Tag Archives: kayaking the Tarn Gorge

Packrafting the Tarn Gorge

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

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Just back from Tarn Gorge with the Yakraft, All the way from Florac to Millau; about 86km. I’m amazed the beating this boat takes, scrapping through the shallows and bouncing off the scenery.  It 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 from 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 be fixed by now. There are also two canoe chutes (Les Vignes; KM54.1, and just before Millau (KM83.3) plus an odd, unsigned low weir drop at La Malene (KM42.2). See the map below.

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Besides a quick 1-day-er two years ago, we last did the Tarn in 2007 in the Sunny and a Solar: Florac to 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’s 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.

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Getting 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 were at the time, you’ll still miss that key 12.10 Ales bus on the same day. Assuming it still runs post Covid.
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 bus from Ales same day from London.

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Knives & Gas
At 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! Oh sorry, this is France. 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.
Or you could always use a plane & rain proof ethanol Gimp Stove.
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), Mostuéjouls (KM65; near Le Rozier) 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 in 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.

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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.
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I 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). Read my review of the new edition, now renamed Best Canoe Trips in the South of France but with a near-identical cover (below right).

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Thing 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-di-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.
Can’t wait to get back to the Massif again.


Gumotex Twist on the Tarn Gorge

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On the way back from some riding in the Pyrenees I persuaded 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. Since then i did it in my Alpacka again.

On this occasion 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.

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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.
However, Nitrilon Lite was dropped from the Gumotex lineup in 2018 and since then all Twists are made from the same Nitrilon you’ll get in the bigger and pricier Gumoboats. That also means a post-2018 Twist weighs 13kg.

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These 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 better. 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 (above, 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.

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The £350 T2 could actually be a good lightweight alternative to the 60cm longer 410C (later the Solar 2) which at the time 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 than 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. the post 2018 models have a third pair of D-rings in the middle to position a solo seat in the right place.

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We 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.

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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.

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It 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.

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Soon 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.
Read more about southern France paddling here thenn hop on the TGV with your packboat.

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Kayaking and packrafting in southern France

See also: Allier • Chassezac • Ardeche • Tarn • more Tarnguidebook review

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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 Central2002) 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Maps and river levels
There’s a very good official 
website for live river levels here with more about it here. For general maps of 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
The Allier 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.

Do-Vz-route

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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.

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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.

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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.

Loads more images on these links: See also: Allier • Chassezac • Ardeche • Tarn • more Tarn.

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