Don’t get excited, we’re talking a few hundred metres of Class 1.1, but that’s as good as it gets around here. We’ve had a lot of rain in the last week, enough to make the only paddleable river – the short Osgaig – worth a poke with a paddle. I was here with the Yak last year at slightly lower levels, so this time was expecting a smoother run in the Solar (now with an improved seat-foot set up), followed immediately by a comparison run in the Alpacka Yak.
Gumotex Solar IK The good thing with the Solar is it’s old, worth next to nothing but tough, so can be dragged like a hardshell with the Yak in the back. I considered jury rigging some thigh straps; it could be done now through the new footrest pipe and around the seat mounts, but looking at the river as I drove up, it wasn’t really worth it. Thigh straps are what makes any deckless boat – air-filled or hard-shelled – much more controllable when things get choppy. Even WW packrafters insist straps are the way to go.
With the skeg off, it’s easy to seal launch off a grassy bank and into the scrum just below the waterfall which looks a bit complicated so was no less inviting this year. As I spilled over the first little step I tried surfing like people do. But the Solar wasn’t especially dynamic or there wasn’t a strong enough recirculation going on to make it feel interesting. So I swung round and set off. Even at full flow, the Osgaig is a shallow, bony river better suited to an injection-molded TNP ‘spaddle’, not 220 quid’s worth of carbon-light Werner Corry which was picking up new scrapes as I jabbed at the water to keep the boat on line. It was really quite effortful with the Solar, at 3m or nearly 10 feet it’s perhaps a bit long for this sort of thing. I hit the one or two rapids full face, kicking up a satisfying splash and remembering that ‘bring it on’ exhilaration when trying an IK and white watering for the very first time on the Salmon River in Idaho all those years ago.
The river branched near the Loch; left looked all froth but too shallow so I swung right but again scrapped and shoved from one bar to the next. I was hoping to make it all the way to Loch Osgaig but up ahead I saw the tree strainer I recalled from last year so, stuck on another rock and by now steaming out of the ears in my heavy drysuit, I stepped out and walked back upriver.
Alpacka Yak Packraft A few minutes later I hopped into the snug Yak, spun round and slipped over the first drop. Spinning back, I tried to surf as I’d just done in the Sunny but it wasn’t happening. I guess the Yak is just too wide, light and too much drag to fight the flow. Off I went downstream, trying to avoid getting snagged while lining up to take the peak of what waves there were. Jammed in the yellow tub, sat lower and with higher sides, it felt much more responsive than the longer Solar and so was less effort to ride. Perhaps part of it was that a good line is less vital; most of the rapids I could have taken backwards and that added up to more fun. So there it is: a tight-fitting packraft is more fun on easy white water than a 3-metre IK. When I got snagged towards the end, I just stepped out, threw the boat ashore, and staggered out over the slimy boulders.
London made worldwide headlines this week for rioting, arson and looting. Along with scores of others, our own high street got done Monday night, and next afternoon all the shops were closed, braced for a re-run that instead moved to other English cities. The map on the right only shows the bigger events in London up to Tuesday; many more passed unreported.
But Wednesday the tides were favourable and the weather were fair for a 17-mile cruise down the River Thames from Richmond to Tower Bridge. We’d planned the run before all this aggro kicked off as I’d not paddled through London for years and fancied doing it in the Incept. In fact we ended up paddling all the way to Greenwich, about 21 fast and briefly hairy miles.
Richmond is a prosperous suburb stuck under the Heathrow airport flight path; no rampaging here, thank you very much. Steve and I set off just below the town bridge at 1pm, right at the turn of the tide, even though 20 minutes earlier the water was still clearly charging upstream. In fact I read that in the upper tidal reaches, the Thames floods quickly and ebbs slowly. Again, the K-Pump was used to inflate the Solar which Steve was using as his Feathercraft was in detention. I’ve found the K is much more effective at getting a firm fill than the squidgy Bravo footpump. Maybe it’s a river and gravity thing, but when the tide ebbs with the mild Thames current, it’s on the move almost straight away. With the help of a strong southwesterly that day, very soon we were cruising along at an easy 5 or 6 mph, and that speed barely relented until the very end when we took out just before low tide at Greenwich.
The 15-mile run-up to Westminster initially feels quite rural in places. Riverside willows swung their tresses in the 15mph breeze as we passed the handsome riverside dwellings of affluent west London with barely a high-rise in sight. By Putney, home of the famous Oxford-Cambridge boat race, we were halfway to Tower Bridge and the greenery give way to urban development and the odd industrial site. Around here you get a few people rowing those slim Oxbridge rowboats, and it occurred to me later that for some reason they’re excused from wearing life jackets. A boy drowned near here in one of these rowboats, a week or two ago. Near Battersea heliport the wobbling wind sock stuck out sideways like a road sign, pointing downriver towards banks of million-pound apartments built in the last boom-but-one to accommodate London’s growing class of needy oligarchs. There were more barges and pontoons moored mid-river now. All easily avoided of course and just as well as the way the current was ripping along, their flat prows made a nasty hazard; like an an upside-down weir, that might easily pull a kayak down and drag it along under the entire length of the barge.
At Vauxhall Bridge, by the snazzy MI5 secret service HQ, we saw one of the London Duck amphibious tourist barge-buses drive down the bank. It submerged itself into the river and chugged past (left), managing to look as ungainly on the water as it does on land. The Ducks do a token 10-minute sweep of the river past Parliament, but having gone on one years ago, I can tell you it’s a hot, noisy ride. I reckon they are more fun to watch than to be in.
We grabbed a few shots as we passed the Houses of Parliament (that how HP Sauce gets its name), and I thought it was going to be a smooth, quiet passage through the busy two-mile section of the river from Westminster to Tower Bridge, as it had been last time.
But as soon as we passed under Westminster Bridge alongside Big Ben, the character of the river changed and waves were standing up to 5 feet high. The flow gets constricted and backs up by the pier supporting the London Eye which, along with the masses of tourist boats, effectively halves the width of the river, while the current and tide pushed through, exacerbated by the wind. I’d heard of these waves below London Bridge but had never seen them this big. We’d come down so fast from Richmond that we’d hit the busiest section of the Thames, packed with manoeuvring tour boats and jetties, at the peak of the tidal flow. Suddenly the river was rather lively.
Rush hour on the river As always the best kayaking shots are the one you’ll never see: of Steve in the 10-foot long Solar teetering over wave crests and my long bow rising and then slapping down into the troughs. What pics I grabbed were pretty mild. Holy moly, you don’t see all this looking down from Waterloo Bridge with a flat white and a Telegraph in hand, but it may only last a short time or be limited to certain conditions. It’s worrying too, how you’re quickly transfixed with dealing with your own predicament; if one of us had tipped in here, the other would have had real trouble turning back in the current and traffic. But we got through (I’ve probably exaggerated it all) and even got used to the more manageable standing waves, if not always the cross swell flung out by the wake of passing tour barges. These wide, twin-hull Thames Clippers can really shift, accelerating up to 15-20 knots, although it’s actually the older, mono-hull tour boats that punch out a wake you want to watch out for, and is probably why their speed is limited. As it is, I read there’s no speed limit on the tidal Thames below Wandsworth, merely common sense is required, plus a risk of a big fine from the PLA. I was momentarily freaked out by all this, but although I didn’t dare glance back or try and take photos, Steve seemed to be keeping pretty cool in the tiny Solar. I’d not applied any of the mods I’d lavished on my old Sunny, and with its crap seat and soggy footrest offering little support, paddling the Solar in heavy conditions was a bit like balancing on a midstream log. This was all at times more intimidating than anything we’d done on the Class II Ardeche a couple of weeks ago, and I was thinking it really was high time I slipped on my Incept’s thigh braces. We stopped off for a breather at the South Bank and enjoyed a coffee and lemonade for only £5 each while tourists wrote messages in the sand of the now exposed river bed.
On to Blackfriars, Southwark and London Bridge, where mid-stream there were ranks of frothing, churning whitecaps. We didn’t want to go there, and kept to the right, looking for less speed and flatter water behind the HMS Belfast tourist warship and on to Tower Bridge where all was calm and it was no drama to pass under the middle, as more tourists above waved.
It may sound like a scene from a James Bond movie, but in 1952 a #78 double-decker bus successfully jumped a three-foot gap when one of the ‘bascules’ lifted unexpectedly. The postcard (left) dramatises the event. Having got to this point so fast, we decided we may as well carry on the hour or so to Greenwich, as we knew down here the river opened out, tourist boat traffic dropped off and there were no more bridges or other fluvial furniture to cause weird wave formations.
Out past Wapping and Rotherhithe, the Thames is lined with converted warehouses or new apartments, shielding the less glamorous council estates of the East End. Soon we’re passing Canary Wharf, once the Port of London, now a mini-Manhattan of office blocks built in the 1980s when the financial boom kicked off in London. Those guys weren’t having such a good week either – one trader on the TV news was filmed swatting his Perrier off his desk in frustration at that day’s collapse, but at least they weren’t running amok and setting fire to their ties.
The river meandered south putting us into the wind, but it was good to crank up some solid effort. Even here the odd Greenwich-bound tour boat still threw out their mini tsunamis which crashed with a roar along the banks behind us and were fun to negotiate up to the point where you thought, ‘ooo-er, hold on a minute, am I’m surfing here!?’ Otherwise, the broad river gets a bit dull along this section and soon enough the wooded hill of Greenwich Observatory and the prime meridian peeped out from behind a bend. Steve was a bit pooped for spinning the ill-fitting Solar along at Incept speeds. And having used my huge Werner Corry paddle, I too was suffering from some elbowitis. We came ashore by the Cutty Sark tea clipper, lifted the boats carefully over the broken glass and gravel, up over a fence, aired down and headed for the station. We did this 21-mile run on a neapish tide of just 3.8m – they drop to 3.5m and rise to 5m this time of year at Richmond (it’s about a metre more at London Bridge). That took us only 4 hours actual paddling which must be the fastest 20 miles I’ve ever done in a paddle boat. Slowed down by locks, inland of Richmond the freshwater Thames can be a bit boring, but I wouldn’t fancy coming through Westminster at the height of an ebbing spring tide on a busy summer’s day with a backwind. At such times it’s probably not a place for total beginners in tippy hardshells, but as long as you’re ready to get stuck in, it is of course good fun and you can be sure of a big audience. Just make sure you clip on a Go Pro to catch the action! The tidal Thames starts at Teddington Lock, about three miles upriver from Richmond. You need to time Richmond Lock just downstream of the Twickenham Bridge (A316) correctly, 10 minutes downstream from our put-in at Water Lane. I did not notice it as it’s flooded at HW when it’s just another bridge. It’s actually a barrage to hold water upriver around Richmond once the tide turns. There’s a roller pass for kayaks on the left, if you find it closed.
You don’t need any sort of permit or BCU membership to kayak the tidal Thames, as you technically do upstream of Teddington. As long as you’re wearing a pfd, keep right and stay out of the way, the police patrolling the river will probably ignore you.
A fun shorter packboating section would be the 8 miles from Putney to Tower Bridge, both with good transport links and passing all the classic London icons which people of my age will recognise from the idealised Thames TV logo (left) from the 1970s. Once the tide drops enough, exposing the sandy riverbed, taking out is easy enough with a packboat, even if it means climbing up a vertical ladder as we did last time (above). Elsewhere there are several steps or jetties.
Just like their bikes and many other things, in southern France those Frenchies dig their recreational paddling. Unlike the UK they don’t care if it’s an inflatable, a canoe, kayak, packraft or two bin bags and a stick. An unlike the UK, no river permits or licenses are required; just adhere to sensible regs. Add the fresh food, good camping, inexpensive ‘creaky stair’ hotels, great weather, natural spectacle, easy access by rail or bus, plus beautiful medieval villages with weekly markets and you’ve got a great packboating holiday with as much easy white water action as you like.
Did I miss anything? Yes: the long-overdue second edition of Rivers Publishing’s guide which originally opened up this area’s potential to me. Generally aimed at ‘family’ canoeing, Best Canoe Trips in the South of France (formerly White Water Massif Central, 2002) has river descriptions so you don’t have to worry too much about what’s downriver. As a serious guidebook it could be better, but it’s all there is in English.
Extending south from the city of Clermont Ferrand 200km to the former Roman colony of Nimes, the Massif Central is an undeveloped and relatively unpopulated upland region of extinct volcanoes and 1000-metre limestone pleateaux or causses. About the size of Belgium, the highest peak is the 1885m (6184ft) Puy de Sancy in the Parc des Volcans near Clermont. Now you know where all that Volvic comes down from.
Getting there from the UK The key airports to access the region include Clermont, Montpellier, Nimes, Lyon and Rodez with Easyjet, Ryanair and FlyBe, among others. Nimes is probably the most useful, but Easyjet (Lyon, Montpellier) has daily rather than weekly Ryanair flights with better prices when booked late. There are also fast TGV trains to Nimes via Paris, taking just 6-7 hours from London (red lines, left) but elsewhere or beyond, things slow down considerably as you head for the Massif (blue area on map, left), so it’s unlikely you’ll get to a river on the same day as leaving the UK. And while fast or slow, a train is a much more agreeable prospect than flying, even in summer and once you pay for baggage, budget airlines still work out much cheaper and as fast or faster, depending on where you start.
Rivers Take your pick from the easy Dordogne and Vezere, more challenging but easily accessed Allier, a Herault day trip, Tarn, Ceze, Chassezac which joins the Ardeche. Then there’s the Gardon and little-known but slightly greasy Lardon. Come August the biggest danger on the Ardeche is getting nutted by an out-of-control plastic rental. In 2018 I did the Tarn again, from Florac all the way to Millau in a packraft, and a few weeks later the Allier too. Map below from the Best Canoe Trips… guidebook.
They’re all fun in an IK provided the boat is not too long. With a long boat problems occur when the front noses into slower water or catches a rock, while the back is still in a fast current; the boat swings sideways, high sides and tips you out. In a slightly slower but much more stable and agile packraft I’d pick the frothier rivers like the Allier, the Tarn and Ardeche, because a packraft makes sub-Grade 3 whitewater so easy and safe. Packrafting the Tarn in 2018, I’m pretty sure I’d have struggled to control my 4.5-metre Seawave IK in some rapids.
But then again, packrafting the Allier a few weeks later, I was pleased I decided to walk round an 8-km gorge section of relatively sustained WW3 rapids (left; a self-bailing Gumotex Scout) which would have swamped my Yak again and again. Here a decked or self-bailing packboat works better. And from what I’ve seen, two-up in a kayak or canoe makes things even more complicated unless both are experienced. If you do these rivers early in the season (June, July) there can be more flow, frothier rapids and certainly fewer crowds than early August. But summer storms can raise levels overnight.
Maps and river levels There’s a very good official website for live river levelshere with more about it here. For general mapsof France right down to 1:25k scale and beyond, IGN have an online portal to zoom in and view all their paper maps (right). As the Best Canoe Trips… guidebook says, they’re better than Google Maps. All that’s missing are markers identifying canoe chutes on the weirs.
The rivers TheAllier is a good choice for packboating as you can get a train from Clermont via Brioude all the way to the village of Chapeauroux, where the easier section flows right back to Brioude. Note Alleyras to Monistrol is now open (see link) but beware the first 8km out of Monistrol to Prades through the gorge. Long version in the link, but you’ll see it from the train coming upstream and may be alarmed, as I was in 2018, even though I’m pretty sure I kayaked it 12 years ago as a clueless newb.
The Ceze and Herault are car and shuttle-with-bike day trips. The classic Tarn Gorge starts from Florac (noon bus from Ales) and cuts 85km below the Causse Mejean to Millau with its famous viaduct just beyond. A great run with easy rapids, bar one or two not mentioned in the guidebook. Being out of the Massif, the Dordogne-Vezere (map above) are easier paddles, but iirc took me a bit of bus and train’ing after a Ryanair to Rodez and out from Bergerac. Perfect for your first IK adventure, but could be slow, agricultural (lots of riverside irrigation pumps) and dull in a packraft.
And if you don’t have a packboat or can’t be bothered to bring yours, no worries. Get down to a river and rent an SoT for as long as you like. It’s all set up for you. Click the river links for more galleries.
Eats, Chutes & Lodges On any big Massif river there’s a well-established riverside campsite and canoe/kayak/SoT rental scene, so that by August flotillas of holidaymakers pack out popular rivers like the Ardeche and Tarn. Plus, at any time you can pull over to wander through a village which will very often have a basic hotel from 40 euros, like the one left on the Allier.
Some of these rivers cut through spectacular gorges and are strung out with easy rapids up to Class III, weirs to portage round or tip over and which often have a glissiere or canoe chute (left and below) which shoot you down the face of a weir without the need to get out and carry. Great fun and often easier than they look. There are no locks until you leave the Massif and enter the intensively farmed lowlands by which time the fun is over.