THE GREEN TOURIST
I wake to the chirps of a little warbler sunning itself on the deck of our canal boat. It’s not as showy as other birds we’ve spotted on our week-long journey, but its serene pose fills me with a sense of wellbeing.
We have moored the previous night alongside a secluded, grassy bank on the Canal du Rhone a Sete, and as I look out at the quiet, bright morning, I think of a sentence by Anais Nin: “A leaf fluttered in through the window this morning, as if supported by the rays of the sun, a bird settled … joy accompanied me as I walked.”
Canal du Rhone a Sete is in southern France, connecting the town of Beaucaire (on the Rhone River) to the Etang de Thau in Sete. It passes through the Camargue Regional Park, a vast wetlands of great biodiversity, designated a “Wetland of International Importance” site in 1986, according to the Ramsar intergovernmental en- vironmental treaty established by UNESCO. And what better way to explore the wetlands than by boat, with a top cruising speed of 8km/h ensuring relaxed observation?
Home to hundreds of species of birds, both resident and migratory, the wetland is an ornithologist’s dream. Even with our inexpert eyes we manage to identify egrets, terns, grey herons, white swans, cormorants, kingfishers, gulls and ducks aplenty. Plus, much to our delight, great colonies of pink flamingos, the emblematic birds of the Camargue. The pink colour comes from their diet rich in carotenoid pigments from the brine shrimp they filter from shallow saltwater lagoons.
Of course, the canal is not all wild marsh and wetlands. Other icons of the Camargue landscape are the black bulls and their herdsmen, and the beautiful white horses, an ancient breed living wild here for centuries, still roaming in semi-feral herds alongside the canal. We see many of these, sometimes with a little brown foal trotting alongside (they turn a distinctive white-grey only when they reach maturity).
Less appealing in the wetlands are the mosquitoes, but the boat has window screens and we’ve come prepared with repellent and coils to burn, and these prove surprisingly efficacious.
We also pass through, or moor at, several small towns, such as Gallician, where ducks rush to greet us, plus Carnon, Palavas-les-Flots and Frontignan and, our favourite, the delightful medieval fortified town of AiguesMortes, rebuilt in 1240 by Louis IX and the embarkation point of the Seventh and Eighth Crusades. We score a mooring right below the ancient Constance Tower.
The saltworks of Aigues-Mortes are famous throughout France, and we tour past massive salt-piles from the evaporation ponds and later almost get run aground by a huge salt barge pushing past us in a narrow stretch of the canal. Because the sole lock on this canal is temporarily closed for maintenance (much to my secret relief, as tying the ropes for mooring each night seems challenging enough), we have to return the boat to our starting point of Saint-Gilles, and the Le Boat company, from which we’ve hired the canal vessel, pays for us to complete the final stage of the trip to Beaucaire by taxi.
Real ornithologists would probably also make their way to the renowned Ornithological Park at Pont de Gau, near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, dedicated to the protection and discovery of nature in the Camargue. For us, it has been enough to wend our way along the canal, watching and wondering, observing the stunning white Camargue horses, and the prolific birdlife of the freshwater marshes and saltwater lagoons, one of the last natural habitats of the Mediterranean coast.