THE GREEN TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT -

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.

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