There was a slightly chilly, light breeze blowing
and it was our first venture into the sea since our rather
haphazard paddle along the English coast to Dover. But we soon
settled into a steady rhythm, paddling about one kilometre
offshore across the long sweep of the bay and making what we
thought of as good time.
In the first of our hourly paddling breaks, we cut
through a large wave and Barbara was drenched by
“I hope salt water is good for the complexion,” she
said sarcastically as she wiped down her face.
At midday we paused for our inaugural lunch at sea:
a couple of apples, biscuits and some nuts. We ate reclining on
our life jackets in the watery sun, gently rocked by the
swells. It was still rather chilly, but held out the promise of
my “Summer Holiday”-style expectations of the Mediterranean leg
of the voyage.
There were no other craft to be seen and, as the
afternoon lengthened, there was no harbour in sight. However,
we had for some time noticed a long stretch of sandy beach and
houses to the north. We assumed this was Narbonne Plage, so we
swung Amandla round, estimating that we had covered
about forty kilometres. As we neared the beach, we caught a
wave that carried us right up onto the sand.
Our guess was correct; this was Narbonne Plage. The
beach was perfect, gently sloping up to a short stone wall
behind which was a road and a row of large holiday homes. All
the shutters were closed. As in Agde, the “real town” must be
beyond the beachfront, we thought.
Sheltered by the stone wall, Barbara set up the
kitchen while I scoured the area for rocks to hold down the guy
ropes and tent pegs in the beach sand. The wind had picked up
quite strongly and was very cold. Must be the Mistral, we
concluded, not having a clue what that meant.
We were soon to find out.
Barbara had bought bread and pâté in
Agde and we ate this as an hors
d’oeuvre before her delicious
Narbonne Plage curry (The recipe is in the book).
The sky had cleared, and was sprinkled with bright
stars. Once we had washed the dishes, the worsening wind chill
forced us into the tent and our sleeping bags. What seemed like
only a few hours later, but must have been in the early
morning, we were woken by a noisy flapping on the side of the
tent: in the howling wind the pegs holding the flysheet had
pulled out of the sand, the rocks I had found not being heavy
enough to hold them down.
I crawled out and managed somehow to grab hold of
the flapping flysheet and, with a combination of rocks and
tied-together guy ropes, stop it from flying away. By the time
the sun was rising the wind had picked up even
This was the Mistral, howling down the valleys of
the Rhône and across the Camargue, battering our tent in a way
I had thought impossible. I found and carried rocks. And more
Despite the slight shelter of the wall, and with
every guy rope weighed down with rocks, the wind still seemed
likely to rip the tent, rocks and all, off the
We had pitched tents in drizzle and even quite
heavy rain, sometimes with the wind blowing. But never in wind
like this. Finally, though constantly buffeted, the tent stayed
up in one position. We watched, appalled, as the sea retreated,
pushed back by this incredible force of nature. The beach grew
wider and wider still, with depressions of pooled water soon
dried up by the wind.
As we peered dejectedly out of the tent, we began
to feel like abandoned extras in a scene from some
post-apocalyptic film. There were no people, no animals, no
signs of life. Dried vegetation, like the favoured tumbleweed
in scenes of ghost towns in Western movies, scooted silently
across the deserted road and beach toward the retreating sea.
Even the now clear, azure sky seemed ominous as the wind
shrieked, with no let-up. No wonder all the houses were
shuttered. But where was everybody?
Most of that day was spent securing and re-securing
the tent or playing travel Scrabble inside to try to take our
minds off the wind. I think we opened a can of beans and
finished off the remaining curry for supper that night as we
huddled in the tent.
“Don’t worry,” I assured Barbara, “it’ll blow
But all that blew over was our shelter. Perhaps the
wind subsided slightly during the night, but early the next
morning we woke up tangled in the tent.
After extricating ourselves we checked that
Amandla, low against the wall and secured by rope and
rocks, was still intact. Then we weighted down the canvas tent,
flysheet and all, with our sleeping bags inside, intending to
pitch it again once the wind dropped. Only it
Meanwhile, we staggered around the holiday resort
of Narbonne Plage in the gale, finding no signs of life. It was
weird, quite frightening.
Finally, feeling miserable, we returned to the
beach to look for heavier rocks to hold down the guy ropes,
before again struggling to erect the tent. We probably didn’t
even eat that night, as the Mistral continued to howl around
our now rock-bound shelter.
The next morning we decided that we had to find a
living soul. So we staggered along the deserted streets, heads
down and hats secured, often having to hold on to one another
as we were hit by particularly strong gusts. We chose a
different route from the previous day and, as we reached the
corner of a street, there was evidence of human habitation at
last: a small restaurant, and the door not
Through the glass there seemed to be people. Well,
at least one person.
Arms linked, we stumbled across the road and opened
We were greeted by a look of utter amazement on the
face of the man we had seen, and a gasp from a woman —
presumably his wife — standing behind a counter. We must have
looked a sight in our bright orange anoraks, with the hoods
pulled up over our bush hats and tied down firmly to stop our
headgear from flying away.
We introduced ourselves and tried to describe, in
our unreliable French, how, having come from London in a kayak,
we had ended up in Narbonne Plage.
fou! (It’s crazy!)”
the husband said to his wife in a just-audible
Given the Mistral, it obviously was.