Tag Archives: White Water Massif Central review

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?


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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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Kayaking and packrafting in southern France

Updated 2020
See also: Allier • Chassezac • Ardeche • Tarn • more Tarnbook review
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Just like their bikes and many other things, in southern France those Frenchies dig 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, and unlike the UK, no 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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converted PNM file

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 water 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), 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 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 some of 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 rise 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.

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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.

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 right) 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 sometimes have a glissade or canoe chutes (left and right) 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 may be over.

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Below my gallery from many years packboating many of the lovely rivers of the Massif. Vive la France, Vive les gonflables!