For a honeymoon what could be more romantic than a gentle ride on the sublime French rapids? Especially when a naked fisherman is involved
For two days we had been kayaking down the serpentine twists and turns of the Ardèche River in France through a canyon of towering limestone cliffs, and the further we travelled the wilder the landscape had become. It was late afternoon; we appeared to be alone, and I was beginning to feel like a character in Deliverance in a vaguely menacing wilderness when Claire began to laugh.
A few boat lengths ahead of me, she had turned a corner to be confronted by a fisherman standing on a rock wearing a beard, a broad smile – and nothing else.
“Bonjour, Madame!” he called in response to her flustered greeting, and gave us a cheery wave. I knew then we were home, if not dry, and that beyond the naturist camp lay a landing beach that marked the end of a memorable journey.
It is fair to say our memories of the 32km descent of this tributary of the Rhône were somewhat different. While Claire enthused about the thrill of minor rapids and the drama of the scenery, I was happy to be back on dry land.
OK: when it comes to fast-flowing water I’m a bit of a wimp. Anything speedier than a running tap I consider a raging torrent – though in truth, my new wife was probably right in insisting the bubbly bits here were no more turbulent than a Jacuzzi.
When she first suggested the adventure as part of our honeymoon, Claire pointed out that, according to the website, it was suitable for anyone over the age of seven who could swim.
We would also be camping overnight, which seemed appealing. I recalled a line in a book by Robert Louis Stevenson, written during his solitary travels with a donkey in the nearby Cevennes: ‘...to live out of doors with the woman a man loves is of all lives the most complete and free.” Ah, romance. If it meant kayaking through some bubbly bits, so be it.
Our starting point was Vallon Pont d’Arc, a lively rural town bustling with cafés and restaurants catering for tidal waves of holidaymakers that descend on the river in high summer. We were there in the off-season and the crowds were gone, but there were still plenty of kayaks on the water as we packed dry clothes and provisions into watertight containers and set off.
We had opted for two single-seat kayaks rather than one double-seater (in the hope of averting an early divorce), and soon we were cutting a fine dash through the water. Kayaking downriver is not hard work. Depending on how quickly you wish to go, you dip the paddle in at your own pace or just drift with the current.
To begin with the Ardèche was meandering leisurely beneath blue skies, so I decided to sit back and savour the experience of floating through one of the world’s natural wonders.
Over millennia the river has carved a series of deep gorges in a densely wooded limestone plateau, creating masterpieces of rock art at every turn. We soon came to one of the most spectacular pieces, the Pont d’Arc, a natural bridge more than 60m high that forms a triumphal entrance to a nature reserve.
Then came the first bubbly bit. That’s all it was, really. Claire was whooping with delight, and even the wimp in me had to admit it was fun.
We’d been given maps indicating the best lines to take through the five small rapids we would encounter over the two days. In theory this looked fine; in practice, the directions become a bit fuzzy when one is being propelled between rocks at a rate of knots by a river with a mind of its own. My new spouse found herself bouncing through the first lot backwards, to the amusement and enthusiastic applause of onlookers on the banks.
After all this excitement it was time for lunch, and we found the perfect spot on a sandy spit in shallows framed by cliffs and woods. We had the place to ourselves, apart from a grey heron perched elegantly on a nearby rock; rarely have humble sandwiches jambon et fromage tasted so sweet.
The afternoon drifted by; we safely negotiated a couple of rapids, and soon we were at Le Gournier, one of two campsites along our stretch of river. For the princely sum of €6 the park authorities provide hot showers, toilets, barbecue pits, charcoal and a grassy clearing in which to pitch tents amid scenery that would have enchanted Stevenson and his donkey.
There were only a few other campers, and RLS’s lyrical homily on the outdoor life came to mind as we lay in silence by the open door of our tent, gazing at heavens ablaze with stars.
But this is a river that giveth and taketh away. First thing the next morning it took me away, in rapids known appropriately as The Spinning Top; I finally fell out and had to be towed to calmer waters by the missus. But it also gave us a day of primal splendour as it wound between cliffs towering more than 300m above, carved into fantastic shapes like the spires of a monstrous cathedral.
This was indeed Deliverance country, a wilderness in which each bend in the river brought a new vista of imperious nature. It was the end of the kayaking season, and as the day wore on we found ourselves alone. It was at once thrilling and intimidating. Then the naked fisherman showed up.
I was pleased to see him, because it meant dry clothes and a cold beer were on the horizon. Two bends later, a man from the kayak company was waiting to drive us back to Vallon, where we could toast our mini adventure. And where I was pleased to note the only bubbly bits were in the champagne.