After the long drive from Belgium and a night in the cozy Gîte d’Etape in La Malène, where we leave our rafts for the paddling, we head to Le Rozier by car. The typical, quiet town at the confluence of the Tarn and Jonte rivers will be the starting point of our 4 days of hiking and paddling through and above the famous Gorges du Tarn, one of Central France touristic highlights. The tourist season is long over, though, and we will meet just a handful of people during the entire trip.
After a rainy night (some welcome water for the river after a long and dry summer), the weather has cleared by the time we start climbing towards the towering cliffs of the Gorge de la Jonte. Dozens of vultures circle around our head by the time we have made it all the way up and skirt along beautiful limestone formations like the Vase des Sèvres and the Vase de Chine.
After a while, thunder roars through the valley. We climb onto the Cause Méjan plateau and make bivouac near the hamlet of Cassagnes. It rains steadily for most of the evening and we go to bed early.
The rain has turned into dense drizzle by the morning. We pack slowely and head west through the forest until we reach the edge of the Gorges du Tarn. A wonderful path along the cliffs guides us towards the isolated pinnacle of Rocher du Cinglegros. A adventurous trail with numerous stairs and ladders allows to reach the summit of this rock after a supersteep descent and ditto climb. I don’t feel comfortable on the slippery, wet rock and stay behind with Elien, while Anna, Fre and Roel make it all the way up.
The weather continues to improve as we head further north into the valley. Numerous vultures start their magic glides along the cliffs again as soon as the thermic air flows allow. It is a wonderful walk and time passes quickly. It is already well past 3 o’clock in the afternoon by the time we climb onto the plateau again near the village of Le Bourgarie.
The remainder of the day is an easy stoll on rolling farm roads and forest lanes across the plateau until we finally reach the Roc the Hourtous panorama early in the evening, a spot which offers a fantastic panorama on the bends of the Tarn near the famous gorge of Les Détroits. In summer, one has to pay to access to the panorama. The resident of the house at the entrance allows us to bivouac in his garden at the viewpoint, and we have a beer in his little bar in the evening.
Stratus clouds rest on the valley slopes the next morning. We pack early and start the descent towards La Malène, where we pick up our packrafting gear in the gîte. The weather has cleared and it has become a warm and sunny October day with temperatures well into the twenties. After the obligatory French croissant and coffee we start inflating our rafts and start paddling down the valley. Except for me, nobody has packrafting experience, and we have a small ‘packrafting essentials’ course to learn how to ferry and backpaddle. This stretch of the Tarn is perfect to start with. After some easy rapids we reach the dramatic passage through the narrow gorge of Les Détroits, where we have a long break on a sand beach.
The highly enjoyable easy paddle continues through the wonderful Cirque des Baumes, where the Tarn turns south. A few kilometers further, we beach our rafts at the right bank. The Pas du Souci is coming up, a lethal wilderness of huge limestone blocks spread across the riverbed with serious whitewater. A few people who did not put out in time have already died in this section over the years. We start walking along the road until we reach a deserted camping at the end of the section and about 1km before the town of Les Vignes, and pitch our tents for the night.
It is crisp clear weather the next morning, with temperatures which are expected to soar to 25 degrees in the afternoon. We walk towards to town to avoid to have to put out to portage the veir near the bridge after a few minutes anyway. And maybe also to have another croissant on the way.
The river changes character south of Les Vignes, with numerous nice class I-II rapids with boulders in the riverbed. It’s a superb float in the morning sun, surrounded by limestone cliffs of 500m. The main rapid, a longer class II-III with a nice drop at the end, comes near the tiny hamlet of La Sablière and just at the base the Rocher de Cinglegros we have climbed 2 days before. Another splashy rapid with a nice wave train follows a few hundred meters further after the next bend. After that the gradient eases again, and it’s a relaxed paddle until we reach the bridge near Le Rozier again in the early afternoon. We go for a swim in the river before getting into the car and driving towards our next river, the Ardèche.
It’s a 3-hour drive on winding roads through the Massif Central towards the upstream end of the second canyon on France’s ‘triple crown’. The third one, the Grand Canyon du Verdon in the southeast of the country, we will skip for now. This dramatic river involves some whitewater sections we are not prepared for.
We sleep on a camping near the village of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, and drive further down towards La Sauze, a small town at the downstream end of the canyon, the following morning. We park the car right next to the river and start hiking upstream on a small trail through the maquis vegetation. The scenery becomes more dramatic by the meter – the valley closes, and soon we find ourself navigating through a maze of limestone rock slabs and karst holes in a fantastic outer bend of the river. The trail along the river is not the easiest, with numerous steep traverses, often equipped with cables, which must be very slippery when it is raining. After an hour we have to crawl through a hole and down a ladder when the rock face suddenly drops vertically into the river. We don’t get bored during this walk! During our breaks we can pick delicious figs from the trees.
Because of the accidented terrain, our progress is slower than I had expected, and it is clear we won’t make it to the Bivouac de Gaud, the second legal camping spot in the valley, today. After climbing through the Cirque de la Madeleine it’s still a long way towards the first Bivouac, le Gournier. We arrive late in the afternoon. The two bivouac are the only spots in the entire valley with access to potable water. We have a birthday party for Elien with cake and a bottle of wine and champagne Fre and me have carried up. When we want to go to bed, wild swines are swarming around our tents. They are clearly used to people. We can come as close a 10m before they finally walk away into the night. Later that night I hear them poaching the ground around our tents a few times.
It is still overcast and dry by the next dawn. The day starts with the first ‘gué’ of the walk: as the limestone cliffs drop vertically into the water at the left bank further upstream, we have to wade across and continue hiking at the other side for a few kilometers. We wade the river, which comes halfway up our thighs in the deepest channel, together. Discharge is about 20-25m³/s, and I would not attempt this crossing at discharges higher than 30m³/s. We have our rafts as a backup plan, but leave them in our packs.
A few more dramatic sections of the trail follow during the next few hours, especially near the Rocher des Abeilleires, the Cirque du Gaud, and upstream of the Bivouac de Gaud. Other than in the Gorge du Tarn, I have a real wilderness feeling in the Ardèche from time to time. Only a few kayaks pass during the entire day. In summer you can make that a few hundred or even thousands of kayaks and shouting people every day, with dozens of rentals in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc. We are happy to have picked early October.
Upstream of the famous Rapide du Dent Noir we wade across the river again. This ford is more shallow, but the current is considerably stronger, and we are happy to make it to the other side again. From this point it is only a few more easy kilometers towards the road. We hike towards the famous Pont d’Arc, a magnificent limestone arch across the river, a continue for two more kilometers towards Camping les Tunnels for the night.
As predicted by the weather forecast, a serious thunderstorm with about 30mm of rain rumbles through the valley during the first part of the night. By the next morning the discharge of the Ardèche has doubled. The weather clears again and we are set for a last nice summer day. As I had thought to sleep on a camping downstream of the Pont d’Arc, I have not studied the first 2km of the river we will run today. But as many rental companies are located further upstream, I do not expect major problems. Wrong assumption! In the last stretch before the Pont d’Arc we encounter two class II-III rapids. We scout them first and Elien en Roel decide to portage on the right bank, but Fre and Anna want to give it a try.
Anna flips her raft in the wave train at the end of the first rapid and swims to the right shore (where Roel and Elien are portaging) while deserting her raft and paddle. Fre and myself chase them down the second rapid and manage to recover them before reaching the Pont d’Arc. There is no more option to beach on the right bank, where a cliff face drops steeply into the river. We beach left, desinflate Anna’s raft, attach it to the bow of mine and ferry across again against the current to bring it back to Anna. After inflating the raft again, we cross again together to recover our bags. The entire operation takes about half an hour. Lesson learnt: never run stretches of rivers you have not studied before, even when you can ‘assume’ they are easy.
Because of all this excitement we have nearly forgotten about the outstanding scenery. We paddle underneath the Pont d’Arc and into the wild canyon we have walked the days before. The character of most rapids has changed considerable because of the higher discharge: ‘famous’ rapids like the Trois Eaux and the Dent Noire are very easy now, while others require some more attention. Vigorous boilers and whirlpools have formed in many rapids, noticeably in the Sortie the la Toupine and the Rapide du Grand Gour. Our backpaddle-training comes in handy. I would not advise the Ardèche to absolute beginners when the discharge is over 40-50m³/s.
Our progress is swift and we race down the entire canyon in just 5 hours, including breaks. In the Rapide de la Cadière, the last reknown rapid, a very high breaking wave has formed next to the boulder in the middle of the river. After that, the Ardèche gradually calms as we slide through the last bends again before finally reaching the beach in Sauze after a fantastic one-week holiday.