Water Water Everywhere

Originally Published: December 2016
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Off the west coast of the Vendée province, a three-mile causeway links the Ile de Noirmoutier to the French mainland. And twice a day, as the tide comes in, it stops being a causeway and starts being what may be the world’s longest ford…

Every so often, ‘because it’s there’ is reason enough for anything. Climbing Everest, going to the Moon, sailing single-handedly around the world… all of them are entirely justifiable by that one very simple explanation: because we can. Because it’s there.

Man-made wonders of the natural world, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, are rather different. They represent less of a conquest, more of a curiosity. But once in a while, we puny humans manage to make a deal with mother earth and create something extraordinary. The cable car over Aiguille du Midi, possibly. Or maybe the Grasberg mine in Irian Jaya, where a vast industrial complex was created at 13,000 feet above sea level in an area once accessible only with a machete. Perhaps the Turkmen water transport scheme of the old Soviet Union, in which the 700-mile Karakum Canal diverted water from the Amu Darya river to irrigate a vast desert. And, especially if you’ve got a 4x4 and a sense of adventure, Le Gois.

Le What? Or, if you’ll excuse a little Francophone punning, Le Quoi?

Le Gois links the Ile de Noirmoutier, located a few miles off the French mainland, to the northern end of the Corniche Vendéene. It’s about thirty miles west of Nantes – a city whose urban sophistication comes as a complete surprise when you discover it – and is among the primary attractions of an island that has become the local equivalent if not of Blackpool then at least of something similarly touristy. Tell the chic urbanites of Nantes that you’re visiting Noirmoutier and they’ll shake their heads in horror. Tell them you’re heading off there to tackle Le Gois in your 4x4, on the other hand, and although they might still shake their heads, they’ll be doing it for another reason altogether.

Now, uniting with Mother Nature is always a risky business. Up on the Aiguille du Midi, the cable car isn’t so much a means of transport as a black hole for coach loads of tourists, with everything that entails. Grasberg’s owner, Freeport McMoran, has been accused of wreaking environmental havoc, and the Indonesian government has been linked to a reign of human rights terror directed at anyone opposing the desecration of what is a sacred site to local people. Worst of all, the diversion of the Amu Darya has shrunk the Aral Sea to a quarter of its original size, leading to pollution on a massive scale and turning the island of Vozrozhdeniye into part of mainland Kazakhstan. And the island of Vozrozhdeniye just happens to be where the USSR used to test its biological weapons.

The moral of the story? If you go into business with Mother Nature, you’d better remember that she’s the senior partner – because, ultimately, she always prevails.

And it’s the same with Le Gois. Until 1971, when they built the graceful bridge that spans the inlet of Le Goulet to take traffic across to the island, Le Gois was the

only way of reaching Noirmoutier from the mainland. A three-mile tidal causeway across the flat sand, it is still open now, still a public road used daily by throngs of day-trippers, holidaying families and wizened local oyster harvesters. As the tide comes in, however, they flee for higher ground while the roadway disappears beneath the waves – leaving behind one of life’s truly great 4x4 experiences. Because every day, for a few minutes after the first fingers of water lap across the concrete road, Le Gois becomes what must surely be the world’s longest ford.

Of course, there’s a roadway beneath the water. But try telling yourself that when there’s six inches of rising tide tugging at your wheels – especially when each side of the thin ribbon of concrete is flanked by treacherous sand flats interspersed with rocks. Make no mistake, this is an off-road experience and a half: one that throws the difference between a car and a 4x4 into the sharpest possible focus. It’s an experience you owe it to yourself to see, to do, for no other reason than the simplest and best there is… because it’s there.

If you want to throw the difference between a car and a 4x4 into perfect focus, of course, there aren’t many better places to look than behind the chromed front grille of a Volkswagen Touareg. So that’ll be our chariot for this adventure, then. In fact, we’re going to use one of the 4.2-litre V8 models that will be a volume-seller in America but represents the ‘Rude Not To’ option in Britain.

For a long trip, particularly one that’s going to culminate in a spectacular water crossing, you could argue that the V8 is the least appropriate Touareg we could have chosen, but what the hell? We could contrive some arrant lie about wanting to demonstrate that modern V8s are no longer afraid of water the way they once were, but we’d only be fooling ourselves. This is the ‘Rude Not To’ derivative, remember. Choosing a V8 instead of a diesel, even the glorious V10 diesel at the top of the Touareg range, is completely in keeping with our mission to drive across Le Gois in the first place – just one of those things you have to do. Because it’s there.

So anyway, it’s early morning and we’re motoring out of Le Havre after our crossing on P&O’s Pride of Portsmouth. A slightly wet sun is shining on the factories that sprawl eastwards along the mouth of the Seine. To the thousands of British tourists who follow the Quai Colbert away from the docks – trying to work out what ‘hors garabit’ means and swerving from lane to lane to avoid the frighteningly low ceilings of the frequent underpasses – the city is nothing but bluff-fronted modern buildings and austere industry. As it happens, a detour into the town centre reveals a thriving, urbane city that’s happy to share its space with the relics of a mediaeval past, just like Calais and Boulogne; and very much unlike Folkestone, Dover and Portsmouth.

But we’re not interested in comparing port towns today. Our Touareg is eagerly jousting with the rush-hour traffic as we head towards the Pont de Normandie. This is another of those magnificent feats of civil engineering the French take for granted, which will carry us across the endless mud flats of the Seine estuary, past Honfleur and on towards Le Mans, Saumur, Nantes and, ultimately, Noirmoutier.

Honfleur has a special place in my heart, actually, as it was the town in which fate taught me it is always best to do what you’re told. A mischievous little runt of five or six, I was on holiday there with my parents. My dad and I were hanging around by the harbour wall while mum was in a shop buying patisseries and fighting off advances from a dodgy local inviting her out for a casse-croute (you think I’m joking).

A dredger was operating in the harbour; from it led a pipe of about ten or twelve feet in diameter, which for some reason ran right round the outside of the harbour and along the pavement where dad and I were standing. Very large signs about every five yards along it said ‘Defense de Toucher’ in big, angry letters. Dad didn’t speak much French, but he knew a ‘Do not touch’ sign when he saw one – so, needless to say, I resolved to find out what would happen if I did exactly the opposite.

You’ll have to believe me when I tell you I only touched it very gently. But at the precise moment that I did so – I’m talking about the absolute split second at which my six-year-old finger made contact with the pipe – the dredger decided to suck up an unexploded World War II bomb.

It didn’t stay unexploded for long, I can tell you. The whole town shook and the pipe practically lifted from the ground. Dad and I legged it and found mum emerging wide-eyed from the patisser’s shop, wondering what in God’s name had just happened. After a rapid debrief on my cameo role in the Great Honfleur Dredger Debacle of 1973, we scarpered back to dad’s old Simca 1501, which was now parked about six inches to the left of where we’d put it. Ashen-faced, we made a sharp exit before the Gendarmes turned up and an international incident kicked off.

So we’ve decided not to stop in Honfleur on this occasion, just in case I’m recognised. The Touareg’s a pretty tough motor, but I wouldn’t fancy even the V8’s chances in the middle of a rioting mob.

Instead, we follow the road south towards Lisieux. A few months earlier, we pursued a similar route from Le Havre towards Le Mans for the overpriced rip-off that is the 24 Heures. Bent coppers out for pay-offs, useless stand tickets, racing so dull it makes Formula One look interesting… give me a hillrally any day. Anyway, by a strange coincidence we were in a Touareg then, too. That one was a V10 and people flocked around it, even among all the Porsches and TVRs and Ferraris that litter the town during race week.

This time we’re in no hurry, so we shun the main roads, meandering into town and stopping for a coffee in a tabac just off an étoile near the centre-ville. On the way back to the vehicle, having taken a detour to pick up breakfast in a tabac, we cross the road and find ourselves face-to-face with three kittens in a basket in a pet shop window. Without meaning to sound like a soft old sod, if we weren’t in a foreign country, they’d be coming home with us.

Probably just as well we’re in a foreign country, then. You can just imagine it: two Brits with a basket of kittens travelling around France in a big posh car which they intend to drive into the sea. It’s like something out of a Fellini film.

Just south of Vimoutiers, one of those modest little white road signs they have in France points towards Camembert. A village, or a hitherto undiscovered source of cheese? We decide to follow our nose (hell, but I’m funny) and, after a certain amount of wondering where on earth we are going, end up in a tiny little village with about one house and two visitor centres. Being consummate tourists, and still trying to rid ourselves of the yearning for those cats, we enter both and turn out to be to be the only visitors.

So now I should be a world authority on Camembert. Well, there was a monk involved: I remember that much.

We stayed that night in Saumur, a gorgeous town on the south bank of the Loire where we got talking in a bar with an English bloke who said he’d take us out the following day in his Westfield. It might have been a Caterham, actually… by then, we were doing rather too well on Pauwel Kwak, a Belgian beer that comes in a glass with a wooden frame and tastes so normal you forget it’s about fifteen percent proof.

I woke up the following morning, unblocked the sink and opened the shutters in our hotel room to see a lorry practically jammed against the front of the Touareg, which was parked on the end of a row with its nose sticking out. Few things clear your head quicker, let me tell you, than the sight of the shiny 4x4 you’ve borrowed enjoying a close encounter with a French truck. By the time I arrived down there, the driver has sorted himself out, but rarely has the prospect of reversing two feet seemed so appealing. After all, we wouldn’t want our craft’s seagoing capabilities to be compromised before its big day.

Having paused en route to visit what may be the world’s only mushroom museum (it’s in a complex of caves dug into the cliffs between Saumur and Gennes on the D751), we decide to set up base camp for our assault on Le Gois in Nantes. This is a city which starts off looking drearily industrial but, by the time you get to its old mediaeval centre, is the very picture of café society.

It’s because we stop here that we learn Noirmoutier is not considered cool among the urban sophisticates of Loire-Atlantique.

It’s also why we can recommend Nantes without any reservation whatsoever as a place to stay. We booked ourselves in at l’Hotel, an art deco place on Rue Henri IV with the names of various local celebs in its visitors’ book. A noisy funfair was going on opposite… and another recommendation we can make is that when you’re full of mussels and beer, being whirled backwards and forwards while upside down on the end of a sodding great axle is definitely not a good idea. Another hotel, another sink to unblock… it was like being on a theme holiday.

Retreating to the comparative safety of the Touareg, we set off the next morning and follow the signs to Noirmoutier. For a town of its size, the place doesn’t half get its name written in big letters. Minutes later, we are going round and round a roundabout, wondering where the signs have gone and being eyed suspiciously by a gendarme in a Peugeot.

Not to worry, at least it’s good to know that Britain’s not the only place with comedy road signs. And when we finally find where we are meant to be going, our route takes

us past a museum proudly boasting an exhibition of piano-throwing machines. Believe me when I tell you I was heartbroken to find it shut; apparently, machines de spectacle were quite the rage in the early twenties, and anything designed to chuck a piano across a town square in front of a crowd of onlookers will always get my vote.

On the subject of machines de spectacle, it’s very nearly showtime for the Touareg. We motor south-west through Bouaye and Bourgneuf-en-Retz before turning off and wending our way parallel to the road on some of the many green lanes that criss-cross the Ile de Bouin. You wouldn’t take a vehicle like the Touareg into anything with deep mud or ruts, because the talents of its independent suspension and road-going tyres lie elsewhere, but as a vehicle for higher-speed off-roading it’s supremely competent, eating up the rough, stony, dusty tracks with ease.

Back on the road, we join the line of Sunday traffic through Beauvoir-sur-Mer, where a multi-lingual info board tells you the tide times and warns you that le passage du Gois is only practicable for half an hour after low tide. Of course, there’s a huge margin of error built into that, but it is better to be safe than sorry. Our first view of the causeway as we cross towards the Ile de Noirmoutier is a thin ribbon of concrete with sand flats stretching as far as the eye can see on both sides. Cars are parked everywhere, kids play all around and the people working oyster nets in the Baie de Bourgneuf are but tiny dots on the horizon; this does not look like any ford I have driven through before.

So we carry on across and give the Touareg the run of the island itself, almost immediately kicking up a trail of dust on a track running parallel to the dual carriageway from the bridge to Noirmoutier itself. At the other end of the island, between l’Épine and l’Herbaudière, a sensational network of stone and gravel tracks winds hither and thither between the oyster and mussel beds. Unfortunately, however, almost all of them are interdit, a reminder that France has its land fascists, too.

Noirmoutier itself (Noirmoutier en l’Ile, to give it its full title) is a strange mixture

of suburban homes, seafood shacks and a central square that could be from just about any other medium-sized French town. On one level, it’s really rather normal, but at the same time something about it is just a little strange. Perhaps it’s the fact that although it’s only located about 250 miles south of London, the houses are predominantly white stucco, the land is scrubby and you keep seeing palm trees. It’s as if someone has picked up the archetypal Mediterranean village with a crane and transplanted it here to the edge of the Atlantic.

Beyond the town, where a grumpy local incurs our wrath by hooting at the Touareg when we don’t pull away from a red light fast enough for his liking, the road passes through the Bois de la Chaise, a typical coastal forest peppered with wealthy looking houses. To the left and right, stony, sandy tracks lead off through the trees, all of them public roads. Ahead, the tarmac runs out at Plage des Dames, from where a summertime ferry brings holiday trade from the splendidly named mainland town of Pornic.

But now our thoughts are elsewhere. Travelling back down the dual carriageway, past the disappointingly closed aquarium, we pass through la Guérinière and Barbâtre before turning left and heading back towards Le Gois. Surely by now the tide must be getting closer?

Once again, various warning signs herald our approach to the slip road that leads down to the sand. But where’s the water? It’s now some hours after low tide, but still there’s nothing to see except that vast expanse of sand. Yet people are sitting all over the sea wall and coast defences, reading, eating, talking… and keeping one eye on Le Gois. Do they know something we don’t?

Finally, a few cars start heading off the sand and ambling past us, back on to the island with full loads of kids and oysters. Still there are people far out in the bay, though, doing their thing and apparently unconcerned that this whole area is overdue for a delivery of several trillion tons of salt water. Well, let’s see what we can see from the heart of it; we plop the Touareg into drive, ease it from its parking space and glide silently on to the ramp leading down to Le Gois. As we do so, I’m aware that the people on the sea wall are watching us.

Out in the middle, it’s much as it was. We park on the sand, facing south, and wait. There are still a lot of cars around. What’s going on? We talk for a while. We do a crossword.

I start reading a French 4x4 magazine I picked up in the first newsagent I found, as is my custom every time I’m in the country. And then I look up.

Ye Gods, where has all that sand gone? Perplexed, I look in the Touareg’s mirror and there is what looks like a beach behind us. No longer sand forever, though. And beyond our bonnet… well, there’s Le Gois, and after it there’s water: a vast expanse of water.

And its seething currents are gushing this way and that as the tide races towards us. Game on.

As if by magic, the distant figures from the oyster beds are getting into their cars, climbing the shallow step back up on to the roadway and heading for dry land. A seized starter motor, a duff plug or a damp dizzy cap now would have catastrophic implications.

The last cars are leaving, plumes of water kicking up from their tyres as they splash through the puddles that are forming on the surface of Le Gois. Before our very eyes, those same puddles are growing, spreading, joining together as more and more of the tarmac disappears. It’s going to be soon, minutes, maybe only seconds… how long until we run out of bottle?

Then suddenly, a madman in a motorhome is heading out from the mainland, followed by a couple on a motorbike. They can’t be serious. With the Touareg’s four-wheel drive at our disposal, we feel we ought to wait in case they need our assistance, but it’s on the verge of getting dodgy. Before long, the tide coming in from behind us will meet the ever-gathering swell that’s covering more and more of the road. Besides, I’m starting to wonder, even when it’s only a few inches deep, how easy it will be to see where the road actually is?

Before we know it, the motorhome is running for cover, its driver having decided that discretion is clearly the better part of valour. The bike’s on its way, too, leaving just us. Well, us and a wiry old chap wading cheerily along the road with a basket of oysters in his hand.

Time to move. We’re totally surrounded by water now, still not very deep but that isn’t what concerns me. It’s the current, charging across the surface of the road and tugging at my feet as I rush around with my camera. I’m aware of those people on the sea wall, and now I know what they were waiting for. It’s showtime, all right… and we’re the show.

The V8 Touareg doesn’t have adjustable air suspension as standard (that’s the preserve of the V10), but it’ll still wade in a good foot and a half of water. We’re not quite there yet, but that’s a foot and a half of standing water and this stuff is going like a train. Splashing my way back to the vehicle, water halfway up my calves, I jump in the cab in the nick of time. The old guy with the oyster basket looks back over his shoulder at us, as if to check we’re not on some sort of suicide mission, and we can feel the massive weight of pressure trying to force us sideways. And that’s just from the fast-moving water against our wheels. If it comes up to our sills and doors, we’ll be in serious trouble.

So here’s where the crowd on the sea wall get what they came for. Down goes the throttle, up go the revs and the V8’s power pins us back for a moment as the Touareg starts to surge through the water. Massive roosters erupt from either side, the windscreen wipers thrashing back and forth in an effort to maintain our view of Le Gois as it disappears beneath the waves until some time in the small hours.

You can’t compare this experience to driving a ford, even a long one. It just goes on and on, our tyres slicing through the water as it slices across the land. And finally those figures on the shore are all around us, fingers of steam from our exhaust wending between them for a few moments as we ease our way through, triumphant trails of water marking the road in our Touareg’s illustrious wake.

Afterwards, all that’s left is an afternoon’s very hard work with a jet hose, though after that a final dinner of cuisses de grenouille at Chez Maman, our adopted kitchen in the centre of Nantes, sets us fair for our journey back to Blighty. We’re both the kind of people who respond to holidays in France by wanting to live there, and the city that’s been our temporary home has done nothing to put us off.

Noirmoutier itself isn’t the sort of place that would inspire you to jack it all in for a new life abroad, on the other hand, but in Le Gois it has a prime example of the sort of big-idea civil engineering for which France is famous. It’s unlikely that anyone will build anything like it ever again, but for locals and tourists alike it’s the perfect addition to a holiday island whose fame would otherwise barely extend beyond its own boundaries. Whatever 4x4 you drive, a visit to Le Gois is a must when you’re in this part of France.

There are many good reasons for exploring the world in your vehicle, but sometimes a sensible explanation isn’t necessary. Like the Touareg’s V8 engine, occasionally you should just be thankful that good sense doesn’t always prevail.

Life is full of great adventures, great opportunities to make the most of your 4x4. And you should take them all. Because you can… because it’s there.

 

Words and pictures Alan Kidd

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