After a relaxing day the day before, we decided it would be a good day to go and do something a bit more active. Before we got around to doing that, we had a team breakfast. Kas was too tired for a run so didn’t bother going, so we sat around the outside table with a selection of fresh breads and pastries from the only shop in the village, and generally contemplated our state of being before heading off for the main event.
One of the reasons we’d come to this area was that the previous year, whilst watching the Tour de France, we’d seen some overhead shots of the race passing through the Ardèche Gorge and there’d been one shot of kayakers passing beneath the Pont d’Arc. We fancied having a go at that. I mean, why not…
Kas had, on a previous run, noticed the cluster of kayak places just in the village of Vallon Pont d’Arc so we decided just to head over there and see what was what. We didn’t expect to be able to get going straight away – you normally have to book stuff in the busy summer season, but the first place we went to offered reasonable rates and could accommodate us basically straight away. Fair enough. For some reason, we were asked to pick up our life jackets and “stuff buckets” before moving the car down into the customer parking area, which seemed weird, but I digress.
The weather was warm, so we weren’t quite sure what to take with us but guessed it would stay warm enough to not need jumpers or much else in the way of other clothes. We stuffed towels and a few drinks into the stuff buckets and made our way around to the area where they keep the actual kayaks. We’d bought a package involving 2 kayaks seating 2 people each. We’d notionally got 2 hours to progress our 8km down the river, which would allow us an hour and a half to chill in the river before getting their bus back home again. All of the places just here basically do packages where you paddle downstream only underneath the Pont d’Arc. Once we got onto the water, we understood why. There are two main reasons – firstly it’s really busy, and secondly, there are rapids that you’d never be able to paddle up.
To avoid repeating the mistake I made in the Lake District in June, I made sure the kayaks we got had backrests for the seats – in June I’d got one without a backrest (they didn’t offer me one) and because I’m a bit on the portly side and don’t do enough sit-ups, I found it virtually impossible to use the kayak because it’s like sitting upright on the floor with your feet in front of you. This requires stomach muscles, and mine aren’t very strong. Anyway, back at the plot, backrests were included and we buddied up with me and Ami sharing one kayak and Kas and Izzy sharing another. This fixed a further problem that we encountered in Catalonia a couple of years back (see Kayaking). On that day we’d tried to even out the total muscle power in each boat by having Ami and Kas in one and me and Izzy in the other. The problem with that line up was that the weight difference between me an Izzy meant that our kayak was sloping a bit, to the extent that Izzy could barely get her paddle down into the water. So this time we went for the most even distribution of weight in each kayak, so the two heaviest in one kayak and the two lightest in the other. That should at least mean that the kayaks were sitting flat in the water. As we are right now that means Ami and I were sharing.
I think we got the hang of the paddling quite quickly. I was at the back so to some extent I was able to counteract Ami’s unbalanced use of the paddle by just going the opposite way to her. Neither of us is great at the game and both of us are strongly right-handed, so it took a while to figure out how to go straight. It seemed to take Kas and Izzy a bit longer to figure it out though. Ami and I were also going faster most of the time.
The river level was really low, and in most places you could easily have jumped out and walked no more than knee-deep. There’s more water in the spring and late autumn, apparently. Anyway, there’s also quite a lot of rocks in the way, which make for rapids. Some of those were a bit narrow and shallow, others had a proper “log flume” moment. Before we’d got into the boats they’d advised us of just two things about the rapids. Firstly, pick a straight line and go at it with confidence and speed. Secondly, if you fall out, it’s best to let the water float you down to a calmer bit and then pick up all your stuff, rather than trying to stand up in the fast-flowing water. That’s what they told us, anyway.
We were all doing just fine and dandy until Ami and I had wha I’ll generously describe as a loss of communication when entering one of the sets of rapids. We failed to decide which gap we were going to paddle straight and fast through, and as a result of us deciding to go for a different line, we ended up side-on with a rock against the side of the kayak. There was fast flowing water around both sides of the rock, but where we ended up we were pretty much beached and couldn’t get off it again. In the process of rocking and bouncing the kayak to get it moving, we managed to unweight it an over we went. Hmmm! Riding the rapids out proved to be difficult because the water wasn’t actually deep enough to ride. My knees were immediately on the bottom, as were Ami’s, and for a brief moment, we were also underneath the kayak. We got out quickly enough but were pretty much stuck. The kayak wouldn’t move, and we could get a solid enough footing to push it or turn it back over again. Thankfully we weren’t too proud to accept extra hands from a nice woman who was wading in the river just below us. She walked up and gave the layak a good tug, which at least dislodged it enough that it moved down a bit into some actual water. This allowed us to turn it over and collect all the paddles before getting back on top again. And off we went, over the next run of rapids and into a calmer bit, where we accelerated along to catch up with Kas and Izzy, who’d shot across that set of rapids without a hitch.
So Ami and I got totally soaked, and our stuff bucket leaked a bit, so two towels and one phone got a bit of a splashing, but otherwise we were none the worse. Funnily enough, we mastered the art of running the rapids after that and we managed to put in two or three real sterling efforts that probably looked really good from a distance.
Not too long after the dunking we reached the Pont d’Arc, and they’ve supplemented the natural slip-off slopes thereby adding some beach-worthy sand on one side. On the other side is a big pebbly beach which is pretty easy to get a kayak up to, so that’s where we went. We’d been going a while, so we were probably owed a break and a drink. It allowed me to dry out my phone, and re-pack the stuff buckets so that all the wet stuff was in one, and all the dry stuff in the other.
After 15 minutes or so parked up, during which the girls both decided to swim in the river under the arch, we jumped back onto the kayaks to finish our stint. The river below the arch is much easier to paddle than above it – mainly flat, smooth flowing, and lacking in rapids, so Ami and me shot off into the distance and periodically stopped for a breather while Kas and Izzy caught up.
We landed at our destination at about 1:50, having taken 2 hours and 20 minutes to make our way down the 8km of paddling. When we got to the end there wasn’t really a beach for chilling at, and nor were there any useful facilities like toilets or a cafe, so as we were all wet and the girls fancied finishing the afternoon in the pool rather than the river, we decided just to jump on the 2pm bus home.
As we were in the period of the year where Groundspeak offers incentives to new cachers in the form of pictorial souvenirs, I was kind of obliged to go out and find a geocache to keep the required one-week run going. After doing most of the caches in the village the previous day I’d left one traditional on the river bridge just down from our village, and there was also an earthcache there. The traditional was in place and the earthcache was both easy and interesting – it was all about the flooding of the river and the geological and climatic conditions that cause it. Earthcache was placed alongside a bridge over the river, and one of the tasks was to go find the height markers on the bridge pillars that are used to measure floods. While we were there the river was maybe 1m deep under the bridge and the bridge deck was a good 16m clear of the water. In the late 1800’s there was the biggest ever recorded flood at the site. At that time there was a different bridge, and it was higher up than the current one, but the water level came all the way up to the underside of the deck, so the river has risen from 1m depth to about 20m, and because the surrounding land is a flat flood plain, the river had widened from 30m to 900m, which essentially meant that the village we were staying in would have been flooded. Madder than a sack of monkeys. The photos here illustrate just how much of a flood it was.
When I got back to the apartment it was most definitely beer o’clock, so Kas and I retired to the bar and sank a couple of cold ones whilst wondering if it was time to drag the kids out of the pool yet. We called them out at one point for a cool drink and a few crisps.
We’d sort of decided to go to the nice-looking restaurant over the road, so we weren’t hurrying. When we got there though, we discovered Monday was their night off. Having already had a beer or two that meant our options were now rather limited. We tried walking along the main road, where we’d noticed a couple of bars, but they all seemed to be attached to one or other of the camping venues – not really “restaurants” as such. We made it all the way over the river bridge before deciding that we were going to walk all the way into town, but also that we weren’t likely to find a nice restaurant any time soon – Monday seemed generally to be their day off. So we walked all the way back again and camped at pretty much the first place we’d passed. They did pizzas. It turned out that they did quite good pizzas, and they also did beer. So that’s what we had, although I had mine later than everyone else because they forgot to put it in the oven. We weren’t in a rush and it’s not like there was anywhere else we could go, especially given that it was nearly 9pm by the time we arrived there. It was a pleasant enough place to sit for an hour watching the world go by.