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Verdon Gorge

It's late evening, warm, dark and I am behind the wheel of Pete's Skoda following two other cars along the D952.  It takes forty five minutes to drive the distance we have just paddled that took the same time plus eight hours.  I don't want to get left behind, if only because the lead car has freshly baked pizzas, bought from the roadside van in the village of La Palud sur Verdon.

The Grand Canyon of Europe, the Gorge de Verdon in the Alpes de Haute Provence region of France.  Hewn through the limestone plateau, the run starts just outside Castellane and ends when the river spits you out into the man made lake of Saint Croix du Verdon.

The water that created this natural wonder no longer flows at the unrestrained levels that led to the rock sculptures worn through years of erosion, now restricted to a compensation flow and releases by the French power company EDF after a series of dams were built to harness the waters.  Stuart Woodward helpfully updated UKRGB and we established there was a release of thirteen cumecs on Friday 1st July, low but ideal for a self led group.

The difficulty of this river does not isolate itself to the rapids that attract us, more the environment in which they lie.  The guidebook does an excellent job of informing you of what to expect but only committing yourself to the trip will give you an insight into what actually lies between the entrance and exit, a land that time forgot, a Hollywood film set, inhabited by creatures of your imagination or the CGI designer.

Packing our boats, we add water, food, headtorches, shelters, slings, karabiners to what we already carry and a guidebook, there is far too much to commit to memory.

At just after 11o'clock we are a little later on the water than we would have liked, we know a long day is ahead of us and thats without any drams or swims.  The sun beats down from an unbroken blue sky, rarely reaching the deeper confines of the gorge.  As we drift towards the first rapid the walls soon close in and present us with our first short portage, a choke of trees from winter floods.  One of the girls, about to answer the call of nature luckily looks up before assuming the position, to find tourists waving from an inspection tunnel built by the power companies.

The river changes in character as it twists and turns through the canyon it has created.  At times open and wide with tree lined banks and beaches, closing in to sheer walls barely wider than your boat.  Don't crowd your lead, you just don't know what's beyond the next blind corner, this is eddy hopping at its best and most intense.  Maintaining line of sight is at times difficult and most of the time river signals are restricted to a nod, which as my granny used to say, " is as good as wink to a blind man".

A footbridge warns of 'LEstellie', the first rapid of note.  'Styx' leads you in, deceptively clam waters through a narrow gorge before disappearing into the gloom, a siphon river right, and undercut river left, a central chute providing the obvious line into a re circulating hole centre right – tricky!

The Verdon is a true adventure, you will need your climbing, caving, canyoning and portaging skills in addition to your boating experience.  A couple of portages are henious. 'Chaos de l'Imbut leaves the last man standing, balanced in the most precarious of positions with the stern of the boat wedged into a cleft in the rock, preparing to seal launch into airiated water bubbling up from the siphon upstream as the river disappears into the low light of what would appear to be a cave with an entrance no wider than your front door.

'Posting' your boat through a hole of the roof of the rock fall that created this cavern is a new experience for all of us, lowering boats on slings, scrambling through a gap or a measured jump into the water, pushing your boat ahead of you to the far bank before resuming the paddling we are more used to.  At this point the guidebook tells us there are still three hours to go!  The sun entering its final phase of the day, casting long shadows, turning rock outcrops warm pastel shades.

Reading the guidebook the following morning I can only agree with its conclusion that you need a small skilled group used to hauling their boats around and setting up safety.  Whilst the rapids in isolation may not be that difficult, where they are situated adds to their seriousness, boxed in, narrow, steep sided, overhung rock walls enclosing water, rapids, sumps, siphons, blind corners, tree hazards and portages all add to the day.  Perhaps a good indicator not to undereatimate this river, is the time it takes.

Is it worth it?

O yes! 


 Entering the Couloir Samson




 Orn in the second part of l'Estelle

Slowly, slowly, eddy hopping down

Heading down the the "entrance to hell", Styx, the river is flowing right to left as Orn waits for the signal to drop down to the one boat eddy above a river centre hole, a siphon river right and an undercut river left – tricky

 Portaging around the entrance to Chaos de l'Imbut, a precarious seal launch follows into the narrowing canyon

Posting boats from Chaos de l'Imbut