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|Austria expedition archive|
It was summer again and after the usual email harangue by Jeremy it had been decided for us to go canyonning in the Maritime Alps in France, just inland high above Nice. I was assured that this was to be the nice easy alternative to caving and that I would enjoy it. As the only thing that I had then heard about canyonning was that my beloved had nearly died two years previously jumping into something mysteriously called a "Marmite", I took some convincing. Well, several of us found ourselves driving across France with dubious instructions to meet at Campsite No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 somewhere in a valley near Nice. France is just too long to be jammed into a car next to a child seat. (The child, Becca, was fine it was just her **!\%** seat that ate half the car that wasn't) and the Rhône Valley is simply ghaastly, darlings.
The first campsite wasn't. Where it had been was now river. We even checked the grid references I think, so we went on to find Campsite No 3 or maybe 1. This turned out to be owned by a rabid anti-canyonneur who told us that all the canyons in the area were closed by the french Min. of Ag. or whatever due to "pollution caused by canyonneurs crapping and throwing rubbish into the water supply". We were deeply fed up and Jeremy had even begun to muse on whether driving to the Pyrenees was a totally ridiculous idea when, whilst driving to take one last look at the valley, we spotted a familiar-looking red Citroën van and screeched to a halt, to be told that yes, there were open canyons and yes, there was a campsite. Thus began our first week camping in Roquabillier, known to us of course as "Rockerbilly".
The first Canyon we did was called Duranus. This was one of the Canyons that the nasty campsite owner had said was shut. The tourist office in Rockerbilly in fact seemed to be most in favour of 'Le Canyonisme' and supplied us with a most handy little booklet called 'Clues et Canyons des Alpes Maritimes'. This book was far more useful than the ancient guides that Wadders had lent us. It even gave a clue as to the sweat factor for every walk up to a canyon. Duranus had no walk to it. We drove up a road and scrambled down the side of a bridge that spanned the 'river' and assembled at the first abseil into the bottom of the canyon. As I had only been caving a couple of times and that had been ages before, I stood nervously at the top checking and rechecking my MR and my crab on my Stop and saying "hmm, it does seem a long way down". I had seen where the hanging valley of the Duranus entered the main valley of the Vesubie river and to my then uneducated 'normal' eye it looked a narrow and difficult scramble. Nevertheless I abseiled down the first pitch and thought "is that all there is to it, actually it isnt scary, is it?" and the first thing that struck me was a lack of water. I had thought that canyoning was a form of hydrospeeding and so it seemed to be odd to be standing in neoprene in the middle of a small wooded valley next to the slightly smelly puddly remains of a stream. Oh well. All I can remember that it was more like a walk in the woods while in fancy dress. We found one deep pool and all lay in it so we could prove we had been canyoning. Then, somehow we failed to spot the "Get out here now, danger of flooding" notice and found instead a lovely slide with a wheeee sploosh into a greeny blue pool of water and then we emerged with ease from that hanging crack in the rock above the Vesubie that I had dreaded earlier. Next there was fun as we had to cross the Vesubie as the road and cars were on the other side. Wol volunteered being a good swimmer and we gave her a rope to attach to the other side. Good thing too. The current turned out to be a lot stronger midstream than we had anticipated and Wol nearly got as far as Nice before grounding on the opposite bank. Unfortunately her welly did decide to go to Nice and was mourned greatly, especially by Wol as she had to climb up the other bank on one foot. We then struggled across after her. Later we discovered that the top of the Vesubie valley is dammed for HEP and that if the automatic sluice gates had opened to relieve the load we would have been washed away on a tidal wave. Hmm.
Well, not nearly as daunting as I thought it would be but not as exciting either, that is until we did the Ruisseau de Planfae. For anyone who hasn't done canyoning before this is the ideal introduction. Up and up into the barren rocky mountians we drove with the sun beating down on the scrubby mediterranean landscape. Then some car shuffling and a lunatic drive round silly corners in a Wookmobile. Every time I hear the Prodigy playing I am still reminded of the smell of hot oily Wookmobile and being lurched from side to side round corners. Then arrival and a short steep walk up over a col to the start of the canyon. Aaah, what bliss it is to lie in the stream after that walk! The previous year I had looked everywhere round Bad Aussee for a shrimp net to use in Grundlsee and there had been none so this year I had come prepared. I insisted on taking it to this canyon and did indeed catch one fish but the fascists I was with insisted I put it back and didn't take it home to cook. I suppose they had a point that being carried in my salty bosom next to old neoprene wouldn't improve the flavour.
Anyway, about the Canyon -- it was amazing. Firstly there were jumps and slides and then slides and jumps. I discovered what the best people formula for canyoning is, you have to have Lunatic Canyonneur and Cautious Canyonneur. This way, when there was a potential jump, down would go Cautious Canyonneur (Tina) on string, devotedly using an '8' and when she said it was OK, Lunatic Canyonneur (Dave Fearon) would jump it thus declaring it safe to jump for the rest of us intrepid cowards and also telling us the useful information of whether if we tobogganed down we would land on a sharp limestone spike or not. I was smitten, it was just like being at those flume slide things at the swimming pool and yet high up in sunlit mountains in beautiful clear green water with the sun streaming greenly through the tree leaves. Wow it was magical. This was what I had come to do. After the leafy forest bit we came to a part where the gorge was high above us and we had to swim down a channel cut into the rock. The sunbeams made the rock around us shine pink and grey and the banks of sand underwater gleam goldly. I found a great big fat toad which I picked up and it croaked. There were also several frogs under rocks. Sadly I let them go. And no, I didnt want to eat them, I just like them. It was all gobsmackingly beautiful. Then the river emerged into the open and we walked down hot baking rocks interspersed with sapphire pools into which I sank steaming to cool off. This bit of the canyon was sufficiently close at the bottom end to the road that there were many bikini clad french picnickers having lunch who unoubtedly found it a bit odd seeing us scruffy wetsuited brits emerging like gnarled lizards from the deep. All in all a bloody good day. Some people did the canyon again a second time to keep Jeremy company as he had been Becca sitting. I did again a few days later too. It was just as good, even if the water was a bit less clear due to our passage and that of others. The next time round I resolved to jump all the pitches and so took no harness. This is not a good idea. Even though it was possible, it is amazing how nice it is to know you have an alternative even if you don't use it.
Other canyons of the Rockerbilly area include Clue de Chaudan. This gorge is characterised by its slippery black mud. The best things about this one were the pitch where you stepped off the top and a couple of feet down you got the full force of the stream in your face and the last double pitch of 15m and 15m. Pitch height when canyoning is not like it is in Caves. When from the top of the pitch you can see all the way down the valley and a huge sweeping panorama, a 30 metre pitch can look ridiculously high. A bit like in Swinsto when you are at the top of the double pitch and you see someone's light at the bottom of the second pitch like a speck of diamond in the blackness. It's like that but with added airiness. The double pitch had a plunge-pool at the bottom of the first section. On the side of this pool there was a ledge with standing room for two people. There was no sign of the belay for the second part of the pitch until Andy A found it by leaning right up and out from the ledge in a way that made me cringe. The other thing was that we didn't have enough rope for the first section of the double, but it did have the plunge pool, so despite all the carefully dinned-in instincts about knots on the end of ropes we had to abseil down until clear of rocks and then squeeze in the handle of the Stop and let the rope go "zzz-zzzz-zzz, Ping!" out of the stop and go wheeeeee, sploosh into the pool. Rather fun really. The plunge pool was so full it felt like you were about to be washed over the side and down the next pitch, but we weren't. A good canyon, even despite the vile-looking insects that followed us all the way up the walk to the top, I think they are attracted to neoprene.
The next week we moved out of the valley of the Vesubie and went to the next campsite in the valley of the Var. Henri and Dave went there by tandem and the rest of us drove. This campsite was near to a village called Guillaume which despite my attempts to tell people that this meant "William" was referred to as "Gillums". The village was ancient and primitive and proved quite a challenge to some of our party as it had No Supermarket. Shopping therefore involved visiting individual tiddly shops to buy pasta, veg, beer etc. Mrs Campsite-owner took one look at us and assigned us a field all of our own separated from the rest of the campsite by a miniature gully with a stream in it spanned by a wobbly plank. (I found a huge black fat toad in the stream). Water was thoughtfully provided by a high-pressure fire hose on a stand. Our field was bare and unshaded and baked in the hot mountain sun. Jackers were forced to move round the only hedge to keep up with its shade as the sun blazed down. Beer was exceptionally warm. Wasps were many.
The valley of the Var was starkly beautiful. It was spanned by an 80m iron bridge (built when they only had primitive scaffolding, gulp) and it was full of red pillars and gorges and cliffs just like in the Roadrunner cartoons. The road inched round the side of the valley and we looked down and said "Wow". Then someone pointed out that the water frothing out of a dark slit in the rockface of the opposite side of the valley to the road we were on was the main canyon we had come to do. The water poured out of a hanging valley 60 metres down into the main valley of the Var. It looked formidable. It was fittingly called Amen.
If you go canyonning do not wear Merrells, unless you wear armour too.
Having failed to join the slack trip up Amen I found myself puffing along in a trip that consisted of just about everybody apart from Mark and Jeremy and Tina. The way up to Amen started at the back of the campsite. We had to walk past the deserted ruin of the village of Amen that had died when tarmac happened to everyone else and not them and no-one fancied the hard walk up there anymore. I could see why. It was a long way up and not at all fun. Then the path evened out and we were above the trees. Once again I collapsed gratefully into the water to steam. One of the best things about canyoning over caving is that if you want a wee, you can. If you want a drink, you can too, as long as you don't get the two mixed up.
The canyon involved firstly lots of walks over slippery red rock. I swore I'd wear shinpads the next time I went. I also swore alot. Why do you always fall on the same bloody shin? The others in the party leapt like chamois over the boulders, and I laboriously clambered over them. DaveF and AndyA indulged me by rigging every single pitchlet and by waiting patiently as I floundered over them. I discovered that having a big bum is useful for landing on and for keeping you in your harness when the stream you abseil through turns out to be so strong it turns you upside down. Closer to the end we came, and our hearts beat faster at the prospect of The Big Pitch. Suddenly the open stream ended, we had passed the french "Bottle Out Here" sign and the rock closed in around us and we were committed. Then the water ended in a pot with high rock sides. From below the water sunlight shone up at us. It was a sump. Very odd. I got down into the water and stuck my leg through. I heard Wol say from the other side "Hmm I recognise that trainer" and I was suddenly yanked through the hole by my foot. Spluttering I stood up and saw that we had emerged from the darkness of the gorge into the bright sunlight of the main valley and were standing at the top of that ridiculous waterfall we had seen from the other side.
We queued up and went down the pitch. It was like stepping out into the air. I had not realised there was a small ledge half way down the first half of the pitch. I thought I was already at the ledge for the second belay down the second half. No one was there "Oh no, they've gone without me!" I thought, but then I saw there was still lots of rope and I realised I hadn't landed properly yet. The force of the water splattering down on the ledge was great and the rope was thick so it made it hard to feed it through the stop when walking on a level back off the ledge so I decided to just roll off it like a pudding. I didn't know that caving rope stretched so much and I went boing like off a bungee and hit the side of the rock on the return. Then with the water thundering down on my head, drowning out all sound and thought, my hair got stuck in my stop. I remembered a dire tale of some daft novice having had her hair cut free with a knife in a cave so I frantically tore the hank of hair from my head strand by strand and luckily it passed through the stop and so I was able to continue. The next part of the pitch was more exposed but much easier.
Once at the bottom, most of the party crossed the Var and toiled up the other side to the road and car far above. I forgot how many wiggles down the river we were from the campsite and decided to walk back via the river. I don't recommend this. You have to keep crossing the river to have a bank to walk on and then you have to climb out over hot steep rocks. This is very sweaty in a wetsuit. On arrival back at the little bijou converted shepherds' hut that Mrs Campsite lived in I splashed out and bought a beer that was actually cold. Delicious.
There were many other canyons that people went down, and probably many other tales. Mostly I can remember the excitement and the fear, the coldness of the water and the warmth of the beer. Juliet hurt her ankle and had to be helped out of Raton. Clive's car's suspension squeaked so badly that everyone we passed stopped in shock to look. Sapling turned up on the wrong day at Nice airport, causing a whole journey in vain. MarkF was not sick on someones tent. I was sad to go home. I would gladly return. (It's much better than the Vercors).
|CU 1999 Contents Page||Next:|
|Austria expedition archive|