Quite by chance, I came across the gorges du Tarn. “Le hasard fait bien les choses », it was a happy accident.
Driving through the causses, the high plateaux of the South-West of Massif Central, the summer heat kept on pushing me on northwards. After the harvests, the ground was red. Sheep were around – I drove past Roquefort – but nowhere to be seen. The ethereal viaduct de Millau appeared behind a hill, a thin line of metal, suspended in mid-air, like a permanent shooting star.
In Millau I started to follow the Tarn river, which, between Florac and Millau, has created a deep canyon in the high plateau. The road follows the river, becoming narrower as the valley gets steeper and deeper. Tunnels, overhangs, sheer drops, twists and turns are testaments to the engineers’ talent and determination.
I spent several days exploring the gorges du Tarn, whose spectacular landscape draws climbers and canoeists from afar. As much as I am more of a nature observer, I enjoy the company of those who confront themselves to nature, see it as a challenge, or a playground.
One evening, I stopped at the Cirque des Baumes, a renowned climbing spot, and walked down to the pebble beach. During the day, the beach hosts picnickers and sun-bathers; the river carries canoes and kayaks. Trouts, chubs and minnows are a common sight; grass snakes create a stir. The cliff opposite, covered with mosses and lichen, falls straight into the river’s glide.
That evening, I bathed in the cool, transparent water, swimming upstream, then letting the river take me slowly down, all the way to some rapids on the river’s bend. Afterwards, sitting on the pebble beach, I felt cooled, cleaned, nestled, shaded, sheltered.
The landscape around me was vertical. I had to raise my head to look at the horizon, several hundred meters above me. The sky was tightly framed, by the last rocky outcrops of the plateau, eroded into blocks, candles or thin fingers. The last pines of the causse Méjean, clinging onto the cliff, small and tortured.
Griffon vultures would come, circle one last time, then approach and land on the highest ridge of the cliff. They would noisily argue with their neighbours, flapping and spreading their giant wings, then take off again.
Further down, the huge cliff-face. With a bit of imagination, you can see a baboon face during the day. But in the evening, in the orange-tinted light, it is a lion’s face and its mane that appear, ever so briefly, just before the sun sets. You can hear the ringing calls of the choughs; alpine swifts and rock swallows whizz past. In the lower level of the valley, you find oak and beech trees; like me, they prefer the shelter of the gorge.
Now that the tourists have gone to their hotel, campsites or restaurants, the grey wagtail comes out to patrol the beach; you can hear beavers too. And as I waited for the chill of the night, the stars came out. This is one of the places in France where there are the fewest people; and they seem to be all in gorges. In the small patch of night sky above me, the stars were numerous and bright.