Canal boating from Négra Lock to Argens-Minervois
July saw the realisation of a lifelong fascination near the end of my sixtieth year celebrations: a canal boat trip on the canals of old Europe. I had seen a TV documentary about the Canal du Midi some years ago. Its construction was a grand, 17th century engineering project to connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean for trade purposes that obviated the need for the French to sail around the hostile Iberian peninsula and through the pirate-ridden Strait of Gibraltar. So impressed by the remarkable feat of engineering was I that I did no further research on canal holidays in France or anywhere else. The Canal du Midi it would be. Subsequently I discovered that the canal accounts for 20% of French river tourism with 10000 to 11000 boat passages per year, all leisure boats. It is the busiest canal in France. But as luck would have it I also unknowingly chose to do a section during the first week of July, before the holiday rush really gets underway, that would prove to be quiet and uncrowded. It turned out to be a glorious, relaxed, yet active, seven-day cruise for me, Marion, and old pal Peter, on our plucky little pénichette, Gey. As we neared the Med, near the end of our cruise, the increase in traffic was palpable.
Southern France is colloquially known as le Midi. The term Midi derives from mi (middle) and di (day) in Old French. The time of midday was synonymous with the direction of south because in France the sun is in the south at noon. So Canal du Midi means roughly “the canal of southern France” (Source: Wikipedia).
Many accounts describe the Canal du Midi as a work of art. Neoclassical structures and stonework dating from the 1600s are visible everywhere. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But did I mention that the canal is an engineering marvel? Designed, engineered and built by Pierre-Paul Riquet, who employed 12000 labourers between 1667 and 1694, it is a summit level canal because it rises through 18 locks to the summit at Nauroze, and then descends through 60 or so locks to the Mediterranean. The really brilliant idea, however, is the supply of water that sustains the canal in both downward directions. In order to ensure a sustainable supply, Riquet impounded water from the Black Mountain catchment north of the canal behind the largest, stone wall dam in the world at that time, and brought it down to the canal summit. From there the water pulses east and west down the lock system as the lock gates and sluices open and close to lift and lower canal boats on almost every day of the year. Numerous anti-flood structures, sumps, viaducts, bridges and one tunnel continue to operate to this day, protecting the canal and enabling it to cross roads, railways and rivers.
On our week-long, easterly journey from Négra to Argens, we negotiated some 44 lock sites (many of the sites featured double locks, and some were triple and quadruple locks). The single-chamber “up” locks from Négra to the summit were unmanned and automated, but after the summit all were (wo)manned – yes, many of the lock keepers are young women. Before our trip, some “warned” us about having to pass through so many locks, but we quickly settled on a system and division of work that made the locks easy to negotiate and we in fact relished them. Without the regular lock operations, the trip may have become a little boring, because navigating the flat pounds between the locks is not much of a challenge – there is no current or chop. It only became a little tricky when boat traffic increased at the locks and the wind picked up. One has to understand that Gey only has a single screw and rudder and there is quite a lag before it answers the helm, while the bigger boats have bow and stern thrusters as well. So our maneuverability was limited and we had to get the approaches and mooring right the first time, every time. Truth be told, the helmsman did throw his toys once or twice when the deckhands were slower than he would have liked.
Upon arrival, Marion had declared that she would do the helming and Peter and I would be the “deckhands”, dealing with mooring, ropes and locks. However, as our 15-minute driving lesson with Jean-Pierre commenced at Négra, she quickly changed her mind – as is her prerogative – and Peter and I would take turns helming. But “the system” quickly settled into a comfortable division of roles where I helmed, Peter operated the locks or negotiated with the lock keepers in his passable French and worked the quays (and took 100s of photos and video clips), while Marion handled the ropework and boat hook on the foredeck, and supplied all with copious pots of tea from the galley. It all worked very slickly, and Peter clearly enjoyed his French exchanges with the lock keepers, especially the ones of a female persuasion. He also photographically documented each and every lock.
The trip was not without its drama. Upon arrival at Toulouse airport from Heathrow, the baggage carousel spat out Marion’s bag but not mine. With a sinking feeling I reported my lost luggage to the friendly lady at baggage services. Luckily we had arrived a day earlier than Peter and were spending the first night at a local hotel before heading to Négra the next day. After a negotiating a BA call centre that answered in Spanish after I had selected the English option, it transpired that my bag had been found at Heathrow and would be on the evening flight to Toulouse. It wasn’t. Further enquiry determined that it was “lost” again. In the meantime we had arrived at the Locaboat base at L’ecluse de Négra, had our short driving instruction and briefing and should have left on our cruise already. Some unsolicited advice from friends back home on social media about how to survive for seven days, on a boat, on two sets of underpants persuaded me to delay departure to the next day and wait for my bag. Eventually, with hope and light fading fast, two gentlemen from the Central African Republic, screeched to a halt with the desired item in the boot, along with some other poor sod’s luggage. Although we were all from Africa they spoke no English and except for Peter, we knew no French besides “bonjour”, so we grinned and shook hands vigorously to communicate our gratitude. I was particularly grateful to be reunited with my underwear.
Navigating the canal
The next morning we cast off and pointed Gey‘s snub nose up-canal. Our first lock experience was at the two-chamber L’ecluse de Laval where the lock keeper had the air of someone who has seen it all before, probably because her lock is where novice boaters departing from Négra lose their virginity, as it were. All went well. A mere 1.5 km up the canal we came to L’ecluse de Gardouch, an unmanned, single-chamber lock. We offloaded Peter below the lock and waited for him to reach the lock console. As he pressed the right buttons the lock gates swung open, the “robot” turned green, and we nosed in. Another button press and the lock filled up, Gey rose, the upper gates swung open and we chugged out as proud lock veterans.
Having lost some time because of the delayed departure, we were perhaps over anxious about making up distance and neglected to explore the summit and the feeder canal. We covered 32 km and negotiated 11 locks that first day (day 2), eventually mooring in the lee of the Île de la Cybelle in Castelnaudary’s Grand Bassin, where the easterly was blowing at a good twenty knots. On the hot, dreamy days that followed, our anxiety abated, and we savoured the canal at a more leisurely pace, preferring quiet, overnight moorings to the busier ports such as Bram, Trébes and Homps that the tourist brochures recommend. My favourite ports were Les Moulins du Pont, near the mediaeval villages of Villesèquelande and Caux-et-Sauzens, La Redorte and the ancient town of Carcassonne. A visit to the latter’s mediaeval citadel is a must. Most evenings, we took the granny cycles and rode up and down the towpath or into the surrounding countryside to the small villages that dot the winelands. It is light until about 10 pm, so our days were long, but the locks only start operating at 9 am, so you might as well lie in until the sun drives you up on deck.
The canal towpath is a very popular cycling route. Scores of cyclists passed us daily, either as part of tour or school groups, or as long-distance, self-supported tourers. There are many campsites and guest houses along the canal that cater for cyclists. And bikes travel a lot faster than the canal boat’s maximum speed of 8 km/h, so you could tour the canal much quicker – if that’s your poison.
The saga of the lost wallet
On the evening of day 5, we pulled into Marseillette, a less-than-inspiring town on a ridge, only to find that an outdoor music concert of some sort was about to kick off adjacent to our mooring. The massive bank of loudspeakers promised a noisy, thumping evening. So we crept around the bend to a quieter bank and cycled into the countryside that evening. The next morning we cast off and motored to La Redorte, a very neat and attractive port. But that afternoon Peter turned Gey upside down in search of his wallet. Eventually we concluded that he must have lost it at Marseillette or on the ride to Capendu the previous day. After some discussion he decided to call his bank and stop his credit card – in the process of which he also discovered that one or two others in the wallet had expired in any case. The problem was that his driver’s licence was also lost, and given that we intended renting a car to drive down to the Pyrenees after the canal boat adventure, a slight dilemma loomed.
That evening Marion and I studied the map and suggested to Peter that an early-morning cycle of 24 km to Marseillette and back to look for it would be well worth the effort. The big guy was a bit down and somewhat sceptical, but the next morning he and I set off early into a fresh headwind on the awkward, 3-speed granny cycles. I arrived at the previous night’s mooring first and started searching the long grass systematically. After a few minutes I turned around and spotted the zip lock bag containing his wallet in the shadow of a small bush. He had obviously put it down to receive the bikes as I handed them down to him from the deck, and then forgotten to retrieve it. The look of disbelieving relief on his face was priceless.
The canal evokes another world, another time. It’s a shaded, languid, liquid ribbon that winds through a patchwork landscape, creating an illusion of bucolic tranquillity. Yet sometimes only hundreds of metres away traffic on the multi-lane Autoroute Des Deux Mers – the highway of the two seas – roars past, or the high-speed trains scream between Toulouse and Narbonne. The berms and the double rows of planes trees insulate the canal from the noise of modern civilisation. This hit home when Marion and I drove to Carcassonne from Spain via Toulouse a week later. We could see the winding, wooded canal, recognised the landmarks and the locks as we sped past in the noisy heat and couldn’t believe that this world existed in such close proximity to the canal.
As we approached the more popular end of the canal, we started to encounter more boats – and more boats crewed by fellow South Africans. Eventually we couldn’t but speculate that Saffers are taking over the Canal du Midi. Peter met an estate agent at La Redorte who had sold a property recently to his brother in Cape Town! It reminded us of our gület cruise in Turkey three years ago when we shared the boat with a Stellenbosch couple, where the husband’s sisters were friends of Marion’s at university. I fully expect the canal boats to be sporting deck braais soon to cater for this market.
During lock operations, I had a lot of time to study the stonework of the lock walls and noticed plants clinging to the cracks. It occurred to me that a lock wall could host a sort of freshwater, “intertidal” ecology, albeit with unpredictable “tidal” periods. Perhaps a particular, unique flora and fauna is evolving in these old lock chambers? If so, as the canal runs east-west, one side is mostly in the sun and the other always in the shade, perhaps the sides host differing colonies and communities? It’s great when your mind is uncluttered …
- Negotiating “down” locks could hold a nasty surprise for the inexperienced and inattentive. If one ties the ropes to the bollards, instead of looping them, it is possible to “suspend” the boat as the water level drops. Apparently this has happened and I suspect that the result is that cleats are ripped out of decks, or lines part with a crack. If it happens to you, be cool, whistle and look the other way.
- Forget the “flying bridge”. We were advised to rent a boat with a flying bridge, at a premium. A flying bridge is basically a steering position located on top of the superstructure, without shade, in the blazing sun. That may sound attractive to sun-starved Europeans, but not to us. Thankfully we went for a boat with a wheelhouse, windows that opened fully and a retractable roof – lots of cooling breeze, but shady.
- Do rent bicycles. Although not the most comfortable, they enable you to explore the surroundings quite far afield and stay active. And they also come in handy when you have to retrieve a wallet.
- Do rent a wifi router, unless you want to go totally off-grid. The Internet is a wonderful source of information about the canal and your route. 4G is fairly ubiquitous on the canal, but you don’t want to use data roaming to access it – especially on a South African mobile contract. Peter was able to post a daily, pictorial blog on Google Photos for friends and family.
- If you rent a bigger boat and have more hands than jobs, make sure there is a clear line of command and that your hands specialise in their jobs or else some friendships/marriages could be prematurely curtailed in the locks.