In the South Eastern corner of France I call home lie a great variety of landscapes ranging from the highest mountains in Europe to the green hilly woodlands of the Var and to the 400 miles of sandy mediterranean beaches. Smack in the middle of this coastal recreational strip, the Rhône river carves a vast and lazy delta of wetlands known as The Camargue.
More familiar to birders and bull fighters than to the more common touristus beachii, the Camargue once was a treasure among natural treasures, host to over 300 bird species and many, many other animals.
Twitches (bird watchers) divide the are into three zones extending beyond the strict watery boundaries of the Rhône : to the North are the Alpilles, a set of craggy stone ripples at the very foothills of the Alps and home to famous villages such as St-Remy de Provence (of Van Gogh fame) and exotic feather such as Bonelli’s eagle, eagle owl, the tricky ticky tichodrome, Egyptian vulture …
Further South lies the Crau, a once semi-desert stony expanse roamed by stone curlew, small and great bustard, many birds of prey, pintail, great spotted cuckoo … and military manoeuvering that more or less guaranteed protection from human excesses. Today, the Crau has been transformed, by utter bastards with more – Karmic – debt than Greek and Cypriot banks put together, into an industrial storage park of immense proportion and degradation, complete with golf course and lake (remember this is very arid place) and, to make things right, a ghastly wind turbine park along the motorway to show every passer-by how much ecology really means to them.
Hopefully, cheap officials and greedy industrial barons will rot in hell forever when their greedy eyes finally close for good.
Rant over and I don’t feel any better for it.
Then comes the Camargue proper, a kingdom of rice paddies, salt pans, black bulls herded by cow-boys on white horses. While the part closest to Arles (North East) hasn’t escaped farming, the middle is one huge low-land of gorse, reed and other salt-tolerant plants. There are the Sansouires, river-fed lagoons flooded in the winter, dry in the summer, home to a gazillion mosquitoes and to the Manades, the local version of US ranches that raise the region’s iconic bulls.
Note that these bulls are not harmed in local activities. Instead of the maligned corrida, bulls are used in two amusing ways and when blood is shed, it is more often human than animal :
(1) During an Abrivado, a group of bulls is escorted through a town or village center by horsemen in a V formation and the local youth attempt to ‘free’ the bulls by grabbing at their tails and horns. Havoc, screaming and dented cars inevitably follow but it’s all in great spirit and a great laugh.
(2) course camarguaise occur in an enclosed arena, on the other hand. Small ornaments are placed on and between the bull’s horns and it is the raseteur‘s job to catch them using a special hand grip by running in front of the bull as it charges and jumping out of the arena for safety. This can be quite spectacular, and occasionally dangerous. It is a very popular feast punctuated by applause and hoohah when the raseteur in white jump 10 feet in the air barely inches in front of the horns, often followed by the bull itself (see them jump in this video ;)). There’s money in it for them and local shop keepers increase the stakes in an auction announced by the speaker through a wonderfully low-tech and humorous public address system.
Both are great fun and definitely an occasion to time your visit for if you’re touring the area. Arles also holds traditional corridas but – having seen a few, I can tell you they are both bloody and bloody boring. Not worth it in my mind, even if animal rights aren’t your kick.
The environment also creates an ecosystem of egrets, herons, duck, hawks, cranes, spoonbills, avocet, warblers, harriers, eagles, tits, pratincoles, gallinures and other rarities that attracts birders from afar.
And a well-developed network of hides and huts allows easy viewing of feathered exotica for families and pros alike.
You will also be confronted with a great variety of musk rats, frogs, turtles, boar, fish, snakes … if you’re a little quiet and observant.
At the Southernmost end, you reach the salt flats with their exotic coloured pans, white table salt mountains.
Even without hopping into a plane, you feel like David Maisel faced with countless opportunities for great images. And like David Attenborough faced with shelduck, terns, divers (in winter), gulls, waders, kittiwakes, penguin … you name it.
So, next time you’re heading for the South of France, give the crowded beach a miss and come visit a refuge of nature before human greed completely wipes it off the map.
Be seeing you!
A word for the technically minded : all pictures made with a Nikon D800e and Leica-R lenses (mostly 35mm Summicron) on Leitax mounts. More on this system to come shortly.
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