The return to French waters

After a prolonged week of kicking our heels in the Belgian city of Namur waiting to replace our wheels, last Saturday we were extremely relieved to finally return to the water in Benji the kayak. The time had come to resume our expedition!

We have now left behind the busy industrial canals of Belgium, finding ourselves instead on the beautiful and peaceful River Meuse. During the weeks leading up to this, our view was predominantly limited to the canal wall (or industrial site on the occasions we were able to peek above the bank). Life on the Meuse could not be more different; we are endlessly surrounded by stunning views of forested hills that rise steeply from the water, or rolling fields populated with a few happily grazing cows. The tranquil countryside is intermittently interrupted by picturesque towns and villages, a church steeple standing tall amidst the tumble of slate roofs and shuttered windows and the occasional market lining the river.

That said, the past week on the river hasn’t been without it’s challenges - if it had, this adventure would not be quite so memorable and entertaining! Heavy rain and burst weirs have led to the river flowing a lot quicker than normal for this time of year. Normally we would be overjoyed in this situation... However, this is one of our only sections upstream which means we are constantly fighting the current. Though tiring, we are still making progress and covering a good distance most days.

As with previous canals and rivers that we’ve paddled on so far, our days continue to be punctuated by our arrival at locks. Upon reaching a lock at the French-Belgian border, we were summoned into the office by the lock-keepers. We promptly established that in order to be allowed to paddle into locks (thereby avoiding the time- and energy-consuming ordeal of portaging) all we required was a permit and letter of authority from the “préfecture”. The former of these was straightforward to acquire: all we needed to do was pay the small fee. The latter involved a trip to the closest office of the Voies Navigables de France, the navigation authority responsible for managing France’s inland waterways, which happened to be in the next town we would arrive in.

An hour and a half later, Anna left the office having attained the necessary permission. We are now officially allowed to use any French waterway between Belgium and Germany, including locks and tunnels. Our days of having to drag Benji up nettle-covered banks are seemingly behind us, for now at least! This is definitely a relief as we are encountering an average of five locks each day. We can operate the majority of the locks using a remote we’ve been given, though the system could do with some work - over the course of four or five days we have got to know the lock maintenance team very well as they have to come out and manually operate the locks for us regularly!

We had presumed that locks would provide the biggest challenge on this section of the expedition due to their high frequency. In reality, the weather has proved to be the winner of that accolade as France has experienced record breaking lightning. We’ve experienced several severe storms this week, the first of which rolled in one evening while we were battened down in the relative safety of our tent. We knew bad weather was forecast, but we hadn’t anticipated thunder that would make the ground shake, the rain that lashed against the thin fabric of our tent, or lightning so bright the tent was fully illuminated as if it was broad daylight outside.

Despite surviving the night, we were both decidedly twitchy and hyper-cautious about the weather. This fear was not without good reason though, as lightning is incredibly dangerous when you’re on the water. Thus, the following day, we were out of Benji and onto the riverbank very promptly at the first rumble of thunder indicating the next storm was approaching. We had only just got our tents up as the onslaught of torrential rain began. We spent the afternoon in waiting for the bad weather to pass and by early evening the sky had cleared again, just in time for us to enjoy the brief period of sunshine while we cooked and ate dinner outside.

The next morning welcomed the return of the good weather. We managed another two days of successful paddling before having another unplanned break to let Kate recover after being struck down by a temperature. After a few days in bed, Kate is nearly back to her bubbly self and is eager to get back in Benji.

We’d also just like to say a huge thank you to Adrian and his partner for inviting us in for a sandwich, tea and cake as they saw us paddling past their lovely riverside house... It was exactly the energy and morale boost we needed after the stormy days!