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Canyoning descent in the
Gorges des Tarn, June 2005

Wild, wet and wonderful ...

'Canyoning Carole' was first down the waterfall !

Canyoning in the Gorges des Tarn, France

Canyoning is an amazing way to experience nature at its wild and secretive best. I researched the internet before selecting the Gorges des Tarn in central France, and made contact with a local guide. A date was fixed, and wife Lyn and I drove down to the spectacular Aveyron countryside, south of the Massif Centrale. My friend Miles flew from London and we picked him up on the way at nearby Rodez.We checked into a small hotel on the river bank, and dined on the terrace. Swifts skimmed through the riverside verbiage while precipitous cliffs rose up from the river, reflecting the soft light of the setting sun.

Our group assembled next day at a point high above the Tarn river. Lyn declined the invitation to join us but volunteered to dogsit the new puppy..!.We set off down a forest trail and soon caught a glimpse of a small mountain stream wending through the trees – the headwaters of the Canyon Tapoul. The five of us were wearing wet suits and dressed rather like ducks, with our yellow rope harnesses around our bottoms. By the time we reached the water we were quite hot and plunged into the shallow mountain pool with a happy splash.

The group comprised our French guide Raphaël, an experienced canyon guide, Miles, who had travelled out from London, Carole from Bordeaux, and her two friends Alex and Cyril – I’m not sure which was which… and myself.

Once in the water, life adopted a new balance; we were buoyant and relaxed as we wallowed in the gentle stream and allowed the wet suits to adjust to our body temperature. I could have spent the rest of the morning floating around on my back, basking in this new weightless experience, but Raphaël had other ideas.

“Do not step on the slippery edge of the boulders”, he said, “but step into the gap between… that way we will have no broken legs today” - d'accord...

With a light splash we were all on our feet and advancing, carefully, down the river bed. The ferns waved gently in the breeze and the larch, birch and oak trees adorned the banks.

Soon we came to a small restriction where the water had formed into a still pool, spilling out between the rocks and splashing down a narrow corridor barely half a metre wide. We assembled in the pool and paddled into the gap between the rocks. As we entered the restricted throat, the fast flowing river backed up and suddenly each of us in turn was whooshed down this natural water-chute and out into a wide, deep clear pool.

The experience was exciting and exhilarating. We watched the river bank scenery change, waved to the passing wild flowers, rustled past reeds and rushes, brushed bankside saplings and cherished the heady scents of our watery mountain scenery.

This is what canyoning is for me, a spectacular experience of nature at it’s unspoilt best. Shafts of sunlight filter through the trees to throw dappled reflections on the mossy boulders. The river moderates from deep pools, silent and brooding, to racing spates of white water cascading over tumbled rocks.

On our descent between deepening pools, thundering waterfalls and rushing rapids, we progress from one pool to the next, climbing wading or roping down as required.

The pools are bigger now, the river deeper and the banks steeper. We come to an obstruction where a giant boulder dams the flow of water and the river disappears underneath with an ominous gurgle. We have arrived at a ravine where we have to assist each other scramble out up the rocky wall. We climb up and examine the obstacle from the elevated viewpoint of an adjacent rock.

This ravine is a deep one. A long way below lies a still, clear lagoon, and in between is an un-climbable 40 ft drop.

Raphaël uncoils his climbing rope, secures it to a fixing and throws the loose end down the ravine. It doesn’t quite reach to the bottom so we shall have to jump the last few feet into the water. The lagoon is very deep so we hope this will present no problem.

I wove the rope through and around my descender ‘0'-ring, shackled it to my roping harness and began my abseil. The technique demands complete trust in the rope as we lean out almost horizontal from the cliff face. Then you can manoeuvre down under control, feeding the rope hand-over-hand around the ‘0’ ring.

After 30 feet of fly-walking down the cliff face, the rope comes to an abrupt end – with still another 10 feet to go. You take a breath, release the rope and arrive with a thunderous splash in the water.

The pool is bottomless and you go down a long way without meeting any resistance. Eventually the buoyancy of your wet suit overcomes your downwards momentum and you rise slowly back up to the surface like a waterlogged cork. It is an elating moment to be able to see daylight again after your journey to the depths. A wave to Raphaël and another climber descends, while I float off with the current to the next obstacle – this time it s a shallow-angled waterfall where the water runs across a smooth rock face down to another pool 20 ft below. I dog-paddle over and skim down the watery slide. I slither into the lower pool with hardly a splash.

The surroundings here are amazing, I am in a naturally hewn cavern surrounded by tall, sheer rocks. The vertical sides are fringed with plants and branches 50 ft above me. They crown the edge in a verdant green, while beyond an eagle soars in the blue mountain sky. It would be impossible to reach this hidden haven in any other way except by water.

A yellow wagtail swoops down to the water’s edge and catches a hovering insect for her brood. I lodge myself on a convenient underwater rock and withdraw my underwater camera from the confines of my wet suit. The remainder of the party join up and I photograph each one as they descend the waterslide. We share the pleasure of our combined achievement and review progress.

We have now been climbing, scrambling, hiking and swimming for over 4 hours and arrive near the end of our canyon. We have to traverse across a small ledge high above a section of white water, at the end of which we find ourselves looking far down into another deep pool.

“Jump” said Raphaël. “It’s only 6 metres”.
"Only 6 metres...?" we all chorused. We got vertigo just looking at the drop. It was a very long way down, and there was absolutely no way back up again. This jump demanded cool courage; and it looked even worse from our elevated position standing above.

One by one we threw ourselves off the edge - we all shared a reckless streak - and long seconds later there would be a terrific splash as we hit the water. Our climbing boots broke the surface as each of us disappeared into our watery obscurity, setting off a tsunami that struck the edge of the pool before surging back to the middle again.

Calm waters at the end of the canyon

For those watching the plunge took an eternity, but eventually each of us popped up from the depths with a broad smile on our face.

We were all enjoying every minute of our helter skelter ride. We assembled at last in a deep wide pool surrounded by trees and shrubs and fed by a cascade of small waterfalls, each glinting in the sun.

We had arrived near the end and our canyoning trip was over - we climbed out onto a big rock bordering the bank, and then promptly jumped back in again, just for fun.

This had been a splendid and memorable event, full of a very special sort of fun, and we all agreed to meet up and descend another canyon together soon.


© Kit Constable Maxwell
June 2005