Succeeding a trip to the French Alps two summers ago as a beginner, and a trip to Uganda the following summer, it seemed time to head back to the Alps to conquer some white water kayaking that I was not previously capable of. On the afternoon after Max’s last exam in May, the big VW T4 packed to bursting with 3 kayaks, kit and food, we left Edinburgh and drove down to Newcastle Quay to catch our overnight ferry to Amsterdam! This part of the journey was great fun and saved us some hours of driving (though not without expense!). Sadly, however, my camera was stolen on my second day in Germany and hence I have no photos from the start of our trip. From Amsterdam it was a 5 hour journey to Max’s house in Germany. The gear stick in the car seemed to loosen more and more and by the time we had a reached our destination it caused enough concern for us to take the car to a garage. The fault could not be fixed in the time span of the three days we had available at Max’s place and we successfully completed the rest of our trip (7000 km!!) without a 5th gear!
Well fed and rested at the farm, we continued south and stopped in Munich to pick up Max’s American friend, Dan, from the airport. With an extra boat and person, we slowly made our way to our first river – the Loisach in southern Germany. This was a great little class 3 run bolder-filled run which we repeated a couple of times. The river was a perfect warm up for things to come, and a nice introduction for Dan to kayaking in Europe. We even found a shuttle buddy on the river which was handy.
As Max’s parents own a chicken farm, we were able to take many eggs with us to have for breakfast (or lunch or dinner!) – 180 eggs in fact! This was a luxury that also cut down on food bills.
Before I knew it, it was time to say goodbye to Germany and head further into the Austrian Alps. Had more time permitted then I would have like to stay longer in Austria and find some good white water there, but we planned to meet Edinburgh Uni Canoe Club (EUCC) in the French Alps and hence had a schedule to stick to! We drove over the high alpine passes, marvelling at the wee traditional Austrian villages with their green pastures on the side on mountains that seemed to have no road access. With the primary drivers permission, we stopped in Innsbruck for a couple of hours – the old town was particularly beautiful.
At night the three of us slept in the car, which became fairly routine. When we reached the town of Bovec in Slovenia, we were able to set up camp and sleep in tents which was more spacious to say the least. Bovec is a gorgeous, provincial town in Julian Alps, surrounded by green hills and bigger mountains beyond. The town has a population of roughly 1600 but it is a popular destination for kayakers due to its primary location for the Soča river. This river is famous for it’s crystal clear blue waters and stunning scenery, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. When the sun came out it was particularly stunning, and it felt even better to be sitting on the surprising warm water. I have very few photos of the river as we were usually kayaking, although I doubt any photo could do the beauty justice.
The local bakery became a particular favourite and the friendly baker knew he could tempt us with his freshly baked cheese rolls. The ice cream in town was also some of the best I’ve ever had. The locals seemed accustomed to the passing of kayakers in the summer and were generally very friendly, and the campsite itself (one of several in the area) was littered with boaters of all types. A couple of German guys recognised the German number plate of Max’s car and came over to introduce themselves. Although a rather eccentric pair, they were friendly and we paddled together on the first day on the gentle upper section, happy to enjoy the weather and have a shuttle in exchange for some cheap beers. These guys also provided us with shuttles for sections they were not keen on paddling which was an amazing help. On our first day we also bumped in a lively group from the University of Limerick in Ireland who were good fun and successfully got their gaggle of 25+ kayakers down the river in one piece. With a quick heads up on what other sections were worth our time, we carried on down, though it wasn’t to be the last we saw of them on our roadtrip.
Following Irish advice, the second day we paddled 3 sections: The Graveyard, The Slalom Course, and Abseil Section. A great mix of grade 4 rapids, it was a fantastic day with the Abseil section being a new favourite, even though the walk in down a steep never-ending staircase on the side of a cliff was less than desirable! We paddles with Abseil section again the second day in glorious sunshine, and for me it was one of the best days of the road trip. That afternoon we decided to explore more of the area and hiked up to Boca falls, an impressive waterfall along an easily accessible local hiking path.
On the morning of the 2nd of June, we waved goodbye to Slovenia and our comfortable life there and drove west into Italy. That day we also took a break from kayaking and spent a wonderful day in Venice! Max and I politely ditched Dan to wonder around the city ourselves and get lost in the small alleyways and enchanting old buildings of the sinking city.
We wandered around for hours, stopping for pictures, delicious ice cream and to simply lounge by the waterside and the Grande Canal. The city was busy, but not unbearably so for it was a week day and still early in summer. We were fortunate with the weather and only as the sun lowered did the rain come in. We hunted down a good looking (and affordable) pizzeria, which was not as easy to find in Venice as one might have expected, and we feasted there and let the rain pass.
Venice at night was almost as beautiful as by day and we slowly walked around the emptying city a little longer before heading back to our campsite on the mainland.
With kayaking back on the agenda, we drove further west towards the region of Val Sesia, west of Milan. With a quick tent pitch at Campertogno, we hopped onto the Lower Sesia to stretch our legs! The following morning we tried to suss out the water levels from other kayakers there. Once again, we bumped into our Irish friends who said the water levels (which are rain dependent as they are in Scotland) were a fair medium on most parts of the Sesia river but that they were heading up the the Egua – a bumpy steep class 4+ run with rocky drops. We made up our minds to paddle the Middle Sesia section whilst the levels were good for us and decided to check out the Egua later.
The Middle section was great fun! It’s a Grade 4 run with two more technical drops in there that are often portaged. Dan ran the first of these, Piode, and some how got down it backwards unscathed. The second drop/slot is more consequential and none of the paddlers we encounter on the river that day ran it. Everything else we made it down without consequence or scouting and as such we were a little too complacent as we unknowingly approached Hugo’s hole – a sticky drop without obvious horizon line to let you know it is there. Dan went down first and I came in fast behind him, hitting a poor line and possibly Dan’s boat as well which resulted in a nasty thumb jarring and some scrapes. Max wasn’t far behind and the three of us struggled for a few seconds in the recirculating eddy on river right, before finally breaking back into the follow and gathering ourselves down stream. With the hilarity over and our heads wet we carried down stream and made the most of what was left, with a nice grade 4 rapid to finish.
I was tired after that river but we decided to drive up to the Egua just to check it out. Although the first and last drops were runnable, we didn’t feel confident with the water levels so low and scrapy and decided that maybe this would be left for another time. That river, along with the Mastallone and the Alpine Sprint, are still on my “To Do” list for the area.
The next morning we drove up to the Sorba slides – a collection of rock-bed slides with relatively easy lines that give a good adrenaline rush – and I managed to pluck up the courage to paddle.
So much fun! That afternoon, instead of staying another night in Italy, we thought it would be better to get to the l’Argentiere in the French Alps a day early to surprise the others, so we packed up once again and started the drive to France. It was a great experience for me to arrive in the region I had visited for the first time two years early. It brought back so many fond memories and I was very keen to get on the water as soon as possible to see how I faired two years on. Although it was 8pm, we stopped at the Gyronde on our way to l’Argentiere and paddled the racy class 3+/4 section down onto the Slalom course at the campsite. As I said, it had been two years since Max and I had been here, and I hadn’t ever paddled this section so we were just working from Max’s memory and picking our way down. Though there was nothing in particular (other than tree hazards) that we needed to be wary off, he had forgotten that the level picks up considerably throughout the day due to snow-melt and is highest in the evening: it was brilliant! We rocketed down and were at the campsite in no time, surprising EUCC as planned!
Although travelling had been amazing, it was pretty nice to have a more permanent residence for a while. We stayed on the campsite for over a week, paddling with the Canoe Club when we could, and getting our own quests done in between. The first day there I paddled the Briancon Gorge followed by the Lower Guisane and then the Durance Gorge, the latter two of which I hadn’t been capable of on my previous visit there.
As well as conquering my own challenges it was really rewarding to lead people down sections of river that I had previously found daunting. Hands on teaching and rescuing is how uni canoe clubs work best, and it always feels good to give back time to those that taught you.
The Upper Guil on the second day was a full club outing in beautiful sunshine which made the ice cold water a little more pleasant. This also presented the opportunity for another new run for me as the section ends at the Chateau Queyras section, where the river channels into a very very narrow gorge. Blasting down the section, it only lasted 2 minutes or so in total but was exhilarating.
It would take me far too long to give an account of all the rivers we paddled but a something must be said of the Middle Guil. This 4/5 run was certainly one of the kayaking highlights of the trip, and one of the hardest rivers I’ve paddled. The first time I ran it, we put on just below triple step at 4pm having already paddled the upper section that morning with the canoe club. I was pretty nervous, and justly so. The level, I was told, was a solid high (‘extremely high’ in Max’s opinion so he opted to be photographer). We were a good sized group of maybe 10 paddlers which was nice for safety but made me rather uncomfortable as we were quite close together. There were several more experienced paddlers in our group including Joe, Dom and Callum, and I followed one of these three boys as often as I could. I kept my head dry, portaging the Staircase rapid and jumping back on after to enjoy the big wave train wash-out.
Nerves and fatigue became too much though and at the tunnel rapid I walked off. I was disappointed with myself for not completing the last third of the river but knew it was the safe decision. Later on in the trip, I tackled the Middle Guil again, this time with the water a couple of feet lower, and successfully completed the entire section including triple step, staircase, the tunnel rapid and the final rapids!
On the 10th of June, with still 2 weeks left until our return ferry to Britain, I joined the Canoe Club on a trip to the Upper Ubaye to help rescue and I was excited to paddle the Ubaye racecourse in the afternoon. However, a ridiculous incident changed the fate of our trip. In messing around on a relatively flat section, I brought my elbow down very hard onto the edge around my cockpit, directly onto the Ulnar nerve (the funny bone). Usually bashing the funny bone just causes mild discomfort for a little while but I’d really given it a whack. I paddled the rest of the section, keeping my hand in the cold water, but when I got off I realised it was a little more serious than I had first thought as the pain was severe with very strong “pin and needles”. This abruptly ended my paddling for the next few days. Max and I then decided to take to the mountains, making the most of everything else that the French Alps have to offer. We hiked to Glacier Blanc and had Marmot encounter, and to lac d’Ascension (a very long hike with sun, rain and hail along the way).
Dan headed back to America so Max and I decided that, to give my hand some more time to recover, we would drive from the French Alps down to the Cote d’Azur! We spent an evening in Monaco checking out all the expensive yachts and then drove further east along the coast past Nice in search of our perfect beach. Our chosen beach was at Anthéor, near Agay, and we almost had it to ourselves – bliss. After 3 nights we drove back to l’Argentiere.
Back in the Alps we paddled our favourite sections a couple more time (though my hand took a month to recover), and enjoyed our last evenings with good food and good company in France. With our souvenirs purchased in the beautiful old town of Briancon, we packed up for the last time and started our long drive back to Edinburgh, 34 days after we left. Now the count down has begun for next summers kayaking road trip!
*Thanks to Dan, Amy and Max for photographs.