Day 1 (28th June)
Saturday started bright and early as I threw the last few things in the car and hurried the husband out the house. Up to St. Andrews and drop Davey off on South Street for his 9.30am start. I nip into the shop with him to buy a new pair of sunglasses as mine have disappeared into the ether. I drive round to Andre’s house and call him to see if he’s awake, then belatedly remember while the phone rings that I was supposed to pick him up from Jon’s. Oops. So, round to Dave’s place, then up to Scooniehill road to get Andre and Carolyn. Finally, we’re packed and ready, just don’t look too hard at the car’s (lack of) suspension.
We stop at Glenrothes Asda to fuel up on snacks and coffee, then head off south. I drive to Abbington, then Dave gets his first turn behind the wheel as we hit the M74. I attempt to set up the sat nav, so we know where to go once we hit the chaos that is Englandshire, but it keeps telling us to turn off the motorway. Eventually it transpires that, due to some unfortunate settings being switched certain ways, the sat nav wants us to turn around, go to the airport and get on a plane. So begins the saga of us vs the sat nav.
The drive down is fairly uneventful. We are less than complementary about the scenery (three scots and an Irishman, what do you expect). Somewhere around the black hole of Birmingham the sat nav decides to take us on a tour around some villages. The twisty roads don’t agree with me, so we swap drivers. Dave has apparently been ignoring Amy’s instructions to drive efficiently, as the mpg is way down. We fiddle with the sat nav some more and get back on the motorway. In the distance between there and Ascot I actually manage to get the mpg up to 50, an impressive feat.
Ah, Ascot. Well. It’s an interesting place. We see a sign on a pub that says “Horses welcome, have a drink with your horse!” and wonder what strange dimension we have accidentally fallen into. Houses are the size of castles, and hidden by hedges the size of forests, crenelated walls and turrets that probably contain anti-riff-raff guns. Needless to say, some of us feel mildly unwelcome…
Jon’s house, when we get to it, is actually quite normal, though massive and surrounded by houses with columns and 4x4s with blacked out windows. His family are very lovely and make everyone else pizza, while happily instructing me on how to use the microwave which has more buttons than my tv remote. I have gluten free pasta bake for tea, leftovers from the night before. After dinner we chatter for a bit, then realise we have to get up before 4am tomorrow and go to bed. Well, get into sleeping bags and slump all over the place. Somehow I manage to get the sofa. It’s like a big marshmallow.
3.45am comes around with an incessantly beeping alarm clock. I go upstairs, manage to get my contacts in my eyes and shove my face under a cold tap. I’m vaguely awake. It’s still dark outside. I don’t think my brain can quite cope with this. Somehow we manage to end up in Dover, having stopped to get ridiculously over priced fuel on the way. The ferry is supposed to be at 7.30, so we have a while to wait. It’s drizzling a bit, but we cheerfully wander around and chat. James and Cami’s car is here (they were picking up Emily from Southampton yesterday, so weren’t at Ascot), so we get to hear all about their journey. Someone discovers Costa in the P&O terminal. Coffee!
|Waiting to get on the ferry at Dover.|
For someone who gets motion sickness easily, the wobbly crossing to Calais is torturous. I just manage to keep hold of my meagre breakfast. I’m sure everyone else is having a nice time. Dave takes over driving and I’m so happy to be off the ferry that it seems quite exciting to be in Calais. We’re not there long, though. Soon, we hit the road south and motor off. I doze off and on, draw doodles in the expenses record, hang out the window and try to figure out toll machines and chatter about nothing and anything. We admonish science for failing to have come up with teleportation. Service stations are raided for coffee. Dave insists he wants to keep driving. Andre’s sat nav gets confused by the new Lyon bypass.
|This driver is brought to you by caffeine.|
At Grenoble we can finally see the Alps! We stop for diesel, which is the same price in Euros as it was in pounds this morning. I finally take over from Dave after his epic 10 hour drive. From Grenoble the motorways give way to ordinary two lane roads, climbing up, up, always up. Carolyn and Andre play a rather competitive game of Uno in the back. The temperature drops as we climb, as does the sun. At about 10pm I realise that I’ve had my contacts in for about 18 hours when they’re only rated to 12. We have a stop and I take them out. It’s 3.5 degrees outside and the car warns us about ice.
Finally we’re going down. The road winds down for a long way until we get to Briançon. We leave the town with excitement and a following truck, which tail gates us all the way to Roche de Rame. Given that it’s after 11pm and I’ve been up nearly 20 hours, I am not in the slightest bit bothered by his insistent honking and flashing of lights. I slow down for the turning into the camp site a little bit more than necessary.
Our instructions for the campsite consisted of “Go in and turn right”. This resulted in only a couple of wrong turnings, and soon we had found the others. Taking note of our impressive 62.5 mpg for the day, we threw tents into a vaguely upright position somewhere near the car and fell into our sleeping bags, exhausted.
A rather relaxed start is suddenly interrupted by all the students suddenly running around and trying to get out of the campsite and off to the river really quickly. Eating my porridge, I refuse to be hurried. No rush.
We stop at the Carrefour in L’Argentierre and it comes out that the reason for the rush was that no-one else had thought to bring any breakfast. Students.
We head to the slalom site at L’Argentierre to let everyone get a bit of practice and a gentle introduction to Alpine water. When I was last here, in 2008, the whole region was experiencing some serious flooding. The slalom site was a churning grey obstacle course of huge holes and very few visible rocks. Today, however, it’s blue water, clean eddies and fluffy white waves. I snap some pictures of the others, then walk my boat up and accompany James on an eddy hop down. The water is fast, much more powerful than what I’m used to, so I decide that I want to try my other paddles, Werner Sherpas. Mostly, they have just not been used much, unlike my Robsons, so they have a larger blade size and more powerful strokes as a consequence.
This turns out to be rather fortunate for John Rothwell when his home repaired paddle suddenly becomes unrepaired. Looking pathetic carrying his two bits of paddle, he asks if he can get the spare club paddle out of my car. I offer him my Robsons and one run with the club Ainsworths later he’s back asking if the offer is still there. Of course!
|Jonty looking back up the slalom site.|
|Jonny playing in the waves.|
Lunch! We spread out all over the grassy area by the car park and make sandwiches. The alps veterans discuss the afternoon’s options. Eventually they decide on the Briançon gorge, so we pack up and head north to Briançon. We leave Raffa’s car by the take out and shove his boat on Chris’s car, so we can do a shuttle later. At the put in, Sarah nearly throws up (again) and decides to have a sit in the shade and read her book before someone tells her another Game of Thrones spoiler.
The put in is properly Alpine. There’s no eddy, just some rocks to balance your boat on and the promise of micro eddies downstream. My group consists of Rory, Carolyn, Andre and me, as we were meant to also have Sarah. Some bouncy, fast grade 2/3 passes in a blur and we are sitting nervously above the barrage.
|Rory tries to be confidence inspiring above the barrage.|
Rory tries to inspire confidence, but Carolyn and me are wide eyed with terror. Once the group in front has been gone for a while, Rory paddles off to lip, telling us to “leave ten seconds then just go for it”.
Rory has gone. Oh god, that means I have to go now! I paddle over to the horizon line. It’s a long way down, longer than I’d imagined, but I’m way past the point of no return. I slide over the edge and onto the canoe shoot. The acceleration is incredible and I come flying off the end with a high pitched squeak, drop the five or so feet into the river and beach onto the shingle beside Rory, who’s grinning fit to burst. Carolyn is already coming down with the most amazing expression of fear and excitement on her face. She’s flying through the air and somehow manages to avoid getting stuck beside Rory. Now Andre’s sliding down, looking cool, but spoils it with a manic grin when he lands. We survived. Whew.
|The canoe shoot!|
Now the river starts. Unfortunately for us, the other groups, who’re all in front of us, seem to be faffing with something. All the time. We sit in eddies for what seems like most of the afternoon, move maybe a hundred metres down, then sit for a while more. Finally, Rory calls it, and we line up behind him, duckling style, and charge. We come across the group right in front of us. They’re sitting in an eddy for no reason. Bams. We sail past. The next group are eddy hopping. We float through the middle. The river isn’t too challenging, grade 3 at most, but it is fast. Really fast! We travel through the gorge below the Briançon old town, amazingly deep and sheer sided, with an old stone bridge spanning it.
|Briancon bridge, high above.|
|Happy faces deep in the gorge.|
|Nearing the take out.|
Suddenly the gorge opens out and we’re bimbling down easy grade 2. Rory points out the take out and we beach on the rocks and pull the boats up to the layby.
Raffa’s car isn’t here. Huh? Confusion ensues, with everyone else stopping at our wrong layby. There are many discussions. Most of us take our kit off and sit in the sun. Rory runs off down the road to find Raffa’s car. Chris’s group, who were at the front, have clearly gone to the place where Raffa’s car is, but since this is the actual guide book take out, they should obviously bring the car here! I lie in the sun with Andre and Dave, staying out of it. Raffa’s car arrives!
We shuttle, pack up and head back to the campsite. Dinner is cooked for us, a tasty chilli with no chilli powder, no gluten, no lactose, no egg, no fish and no poultry. Friendly for all!