A Trip Down La Dordogne

13.05.06

You know as a kid when you’re in school just starting the winter term. You’ve had a million weeks off which flashed by in a couple of sunburnt, sweet packed minutes and then the teacher asks you to write about what you did on your summer holidays. You’re sitting there in your itchy school pants and you can’t think of anything to write. Eight weeks of fun, parched evenings and TV and your mind goes blank. It’s not cricket. The summer dying away and you’re meant to write about it.

14.05.06

Spoke to Mark. Holiday momentum is picking up. Early July is about when we’re planning to set off. I had a look at La Dordogne’s climate for this time of year and it’s 25 degrees centigrade. Which is just nice. Ryan Air fly there and it’s quite cheap as well.

29.05.06

Grapefruit are evil. There is no doubt about it. The yellow, happy-looking fruity like basketballs; they’re not good for you. They’re pure bitter foul badness. It’s just taken me 30mins to eat one. At several instances, through this journey of tangy foulness, I nearly gave up. Afterwards, my fruit tea even tasted good – surely a bad sign.

30.05.06

My toilet smells like Magnum PI’s armpit after a particularly long game of squash. I sorted out my “bathroom box” today, a chaotic mix of deodorant, soap, old toothbrushes and other junk. Within this box of goodies, I found some kouros aftershave which I got at least ten years ago as a gift. Quite why anyone thought this foul-smelling liquid was what I would actually want to wear is anyone’s guess – it’s best put down the toilet. And so that’s what I’ve done. Poured the toxic waste down the pan and flushed it goodbye. The only problem I’ve got now is my flat reeks like a funky 80’s heartthrob without the benefit of a Ferrari or a room in Robin Masters beachside shag house.

01.06.06

I’m seeing red. Really I am. Red. The dark rouge of blood or wine. This is because I’m looking at one of the walls in my flat which is painted, you guessed it, green (only joking – of course, it’s red). The wall looms up in front of me taking up most of my vision. Other than the bit occupied by my foot and my knee. Derek Blackburn from Cornerstone Lodge was on the TV tonight Masterminding it. I’m getting closer to booking my holiday to La Dordogne though I haven’t bought anything for it just yet. Mark is having a tough time at work so I don’t want to push it too much.

I don’t even know the date. I’m fairly sure it’s a Saturday thought. And what a beautiful day. Raby Mere is just brimming with sunshine. It bathes me from above and bounces off the pond. Baby ducks waddle and pick at grit on the floor. Their parents are ever watchful. The sound of baby birds tweeting in the distant rees is almost drowned out by the constant chattering and quacking of ducks floating on the water. Occasionally a car will drive past but non have stopped. They break cover from the darkness of the trees ever so briefly as they take the sunny apex and then disappear back into the depths of the forest. Summer in the UK can be breathtaking, and this is one of those blue-skied days which no photo, poem or video could do any justice.

The ducks have mobilized like some unsane quacking army of feathers. They have spotted a couple with children. Surely a guaranteed source of food? The noise intensifies as the bread is thrown into their reach. From the other side of the clearing they come, cheverons of wake behind them. The bigger birds are first in line.

15.07.06 Saturday

Okay. Okay. Okay. Bag packed or rather stuffed to capacity. Deo on – last sweep of flat before the off. For at least the seventh time I check my pockets for my phone, wallet and passport. The three things I could do without losing.

We arrived in the airport in good time and checked in immediately. Either we arrived very late or very early and got sorted quick. Mark wasn’t allowed to take the tent on board because of the string… but we were allowed to take a kettle and a pan. And what really confused me was I was allowed the kettle in my hand luggage. Alas we forgot to bring the gas stove.

Arriving in Limoge on an uninteresting flight we spotted strange demisters spray us when we got in the terminal. We couldn’t work out if they were trying to keep the air moist or de-lice us.

Outside my look complete look of confusion when the French taxi driver spoke to us said it all.

Limoges train station is very impressive. Gothic does not do the structure justice. Limoges Benedictions from there to Brive La Gallard…. Still here… sweltering heat awaiting movement to Saint Denis pre Martek. The only bonus being we’ve got free water… My attempt at asking for directions.. almost worked. Needed some help from Mark though who’s French is a lot better than my own. We are very proud of our kettle… All we need is a pipe, a jacket with leather patches and some obscure English literature… (which it turns out Mark did actually bring)…. For us to be English teachers abroad.

The train having finally arrived in the siding also known as Saint Denis pres Martel. The sun whitened boards and the archaic mechanisms clancking and rattling.

Saint Denis près Martel
St Denis près Martel Station

Problem one the campsite. We walk out of he deserted station into the equally deserted car park and then with a small amount of logic and a lot of luck we head off left towards the bridge.

Saint Denis pres Martel from the bridge - you can go another way but this was least risky
Saint Denis pres Martel tracks from the bridge

Luckily there is a sign with Safaraid Dordogne on it and we wander down the road rucksacs heavy on our backs past houses and “Terre a Vendre” (land for sale).

We walk, and walk and walk… There’s no signs so we’re taking pretty random guesses. The sun is starting to dip and the heat of the day is given off in the grass and road. The evening is beautiful. Occassionally a car drives past. We wander on past French country farm houses, their yellow stone walls with their windows set all higly piggldy.

We take a wrong turn and end up on the banks of La Dordogne. It is the first time I have seen it. I am impressed. Here, the river is wide and slow. The banks are low with the occasional trees. On the other side of the river in the distance the magestic limestone cliffs jut out of the green landscape. Their rough and jaggeded yellow texture are in stark constrast to the rolling green scenery.

Les Granges - impressive limestone cliffs in the afternoon sun.
Les Granges – impressive limestone cliffs in the afternoon sun.

Having finally found the campsite, after many “bon soir” to random strangers we find the reception closed. Tired, footsore and hungry we decide to set the tent up in a random place…

At the bar I ask Mark if we could have a beer in a seedy bistro. Cigarette in hand he pauses mid drag and replies… “Ben, this France…”

Drunken banter wandered onto my trips to Australia and Tony being a fitness fanatic. Mark commented on being a fitness fanatic – I asked Mark if he used to smoke when he swam… the answer was simple.. “Backstroke only”…

“I don’t even know what a mogu is… write it down”. “How do you think you’re going to die?”.

We headed back to the tent after a few beers and before floating off into a deep sleep I covered myself with insect replant.

Unitl…

I awoke a couple of hours later desperate for the toilet. Getting out the tent a mist had wrapped the campsite in it’s sluggish embrace. As I marched towards the toilet block in my socks I trod in a puddle, not very pleasant. Getting to the toilet block with a heady fuzz I was surprised to see a young lad cleaning them. In my half asleep state it confused me no end to see this – I muttered something to him about the toilet and he pointed in the general direction of the cubicles. My way back to the tent meant more soggy feet and a certain amount of fighting with the zip.

16.07.06

Being awoken by mark saying “Shit.. Shit.. Shiiiit” gave me the subtle hint that we’d not done something right. It turned out that we were meant to be at the Safaraid checkpoint a mile and a half down the road at 9 am. It was 8:50 and we were still in our tent half asleep.

Marks back was covered with yellow puss filled bites. A mosquito has somehow got into the tent at night and fed well. We made it a holiday rule to search for mozzies before going to sleep and kill them on sight.

The plan was for mark to hike down to the canoe rendez vous with the guy and explain while I put the tent down. Half way through getting everything down mark saunters back. Luckily he’d managed to get through on the phone and the guy was coming to pick us up in the truck. Already we’d got ourselves a reputation as being the trouble making brits…

Random paperwork and a trip to the drop off point a half an hour later we had our canoes in hand. Yellow Sea Kayaks. I’d say almost unsinkable, but that would be tempting fate. The sun was quite mild as we pushed out into the quiet stretch of river, its surface broken by masses of weed which we would see so much of in the coming days.

The start of Canoës Safaraid Dordogne - la Dordogne in Argentat France
The start of Canoës Safaraid Dordogne – la Dordogne in Argentat, France

We pulled over a few metres down the river to the bank and sorted out our pods. It might be worth a brief note here about probably the most iconic and memorable part of the holiday – pods.

Canoes Safaraid Dordogne - Sort out your pod early on
Canoes Safaraid Dordogne – Sort out your pod early on

Pods are about 50cm high white cylindrical canisters with a rubber sealed red lid. Exceptionally strong (you can sit on them, which we often did considering we had no chairs) and waterproof they contained all our valuables which either might be needed on a day to day basis (money, wallet, camera) and those items which you could do without being stolen if left with the canoe people (passport and plane ticket information). The pods became so iconic because we had to take them everywhere with us.

Wherever we canoed the pods came with us, wherever we walked they came too. It was strange as on the few occasions when we didn’t need to take them with us such as when we could leave them in a tent in the evening, I missed it. It was horrible giving them back at the end, they’d gone through everything we’d been through – from the fun to the frantic.

After attempting to logically sort the contents of the pods into need now and need later (Something which would change over the course of the holiday) we headed confidentally downstream. Having not had a meal for over 24 hours didn’t seem to be that much of a problem with the provisoin of Trebor products in the canoe.

Ben - taking a break from 5 minutes worth of canoeing on La Dordogne
Ben – taking a break from 5 minutes worth of canoeing on La Dordogne

Reading the river is a skill which I had yet to learn but soon would. We successfully negociated the first couple of rapids with a certain amount of skill, style and arrogance. Or at least I did, until about two hours into our journey I learned a valuable lesson about not hitting rocks and capsized. For some reason I hadn’t worked out that the white bits of water don’t always mean that there is a rock somewhere under there and I could go over it – sometimes it meant that there was a great big chunk of granite sticking up out the water and attempting to go through it at speed in what is a floating plastic banana is only ever going to yield one winner – the rock.

The canoe went one was, I went the other. I was left standing with a badly swollen knee stranded in the middle of the rapids holding s paddle while my canoe (including my pod) disappeared down the river. Luckily Mark had spotted the fact that my ride and I had parted company and rescued it further downstream. That was good news at least in part. I know had the interesting task of trying to get to the bank. Every move I made either put me off balance on the floor of the rivers exceeding uncomfortable stones (I was barefoot) or the water caught the paddle and threatened to throw me in. I stood for a while thinking, my legs getting colder and my feet starting to numb.

A couple of young French girls went past in the double canoes and asked if I was okay. I’d never felt quite so stupid, but shouted “Il fait daccord” or “Je suis bon” or some such sentitment that I wasn’t about to drown – though my pride had taken up residence in Davy Jones Locker and wasn’t budging.

I decided that I was a liability to other people and I couldn’t just stand there all day. I was going to have to make at least some sort of attempt to get to the bank. It took me a good fifteens minutes of swearing at the stones and river in general for me to get to the nearest bank.

Unkown to me the gilrs who had just past meant they failed to notice the even bigger rocks in their path and were emptied out of their vessles. Mark did the decent thing and retrieved their now mobile goods and then headed back up river to find me.

Meanwhile my progress across the river had been a fair success. The cold, fast running water having sufficiently numbed my feet so the sharp hard rocks on which I was streading bare foot became a mere dull ache as opposed to the sharp pain as before. Although slow, I finally made it to the bank and as I carefully made way up it’s side I came across a small sheletered beach with a man and child looking into the water. “Bonjour” I greeted them with all the joviality I could muster. They ignored me. Completely. And then continued what they were doing, the Dad pointing to something in the water and saying in perfect English, “David, it’s there pick it up”. Looks like I’d stumbled across some more Brits.

Meeting up with Mark by a large rock I gingerly got onto the front of his canoe. It was a precarious balancing act but somehow the banana managed to keep afloat. We retrieved my canoe from the safe spot mark had stowed it and carried on downstream.

After a few more Km’s had ben put under our belts and we’d seen numerous demented fish (fish throwing themselves out the water at us) we spotted a potential stop off and scooted over to have a look see. We pulled up at the gritty beach and waited for a couple of fellow canoers to leave before dragging our canoes up removing our pods.

The tree-lined bank was terraced into two layers, the one closest to the water having several picnic benches on, and the second having what appeared to be a small wooden hut with additional seating and umbrellas. This turned out to be Camping la Berge Ombragée.

Camping la Berge Ombragée - trying to get some service
Camping la Berge Ombragée – two sandwiches please

After first being ignored by a 60-year-old fat French ‘gentleman’ (surely a contradiction in terms) mark ordered two cheese and ham butties and a coffee for us each from the blonde girl.

Having not had a meal in now 36 hours any food would have been a mercy; when the lass brought out our butties they turned out to be massive French sticks. They were eaten at speed and savoured. I noticed our coffees were black and no milk had been brought over – another lesson learnt and learn well. The French simply don’t do milk in coffee. After to first cup I realized why – the coffee is extraordinary and adding anything else into other than maybe more coffee would spoil it.

We chilled out in the lazy afternoon sun on one of the picnic benches, talking crap and people watching while drinking our coffees.

The family group sitting behind us idly chat in a mixture of French and English. Their children playing in the river. The sons catching fish with their bare hands the natural hunters while the daughter looks on and shouts at the dog from the bank.

After a while I suggested getting some ice cream – it being my turn and all I had to go up and get them. I found out that the best way to learn French is to have to do it in front of a pretty woman with an audience. Although the thought of ordering anything in French scared the pants off me (it is the first time I’ve had to do it) the theory did cross my mind that even if I did cock it up no one was going to know. With a bit of help from a board with pictures on I managed to sort out a couple of mint cornettos just as Mark’s victims from the rocks wandered up the steps. Keeping my head down I found Mark in a non to happy mood – he didn’t have any cigarettes. On my suggestion that he scav a one from someone, his reply was curt “I would never bum a cigarette off a Frenchman”

Our ice creams finished and our bellies full of good food we decided to make a move. Just in time as a large group of school kids in canoes, shouting, whooping and generally making complete mayhem of the otherwise quiet river decided to come into our mini port.

A couple of hunfred meters down the stream we figured we weren’t too far from the end of our first days canoeing so we found a comfortable looking rock and stopped off. By now, my leg was aching a bit as I’d bashed up my left knee pretty bad when I visited the rock earlier on. The sun was starting to move down and the evening was nice and warm. Dipping into the water in my underpants (why not? No one could see) to try and reduce the swelling in my leg the fish nibbling at my toes I relaxed.

Our break over we continued on. Now wary of anything even resembling a rapid I could hear some heavy flowing water in the distance. As we rounded a bend the river split into two – to the right was unknown and to the left, it was fast flowing choppy water with four guys stand up to their wastes and an upturn canoe wedges fairly solidly against some rocks.

We watched for a while to see how far the complete lack of thought and teamwork got them. Not surprisingly very little was being accomplished as French gents were trying to use brute force against the river – which never tired and didn’t have an agenda. Mark went first down the rapids and promptly fell out, after getting back on his canoe he curved round and stopped at a small gravel beach just behind the struggling lunatics.

I slowly followed some minutes later and luckily managed to get through the rocks without tipping out – though it was close. By the time I had scooted up to the beach, Mark was already helping, with a sudden and loud pop the canoe came shooting out of the rocks – Mark attached. The curious thing was they never thanked him. Then again, maybe nobody really likes their abject stupidity shown to them in such a curt manner.

Canoeing past idyllic cottages on the riverbank as the late afternoon soon oozed over out weary shoulders we happened upon our hydroelectric power station and zoomed down the artifical concrete “gliss” under a bridge and then shot a hard right upriver against current and then onto the dreaded “Effing Stones” to our destination “Les Iles”.

We plonked our canoes down and wandered (pods in-hand of course) and headed up the pathway – we still were not 100% sure we were in the right place. Strolling towards the reception Les Iles proved to be a very pretty campsite (Camping Huttopia Beaulieu sur Dordogne). A large number of trees generally, a bar, a pool, and then a little bridge over a picturesque stream. The building the reception was housed in had many flowers and a novel balcony – made largely of wood it commanded an excellent view of the campsite.

Camping Huttopia Beaulieu sur Dordogne
Camping Huttopia Beaulieu sur Dordogne

The friendly English speaking receptionist took us to our spot next to an enormously large tent owned by a group of Germans. While we sorted our stuff out the Germans ate on an equally massive table – it looked similar to a scaled-down army barrack and they ate well. I half expected them to break into song, drinking beer from large beer mugs and eating sauerkraut.

Camping Huttopia Beaulieu sur Dordogne in 2006
Camping Huttopia Beaulieu sur Dordogne in 2006

My knee was looking pretty roughed up now as were my shins which had taken a scraping too. It made it hard putting on any aftersun.

Côté Dordogne from the bridge
Côté Dordogne from the bridge

We secured bread for the morning and wandered to the bar to order sausage and chips (with lots and lots more hot, lovely black French coffee). We watched the nubiles play babyfoot (suddenly I understood why it was such a popular game in France when the off putting jiggle tactics were being used).

Hitting the sack an hour or so later we did a quick check for mozzies with the torch – having found a couple and condemning them to a bloody death I fell into a bruised, tired, stiff but happy daze.

17.07.06

The three cups of super-strong coffee I drank last night had no effect on the inevitability of sleep. The fact I couldn’t be bothered getting my sleeping bag out of my rucksack, however, did mean that as the temperature dropped in the night I got cold and had to hide under my waterproof.

One thing which did grab me as strange is the way all the crickets stop chirping at the same time. Mark sleep talked last night which was both alarming and amusing. That few moments when you are woken up and you’re not sure where you are or what has just woken you – some sort of hindbrain terror which keeps you frozen for that second staring into the abyss of possible things which potentially want to eat you. And then you realize it’s the guy asleep next to you ordering chow mein or something in a random dream.

On inspecting my knee it has gone a beautiful shade of purple – the swelling has subsided a bit no doubt thanks to the cool evening and the amount of pain killers I have been taking.

We managed to shift our arses out of bed at 8am, collect our daily bread and put the tent down before heading into the uber picturesque village of “Beaulieu sur Dordogne”. Flowers in full bloom, ancient shuttered houses right on top of one another and tiny ally ways all leading to one massive gothic church (Abbatiale Saint-Pierre) which a cylindrical obsession.

Abbatiale Saint-Pierre
Abbatiale Saint-Pierre in Beaulieu sur Dordogne

Grabbing breakfast (pain au chocolate) from the boulangerie (Boulangerie Patisserie J.P. & A. Migot) the lady behind the counter showing obvious amusement at me sitting outside the shop taking in the ambience on my pod) we made our way to the supermarche across the village square for additional supplies.

I love going into foreign supermarkets. There is something magical about them. Globalisation gives the false air of familiarity, but then other things are just so alien. The complete lack of cheddar cheese to me in France is the one thing which lets the beautiful and impressive country down. How can anyone not have the lovely creamy cheddar cheese? It’s almost a major food group in itself in my opinion.

France it seems has two main kinds of cheese. Extremely hard rubbery cheese which I think might be some sort of by-product from the plastics industry and then the ever so popular soft cheese – which is definitely an industrial by-product.

We gathered together the essential, camembert for mark, plastic cheese for me, some marge, wine and an assortment of other bits and bobs. It was also suggested that we get some german sausage. Sausage has always been the symbol of German world war two food to me – I think it’s due to the influence or Rene in “Allo Allo” – but then again I might be wrong. Either way, I was eager to try some out, never having the bottle to actually buy it in an English supermarket (which probably has something to do with the fact that I get the feeling that I would be the only person to have ever bought it from an English supermarket, every other Englishman politely ignoring the sausage counter and every Continental chap positively avoiding it English sausage counter).

All this newfound food did pose us with a problem. Where to put it? Somehow we managed to stuff it all into the magic pods and then went in search of caffeine.

Although early, Beaulieu sur Dordogne had certainly started to wake up and the sun was warm. We wandered over to a convenient bistro (Le Cafe Du Centre) located near the town square, set ourself down and while discussing how to order a coffee properly (my learning curve was still flat at this point) the waitress came over, took one look at us said coffee and buggered off. Saved us a trip.

Beaulieu sur Dordogne
Beaulieu sur Dordogne

We were sat on a table literally on the street affording us a good vantage point on all which was going on and we were also in the shade. Opposite us an archetypical French bloke armed with a reeking black cigarette, beer gut and deep leathery tan set about doing his best trying to look busy in front of his other half who was serving customers. He’d grab one box of fruit and carry it around a bit, stopping from time to time to smoke his cigarette or talk to some passerby whom he knew. He was obviously master at this particular game as in all the time we sat there the net movement of boxes around the outside of the shop was zero.

Our caffeine fixes sorted and our grand funk chill out need satisfied we headed back towards to campsite via the church to pack our bags. I would have like to have maybe stayed a bit longer in Beaulieu sur Dordogne. It is one of the nicest places I have ever visited. I’m not too sure if there is anything else to see other than the square – but a good couple more hours could have been happily wasted peering into the day to day lives of those living and working within the country village.

Arriving back at the campsite we applied much sun tan lotion as it looked like it was going to be another uber hot float unless the excessive sun made us go tonto – uber heiss.

As we put our canoes back into the river once again we came across the curious French rivers geological phenomenonm. The Ephing stone. These rocks tend to inhabit areas around rivers which require human access when bare foot. They come in all shapes and sizes, usually covered in slime always painful to stand on – they are part of the insanely lush French rivera. I would howwver not miss them for one second if they were suddenly to become soft a butter and melt away in the sun. Some three months later after experiencing the pain of these metamorphic tourture instruments the insoles of my feet still ache thinking about them.

The canoeing style of the day was quite different from the fast past rapid avoidance of yesterday. Large expanses of slow deep water within cavernous limestone valleys. Enormous fish swim lethargically along side us as vivid green monster dragon flies land on my knee and hitch a free ride – their heads twitching from side to side – before shooting off and skimming the waters surface.

A distinct lack of current in the sluggish moving water meant more work for us. The progress was relatively slower with bursts of high activity followed by periods of foot dangling and half asleep drifting.

Not being able to put suncream on my legs because of the skin trauma caused by my accident has meant that they have ‘caught the sun’ a euphemistic term for burn. Now the skin I do have left on my shins is lovely and red and I’m having to deal with this as well as the bruising. Occassionally I accidentally knock them with my padel and suppress numerous swear words.

The river sometimes managed to get very shallow being in stark contrast to the cavernous sections. This meant having to get off the canoe and drag it along. More ephing stones.

Sections of the river support an abundance of river weed. Sizeable subsurface plants some 3 or 4 metres long whose flowers stick up out the surface and provide opportunity landing pads for the dragonflies. Canoeing over the weeds can be problematic especially where there is a lot of them. They slow you down, and the paddle gets stuck in them occasionally trying to pull you in – this can prove slightly embarrassing when trying to overtake kids in other canoes who aren’t on the weeds.

Many of the other river users are families with children paddling in two up canoes. These appear to be considerably more effieicent than ours – though I’ve no idea how heavy they are. Even kids seem to go quite fast with very little obvious effort.

Our lunch was a quick affair by French standards. A mere two hours. We dined like kings (albeit grubby, sunburnt, slightly smelly kings) on our fine selection of wine, cheese, ham, and bread. The margarine we had bought had turned into a fine yellow liquid in the pods. In the clearing behind our dining area, we left our wet trousers in sun to bake. The floor was so hot out of the shade it wasn’t possible to walk on.

Having pulled the canoes up onto the bank we lazed about lying in them, on them and generally around them watching floaters by. A mother and daughter had a right old time deciding which way to go down the rapid and ended up having to get out and push their canoe.

The tranquil sounds of the river were broken by a car pulling up somewhere behind us. A young lad and his dad got out and went to walk down the path leading to our secured beachhead. They’d already taken a few steps before they noticed us sitting there, banquet laid out and grinning up at them in various states of undress. Quickly backtracking they found another spot 20m or so upstream, the lad jumping into the cool water with his fishing rod and the dad sitting on the bank ‘supervising’ (which happened to look a lot like taking a nap).

Normality returned and then was broken a few minutes later by the sound of a 2 stroke engine being raped and skidding sounds from the clearing. I jumped up and ran to the clearing, ever mindful that our trousers (which were now properly dry) were still up there. A couple of kids on motorbikes had arrived – one on a Yahama road bike without a helmet going over off-road terrain. Pure Madness. I would be interested to see how many kids in rural France ended up in the local hospitals with head trauma from coming off these things. It was one thing I did notice – although there seemed to be not all that many large road bikes, there did seem to be an abundance of smaller motorbikes driven around insanely by young children. The thought did occur to me at the time that maybe these kids, when they get on the roads when they are older, are better drivers for it – or it could be possible that by that age the novelty has worn off and so they don’t even bother going for the crazy superbike the English tend to purchase.

While pulling our canoes back into the river and setting off towards the choppy water ahead mark suggests that life is like approaching a rapid in a canoe. You can see the rapid up ahead, you know you’re going to get there eventually no matter how much back paddling you do and you’re never sure when or what it’s going to be like when you get there.

Luckily today other than my boat being forced on top of a rock, wedging me there while I balanced on top, there were no casualties.

Further on up the river, before taking a wrong turn by some islands I heard Mark shouting something. It sounded like “Snake! Snake! SNAKE! It’s a fucking snake!”

It turned out to be “Snake! Snake! SNAKE! It’s a fucking snake!”. Long, green, thin and very agile in the water the snake was making it’s way across the river. It’s thin head above the water it ducked under mark’s canoe and carried on its journey, no doubt looking for fish.

What is the definition of pressure? It’s a question I believe a lot of people ask themselves, but I think this holiday showed one. Pressure is when you have to canoe down a glisse (French for slide) with a bikini-clad audience. The glisse was part of a large weir.

Although we had been briefed on the various dangers of the river we were never too sure what the map meant. In all fairness, to the French authorities though they did make it hard to get wrong. I wasn’t too sure at first about the glisse as there was a sign with a canoe on it falling off a thing – never a good impression when you’re actually in a canoe next to something you can fall off.

The glisse safely passed (for a frantic second I did think I was going to go into the concrete side or do my swanky side turn too fast and go over that way) we carried on not too sure as to quite where we were on the map. Hammering it for a couple of km we came to the conclusion that we had probably only half an hour or so on the river left and took it easy.

The conversation wandered around to office etiquette and we started considering shunning organized religion and replacing it with Greek gods. It was decided that the office environment could certainly be livened up with shouts of “Great Zeus” during meetings or “By the great Gods I have an email”. Quite what clients might think we couldn’t decide on, but as a swansong to any job it would be well worth the risk of admiration or ridicule. On a side note we did come up with the phrase, “That man is tighter than a Cyclops underpants”.

Our finishing point was Les Granges where we first stayed. Before arriving there were some bizarre little streams going off inland with stilted water and odd smells. It wasn’t obvious at first that we had found the campsite a complete lack of signs didn’t help – it was only for the fact that we recognized the jutting cliffs and the caravans that we started looking out for a place to land.

That was our next problem. Unlike the previous campsite there was no natural gravel beach. In fact there was no beach at all. Instead, the campsite had built a very steep set of steps up to the site rising some four or five metres from the river’s surface. On arrival, these steps were inhabited by a French couple who took a while to figure out that they would actually have to move out the way if we were going to get out. The canoes were meant to be removed from the water by means of a series of rollers next to the steps.

Prima facie this appeared to be a good idea but proved to be a right pain in the arse for two reasons. First off getting out of the canoe without losing either it, the paddle or ones balance was hard enough.

Secondly, even if by some miracle you’d managed to get the canoe onto the rusty old rollers, walking up the steps meant that the canoe just fell off – that is there was no means to keep the canoes set on them. In the end, Mark and I just used brute force and ignorance, dragging the canoes up the steps and (as always in these situations) swearing at the world in general.

We follow what turns out to be a pattern we were going to repeat when arriving at any campsite. Plonking our canoes down in a position out the way, removing our pods and carrying them to the reception area where we collect our bags and pay for the nights camping. Les Granges, is a friendly site but compared to the last stop-off point it does lack an awful lot; then again I haven’t seen any ‘trembling’ going on while baby food is played.

The curt receptionist is a walking paradox she seems both helpful and unhelpful in equal quantities. Putting us next to the entrance (and the shed were our rucksacks are kept) seemed a bit of a snub, but it did mean we got to people watch as happy campers wandered to the stall of French African women selling crappy trinkets until the sun started to set.

Camping Lot - Les Granges
Camping Lot – Les Granges

The fields in front of the campsite roll into the distance and as the suns last rays filter through the trees and I call my girlfriend up on my mobile phone there are few places as beautiful as this.

The Sun Setting Outside Camping Lot Les Granges
The Sun Setting Outside Camping Lot Les Granges

It has been a hard day. Shoulders hurting, sunburn tingling and a painful arse from sitting in a wet plastic kayak for hours on end. The saving grace, however, is that my arse is now dry.

I buy a large bottle of (warm) coke from the campsites shop – surely putting it in the fridge wouldn’t have been that hard – and chill out with Mark talking of chateaus to see and food to taste. When I tell him my shoulders are a bit sore he suggests that I am using my arms too much to paddle…. He avoids the direct question on what else I should use with a song….

18.07.06

This mornings alarm call didn’t happen. The alarm clock had stopped. By ZEUS! Somehow we got our gear together quickly (it’s a bloke thing girls) after heartily feasting on a croissant and lovely sweat runny jam. We put down the tent and I wandered off towards the enigmatic shower block.

The shower block is part of the toilet block which is part of the dishwashing block which is part of the laundry block. All in all, it’s a multi-purpose building squashed into the size of a small video shop.

Now I knew that you could go in and get a shower on the side of the building opposite to where I’d been to the toilet (nothing gets past me), but what I was a little unsure of was what happened when you got inside. I’d seen mainly women come and go from this side of the building, but a couple of blokes had been in there looking like they wanted a shower (they’d had towels and other shower related gubbins) – my problem was, therefore, a matter of going in and trying to ascertain as quickly as possible where to go next. I had however come to the conclusion that it didn’t really matter if I went into the ladies showers and that France by its definition was fairly laissez-faire with such matters.

I strode into the showers to find that it was pretty much empty and each cubicle could be used by men or women. I got in and had a delightful shower. It was good to have clean warm water and clean hair again!

Shower and shave sorted we headed back to the canoes, but were delayed by a family group labouriously lowering their canoes into the sluggish Dordogne. Finally, we were in the river and off. Rounding a bend next to a minor landslide brought us the view of some magnificent cliffs with a chateau perched on top. I am not sure quite what the purpose of the chateaus are. I am making the assumption that they probably had some sort of feudal land system in France and the chateaus are where the wealthy lords and landowners lived. Some of the chateaus are similar (though not really in design as these chateaus tend to be very ornate looking) to large manor houses in the UK which the National Trust might look after, though others (like one we saw on the first day) are massively fortified affairs which sacrifice looks for strength.

Canoeing past the pitted limestone cliffs we took refuge in a small clearing off the river and I disappeared to use the toilet. On the shingle spit a few hundred metres away from a gorgeous lass in a white bikini and blue hat suns herself next to her sister and father. Mark and exchange a glance and carry on down the river.

Here the water speed picked up as the sun-baked down on us in midday mania. I heard a noise and looked up. Mark was in the water. He’d zoomed down a rapid and gone straight into the limestone cliff. Somehow he’d also managed to catch his lifejacket (which he never wore contrary to French river law I believe). As he hopped back onto his canoe I floated over (narrowly missing the wall myself) and made sure he was okay.

Rounding a couple more bends and my legs beginning to bake we found a sheltered area by a cliff and another chateau. A natural rock shelf stuck out and made an excellent docking point. As I paddled over to it I spotted something moving in the water. On closer inspection, it was another snake, but this time is had a fish in its mouth and it was trying to get to land. I attempted to get to it and maybe pick it up, but it managed to get away.

Putting the canoes up on the ledge, mark grabbed a cigarette and I devoired a couple more croissants and jam.

Regrets on the holiday? That’s a hard question. I guess maybe trying to talk to more people in French would have been better, but I reached a level I was comfortable with and took it a bit further. I’d have really struggled without Mark and I doubt the holiday would have been any fun at all without him there, Then again, maybe it would who knows. I think the early morning and long days of exercise did take it’s toll sometimes making me irritable – but I think the most important thing is to spot this as it happens. If something is annoying you ask yourself “Am I being unreasonable”. If the answer is maybe then it’s probably yes and you need to get some perspective.

Overall I found the areas of France I visited beautiful and interesting. The people polite (with the exception of a couple of grumpy old men) and intelligent. The thing I noticed the most though which I miss now is the respect that everyone showed for each other. People will say hello to strangers, kids are not rude or aggressive. This may not be the case in the urban sprawl or the city areas but La Dordogne and the associated regions around the river were nothing but how people should be.

Mention Kettle
The guy warning us about the hydro electric power stations
The station master and me asking for the train to SaintDenis PresMartel
Also Frank Karpa
Safaraid Dordogne
Vayrac – Les Granges
Beaulieu – Les Iles
Vayrac – Les Granges
Saint Sozy – Les Borgnes
Souillac-Lanzac – Lanzac
Saint Julien-Carlux – Les Ombrages
Vitrac – Le Perpetuum

Mention also the guys briefing us in the field. And about castles In the first

Also the train and the silent carriage and the little kid speaking French with the pykie father.