Dordogne Canoe Adventure

From my old archive a river adventure.

A flash of lightning rents the rapidly darkening sky, followed seconds later by a crash of booming rolling thunder as masses of superheated air slam together in the heavens. The rain is torrential making the surface of the river come alive with ten thousand dancing sprites. Sitting in the canoes as our little caravan paddles down the river we curse our luck that we have driven 800 miles and found the very same rain we had hoped to leave in the UK. Still it’s exciting, I love the primeval nature of a thunderstorm; the raw energy, power, and way it displays the forces of nature so vividly over man, yet also makes me feel more connected to a landscape when I’m sat in the middle of it.


They go this way up right?


Today is the fist day on the river for our team of seven, for a couple of hours now we’ve been getting used to our canoes and vainly struggling to paddle them in a straight line. The plan is to spend six days paddling down the Dordogne River between the small french towns of Argentat and Vitrac, a distance of 110km, each night camping by the river and enjoying the local cheese, wine, and plenty of banter. Like all good plans we jump straight in at the deep end with day one as the biggest day with 27km to cover before we reach landfall in Beaulieu. The company we have hired the boats from offer both self supported and luggage relay, we have opted for the latter although this does limit us to staying in official campsites rather than wild camping on the riverbank.


The rivers meanders it’s was through green woodlands interspersed with fields of rape and grass. The paddling itself is nothing technical, mostly flat water with the occasional small rapids to negotiate which add a bit of spice the journey, and a bit of water to the interior of the canoe. 


Just about getting the hang of this straight line thing.

The storm is short but violent, once the rain slows the water is brilliantly clear and we spot fish darting about trying to keep within the shadow of the canoe. The sun remembers it’s in the south of France begins to burn off the cloud, and the river begins to steam in the humidity, swallows appear from the trees darting and skimming just above the water buzzing the boat like miniature dogfighting aeroplanes as they feed on the insects that hover just above the surface. Brilliant cobalt blue dragon flies hover along side us on incredibly delicate gossamer thin wings. 


After a little practice the canoes turn out to be easy to steer, the paddler in the from seat concentrating on delivering the power whilst the rear seat also deals with the steering with some basic rudder skills. For much of the time the river flows through treelined country, and because France is much more sparsely populated than the UK the trip has a much more wild feel than I think any river in the UK (even Scotland) would. We break the day and journey up by rafting up the boats together for a brew or a swim,  it’s incredibly tranquil and relaxing, just drifting along with the current feet trailing in the water.


A bit of drama is saved till the end of the day when paddling into Beaulieu we have to negotiate a small canoe slide just before the pull out. When Gina and Chris come down the shoot they get caught by the stopper at the base which spins them through 90 degrees into the bank and then bounces them out into mid stream. Unfortunately before they can get the canoe straightened the current takes it into the support for a bridge over the river causing the boat to flip over and we have our first and fortunately only capsize of the trip.


Downhill from here!

I attempt to spring into rescue mode by completely failing to paddle upstream against the current and nearly capsize my own boat which I now realise is dangerously full of rain water. Fortunately the others are much more organised in effecting a rescue, getting the guys and their boat to the shore and helping get it drained.

Once at the campsite we then realise we have made a serious mistake, our luggage hasn’t yet arrived and were sat in wet clothes having not thought to take a spare set with up on the boats (because it’s hot in the south of France in summer, No?). Copious amounts of tea, and strongly alcoholic coffee go some way to improving the situation, although we are very happy when about an hour later our kit arrives and we can jump in the showers and warm ourselves up properly.


4 season mountain tent is the south of France in Summer


Enter a caption


The best day of the trip was when the river passed through a steep gorge. Geologists claim to comprehend deep time; I don’t believe them. Deep time is the early period of the Earth’s life and were talking billions of years ago here; is the human brain is truly capable of comprehending 5 million years, never mind 500 million let alone 5 billion? I think not, its so unfathomably outside the frame of reference of our lives so as to be almost meaningless. The gorge through which we paddled offered a glimpse into the fathomless age of the earth, a hint of the almost unimaginable time required to build and then tear down mountains, quite fascinating and deeply beautiful. 

We are in limestone country, layer upon layer of white and grey rock is piled up around us, through  which the river has calved its remorseless way. I’m not a geologist but try and understand the basics given it’s the controlling force in the landscapes that I love, the sculptor who created the places where I climb, paddle, and ride.


The spectacular limestone cliffs which line the river tower up to fifty meters above the water which has sculpted caves, pinnacles, prows, and curves in to the cliff face. Topped with trees, and climbing plants, long drapes of vines hang down the faces and the nooks and ledges provide a home for birds, and insects.

Given the scale of the cliffs it’s hard to imagine that they were formed under an ancient tropical sea from billions of dead coral plants laid down over countless generations which were slowly converted into limestone. We are already dealing with a staggering amount of time just to lay down 50m worth of limestone but its only part of the story in creating this landscape. Plate tectonics carried the young rock across the surface of the planet, and then inch by inch lifted them up from the seabed into the sun and atmosphere. Then slowly rain goes to work with its chisel,  the drops of water are very slightly acidic from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, capable of dissolving minute quantities of rock which over time allows the water to devour the rock into the myriad of shapes we see today. 

It’s a neat closing of a circle the coral life of the past now provides the ledges and cracks in which the life of today flourishes. Indeed I think most limestone here is less than 300 million years old which hardly qualifies as deep time, but more like yesterday compared to some of the rock in north west Scotland, the Lewisian Gneiss which is over 3 billion years old. 



There is more evidence if time everywhere you look on the river; when the cliffs retreat the riverbank is a steep embankment of cobbles and pebbles which the water has cut through to a depth of three meters in places. Every single pebble and cobble has been carried into this valley from a some distant mountain range by ancient rivers and countless floods and storms as the river changed its course over the valley floor for thousands of years. To deep time however the life of a river is nothing, little more than transient tears on the face of the planet, superficial and gone in a blink of an eye.

Once you start thinking of deep time it is easier to comprehend the “Gia” theory of the planet as one giant living interconnected organism of infinitely beautiful depth and complexity where all life depends on and nurtures all other. An almost eternal organism with plate tectonics and mantle convection the giant circulatory system driven by the heat of the heartbeat of the core. Science and the way it can tell stories about our world is a beautiful thing.


Impromptu boldering



All these thoughts are drifting through my brain as we drift slowly down the river; there are others as well of a slightly less epic nature! With so much rock about Dom and I get very excited about the potential for climbing. The walls are all steep to overhanging and look hard, probably 7a and above and quite fingery in style. None of the cliffs show any sign of development. The French are really lucky to have such a wealth of rock, so much that they leave huge sweeps of it undeveloped. 

Having come all this way we have to touch rock; unfortunately we don’t find anywhere that is suitable for proper deep water soloing as the river is just too shallow. But there are plenty of easy long traverses just above river level which keep us occupied as we drift slowly along with the current. The river gives you plenty of time to sit and think be it about a billion years of earths history or where the next beer is going to come from. 



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