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After a briefing on paddling strokes, we set off with our life jackets and helmets (only my daughter elected to wear hers) from Thezel in light, very English, drizzle.
As I was supposed to be an expert already, I tried a few “J strokes”, a rather fancy way of paddling that I recalled had never felt entirely natural. Nope, it still didn’t. Meanwhile the children, 12 and 14, were having fun zigzagging and lagging behind on the empty river, great willow trees bending down to touch the surface, as we slid by on the current. I decided to take a rest and just drift for a while. There was no one else on the river.
After 10 years of hearing about a 2,000-mile journey I made across Canada in a birchbark canoe, my family had agreed to come on another great voyage with me. My wife, kids and I were going to tackle the Dordogne. At about 500km, it is longer and wider than the Thames, is more scenic, has shallows and rapids, and a ban on motor boats. The Dordogne has to be the quintessential French river – the Loire is wilder, the Tarn has more gorges, the Seine is more sedate but none has the character, grace and interest of this mid-country river.
It rises on the slopes of the Puy de Sancy, a mountain in the Massif Central, then crosses France to join the Garonne, close to Bordeaux, before entering the Atlantic. You could canoe it from the source but a series of dams and long lakes make it harder and you’d need your own boat. Instead, we would tackle an 80km midsection, between Thezel and the celebrated tourist hotspot of Sarlat.
We had allowed eight days – four of paddling, with a day off for walking, biking and exploring after each. The tour company, Headwater, would carry our bags by van to each hotel while we paddled.
Our canoes were open, Canadian style and robust, I was glad to see, because almost at once we were upon the first weir. The unmistakable roar of white water betrayed its approach. I looked around for the kids. “Watch out!” I yelled. “This is it!”
There was a slight bump as we crossed an almost invisible undulation, a mere ripple in the glassy river. About five minutes later, already around the next bend, my son asked, “Where’s that weir then?”
Before I could answer we were into the first of many rapids. But, unlike the gut-wrenching, ice-cold, rapids of the frozen Canadian north, these were friendly, fun, rapids – white water to be sure but so shallow that if the boat tipped you’d graze your knees standing up rather than be swimming for your life.
“But we have to avoid the second weir at all costs,” I warned at lunch, with a mouthful of baguette, anxious to maintain a state of fear and awe. The kids were more keen on tombstoning off a low cliff. By now the intermittent rain had stopped and the sun was showing through the trees.
That afternoon, we padlocked our canoes to a tree bearing Headwater’s sign and tramped along the wooded riverbank to our first overnight stop, Carennac, an almost too-pretty village. It was home to a museum of aromas, sadly shut to us and our noses when we tried to visit, though we had fun imagining what smells a French museum would see fit to preserve. Our hotel, the Hostellerie Fénelon, offered a swimming pool and good food, served on a terrace looking back over the river.
I’d once caught a fish in the Dordogne as a child. I had vague memories of the heat, the shimmering green water, the incredible noise of cicadas. Mostly, though, I recalled my father’s disdain for other anglais. Then, the Dordogne region had more English tourists than any other French department. Now there seemed to be fewer – or so it appeared, out on the river.
After a day spent walking in the hills, we returned to our canoes and the prospect of la chute. It was a steep, narrow, concrete slide, something like a log flume at a theme park, that allowed passage from a higher section of the river to a lower one. The children went first, tipping out of sight with howls of glee.
From now on the weather was hot – perfect for river travel when there is shade on both banks. Where it isn’t wooded, the Dordogne has pockmarked limestone cliffs, brilliantly white in the sunshine, growing upwards from their perfect reflection in the water.
We stopped beneath the cliffs for lunch, on a little micro beach and large rock, like something out of Swallows and Amazons. Sometimes the river was empty, at other times a small flotilla of 10 canoes would go by. But the Dordogne has channels and midstream islands and flat wide sections that seem to absorb all these fellow boaters; there was never a feeling of it being overcrowded.
And no motor boats. Well, almost – on our 80km paddle we saw just one rubber boat and two punts with super-silent motors: locals running between rapids and breaking the rules. But for tourists, and all other purposes, it’s a canoe, a skiff, or nothing.
The days began to pass in a blur of ancient villages, sun-dappled water and long lunches. In Souillac, one of the larger towns where we stopped, we found another strange museum – this time one of automata. Some were 150 years old but all were working. My favourite was a boy alternately being spanked and dunked in a washtub by his nanny.
Back on the river, it was good to see my son go from beginner to standing up in his canoe to paddle, imitating the locals in their flat-bottomed skiffs, poling and paddling their way across the river. I expected a capsize but he was a fast learner and he stayed upright.
Early on, I’d been taking the calmest, widest sections just in case something nasty turned up. But now I was growing confident. We could take this river in our stride. I sheered off left and through the bubbling acceleration of rapids we slid round a bend, the water fast and piling up in front of trees poking through the surface.
Soon after, it slacked off into a shallow section about 2ft deep. Because of the extreme clarity it was easy to see the large fish hovering in the current. Off the main stream we found a crescent of sand – a little beach all to ourselves. My wife, who only came on the trip because there was no camping, was entranced. My daughter said she was now confident to paddle alone in one canoe. I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was; the river was working its magic on everyone.
Finally, the last day; the river was uncrowded, empty almost, as it was on our first. We fantasised about keeping going to the sea. Instead, we pulled out of the river just below Sarlat, as busy as a Parisian street. I didn’t really mind. My time on the river had wrought the enviable and desired change of all holidays. You go home a different person, more at ease with yourself and your world.
Paddle power: More river trips for families
Great Glen, Scotland Starting from Fort William, this three-night, privately guided adventure takes families in open canoes through the lochs and rivers of the Great Glen, with nights spent wild-camping. The final goal is the ruins of Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness. It costs £495 per person, based on a family of four, including canoe and camping gear. www.wildernessscotland.com
Green River, Utah Colorado and Utah have a huge range of rafting suitable for families, from day-trips to two-week voyages. This trip starts with a light aircraft flight from Moab to a desert plateau close to the Green River, followed by five days of paddling through spectacular canyons, stopping to look at ancient rock art and visit historic homesteads. It is suitable for children aged five and above, and costs from $1,495. www.westernriver.com
Selinda Trail, Botswana This is in effect a safari by canoe, a five-day trip along the Selinda Spillway, which runs east from the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. Guests travel in two-person Canadian canoes while staff and a cook are on hand to set up camp each night. For children of eight and older; from £1,775 per person. www.tribes.co.uk
Dalsland, Sweden Two hours’ drive north of Gothenburg, Dalsland is known as Sweden’s Lake District. Nature Travels offers a week’s self-guided trip, canoeing between the lakes and camping on the forested shores, from £664 for a family of four. www.naturetravels.co.uk
Robert Twigger was a guest of Headwater (www.headwater.com). An eight-night trip, with canoe hire and luggage transported between hotels, costs from £1,178
Robert Twigger’s book on canoeing across Canada is ‘Voyageur’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006). His latest book is ‘Red Nile: A Biography of the World’s Greatest River’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)