Monday, 30 August 2010

Adventures In The Present, Travels in Deep Time

Geologists claim to understand Deep Time; I don't believe them. Deep Time is the early period of the Earth's life and were talking billions of years ago here. Is the human brain is truly capable of comprehending 5 million years, never mind 500 million or 4 billion? I think not. This months trip to France has offered a glimpse into the fathomless age of the earth, a hint of the almost unimaginable time required to build and then tear down mountains, and I find it quite fascinating and deeply beautiful.

"This morning we were in limestone country, and it's stimulated my mind. I'm not a geologist but I have a strong interest in the subject as it's the controlling force in the landscapes that I love and was the sculptor who created the place where I climb, paddle, and ride.

The river is lined with a series of spectacular limestone cliffs towering up to fifty meters above the water. The river has sculpted caves, pinnacles, and prows curves polished smooth by the flow. The cliffs are topped with trees, and climbing plants, long drapes of vines hang down the faces and the nooks and ledges provide a home for birds, and insects.

Seeing the cliffs tower over me it's hard to imagine that they were formed under an ancient sea from billions of dead coral plants which were slowly converted into limestone. Then plate tectonics carried the young rock across the surface of the planet and lifted them up to face the sun and atmosphere which will slowly devour it. The time taken to go from living coral into dead rock over millions of years is difficult to comprehend never mind the time for that ocean floor to be uplifted high above the waves and then carved out by the river.

So the life of ages past from some far distant shore now provides the ledges and cracks in which the life of today flourishes. Indeed I think most limestone is less than 300 million years old which hardly qualifies as Deep time!

When not cliffs the riverbank is a steep embankment of cobbles and pebbles which the water has cut through to a depth of three meters in places. Time again; every single pebble and cobble has been carried into this valley from a some distant mountain range by the river that I'm now paddling by countless floods and storms as the river changed its course over the valley floor for thousands of years. The river then will have moved on only to return centuries later to cut through the deposits of a previous Milena. To Deep Time however the life of a river is nothing, little more than transient tears on the face of the planet, superficial and gone in a blink of an eye.

Once you start thinking of Deep Time it is easier to comprehend the "Gia" theory of the planet as one giant living organism of infinitely beautiful depth and complexity where all life depends on and nurtures all other. An almost eternal organism with plate tectonics and mantle convection the giant circulatory system driven by the heartbeat of the core. I find these ideas deeply moving and beautiful (beauty in science is an idea that interests me and I may Blog about later).

Thin layers of limestone marking distinct depositional events separated by thin weaker layers

All these thoughts are drifting through my brain as we drift slowly down the river. But there are other as well of a slightly less epic nature! With so much rock about Dom and I get very excited about the potential for climbing. The walls are all steep to overhanging and look hard, probably 7a and above and quite fingery in style. None of the cliffs show any sign of development. The French are really lucky to have such a wealth of rock, so much that they leave huge sweeps of it undeveloped. In Britain and especially England we have such a limited amount that nearly everything is developed and the only chance at new routing at grades mortals can climb in in some grotty abandoned quarry. Here there is new routing to last a lifetime.

Having come all this way we have to touch rock. Unfortunately we don't find anywhere that is suitable for proper deep water soloing as the river is just too shallow. But there are plenty of easy long traverses just above river level.

Rafted up together we drift slowly along with the current, this break has been one of the most relaxing times I can ever remember. All I need to do is sit and think; be it about the last billion years or where the next beer is going to come from.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Messing About In Boats

A flash of lightning rents the sky followed seconds later by a crash of booming rolling thunder as walls of superheated air slam together in the heavens. The rain is torrential making the surface of the river come alive with ten thousand dancing sprites. Sitting in the canoes as our little caravan paddles down the river we curse our luck that we have driven 800 miles and found the very same rain we had hoped to leave in the UK. Still I love the primeval nature of a thunderstorm; the way it displays the forces of nature so vividly and makes me feel more connected to a landscape when I'm sat in the middle of it
"I think they go this way up"

Today is our fist day on the river, getting used to our canoes and vainly struggling to paddle them in a straight line. The plan is to spend six days paddling along the Dordogne between Argentat and Vitrac, a distance of 110km camping each night and enjoying to local cheese, wine, and plenty of banter. Like all good plans we jump straight in at the deep end with day one as the biggest day; 27km to cover before we reach landfall in Beaulieu.

Thousands of Dancing Sprites

The rivers meanders it's was through green woodlands interspersed with fields of rape and grass. The paddling itself is nothing technical, mostly flat water with the occasional small rapids to negotiate which add a bit of spice the journey and a bit of water to the interior of the canoe. You could probably sit a kayak on top of some of the bigger features and I kind of regret not bringing mine along although paddling these distances in my white water boat would have been very tiring.

Once the rain slows the water is brilliantly clear and we spot fish darting about trying to keep within the shadow of the canoe. The river begins to steam in the humidity and Swallows appear from the trees darting and skimming just above the water buzzing the boat like aeroplanes as they feed on the insects that hover just above the surface. Brilliant cobalt blue dragon flies hover along side us on incredibly delicate gossamer thin wings. Rafting up together it's incredibly tranquil and relaxing just drifting along with the current feet trailing in the water.


save the drama till the end of the day when paddling into Beaulieu we have to negotiate a small canoe slide just before the pull out. When Gina and Chris come down the shoot they get caught by the stopper at the base this spins them through 90 degrees into the bank and then bounces them out into mid stream. Unfortunately before they can get the canoe straightened the current takes it into the support for a bridge over the river causing the boat to flip over and capsize.

I attempt to spring into rescue mode by completely failing to paddle upstream against the current and nearly capsize my own boat which I now realise is dangerously full of rain water. Fortunately the others are much more organised in effecting a rescue getting the guys and their boat to the shore and helping get it drained.

Once at the campsite we then realise we have made a serious mistake, our luggage hasn't yet arrived and were sat in wet clothes having not thought to take a spare set with up on the boats (because it's hot in the south of France in summer, No?). Copious amounts of tea, and strongly alcoholic coffee go some way to improving the situation although we are very happy when about an hour later our kit arrives and we can jump in the shower and warm ourselves up properly.
Overkill; Four season mountain tent for summer in the south of France

One Day down, cant wait till tomorrow!

We travelled with Copeyre who supplied the boats, dry containers and ran the luggage between campsites. Also included in the price are tents and mattresses. Cost was 87 euros pp and was a bargain!