The day I fell in love with kayaking
I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with kayaking. I love the idea of it – drifting lazily along a mellow stretch of flat water – but have often found the reality to be somewhat different. Like the time I found myself upside down in a freezing cold Welsh river after capsizing in rapids. This time, however, it’s going to be different.
Because this time I’m not in North Wales in winter – but southern France, in late summer. The journey time from my South London home was around the same as a schlep to Wales, but let’s be honest: the Midi-Pyrenees region is a whole other world.
The sun was shining, bathing everything in a warm, golden glow, and as I pulled up outside the Nature Escapade watersports centre, I had a feeling this was the day when I’d finally fall in love with kayaking.
Nature Escapade is located on the outskirts of St Antonin Noble-Val – a gorgeous little medieval town where topsy-turvy red-roofed houses jostle for position on the banks of the river. From here the Aveyron coasts on down to the Gorges du Tarn, where spectacular white cliffs stretch up to a sky so bright it makes your eyes water.
All that was yet to come, however, as I followed my instructor, Sandro out onto the water. ‘The Aveyron River is fantastic for kayaking because you can choose whether you want big rapids or something more peaceful,’ he said, with a strong Gallic twang.
I make no bones about it: I was happy to opt for the latter. The water was warm, slow and reassuringly shallow – only just covering my paddle when I dipped it in to test the depth.
As we made our way downstream, Sandro pointed out some of the feathery sights: ‘Over there is a kingfisher,’ he said, pointing to a blue splodge among the trees.
If you’re lucky, you might even spot a Griffon vulture – one of Europe’s most spectacular birds, with a wingspan of around eight feet. There was a time when these amazing creatures were on the point of extinction; however, a successful reintroduction around 20 years ago has seen numbers steadily rising, with several breeding pairs making their homes among the gorge’s craggy crevices.
Further along I spied an otter rooting about on the bank in search of its dinner. This region is teeming with wildlife, and out here on the water is a great place to get a glimpse.
As we drifted along in the hazy afternoon sun, I was struck by how quiet it was. The only sounds were the splosh of our paddles on the water, and the twitter of little birds flitting about in the greenery on either side. This was kayaking as I’d always imagined it should be: forget bouncing over boulders and being dunked headfirst into Welsh white water, I was perfectly content to just cruise along.
At one point, though, we did reach a section of faster-flowing stuff where we were forced to negotiate our way between some rocks, but even that was a doddle. I followed Sandro’s line through the watery chicane and emerged out the other side with a cheesy grin on my face. It got better, though.
Around the next bend we came to the gorge itself, which makes the one in Cheddar look like child’s play. This is France’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon – 30 miles of vertiginous limestone cliffs that line the river on either side. Peering up at the rocks from my lowly position, I saw two climbers silhouetted against the blue sky – like a couple of ants dangling on a piece of thread. Rather them than me.
If you do fancy scaring yourself silly, however, there are plenty of ways to do it around here. Like mountain biking, for example. Surrounding the gorge there are tons of trails threading their way through the dramatic countryside, with lung-bursting climbs and steep descents that will have you peeling your fingers off the brake levers when you reach the bottom.
Frankly, my idea of adventure was somewhat more relaxed, and after an hour or so more of paddling I beached my boat and headed off for a stroll around St Antonin Noble-Val. This is probably one of the prettiest French towns I’ve ever seen – its narrow, meandering backstreets seemingly remaining unchanged since the Middle Ages.
Indeed, the alleyways here look like a stage set for a Shakespearean play, many of the houses featuring intricate details built into the brickwork – like ‘La Maison de l’amour’, with its carving of two heads kissing above the front window.
With the evening sun casting long, lazy shadows on the weather-worn cobbles, I caught the sound of the clinking of glasses and hushed conversation from drinkers sat outside the pavement cafes.
After watching the last dregs of sunshine drip behind the surrounding peaks, I drove over to nearby Quyvie Farm, with the smell of wood smoke wafting in through the car window.
Pulling up outside, I was reminded of an episode of The Darling Buds of May. Next to the farm were hothouses full of every kind of vegetable and wild flower you can imagine. These included 50 kinds of tomatoes and 14 varieties of basil (liquorice basil anyone?), many of which end up in the kitchens of three Michelin-starred restaurants located in the area.
Owner Thierry Bolmont runs the farm with his wife Sylvie, who showed me around the 19th-century bake-house where I’d be spending the night. ‘This is the best spot to eat breakfast,’ she said, leading me out to a garden scattered with trees, ‘it always gets the sun first thing in the morning.’
Upstairs in the cosy little bedroom, the walls were festooned with books and bric-a-brac, collected by Thierry from various parts of the world during his time as a sailor. As the couple headed off to water the plants, I pulled the cork on a bottle of red, sat back and listened to the cicadas. I had the distinct feeling I was going to like it here…
For more information on kayaking on the River Aveyron, tel 00 33 (0) 5 63 31 41 76 or visit www.nature-escapade.com
For more details on Quyvie farm, tel 00 33 (0) 5 63 65 49 89 or visit www.ferme-de-quyvie.com