A heart stopping trip up the canal

July 7, 2013

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.

Since my earliest childhood when ponies were more important than boys, I have always wanted to see the Wild Horses of the Camargue.

So of course when I, BPG, was invited to join 3 friends on a hired canal boat travelling from Bellegarde to Sete in the Languedoc, I jumped at the chance.

Canal boating in the Camargue

Canal boating in the Camargue

I have to say Luton at 4.30a.m is not a good place… and since I make it a rule never to say anything really vitriolic about anything, I will say not a word about Ryan Air!

camargue4I have sailed in the Virgin Islands, and New Zealand, and our own dear Solent. I have survived a twister and I have been through the Panama Canal, I have been on big ships and small boats but I have never hired a motorboat on a canal. Despite good marketing and glossy photos this is a bare boat charter, bare being the operative word, “3 cabins en suite” declares the brochure… en suite my ……… A loo, a basin and a shower, the size of a single cupboard. A bed, four foot by five foot ten, more suitable and realistic for someone with curvature of the spine!

I had been warned not to bring too much luggage, I travel light, not so my companions who spent the week sleeping on or under all their belongings.

AND THEN THERE WAS THE LOO…..first of all it’s not a loo, it’s a head, why I have no idea! But for a “head” it has a mind of its own.

First you have to switch a lever to the left (this is after raising the lid), then you pump like mad with your right hand until some water gurgles up into the bowl, then you do what you have to do… and thenshin30l you start pumping AGAIN. Well that’s absolutely fine if you are a Wimbledon tennis player or someone who represented your country at shot putt, but if you are a little old BPG you get very tired of pumping, in fact I think it may be very bad for your heart.

I quickly realised the joy of single hood and that there is no one to see my ineffectual pumping, which was embarrassing even to me!

Having victualled up, which meant in my case 6 bottles of very excellent rose and some smelly cheese, we set off for St Gilles, our first port of call. An hour and a half of chugging through luscious countryside brought us to the said, little town and, hurrah it was market day. A long avenue of stalls beheld us, each one groaning under the weight of ripe produce. Radishes, sun kissed apricots, downy peaches, huge lettuces, figs, beans, spices, soaps, wine, olive oil, dreadful peach coloured brassieres which looked pre-war, and Y fronts no man should be seen dead in. Anchovies, fresh fish, sarongs, jaunty hats and lots and lots of conversations. In fact

St. Gilles

St. Gilles

it is extremely difficult to buy anything in a hurry, every purchase is accompanied by a news bite, or medical “histoire.” Provisioned up we cast off at a leisurely pace, and said goodbye to St Gilles. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, fluffy trees line the canal on both sides, and bull rushes bow in the wind as we went past. Occasionally another boat slides by and you politely wave and smile. Boaties are incredibly nice to each other, when you moor they rush over and catch your lines and show you where to tie up and where the water is. I find it very perplexing as these are the same people who, behind a wheel of a car, become arrogant, selfish, rude road hogs! What is it about the water that makes people nice to each other? I cannot fathom it

One does need to be reasonably fit for this sort of holiday as you have to leap to shore to tie up. A Colin Firth lookalike, who leapt off his boat and tied up for us, turned out to be charm itself and even asked us for a drink with his wife on his boat. It was sad that he was married as he had a lovely body and I was looking forward to dreaming about him!

On the third day we reached Aigues Mortes, a medieval walled town dating back to the Crusades. We walked round before going for lunch….  there were lots of little narrow streets with waterfalls of Geraniums spurting from every window box. Masses of restaurants, chic little shops, selling clothes for French women… not to fit me. Have you read “Why French women don’t get fat”?  An accordion player, played Edith Piaf type music in the square, and we sat in the sun listening to the music watching the world go by…. one of my favourite pastimes especially if accompanied by some good wine.

Wild Horses of the Camargue

Wild Horses of the Camargue

Back to the boat and my first sight of the Wild Horses of the Camargues, a gaucho rode past us on a steaming white horse, quickly followed by two horse drawn camargue-web-2carriages, and then more horsemen…. I called out to them and asked where they were going.  The answer was unintelligible but soon to be revealed. They were rounding up the wild horses and driving them into a coral. They were unbroken; they have wonderful wild eyes, darkest black, flaring nostrils and very full fringes with manes that fly in the wind. Such a beautiful sight. The Gauchos ride Spanish saddles, and wear traditional leather chaps, There were very few houses, occasionally there would be a fisherman’s cottage and more often than not a fisherman sitting patiently outside with his rod in the water, too slow a sport for me, but I know some people adore it. The swallows and egrets swooped and dipped and rabbits ran out from the bank and scampered off into the fields, idyllic.

Occasionally we made a dreadful faux pas … like not noticing a fisherman’s line…. dreadful sin, or trying to tie up in the wrong place; one elderly man got very irate and waved his stick at me, I was scared he would fall over and blame me for that too.

I smiled sweetly and told him I was ‘desolee’ … but to no avail. There was a time when French men were “putty in my hands”, sadly no longer. So disappointing.

I did notice that two very pretty girls in teeny-weeny bikinis were moored in a totally illegal place and they didn’t seem to be having any trouble, even more disappointing!

On day four we reached the sea, at Palava and suddenly there were many more houses by the canal not just fishermens’ but obviously second homes, you could tell by the colour of the shutters, Farrow and Ball colourssecond homes, Dulux blue… local fisherman.



After a wonderful evening, a very good fish dinner and a lovely walk along the beach we went back to our boat and expected to do the return journey with ease and enjoy the surroundings and good weather. All was tranquil until we reached Aigues Mortes again, then we were in trouble, one of our party needed urgent medical help. I write about this because I want to say “Thank you” to all the people that helped us, and to commend the exceptional medical care.

Aigues Mortes

Aigues Mortes

My friend, who was taken ill, is over 80, but sprightly, and his wife is 20 years younger.  On day five he wasn’t feeling well but we put it down to the excellent dinner from the night before but by lunch time it was evident that he was getting worse and his wife said we should get a doctor. I tried ringing using the number from a tourist booklet on Aigues Morte… each number resulted in a recorded message. Getting more and more worried, I rang the boat hire people to ask them how I could ring for paramedics only to be told to look in the red information book on board.

Thank goodness our next door boat, Warrior, came to our aid… the very kind Fiona, (I had met her earlier in the morning), took me to a little canal side hotel. There I explained to the manager that I needed some help, as I didn’t trust my au pair French of fifty years ago to be able to describe the exact biological symptoms. Jacques was wonderful, he rang 112, and I will never forget that number and explained in French our whereabouts and the symptoms. “They will arrive in about 20 minutes ” he said.

The word that someone was in need of help went up the canal side like wildfire everybody helped

The path along the canal is only for pedestrians and bicycles.  Dotted along the path are barriers how was the ambulance going to get through? Fiona’s partner Dave went off to get the key and  to open the furthest barrier, and she waited at the nearest one  to direct the  ambulance. I went back to tell the patient’s wife that help was on its way.

It seemed like an age but  finally we heard the sirens. And there ahead of us was the Pompier, (in France the firemen are the paramedics) and they managed to get the vehicle to almost alongside. Then out got three of the largest firemen you have ever seen, they boarded the boat, walking across   the wobbly gang plank, and proceeded to try to squeeze into the cabin. A five foot ten by five-foot cabin does not fit five people, let alone three of them being huge, two backed out and the thinnest stayed with the patient. We waited on the bank and within 5 minutes my friend was carried out and put in the ambulance where he could be wired up to all the latest equipment. The firemen told us they would be taking him to Nimes hospital and gave us the address. His wife wasn’t allowed to travel in the ambulance for insurance reasons; once again Jacques saved the day and got her a taxi.

The hospital at Nimes were absolutely marvellous, the patient was taken for tests and ended up in intensive care for four days. The staff were caring and hugely helpful even allowing the wife to sleep at the hospital the first night. At one point it was touch and go as to whether he would survive, the rest of the family were called from the UK and being the only person who was not family I stayed with the boat.

Who was going to drive the boat back the six hour journey to Bellegarde?? All the family was at the hospital at Nimes so inevitably it was going to be Muggins!!

For once in my life I did the sensible thing and instead of saying, yes of course I can do it I said I needed help. Not only did I make this decision for myself but also it was for all the other poor sods that might be coming down the canal. My children laugh about me driving a car let alone a boat!

The next morning a very young man arrived to help and drive the boat. He looked about 16 years old but never mind because I knew he would know more than me. At least we couldn’t get lost as there was

there was only one way. We chugged through the countryside once again and managed to get the darn thing moored at Bellegarde.

As soon as we were tied up he left me  to fend for myself… all these words suddenly have new ‘boatie‘ meanings  fend, fathom, depths… MAY DAY MAY DAY…. I realised to my horror is  is maidez! I was to need that later!

Canal Rhone a Sete near Bellegarde

Canal Rhone a Sete near Bellegardeonly one-way. We chugged through the countryside once again and managed to get the darn thing moored at Belgarde. As soon as we were tied up he left me to fend for myself… all these word suddenly have new” boatie” meanings fend, fathom, depths… MAY DAY MAY DAY…. I realised to my horror is maidez! I was to need that later!

I spent a lonely night on the boat. I had a very early flight the next morning; obviously I was the only one going home.  I slept fitfully, wondering if I would be boarded, and woke well before my alarm. I went out on deckaargh… horror of all horrors…. the water level had gone down in the night and the jetty was now the height of my bosoms! I would never be able to jump up or leap across. It was very early in the morning and there was no one about… what was I to do? The gangplank wouldn’t fit it was too short. Keep calm, I said to myself, pack up, tidy up and someone will turn up. As I have said before I am very short sighted, suddenly I saw movement further down the jetty… I thought I saw a figure. “MAY DAY MAY DAY” I shouted, “s’il vous plait monsieur, maidez” A very small man came slowly towards me. I rushed inside and got my bags and the rubbish…”prenez ma valise s’il vous plait,” I said  which he duly did though slightly struggling with the case … this is not a good sign; it was going to be me next! I guess he weighed eight stone and I weigh ten! I got onto the top of the deck and leaned over so he could take my hand, with one leap of faith, I lunged forward hoping and praying we wouldn’t both land in the water, or worse I would land on him and squash him!

Neither happened, I was home and dry…. well at least on the jetty and I caught my flight. The patient is now out of intensive care thanks to the Hospital at Nimes and all the kind people that helped us. I honestly believe he would not be alive today but for them.

Warrior 1912

Warrior 1912

Thank you Warrior, the brave boat built in 1912, which served in both world wars and went to the Dunkirk evacuation; Fiona and Dave have lovingly restored it to the most comfortable B and B on water. I have no hesitation in recommending it; I went over the whole boat and have had first hand experience of the kindness of the owners.

[email protected]

Thank you Jacques of the Canal Hotel, Aigues Mortes. A charming hip little hotel with 26 bedrooms and just the nicest manager.

The boat that we hired was called Escapade… it couldn’t have been better named!!

Next trip Turkey, another adventure no doubt!

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