Trip to Scotland on Sundays: Kayaking in the Ardèche Gorges in south-eastern France is a revelation for RV and RV traveler Martin Dorey.
Driving and kayaking in the Gorges de l’Ardèche is a classic French trip that everyone should try at least once. The gorge itself is a place of sublime beauty and splendor. Driving it won’t take long, but will give you plenty of opportunities to stop and look at the scale. Kayaking down the river is quite another thing. You’ll pass nudists, descend spooky rapids and huge rubber boulders as vultures spin above your head. And if it’s a little hot, you can just strip down and dive in.
We arrive at St Martin D’Ardèche with only one mission: to kayak in the gorges of the Ardèche. This is something I have wanted to do for a while. Having seen footage of people kayaking under the massive limestone walls of this famous gorge, I am desperate to do so too. The only problem is how.
We have kayaks and a kit. All we need is a lift to the river. Simple? Not always. We go up and go to the village in search of an answer. The path along the river is rocky and sandy with beaches the whole way where people swim, kayak and SUP. It’s busy and buzzing. We find three Englishmen who load kayaks into a van and ask them if they can offer us transport. They suggest Cyrile. We go to see Cyrile and she says they are busy, the caravans are full. We go to other companies, but it’s the same: it’s high season. They are all full.
As we return to our camp, a little dejected, I spot someone we haven’t approached yet. Within minutes, we booked a bus to take us to the starting point 24 km uphill at eight o’clock the next morning.
We get on, pay, and wait for our elevator, which ultimately sits in a dodgy orange van that probably shouldn’t crisscross sharp bends hundreds of meters above the Ardèche gorges. I hold my seat the whole way. Fortunately, we arrive at the start in one piece, albeit slightly shaken, and are dropped off. We launch, pushing into the rapid river.
There are also plenty of other people here, most of them on rented sit-on-top kayaks. There are also children and dogs in the kayaks. It seems like it’s the right thing to do, not just for me but for everyone as well.
Aside from the people, the river is beautiful. The walls of the gorge are vertical, forming circles of flat gray rock several hundred meters high. Sometimes the walls overhang the water, sometimes they open. On the bends there are limestone and sandy beaches. Outside of bends, water flows faster, traveling farther and with less resistance. In places, the forest has developed on the banks. There are pines and junipers, and when we stop for a snack we see sage, marjoram and thyme growing between the cracks in the limestone. The water is clear and green, with fish darting into the shallows. From the water, we look up at the gorge and its impassable walls. We see a huge raptor flying above us as rock swallows flutter. Butterflies, beetles and dragonflies fly above the water.
As we hit our first rapid, I attack it, taking a straight line through the deepest and fastest part. I wonder how everyone will do. Some people stop paddling when they hit the rapid, others turn around and some wobble and scream as they head downstream uncontrollably.
At another rapid, we see lifeguards guiding everyone to the safest line around a large boulder, and at another, where there are no lifeguards, we see canoes overturned, people hanging on. to rocks and life jackets floating downstream. We help recover a returned sit-on. We can hear the screams and cries of the kayakers long before we reach each set of rapids.
In one section, we pass a nudist campsite, at one of the few access points. I don’t expect to see a naked woman lying on a rock just as I’m about to hit the rapid so it’s a little off-putting. A couple with leathery, overly tanned skin stand in the shallows and watch us go by. I notice more and more people lying on the banks, swimming or looking at us, and all of them are naked. I feel like I’ve paddled in another world, where textiles like me are eaten or treated like royalty. I don’t linger (can’t) know it, even though I’m inclined to dive myself and the water carries me downstream.
As we approach lunchtime the crowds run out – no doubt in favor of the noble French art of long and good lunch – and we find ourselves on a stretch with few other kayakers.
We stop for lunch ourselves on a slippery limestone slab in front of a plunge pool and just before a section of the rapids. It’s hot so we get in the water to bathe. There are tiny fish that swim in shallows and larger fish that swim in deeper waters. Lizzy sits down on a rock to eat her croissant and notices a snake in the water: it’s a little viperine water snake. We don’t swim anymore.
The river slows down as we get closer to St Martin d’Ardèche and the walls fall down. The water is deep and dark here and there are people everywhere, jumping, swimming and kayaking. We paddle to the pier and struggle to get out of our boats. We’ve been on the water for five hours. It has been incredible, we agree. We saw beautiful wildlife, we challenged ourselves a little, we saw carnage in the rapids, and we saw a lot of people having fun in an incredibly special place.
I want to start all over again.
Edited from Take the Slow Road: France by Martin Dorey, the latest in the Take the Slow Road motorhome series that includes Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. All available for purchase now. (Bloomsbury, £ 20)
Sunday trip to Scotland: the Gaucho Derby gallops through Patagonia