) of colour photos show how it is
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•  Maps too small and lacking in detail and consistency
• Route descriptions could be more concise
• Poor updating and errors on the two rivers I paddled recently
• What’s with the fake cover?


twobooksReview
If you know the original edition (far left), first thing you’ll notice is the near-identical cover, but with frothing rapids airbrushed away and a somewhat anachronistic SUP pasted on. A clumsy attempt to Riverwyecash-in on the SUP craze?
Some of Rivers’ other publications feature very nice retro poster-style covers (right) which would have suited Best Canoe Trips perfectly. Can a non-faked image of canoeing in the Massif be so hard to rack down? The book is full of them. But if you don’t know the previous edition you’d probably not notice the front cover photoshoppery.
massifsummInside, it’s now full colour and twin column, like a Pesda. Two small rivers have been added: the 23-km Sioule north of Clermont, and all of 13km of the Dourbie meeting the Tarn at Millau. It’s not much which proves they did a thorough job first time round, even if some descriptions were incomplete.
Up front are Planning and Resources sections before getting stuck into the 11 (actually 12, with Chassezac) river descriptions.
Each river still gets a rating table for magnificence, enjoyment, child-friendliness, as well as cleanliness, temperature, flow in cumecs, and busy-ness. Of these last four, the traffic is most useful for what to expect. Without lab tests, all the rivers I’ve done looked clean enough, and temperature was what it was on the day, depending on depth or season. And who but a river pro knows what ‘7 cumecs’ looks like? There must be some rationale to it, but to me identifying the locations of more easily understood river level gauges (where present) would be much more useful, as you can refer to this handy live river levels website.
rivoThe river descriptions are still long-winded – 85km of Tarn goes on for 16 pages, albeit with lots of photo padding. It makes it hard to pin down the nitty gritty. Headings include Camping, Off the River, Food & Drink, more Camping then Maps & Guides. Then each suggested shuttle-able day-stage is described, some getting Summary and Description headings, some not. Boxes cover asides, others list tourist offices and campsite telephone numbers where surely websites (as in the old edition) are infinitely more useful? The ‘Off the River’ heading is a nice touch, suggesting the many other things to see and do locally, and you get a recommendation for the best IGN map/s for the river.
You’ll need that because, despite a handy, ‘big picture’ river map scaled-down to fit a page, with the subsequent stage maps you’ll struggle to orientate yourself unless you keep track closely, and the important detail is rendered inconsistently from map to map. All but three of the 20-odd maps are the same as edition 1 and at over 1:100,000 scale (some over twice that), where the 50k or bigger walking standard would be much better, such as Chassezac on p64. Only the map for the new Sioule river shows how it should have been done: a coincidentally usable scale of 71k and each weir, rapid and so on marked with a small red dash so you know what’s coming or where you are. The old maps retain tiny dashes marking such things, but in blue over a blue river with blue writing that’s hard to read.
rivaJust follow the river you might think. But when you’re wondering just how far to that nasty-sounding weir (which turns out to be nothing), or even where the heck you are, without GPS mapping or a signal for your smartphone map app, a well drawn and detailed map with accurate descriptions of bridges and other landmarks, is so much more useful and intuitive than columns and columns of text where one drossage reads very much like another. For 20 quid I’d expect to have proper, usable maps.
Full, town-to-town river descriptions would also make more sense than obscure put-in to obscure take-out. We managed fine continuing beyond the half-described Chassezac (listed under ‘Ardeche’ for some reason) all the way to the actual Ardeche confluence. Same with the Tarn: Florac to Millau is a great 3-4 days. Why not just provide a full and accurate description right through to the white water course in Millau (a fun finale!) and let the reader decide where to start and end? 
Whoever they sent to update the Allier didn’t do a great job. Distances (another useful aid to orientation; easily measured online) were out. Over-emphasised descriptions of ‘blink-and-you-miss-them’ pre-industrial weirs are now irrelevantDuck, while other chute-avoiding weirs have become fun Class 2s. There are even left/right portaging errors introduced since the previous edition. See the Allier page for more detail.
The ‘fluffy-duck-mascot’ joke was done to death first time round. Unfortunately the author still thinks it has some mileage in this edition. Oh well, chacun a son gout.

The switch to colour has given the book a fresh new look, but as a worthwhile improvement, the inconsistent updating has led to a missed opportunity. It’s perhaps to be expected because, as the author hints and my impressions concur, fewer families holiday like this anymore. Holiday-makers just bundle into a rental for a day and get vanned back to the campsite. All that is a shame as without the first edition I’d have missed out on a whole lot of memorable paddling adventures in lovely southern France, one of the best paddling locales in western Europe.

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Packrafting the Tarn Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

tarnlevel

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

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


tarnmap

Click to enlarge, it’s a big map.

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

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

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Soon enough things improve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The start of Tarn SoT rental country. Buuundle!

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

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

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KM21.5 • Soon another portant obligée?

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

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KM21.7 • Zombie revellers near Castelbruc.

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

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

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

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

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Alternative route for people terrified of water.

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You’re never far from a Sevy slackraft!

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Tarning along.

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

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

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

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SoTs stacked ready for the August rush.

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

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

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The cascade.

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St Chely with cascade. You see it all here.

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

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Soon it’s pelting chats et chiens…

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

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

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

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

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

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Nice stonework. Would have been streaming waterfalls last night.

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

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It’s not that high, but still.

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I get papped by Franco Gill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Local rafters attack the froth with their paddles.

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

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

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

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

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

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Millau old town. Viva Oc!

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A hot sweaty dusk descends over Montpellier. 

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Easy come, Easy go ;-)