“This is the last time I do something like this. Yesterday was crazy. We could have got seriously injured and if that happened we’d have been f**ked. Imagine like a metal spike going through your foot. You were barefoot half the time.”
“Yeah true. No phones, no easy way of getting off the river at some bits.”
“I’d have been dragging you on that kayak like it was a stretcher. We are so reckless.”
“…I swear this is the last time. I just want a normal life. One, maybe two holidays a year. With the wife and kids. Just beaches …If we absolutely have to camp we’ll take a car with all our stuff in.”
I’d only spent one day on the river and it had already broken me.
Two days before Tyze had arrived. On these sort of trips Tyze had a ‘don’t brush your teeth now brush them twice in the morning’ kind of attitude. He has a good side and a bad side and he lets the two inform each other. On his first day we’d planned the trip as much as we thought necessary: booked a car share down and a train back from Bayonne, bought heavy-duty binbags to put our belongings in and ate lots of pasta. Then we’d gone out and drunk beer until I could no longer ride my bike without falling to the ground every few meters.
…the hangover was a real shame because the girl from BlaBlaCar was absolutely stunning and seemed really switched-on, yet all we could do was sit half-dead in the back seats listening to the douchbag in the front passenger seat try to impress her while his surfboard-sock rubbed against our shoulders.
Our beautiful chauffeur dropped us on the doorstep of Bayonne train station where we boarded a one-carriage train. Direction Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Little did we know it but this town is probably the most popular starting point of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. If my sources are correct this pilgrimage has become a more of a hike for swingers, someone even described it to me as a sexfest-on-legs where it is not uncommon for orgiastic spiritual awakenings to take place at hidden gîtes high in the Pyrenees. I wasn’t convinced but as we changed from train to bus at Cambo-les-Bains what was clear was that every passenger on the train except us was heading to this holy path. Some were audibly excited, others – like the fresh-faced couple who were holding hands but could barely look each other in the eye – were silently nervous.
On arrival we made sandwiches and inflated the boat. A jolly French tourist and his wife stopped and chatted, when I told him we were heading to Bayonne he said “Why stop there? Why not continue to London?” I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic, wanted us foreigners to get out of France or if he was discretely warning us not to stop at Bayonne.
With the sandwiches and everything else we had brought double wrapped in gardening bin bags we began to lower our craft into the River Nive. Tyze, who had waded out into the river, calls up to me “There’s a snake!” Just below me swimming near the river’s edge with its head raised above the surface like a cobra preparing to strike was an undulating green and brown serpent. It looked me in the eye then plunged and disappeared into some rushes ~~~~ Since when are there snakes in rivers? This was definitely a bad omen.
We span in circles as we got accustomed to rowing. We passed under the town’s iconic bridge feeling like mavericks but then within 30 seconds went from feeling like unsummoned heroes to feeling very stupid when we reached a weir that was impossible to navigate.
We had to carry the heavy, fully loaded kayak through town. Then offload the luggage. Then carry it down a steep hill. Then I had to wade, chest deep, up a channel of fast-moving water as Tyze lowered the boat and we re-loaded the luggage.
After a short while the water became shallow again.
We span in circles a lot.
The trees started, providing shade from the strong late afternoon sun.
A shawled mother sat peacefully watching her infant son play on the hidden riverbank.
Everything was peaceful until we viewed ripples in the distance.
Suddenly we see a barrier of metal girders but there is no way around and it is already to late. It turns us sideways, holds us momentarily then as we shift our weight to try to slip over it we capsize. I go under headfirst. Tyze grabs the luggage at the back but the bag at the front is in with me. I resurface and push it back in. Tyze shouts “Your shoes are sinking.” I grab them and we set out laughing it off until noticing a hole in the front bag.
We vow to not capsize again and continue. There are faster more powerful rapids. We handle them with a newfound talent. The rapids turn almost to whitewater and a tree branch covers the way. We ram through with our oars and again emerge victorious.
A metal and plastic pipe blocks the route, too low for us to pass under so we have to get out.
Who dumps all this industrial junk here and why?
We continue and hit another rapids. Tyze is shouting ” Shiiiiittttt”. Out of nowhere a metal rod has completely pierced through the bottom off the boat. Three centimeters to the right and it would have gone through Tyze’s leg as well. It clatters around as we drift uncontrollably but somehow he manages to pull it out and throw it like a harpoon towards the shore. There is no chance to do anything except paddle twice on one side to straighten her up as we hit our first white water. There are rocks either side of us but the speed and flow of the water guides us. For a moment I believe we are going to make it but there is too much water in the boat now. We hit a rock, spin sideways and are held there by the force of the current and the weight of our waterlogged inflatable.
We try to think of what to do next. The boat is stuck with us in it. We have taken on a lot of water. We are bang in the middle of a furious patch of whitewater. A huge manmade wall rises to our left. On the right are boulders. Tyze gets out first and scouts ahead. He comes back and shouts something to me but although he is only a meter away I can’t hear him. The water is unbearably loud. We manage to work together intuitively. Pulling the boat carefully. Passing it to each other. Emptying the water. Offloading and reloading the luggage. After about an hour we set off again.
By now the sun is descending fast. Insects and spiders start dropping out of the trees and landing on our faces. The water has become shallower than ever now and we bump on rocks, move a couple of meters bump and get stuck on others until it makes more sense for me to get out and guide the boat.
Finally we see a bridge and a suitable place to land. A sandy slope leading to a nice patch of grass.
We unload and realised everything had gotten damp, if not wet. Water had breached the double binbags. No dry clothes to change into. We only brought one pair of shoes each and had to wear them in he river, so no dry shoes either. The sandwiches (our dinner) had sucked up the river water like a sponge and were now just soggy mush. Tyze couldn’t even bear to look at them. We’d also somehow lost half a paddle.
We wander around. Over a fence is a campsite. There are a few houses dotted around but this is not even a village. The sun sets and we head back to our boat. We hang our clothes on the fence. A man comes with a torch. Asks what we are doing here, tells us we are on his campsite, asks if we have been using ‘les sanitaires’. I say we haven’t used the facilities, we arrived by kayak and thought it was a public path, didn’t realise it was a camping. He walked off saying “you can’t stay here”. Five minutes later he came back. He pointed to the kayak and asked if we’d really arrived on that. I explained our predicament and he became unwillingly sympathetic. He says we can camp for a discounted rate of €10.
In the early morning I removed an inflatable seat from the kayak and sat and warmed myself in the vague heat of the sunrise. After a while Tyze woke up and we packed up the tent and kayak.
We’d made a decision. We couldn’t go on kayaking from here. The river was too shallow. The campsite man had told us we’d come only come 5km from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Ahead was a stretch of around 10km with no towns along the way. We had no food. I asked at the camping de la truite shop if we could buy a baguette for breakfast. A sign said you had to pre-order your bread the day before but again the man was sympathetic and asked his colleague if they hadn’t ordered one too many baguettes that day.
The sky turned to a menacing shade of white. We didn’t have much of a plan except to keep moving. Our best bet was to hitchhike.
It was surprisingly easy. Two guys with soggy shoes, two backpacks, two sleeping bags, a tent, A deflated kayak and oars. Yet within five minutes we’d gotten our first lift. He was born and bred here in the basque country. His hard hat sat with Tyze in the backseat.
I complimented the beauty of the countryside and he replied with a terrible grin “…après deux ou trois jours les gens toujours dissent « nous reviendrons »” – not us I thought. I ask him if he ever goes to the fêtes in bayonne and he says not anymore, he’s grown up and it isn’t worth the hassle, if him and his friends want to make the party they do it at their own homes.
He dropped us at Ossès. We tried to catch another lift but half an hour passed with no luck.
We went to Restaurant Zubiondoa and ordered a pizza to share, a coffee each and used their sanitaires.
The owner slowly walked out onto the terrace, looked up at the sky, shook his head and said “Il va pleuvoir” “Vous croyez?” I replied, not wanting to believe him. “Je crois que je crois” was his ambiguous response.
After lunch our second lift came within two minutes. Tyze said that it was because we no longer had the hunger crazed look in our eyes. As we got in the car the rain started. We were lucky. Plus this guy even spoke English and told us about his restaurant Crampotte 30 in Biarritz. He was driving around to different farms picking up local produce. We told him our tale and he said we had to finish what we started. He said he tries to avoid Bayonne when it is Feria because it is full of idiots. He dropped us at Cambo and said from here onwards the river should be deep enough to continue.
It was raining and we needed to dry the boat in order to fix the punctures. He drove us to some hotels but one was fully booked and the other wasn’t open. So when he left we walked down to the river. It would be difficult to get onto here and the rain was getting harder so we waited on a train that would soon take us to Ustaritz, the next town along.
Before we even get into the town we see a park with a good launching point onto the river. We stash the kayak and tents under a bridge, which is out of the rain but there are human shits lurking everywhere. I realise we might be literally up shit creek without a paddle. So we have a good beer in a very Basque bar called Ttirritta Ostatua. It is still raining so we order another, drink slowly and smoke. We’d taken our soaked shoes off in order to avoid getting trenchfoot. It’s at this point that I start to break down. What am I doing with myself these days? I have almost no money left in the bank. I’m living in France. I have no job. No girlfriend. Tyze and I agree that when this is all over I need to get serious and sort my life out. Yet for the time being here we are deciding that currently the best course of action is to fix the punctures in an inflatable kayak then paddle it 15km to join a million other fools who’ve been given the key to the city and the right to five consecutive days of unbridled stupidity.
We go and patch up the kayak. Drying it off first, using puncture repair patches and then heavy-duty black electrical tape. We buy sandwiches, wine and more heavy-duty bingbags from the supermarket. After the wine it is still early and we don’t want to put the tent up in the light so we scout ahead. The river has another weir in it so we decide to look for a better launch point further along. We walk past a factory, under a fence and find a perfect spot to camp under some trees with an ideal launch spot ten feet away. We go back to the bridge grab our gear. We begin putting up the tent, hidden from view by the tree cover. Just as we finish three huge horses appear. I stroke one but the other two seem more interested in chewing on the tent. Eventually they move off and we debate moving to a new spot. Is it really a good idea to camp in a paddock with three gigantic horses?
We go back to the bar to drink enough in order to answer yes to the question above.
It rains throughout the night and Tyze can’t tell if he is hearing drips from the leaves or the patter of horse hooves.
We pack up the tent and hide it in a tree. The sky is grey and it is spitting. The river doesn’t look over-inviting. We go back to the Ttirritta bar and drink a few coffees and say once again the this is the last adventure.
It starts to brighten up. We go back to the paddock and blow up the kayak. There is one little puncture that we missed yesterday so we do a quick repair and set sail even though you are meant to give the glue four hours to dry.
The river is deep and calm. Herons flap away lazily as we approach and cormorants dive for fish unperturbed by our presence. This is how we’d imagined it would be.
Very soon we come to another weir and I get out the kayak to see what are options are: to the right is a gnarly looking whitewater route, to the left a slope of rock with a trickle of water that we could carry the boat over, or straight ahead is a kind of kayak slide. Needless to say we choose the logflume option, taking a selfie on our waterproof disposable camera as we shoot down. We paddle out successfully even though I am now down to half a paddle and am using the Red Indian rowing technique.
Everything is going well until I hear a gargling noise. One of the punctures is leaking. We pull up at a mud beach and patch it up with tape as best we can. We presume we are somewhere near Villefranque but aren’t sure so we continue happy to be covering some good distance.
Civilisation disappears again and we row and we row. The river starts getting very deep. We stop again on some mud to pump the boat up a bit. The punctures are letting out air but slowly. We continue. We are hungry and thirsty. There is nothing in sight but trees and fields.
Then I spot a building and on it a sign. I sign I recognise from a far. The Amstel logo. We are saved.
Getting off the river is not easy. We find a little mud beach, drag the kayak ashore, then carefully climb a slippery muddy slope holding onto the roots of a tree. We walk to the bar barefoot, our legs plastered in mud. Thankfully we are in farmer country and this is a restaurant bar joined onto a riding stables: L’héberge de la nive. We hose ourselves off at a well placed hose-pipe and order beers, Jambon de Bayonne, chips and salad, then brownies and coffee for desert.
I ask the waiter how far it is to Bayonne from here on the river and we get into a discussion about the trip. He seems to be well-informed about the depth of the river at its different stages – if only we had been two days ago! Then he warns me about Bayonne.
“Pendant les Fêtes, Bayonne est plein de bourriches. Tu sais ce que c’est une bourriche?”
I did not know what a bourriche was, though I could hazard a pretty good guess. I shrugged.
“Ça veut dire des cons … les connards quoi.” Ahhh right yes. As expected, what he was saying was during the festival Bayonne is full of idiots.
He warned us to take care of our belongings and wished us luck.
When Tyze climbed down the bank our kayak, with all our belongings in it, was gone.
“Chris! The kayak isn’t there!”
We hadn’t realised that this part of the river was tidal and while we were eating the tide had been coming in fast.
We climbed further down and there 20 meters upstream held by a low-hanging branch was our vessel. I didn’t waste a moment and went into hero mode diving in and swimming to rescue it. We set off hastily but against the rush of the inward tide the going was too tough. About 100 meters away were a couple of floating pontoons, one with a boat attached, one without. We got out at the pontoon and dragged the kayak up with us. We patched up the punctures again and then waited, sitting idly on a pontoon like two fully grown Huckleberry Finns. We watched fish jump and saw all the rubbish getting brought in with the tide. We waited, gauging the pace of the tide by the plastic bottles and twigs it carried with it. As it slowed almost to a stop we reloaded our craft and psyched ourselves up for the final 7km.
The river was swollen deep and wide so that we were as high as a path the followed on the left hand side. We could see joggers and cyclists and they could see us as we stopped every now and then to pump up the boat. Our theory was that if there is air going out then at least there isn’t water going in.
Soon Bayonne was insight. A series of majestic bridges. Mansions with moorings on the right. The first pub near a sports field with the sound of Rugby songs being sung.
As we approached the town the river got choppy. A headwind from the sea was causing little waves.
After a few more bridges we began to see them: the idiots. Dressed in white and red. We stayed in the middle of the river worried we might be met with on onslaught of bottles thrown at us or people trying to piss down from above. We waved at people crossing the bridges and found a jetty to pull up on. We’d made it. Now we just had to survive the madness. It was Thursday evening on ‘children’s day’ as we deflated the boat trying to avoid the shards of glass on the jetty, two drunken teenagers clambered over the barriers, emboldened by our arrival.
“J’peux canoër un peu?” one asked, as the other pissed into the river.
…We needed to wash.
We went and found the festival camping, paid, and put our tent up. After finally showering, we went out on the wine.
It was already dark by this point and unlike seemingly everyone else we were still sober. Everywhere you looked there was someone taking a leak. Women pissing behind bins and in doorways. Men pissing on walls, off walls, into the river, onto each other. At a stage with some kind of line-dancing going on one guy stood at the back dancing with his shoe. He looked over at us, so we moved on quickly. At the cathedral the god-squad were playing acoustic guitar encircled by a group of punk à chiens. Around the corner at La Place Pasteur we found the main event. An old fountain that had been reduced in height to form a sort of idiot platform. Men would run out from the surrounding crowd and clamber up the sides. When they reached the top all hell would break loose. Half-filled plastic bottles flying from every direction. If anyone succeeded in staying up there for more than a minute the tap nearby would become a scrabble of people refilling the bottles. Those on the platform provoked the crowd using all means necessary but the most popular method was nudity. We watched for about an hour and it was non-stop. The police passed but paid no attention. Finally we saw someone get completely naked. As the bottles smashed into his face and buttocks he span in a circle, arms held out like jesus on the cross, pissing.
We headed back to the campsite around one and saw a gang fight break out. One of the guys started fighting with a girl and pushed her into a door, then another girl kicked him from behind and he started pushing her, then he got too close to a guy from the girls’ gang who landed a roundhouse punch smack on his jaw that left his swaying on the spot.
At the campsite all was quiet. We slept until about 3am when they started getting back. They shouted nonsense for the next three hours and I don’t know who it was worse for, Tyze to whom everything they said was just gobbledygook or me who understood most of it yet still they were mostly just shouting things like their own names or towns where they came from.
“Viens avec nous!”
“Un jeu de boules?”
I started dreaming dreams that were set in the campsite and waking up intermittently and hearing this type of nonsense until I no longer knew what was the dream and what was the reality.
In the morning Tyze found a bookshop where he could use their computers. He wanted to message his girlfriend to let her know he was still alive.
We decided that today we should do something cultural so decided to go see les courses de vache. We arrived just as it was starting and all the stands were already full of people. However within the fenced off area there were still lots of people so we waited. Soon the announcer asked us to form two lines of people by putting our arms around the shoulder of the people either side of you. It soon became clear what we were part of. We had formed a human passageway leading away from a door behind which was a wild cow. A few bangers went off and the gate opened. It didn’t get far along the human corridor before it broke though the human wall. Neither me nor Tyze had any idea of what was going on or what we were supposed to do yet here we were in the middle of a bunch of maniacs and an angry little bull.
The vache charged around for a bit but soon was being turned in circles by men slapping it on the rump. We soon all formed a close circle around it as it calmed down enough to stand still, panting. The announcer bid us all to sit down so we did. I felt nervous crouched down, a bull less than 5 meters in front of me but it seemed placid. Then something caught its eye and it charged into the human walls of the bull-pit we’d formed.
Eventually the cow was led back through the gate it had come out from, but we weren’t done yet. We reformed the tunnel and out came another. Again it jumped into the people stood just outside the gate. The circle slowly formed again and men started leapfrogging the bull.
It was odd. Like one of those nightmares where you are being chased but somehow can no longer run.
After this one we went out of the arena and up onto a hill to watch out of harms way. This seemed like a wise choice because the next bull couldn’t be turned. He just kept running straight and trampling everyone that got in his way. It was nice to see the bull winning. It was strange though to realise there were two bars still serving drinks and people just standing around drinking at the bars occasionally getting plowed into by a wild cow.
Apparently people just weren’t too fussed. I saw one guy on his phone in the arena. The bull ran over and was about a meter behind him and he was oblivious. I think because of this the bull didn’t even notice him. Then there were the people (I presume Spaniards) who formed a Castell: a three-story tower of people stood on each others shoulders, which the bull inevitably did charge into.
Wine time. two bottles each decanted into plastic bottles. The crowds were massive and getting separated would be easy. When going through heavy swarms of people I held onto Tyze’s Cinta (the traditional red belt). People grabbed shouted and threw drink but I didn’t let go. The wine was going down fast so Tyze decided to buy another bottle and I bought some pens to draw and write on our T-shirts.
Tonight we were looking for the crazy so I wrote “VOUS PARLEZ ANGLAIS?” on the back of Tyze’s shirt. Let them come to us!
When we got to the fountain the wine and the idiot inside of me had already taken control. I was up on the podium without a thought, shorts pulled down, full moon. Bottles whizzed past my ears, then I caught one on the neck, then on the ass, then I was down, then people were talking to us and we were running up a steep grass bank, then others were trying to follow us but couldn’t make it and they rolled down and I laughed and pointed and started singing chanting the chorus of La Peña Baiona and some people brought more wine-skins and others came with a joint and then Tyze was gone and I was walking around and who knows what happens until I get back to the tent and Tyze is not there so I pass out.
Sometime in the early hours Tyze returned and realised he had lost the waterproof disposable camera. One reason I’m writing this blog is in the hope that someone found the camera, got the photos developed and has searched the internet for the people in them and found this article. If – however unlikely – this has happened my e-mail is on the contact page. That morning there was also a brand new white T-shirt in the tent with me. Jah only knows where it came from but I took it as a sign: a chance for a fresh start.
As we retraced our steps looking for the lost camera we decided to get out asap. It had been fun but enough is enough. It was time to put an end to the silliness, get back to reality, get real, sort my life out and try not to go on any more adventures. In the word of Tyze it had been ‘uncomfortable’.
Great story! coming back to France end September after three months in England, not recommended! Must catch up!
Of course Phil, let me know when you’re back in Bordeaux