Along with my friends Ralph and Marion Pina from Cape Town, the decision had been taken to celebrate our birthday milestones in Europe. Most of planning resulted in two objectives, one, a canal boat trip in southern France and two, a visit to the Pyrenees just across the border in Spain. The first of these, cruising a section of Canal du Midi, is described here.
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Day One – Negra
A week-long cruise down Canal du Midi from Negra to Argens, with my friends from Cape Town, Ralph and Marion Pina. Met up in downtown Toulouse on the morning of 3rd. The trip thus far has not been without its drama, what with Ralph’s luggage on an international flight going AWOL. Introductions upon arrival by Melanie and Jean-Pierre of Locaboat, including a quick driving lesson to check if we were up to it. First much needed lunch on penichette Gey. A phone call from Toulouse airport and Ralph’s hopes were up again. Miracles do exist, it seems. An hour layer than scheduled at the rendezvous point in Negra, two black dudes pulled up at the base, bringing the unfortunate suitcase saga to a satisfactory conclusion. Hopefully we’ll finally set off tomorrow towards Carcassonne. Finished off the day with a hour-long celebratory cycle at dusk along the canal on 3-speed granny bicycles.
Day Two – Negra to Castelnaudary
First lock of the voyage encounterd at Laval, a double lock in fact, proved to be quite a shock to the system, putting us through our paces. Luckily it was manned, the young female lock-keeper empathetic to this being the first challenge faced by novices setting out from Negra.
At Encassan, another double lock, the lock-keeper beckoned on our approach. Normally red or green signals provide a safe and clear indication anyway – trust Ralph to own up at this point to suffering from colour blindness.
This was where we encountered an enterprising Swedish family with young kids, who had funded their own vessel which to navigate streches at a time, as funds and vacation permitted, from Sweden through Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands (Amsterdam), France via Paris all the way down to the South.
Boat roles become defined at an early stage in terms of what each feels comfortable with. Generally Ralph took charge at navigating in and out of locks, Peter operated the locks and Marion handled the ropes.
The canal is the life and soul of this part of the Langudoc region, transforming the landscape. The cycle path adjacent to the canal is chocablock with cyclists young and old. A particularly pretty stretch of waterway shrouded by trees led us into Port Lauragais, an exposed marina, where we stopped for lunch. An attempt to shop and stock up on provisions at a local business well stocked on the ‘haute’ rather than the necessary proved a disaster. Oblivious to the fact that most people passing through want basic essentials like bread, milk and bottled water, somebody needs to do some market research for them. ‘Baguettes? No, not on Tuesdays apparently.
To begin with, my French was a bit rusty however now it’s slowly starting to come back and beginning to pay dividends in some tight situations. Usually useful when asking for help or directions.
By the end of the day with 23-odd km covered and 12 locks navigated, everyone is pretty knackered. All the quayside stations in Castelnaudary were either taken or booked, so we found a shaded possie near the island (Ile de la Cybelle) in the Grand Bassin, comfortable despite not having an electricity connection. For dinner I prepared my customary quick dish of pasta, onions, tuna and pesto. Ralph asked for seconds, so it must have been edible.
Day 3 – Castelnaudary to Villesequelande
In contrast to the tail end of the previous afternoon which had turned out to be quite humid and muggy, the wind having picked up considerably overnight, making navigation interesting. Although the distance covered was only 16 km in total, the locks, all of them manned, are more condensed. The downside being the stations are shut for lunchtime siesta, so at Villepinte lock the only choice was to do as the locals do and park off for a bite. Our target for the day was Bram, just after the lock of the same name. Upon arrival however the shutters at the office had been pulled up entirely, so connecting to facilities was out of the question. At this point my linguistic skills came in useful. As we suspected we might be running low on water in the tank, we decided to press on, after taking advice from a German couple, who spoke of a spot further down the canal “some distance” after the lock at Beteille, with a row of wooden tables on the canal bank.
Reference was made to an English couple in a large boat who had in their possession a suitable connector for the tap. The location was also confirmed by the lock-keeper, though a kilometre or two lapaside I was beginning to think it may all have been lost in translation. After navigating along a beautiful tree-lined stretch of the canal, the spot and the large boat we had all but given up on , came into view immediately after the bridge at Villesequelande. A berth near a tap materialised and the owner of said tap connection located. I felt somewhat vindicated after that. Job done as regards filling the tank and we set off on the granny bicycles into the old town and the village of Caux beyond, where we stopped for a quick beer, before tracing our way back across the countryside courtesy of Google Maps (picture Ralph pedalling with one hand on the handle bars and the other holding a Samsung Galaxy S6).
Day 4 – Villesequelande to Carcassonne
Having exceeded our target distance the night before beyond Bram, the pressure in having to reach Carcassonne was off, so we sauntered down the canal at a leisurely pace, with only a handful of locks to contend with, two of them, Lalande and Herminis, being only 300 metres apart.
The latter also housed a small restaurant which beckoned most invitingly. A chalkboard listed the items available on the lunch menu however it was a second sign sporting the word ‘crepes’ that attracted our attention and got us salivating. Much to our dismay we discovered it could only be ordered in the afternoon. The owner seemed totally unperturbed despite our palpable disappointment, even suggesting that we could try in Carcassonne. I mean, it’s not as if he has the luxury of a significant, endless stream of clientelle passing through that way. We returned to the boat and put the kettle on instead.
That morning the sky was partially overcast to begin with but got warmer as the morning progressed. It was around lunchtime whereupon we eased into Carcassonne marina. The port captain was on lunch so we indulged in a light snack ourselves. Said captain turned out to be a smiling, delightful blond with sparkling eyes and bursting with energy, who directed us to a berth beyond the lock, in a more public area. After locking up the boat we headed off through town, following the path through town leading all the way up to Carcassonne Citadel. Ralph and I opted to go inside, which included watching a short film and a walk along the ramparts, whilst Marion stayed outside. We conveniently stumbled upon a small local pizzeria just across the road from where we were moored which just about hit the spot.
Back on the boat our stern resolve to get to bed earlier failed miserably. The sloping grass embankment appeared to be the gathering place for groups of youngsters partaking in the inhalation of stronger substances until the wee hours, much to the consternation of Marion. We had the option of using the showers at the Carcassonne base, which Ralph and I took advantage of. The availability of washing machines was offset by the fact we didn’t have any washing powder.
Day 5 – Carcassonne to Marseilette
If the revellers of the night before weren’t enough, then the noise from the traffic coupled with local council workers deciding to mow the lawn next to the boat early would undoubtedly wake us from our slumber.
After some quick shopping at the nearest Supermache, whilst able to locate washing gel at another on the way back from buying tarts to enjoy later with our morning tea, we filled up with water and set off. A humid day it turned out to be, as most have been on this trip. We stopped for tea along a tree-lined stretch between Fresquel (triple lock) and l’Eveque, tying to stakes, provided by Locaboat for the purposes of such impromptu, spur of the moment stops.
Unfortunately, berths were in short supply in Trebes so we stopped a bit further on. In the heat of the day with temperatures into the thirties, we had neither the energy nor the appetite to explore the town. Given the longish haul to Homps awaiting us, we reluctantly decided to press on to Marseilette.
A virtual traffic jam evolved at Trebes triple lock, with boats queueing in both directions. The lock-keeper, Christoph, was quite a friendly geezer and we chatted about Johnny Clegg, shortly due to retire due to ill health, doing his last every world tour. I had been told by a French enginèer I once knew that he had been a household name in France in the 80’s and that his songs were sings by kids in schools, even in the remotest villages in France.
Marseilette proved a relatively uninspiring place, however as luck would have it, the locals had decided to paint the town red on a Friday night, directly next to where we had moored. A local disco had been hired to play to an audience on a stage set up for the occasion, like some major rock stars. With no second invitation, we elected to fire up the engine and move on a few hundred yards, out of earshot.
On a positive note, we encountered our Swedish friends once again, husband and wife and three tiny kids, two of them twins, whom we had passed several times en route.
To round off the day, we explored the small town on bicycles, as far afield as the neighbouring Capendu.
Day 6 – Marseillette to Le Redourt
In the middle of the night, the Swedes had moved too, so we exchanged greetings once more as we went by shortly after breakfast, as we headed to the first lock a short distance away, taken from the name of the town. The double lock of Aiguille has been brought alive by its lock-keeper/sculptor Joel Barthe. A series of figures sculpted in wood and metal adorn the area around the lock. Puicheric lock was shut for lunch upon arrival. After reopening, for the first time on this tour, we witnessed four boats crammed inside the lock.
We arrived in La Redorte, a neat little quayside, early to mid afternoon. It was then to my horror I realised that I could not locate my wallet and cards. I searched the boat high and low but realised I must have lost it along the canal bank outside Marseillette. I called the banks to place a blocker on my debit card. After lunch we took a walk into town but my heart wasn’t really in it. Neat shuttered buildings line the high street in La Redorte. The townis built around an attractive chateau. A wedding was about to take place in the town hall. Marion’s umbrella, designed to provide shelter, seemed to attract attention from three women in the midst of a gossip on the roadside bench. The day is not complete without sampling French pastries bought locally in town, enjoyed later on Gey, with Marion’s customary pot of tea.
A small ablution block housed not only a traditional French loo (hole in the ground) but also shower with cold water only, allowing me to simultaneously rinse clothes I’d had soaking on the boat in a bucket. Marion and Ralph pushed off for a cycle down the canal towards Homps while I manned stations.
A large boat had pulled up ahead at the quayside. Not only had we discovered that they were fellow South Africans, but learnt too that Fanie Marais was an estate agent who had sold a house on Welgedacht estate in Cape Town to my eldest brother Edward. A small world indeed. It gave me an opportunity to practice my Afrikaans.
Day 7 – La Redorte to Argens
Ralph and Marion had had a brainwave, suggesting that Ralph and I surface early and cycle the 12 km back to Marseilette, to see if we could locate the missing items that had caused me so much consternation. This we did, setting off into a headwind on the granny bicycles at about 6:30. Ralph got to the canal bank ahead of me and began searching in the thick grass where we had been. All of a sudden he turned and spotted the small Ziploc bag lying in the undergrowth. He stooped down to pick if up and then held it up with a grin on his face. My jaw dropped in astonishment at our sheer good luck. We high-fived. The resolve of both Ralph and I had been put to the test on this trip, having lost personal possessions whilst retrieving them in the end.
Buoyed by the find, we hurried the 12 km back, on average downhill, to La Redorte, with the wind behind us and in our sails too. The neighbours hadn’t yet surfaced. My shirt was drenched from the sweat so another cold shower was in order. After breakfast the assortment of t-shirts and underwear draped across the bicycles to dry came down and we motored into the morning sun.
Jouarres lock, a deep lock, necessitated a long wait for boats scheduled to arrive in the opposite direction. I bought a bottle of Rose so that we could celebrate the uplifting events of that morning. Here we encountered more South Africans, on two of them. Our fellow citizens and we appear to be taking over Canal du Midi in a big way.
It wasn’t long before we ambled into Homps port with the engine purring.
A sheltered spot out of the sun for Lady Marion was duly found as ordered. Tart and ice-cream bought at a patisserie literally five steps across the road was summarily washed down with, yes, that pot of afternoon chai. The town was recennoitered.
Homps lock buildings were probably in a worse condition than any of the other locks on the entire trip, in a word, drab and unkempt. The lock-keeper seemed to reflect the state of the place. He kept us waiting up to 20 minutes until more boats arrived, before we were allowed to proceed. The double locks at Ognon and Pechlaurier however, lush and almost entirely surrounded by trees, provide a stark contrast.
The 14th century chateau on the hill dominates the landscape on the western approach to the town of Argens-Minervois. We seemed to be encountering more and more South Africans and Argens port was no exception. The office was shut by the time we arrived so a final checkout would have to wait until the morning.
The Negra – Argens Canal du Midi cruise had turned out better than I had expected. With 40-odd locks navigated in the space of 6 days, there’s never a dull moment. Only three on board means everyone’s participation is key and any lapse in concentration can potentially be fatal.
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