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TRUE TALES OF THE CAMARGUE – by Chris Cobb
LE PETIT RHÔNE
It’s a different world! The busy River Rhône behind my tiny boat "Sky" is quickly lost to view, replaced by woodland banks and a gentle current sparkling in the hot sun. Today, 16th September 1997, starts with a good omen. In the overhanging trees and reeds two tiny kingfishers swoop from branch to branch in glorious technicolour, as if to bid Sky and me welcome to this their home in the Camargue. Following this tributary called Le Petit Rhône, we quickly reach a lock into a canal leading to the town of St-Gilles. Gilles came from Greece in the 8th century in answer to a command from God and lived as a hermit nearby, until one day a hunted deer sought his protection. A noble had already let fly an arrow from his bow, but Gilles caught it before it could pierce the gentle hind and a miracle was proclaimed.
This canal diverges in St-Gilles; to the north leading to Beaucaire (although today there is no access back through to the Rhône) and to the south, via the Canal du Rhône à Sète, to a junction with the beautiful Canal du Midi. From the Canal du Midi one can cruise all the way to the Canal Latéral à la Garonne and then to Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast. But the goal of my dream lies just ahead. Straight on down Le Petit Rhône, Sky carries me into the heart of this unique wilderness, La Camargue.
The French government was determined to develop the Camargue Delta, which until quite recently was nearly uninhabitable owing to the risk of flooding, disease and incredibly vicious mosquitoes. Land was granted to anyone and everyone who dared to invest at a ridiculously low price, and a flourishing rice industry was encouraged to supplement the income of the area. The ecology of the delta is very delicate and care has to be taken at all times to ensure that the irrigation of the paddy fields with fresh water from the Rhône and the P etit Rhône does not override the balance with the salt water content of the wetlands. Indeed, the Camargue salt pans at Salin-de-Giraud are an impressive sight and provide a natural source of income for local industry.
The weather is very hot as Sky descends the beautiful western river boundary of the Camargue. The livestock quietly grazes on the indigenous salicorne growing in abundance in this environment, which is generally somewhat hostile to normal plantlife. Salicorne, a hardy heather-like plant, is the staple diet of the livestock in this area, grazed by horses and bulls alike. These animals are close by on each side of the river now and I wonder "Do the egrets perched on their backs provide a dry-cleaning service for them, eating ticks and insects from their coats, or are they just watching for grubs exposed in the dry soil kicked up by pawing hoofs?" I have since learned that the white horses dominate the fierce Camargue bulls (perhaps because they are more intelligent), and that they can both graze in harmony together. I have also learned that the white horses are not born white but tawny in colour, and their coats turn white at maturity. These magnificent animals are, in fact, true thoroughbred cousins of the prehistoric Paleolithic equus.
Of course, the Camargue is also famous for its fabulous pink flamingoes, with their surreal colour, funny faces and gawky long legs. The delta is also home to nutria (also know as coypu or ragondin in French), which is an otter-like rodent, but lovable to watch nonetheless, with its long front teeth and its manner of cleaning its long whiskers with its paws. However, there are neither of these by the river today, so we must wait to meet them in a future story.
Each one hundred yards brings me closer to my goal, and soon we reach the hamlet of Sylvéréal (royal woods) from where, in medieval times, the timber for the fleet of King Louis IX (St Louis) was cut. In the 13th century, Louis built and used the nearby walled town of Aigues Mortes as a port for this fleet from which he sallied forth to fight the crusades. However, poor old Louis didn’t do so well during his second attempt to rid Palestine of the Saracens in 1270, as he only got as far as Tunis, where he died of the plague! Before this, however, he had managed to grab and hold onto a strip of land ringed to the east by what was called Provence (a dependency of the Holy Roman Empire) and to the west by Aquitaine (held by the English) and the city of Montpellier (owned by the king of Aragon).
Now the river meanders gracefully onwards, carrying us past banks hedged with colourful tamarisk bushes, until we reach the Bac Sauvage (the “Wild Ferry”). This is a tiny toll-free ferry that carries cars, horses and hikers over the river, guided by a suspended steel cable which allows only the smallest of boats to pass underneath. Here we pass a tourist boat that is making a turn because it can go no farther upriver. It is called "Les Quatres Maries" and its skipper, Christophe Valette, will later become a good friend whom I still see today. He has brought his party of visitors from the tiny village of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (which I’ll tell you about one day) to see the wonders of the Petit Rhône. Christophe’s is not the only tourist boat making this trip, and he takes great pride each time in racing the other boats to be first at the ferry when they are around.
There are very few kilometres to go, but it’s so frustrating! The river is starting to meander more tightly now. Here is one bend with more fields and cattle, then another wide turn with a series of holiday cabins and small pleasure craft moored in calm inlets. After each bend the vegetation becomes sparser and sparser. I can see seagulls, smell the sea, even hear the sea, but I can’t see it! The banks become barren, a wilderness of glaring hot white sand. Everywhere there are parched logs and branches brought down by frequent flooding now lying on the shore or sticking up out of the water, bleached white by the sun high overhead.