Driving and kayaking 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 splendour. Driving it won’t take long but will give you plenty of opportunity to stop and gawp at the scale. The trip down the river by kayak is something else entirely. You’ll pass nudists, career down scary rapids and rubberneck huge crags while vultures circle overhead. And if it gets a bit hot you can just strip off and dive in.
We arrive in St Martin D’Ardeche with one mission: to kayak the Ardeche gorge. It’s something I have wanted to do for a while. Having seen images of people kayaking beneath the huge limestone walls of this famous gorge, I am desperate to do it too. The only issue is how.
We have kayaks and kit. All we need is a lift up the river. Simple? Not always. We pitch up and head off into the village in search of an answer. The path that runs alongside the river is rocky and sandy with beaches all along it where people are swimming, kayaking and SUPing. It’s busy and buzzing. We find three English guys loading kayaks onto 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 trailers are full. We go to other companies, but it’s the same: it’s high season. They are all full.
As we walk back to our campsite, a little despondent, I spot someone we’ve not yet approached. In minutes we are booked onto a bus to take us to the departure point 24kms upriver at eight the next morning.
We turn up, pay and wait for our lift, which, as it turns out, is in a dodgy orange van that probably shouldn’t be haring around tight bends hundreds of metres above the Ardeche gorge. I grip my seat the whole way. Happily we make it to the start in one piece, although slightly shaken, and are dropped off. We launch, pushing out into the fast-running river.
There are lots of other people here too, most of them on rented sit-on-top kayaks. There are kids and dogs in kayaks too. It seems this is the thing to do, not just for me but for everybody else too.
Aside from the people the river is beautiful. The walls of the gorge are vertical, forming cirques of flat grey rock that are hundreds of metres high. At times the walls overhang the water, while at others they open out. On the bends there are beaches of limestone and sand. On the outside of the bends the water runs faster, travelling further and with less resistance. In places, forest has grown up on the banks. There are pines and juniper and, when we stop for a snack, we see sage, marjoram and thyme growing between cracks in the limestone. The water is clear and green, with fish darting about in the shallows. From the water we look up at the gorge and its unscalable walls. We see a huge raptor of some kind flying above us while crag martins flit about. Butterflies, beetles and dragonflies zoom about above the water.
As we hit our first rapid I attack it, taking a line straight down the deepest, fastest part. I wonder how everyone else will fare. Some people stop paddling as they hit the rapid, others get turned around and some wobble and scream as they head downstream out of control.
At another rapid we see lifeguards guiding everyone to the safest line around a big rock, and at another, where there are no lifeguards, we see up-turned canoes, people clinging to rocks and lifejackets floating off downstream. We help retrieve one upturned sit-on. We can hear the screams and shouts of kayakers well before we reach each set of rapids.
In one section we pass a nudist campsite, at one of the few access points. I’m not expecting to see a naked woman sprawled out on a rock just as I am about to hit the rapid so it’s a little off putting. A couple with leathery, over-tanned skin stand in the shallows and watch us as we go by. I notice more people reclining on the banks, swimming or watching us, and all of them are naked. It feels like I’ve paddled into another world, where textiles like me are eaten or treated like kings. I don’t (can’t) hang about to find out, even though I am partial to a skinny dip myself, and the water carries me away downstream.
As we get closer to lunchtime the crowds peter out – no doubt upholding the noble French art of lunching long and well - and we find ourselves on a stretch with few other kayakers.
We stop for lunch ourselves at a slippery slab of limestone in front of a deep pool and just before a section of rapid. It’s hot so we get in the water for a swim. There are tiny fish swimming in the shallows and larger fish cruising in the deeper water. Lizzy sits on a rock to eat her croissant and notices a snake in the water: it’s a tiny viperine water snake. We don’t swim again.
The river slows as we get closer to St Martin D’Ardeche and the walls fall away. The water is deep and dark here and there are people everywhere, jumping, swimming and kayaking. We paddle to the landing stage and struggle out of our boats. We’ve been on the water for five hours. It’s been amazing, we agree. We’ve seen wonderful wildlife, we’ve challenged ourselves a little, we’ve seen carnage at the rapids and we’ve seen a lot of people have a lot of fun in an incredibly special place.
I want to do it all over again.
Edited extract from Take the Slow Road: France by Martin Dorey, the latest in the campervanning Take the Slow Road series which includes Scotland, England & Wales, and Ireland. All available to buy now. (Bloomsbury, £20)