Wed 10th September. Saintes Marie de la Mer

The battery sago:

The van started this morning, so we’ll go with our plan of hoping it will get us home and buying a new battery there. If we’re really careful not to use any engine battery power when the engine’s not running (would you believe charging our phones could be what caused the flat battery?), and running the vehicle every day (we’re going to be setting off back home via a circuitous route in the next day or two anyway), then we should be ok. Fingers firmly crossed.

We cycled into town today (we do most days, actually). There were barriers erected across roads, the local gendarmerie were out, and people were lining the streets. Probably not to see us, as we cycled nonchalantly along the erstwhile closed road. We joined the throngs of sightseers, wondering what spectacle we were about to behold. Lo, half a dozen riders on Camargue white horses came galloping down the road (must be hard for the horses to gallop on the street?). And that was it. We thought perhaps there may be some bulls about to be set to run the streets, but not a bit of it. We still don’t know what it was about.

Not galloping down the streets, but far easier on their hooves, I would think.

Today, there was wind. Not masses of it, but more than forecast, and – just possibly – enough to get my windsurfing kit planing. In a frenzy of rigging activity, I was out on the water and ready to go. The wind wasn’t having any of it, though. Another wasted effort? Well, I suppose I did manage to get planing for about 30 secs. In total, not all in one go. At least there was enough wind to waterstart (but only just), so no long swims back with gear today!

Tue 9th September – the van strikes back

We’re STILL in Saintes Maries de la Mer, leading the simple life. And today, it looked like we might be stuck here for a while longer.

This morning, we needed to drive the 2km or so back to the entrance of the aire to empty the holding tank & the loo and take on fresh water. The van wouldn’t start. Ignition, foot on brake, turn key, wimpy cough from starter motor and… nothing. Bugger.

Had a chat with our Belgian neighbours who did have a set of jump leads with them, but for them to move their van round to face ours would have been a massive undertaking (they’ve been here for  4 weeks and have 2 weeks to go). I flagged down a couple of young German windsurfers we’d become well-acquainted with, just as they were leaving in their VW Touran. They were quite happy to oblige as a charging point so we connected the jump leads from their car to our van and – with their engine running… absolutely nothing. Our engine still refused to turn over. So we left it for ten minutes with their engine still running to (hopefully) put some charge into our battery.

During this time, the German guys asked if I could help them separate the two halves of each of their two masts which had become completely jammed together – presumably with sand. This is the bane of a windsurfer’s life, meaning that – instead of having two, 2,2m lengths of easily car-toppable and transportable sections of mast, there’s just one long (4.3m’ish) length sticking out at both ends of the car, picking up the odd pedestrian along the way (anyone remember Eric Sykes’ silent film: “The Plank”?). Unfortunately, although we did managed to get one of the masts apart, we managed to split the top section in the process; always a possible outcome of stuck masts. Bye, bye £170.

By now, there must be enough charge in our battery to start the van, right? Wrong. Not a peep. With our Belgian neighbours, the German guys and another Frenchman all firing useful suggestions – all of which were tried – we had to admit defeat. It doesn’t help that the engine’s battery is fitted underneath the driver’s seat – which has to be removed to gain access to the battery. And I mean ANY kind of access. You can’t even see the battery with the seat in place. You need a decent set of open-ended spanners to be able to remove the seat, in addition to a Torx driver to remove the seatbelt fixing point. Oddly enough, I completely failed to bring such tools with me.

The really worrying thing is that this set of symptoms was an exact copy of the problems that occurred at the dealers when I went to collect the van from them: they couldn’t get it started despite having it on charge from another vehicle’s running engine for an hour or so. They kept the van for a further 3 days (ok, it was over a weekend), eventually announcing they’d fixed it by  “removing a piece of silver foil from around one of the battery terminals”. Whilst it is unconventional to have silver foil on a battery terminal post, it’s a fairly routine means of ensuring a tight fit of the cables to the terminal posts. I told them then that the problem wasn’t fixed and would return. It took it almost 3 months, but it certainly returned.

In the end, I had to call on our European breakdown insurance (delivered by AA-Europe). They took all the details including – seemingly – my inside leg measurement, during a very long international mobile phone call. Fair play to them, their customer service is great. They called back within 15 mins to say that a breakdown truck would reach us by 2pm; two hours hence.

2 ½ hours later, I got a call from the breakdown team. My French is not great, and their English was non-existent. Fair enough. The gist of it, via a very uneasy conversation, was that they couldn’t find us. I tried giving them directions using the Tourist Info map we have of the town, and explaining that we were 2km down the beach from the aire. They couldn’t find the aire. They couldn’t find the road the aire was on. In fact, they were over 100 miles away at Saint Marie Plage by Perpignan. I suspect they were probably hacked-off too at being given a duff call out.

AA called me back about 5 mins after this to ask if the breakdown crew had arrived and that everything was now fixed. Ah yes, they’d called out the dépannage (breakdown service) in the wrong Département of France. Oops! Ten minutes later they called back to say that a different dépannage would be with us within 45 minutes. And it was. They arrived with a huge truck big enough to get our 7.3m long van onto the back of. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!

The very pleasant young man diagnosed a dead/weak battery within about 3 minutes of arriving; got out his “PowerBoost” battery pack, and got us started first time. Just to be certain, he checked the alternator was working fine (it was). Interesting that his battery pack got us going where the jump leads/borrowed running engine didn’t. Possibly the jump leads weren’t man enough for the task, but they would normally just melt if that were the case.

He advised replacement of the battery and gave us the location of another dépannage on the road towards Auiges-Mortes – about 12km away. It was now getting late in the afternoon, and we had to call in at the service point to do the water/loo stuff first.

We got there just before 5pm. It was closed. There was a bloke sitting on a tractor just outside the gates who turned-out to be the proprietor. He’d decided to have an early day and I should come back at 08:30 the next morning, when he’d look at it with furrowed brows, take a note of the physical size, capacity and the terminal post arrangement, and – possibly – order up a replacement that might or might not arrive within a few days at which point we’d discover it’s probably the wrong type anyway.

Back at the aire, we hatched-up a different plan: Having been given a good run for an hour or so, there was a good chance that a decent charge had been put back into the battery. So… in the morning (now Wed. morning), we would try to start it. If it starts, we’ll let it run for 15 mins for the poor thing to overcome the shock of having started the engine. We’d then leave it until we get home and either have a winge at the dealer’s (it’s still under warranty), or just give up and buy a new battery myself, where I can dismantle the driver’s seat, remove the battery, stick it in the car and drive down to the car parts place in Patchway, and get a replacement from there. It would also mean I’d have a useful warranty on the new battery, rather than one that would require me to return the battery to the South of France in case of a problem.

Let’s hope the plan works…

In the meantime, we watched a fabulous full moon rising at about 8:20pm. Beautiful.

Full moon rising.

Sat 6th Sept – Still in Saintes Maries de la Mer

Good news; the made-up replacement cable is working just fine. In fact, I took the opportunity today to rewire the solar panel we have on the roof: It’s always bugged me that it wasn’t installed properly in the first place. When I say “not installed properly”, I mean that the installers didn’t take account of our battery monitoring device and simply connected the solar panel straight to the battery. This means I wasn’t able to see what current/charge the solar panel was putting into the battery. All now working ok!

In another first; I actually got my windsurf board wet today. There was a guy out there kite-surfing and going well. In truth, he had a really unusual board with hydrofoil fins.  He looked pretty weird when he got going as his board was a good 2 feet above the water; planing on the hydrofoils just below the surface.

Foil kite

To be honest, I shouldn’t have bothered as it was only blowing Force 3-4, cross-onshore (so a safe direction). The biggest board and sail combination I’ve brought with me are 95 litres and 6.25sq metres respectively. Really, much more wind is needed to get this lot going with my lardy bulk on top of it. The inevitable happened – about 200m offshore I fell in. Without enough wind to waterstart, I had to swim the whole lot back in. Good exercise for 20 minutes, but I could think of better things to do! Definitely time to pack it all away again.

Very little wind forecast for the foreseeable future.

Fri 5th September A worrying day

This morning – a catastrophe that almost precipitated our immediate return home…

I needed to drive the 2km back down the Aire/beach road back to the entrance where the motorhome service points are in order to drain & refill the water tanks, empty & clean the loo cassette. After waiting for my turn, I did all the necessaries, though did start wondering why it seemed to be taking so long to fill the fresh water tank. After a short while, I became aware of water running from the underside of the van. Hot water, that is. Our water heater/combi boiler was dumping water from the system.

The boiler – clever thing that it is – has a frost-prevention device installed: If the temperature drops below 4 degrees, it dumps the water. It being well over 23 degrees, this shouldn’t have been happening. After a quick panic, I found the heater’s temp sensor (buried under the floor, tucked-away in a slightly inaccessible location, and pulled the switch back out. The place we bought the van had suggested that; just possibly, if you go over a big bump, that could cause the sensor to dump water. Well, the road back was very bumpy, so perhaps that was it?

As the water had been dumped, I thought I’d run some water through the taps just to flush any air out of the system Next problem – taps not working/pump not running. It was at this point, I noticed that the van’s internal electrical system was off. Switching it on at the control panel had zero effect. No electricity = no fridge (no way to ignite the gas burner for it); no water; no loo flush; no ability to charge the phones. Very serious.

Still at the service point and holding up the queue, I tried starting the engine. No problem. Switched on the internal electrics, and on it came. Phew. Carried on filling the water tank and switched engine off. Next thing, water is draining from the boiler again, and all the power is off.

Drastic measures: Fixed a clothes peg around the frost protection switch to hold it in position.  Started engine to give me internal power and stop the water draining. Filled the tank and drove back to where Joy was waiting, patiently reserving our place. Parked-up, switched off the engine, and watched the battery voltage monitor show an absurd 15.5V battery voltage (should never go above 14V), rapidly decay to 7V at which point the system shuts down, including the battery monitor! I should mention, this is the NOT the battery for the engine, but is an additional “leisure” battery to allow use of electrical equipment when the engine is not running. Like the water pump, lights, loo, etc.

I started digging around in the (almost inaccessible) cupboard where the leisure battery resides. There’s also a myriad of electronic gubbins in there for split battery charge control (main battery or mains hookup), and for additional circuit protection (fuses) when running from mains or battery. I started tugging at cables in case something was loose. I got the instruction book out for the split charge electronics box: The LED’s were indicating no battery output. So the battery’s died? That was our thinking.

Time for a cup of tea & some breakfast, contemplating how we might get it repaired: We’re a million miles from any garage, French isn’t one of our fluencies and it’s coming up weekend when everything closes. I was on the verge of calling our insurance company to see if they could offer any help, but decided to take another look.

It was then that I noticed the main –ve cable from the battery had a broken crimp at the battery terminal. This was most definitely the cause, but didn’t help our situation. I didn’t bring any electrical tools, cables or other bits with me as I would have needed to pull a trailer for all of it. If only I could find a few scraps of cable I could bind together, I could duck tape them to the end of the main cable & to the battery terminal.  This would have been a serious bodge and – if it were to come loose – would start arcing & sparking and possibly worse.

The battery negative cable with broken crimp
The battery and electronic controller compartment with makeshift negative cable

I do have a toolkit – for keeping the bikes in fettle. So I have cutters, screwdrivers, and even a ¼” drive socket set. I also had a spare stainless steel brake cable that I thought I might be able to do something with, when Joy suggested our steel-cored washing line. She then noticed an extension lead I’d knocked-up to go from UK plug to European socket. Never mind the ends, it was a piece of 13A cable. If I could use all three cores in parallel, that would serve 40A more or less, which ought to be enough capacity without danger of frying the cable. Better still, I had the right sized sockets in my socket set to get the battery terminals off.

So, 1 hour later, we have a new temporary cable made up, securely fastened at both ends and were able to get the power back on. And it’s safe.

You cannot believe how worried I was and what a relief it was to get it working again.

On an entirely different note, the wind almost blew enough today to get the board out – that seemingly useless piece of baggage that we’ve trundled all over Europe. One guy was out, but he’d a much larger sail, much larger board, and much smaller body than I; each of which is to his advantage. He also wasn’t going anywhere too fast and soon gave up. The wind forecast is still tantalizingly close to what I need. Let’s see what happens…

Thur 4th September – Saintes Maries de la Mer

It’s a funny thing: at first, I didn’t really like it here in Saintes Maries de la Mer. It can be seen to be a God-awful, smelly, mosquito-infested town at the end of the universe – all of which is pretty accurate. But there’s something about it that grows on you. Firstly, there’s the fact that it’s much warmer – nay hotter – here: we went from 16 degrees in Chamrousse to 30 degrees here. Very pleasant indeed. On more remote parts of the beach, clothes are merely optional.

Speaking of the beach: I used to think that Sotavento beach in Fuerteventura was big. At some 17km long (their tourist information claims 22km but they’re lying), it was the biggest, most wonderful beach I’ve ever seen. Still is. Fabulous white/golden sand the whole way. But it’s very windy, too – it’s a place I used to do a lot of windsurfing, and the Sotavento sand – like all the sand on Fuerteventura – is very fine. Anything more than a gentle breeze (Force 4 Beaufort) means the sand starts to blow. Frequently, it was blowing force 6, and the sand was streaming across the beach, reaching places where you didn’t know you had places. For soaking-up the sun, it was useless: two minutes after coating yourself in sun-goo and lying down on the towel you’d spent so long nailing into place, you were a sticky sandman. I used to spend endless hours in the evenings trying to dig sand out from my earholes. But we loved it there because it was so wild and so undeveloped.

The beach here stretches some 32km from Saintes Maries de la Mer on le Petit Rhone to Plage de Piémanson, world’s end, at the Eastern end, up against le Grand Rhone. Much of it is fairly inaccessible as there are no roads behind the beach, so it’s only busy close to where traffic can reach. Much of it also falls within a nature reserve, so you’re not supposed to leave the dyke (useable by walkers and cyclists) that runs inland of 14km of the beach to access the beach, except at certain allowed points. And then, it’s another 5km of cycling (on very flat paths/dykes, it has to be said) from the main dyke to the beach.

Like Fuerte, the sand here is very fine. Like Fuerte, the wind here can blow pretty hard. It did exactly that for the first two days we were here whilst staying in the campsite. Just like in Fuerte, we were digging sand out of places it didn’t ought to go, and the van has taken on a very gritty feel to it. Every surface is coated in sand and dust. It doesn’t matter how much housekeeping we do, just opening a window brings in more dust (and mozzies).

The famous Mistral wind blows all the way down the Rhone valley from the mountains, exiting land over the Camargue. It’s a cold, Northerly wind and is usually very strong, and very predictable in strength and frequency of occurrence.

There’s a particular branch of windsurfing that’s all about speed, and breaking world speed records. It demands vey specialized equipment, a lot of patience (for when the predictable winds fail to blow), and very, very specialized locations. In order for a speed to be ratified as a record, it must be measured over a (minimum) 500m course in the presence of official observers. The course must be wave-free. Waves slow down windsurf boards so locations without waves must be chosen for speed record attempts. Sotavento is used every year despite being coastal: The course is set within 2 metres of the beach so the offshore wind has no chance of creating waves in that space. Of course, the ocean-generated waves still come in towards the shore so it’s far from ideal, and the whole circus is more of a publicity/financial affair. Ideally, the course should be set at 120 degrees to the wind: that’s the angle that most craft can attain the maximum speeds. Sotavento beach is pretty close to that 120 degrees, purely by chance.

Back in the 1990’s, some famous windsurfer noticed the reliable winds here in the Camargue and decided it would be a good place to build a purpose-built speed course. Permission was duly obtained, and a 1km long ditch, 20 m wide, 120 degrees off the typical Mistral wind direction, was built on the beach just to the East of Saintes Maries de la Mer (the “Canal”). Every year, the windsurfing speed tour would come here and – most years – records were broken; the last ones here being in 2005.

Things come and go. The cost of upkeep of the canal at Sts Maries was high, the wind failed to blow for a few successive years, and other, better locations were found (in Namibia). The “canal vitesse du surf” has not been used for many years now, but it’s still here. Forlorn, slowly filling-in with sand and salt, it’s now the province of gulls, little egrets, herons, fish, dog walkers and mosquitoes. I really wouldn’t want to let any part of my body come into contact with the water remaining in there. But it’s a piece of windsurfing history, and I walked the length of it just for pleasure of being there. If you’re interested, you can still see it on Google Earth. It shows quite clearly as a dark, straight line, between the dyke and the sea, about 3km to the East of the town. Apparently, it does fill up with water when Autumnal storms coincide with spring tides.

The speed canal

The Camargue is all marsh. They (the French) like to call them “étangs”. Alistair Mclean once wrote a book (one of his very early novels) called “Caravan to Vaccarès”. Well, Vaccarès is the biggest étang in the Camargue. But actually it’s all marsh. In the summer, most of these étangs dry out, leaving a crusty layer of shimmering salt. And mud. Lots of slimy, smelly mud. And innumerable flamingos. But besides this, we see herons, little egrets, oystercatchers, curlews and more varieties of gulls than I knew existed.

I may have mentioned the beaches? Today, we cycled 14km along the dyke to the Phare de la Gochelle (Phare = Lighthouse). We then took another dyke S to the beach. There were a dozen or so cars or camper vans parked adjacent to the beach. As the sand near the top of the beach was very dry and had a salty crust on it (obviously no tides have been up here for many months), it made for easy cycling. Less than 1km along, and the whole beach was ours. One couple about 300m to one side of us and that was it. And it wasn’t windy, and the sand wasn’t blowing. It wasn’t too hot (26 degrees, apparently) and there wasn’t a cloud to sully the sky.

Busy beaches

You may have heard of the Camargue horses? I don’t know the history, but the Camargue is very tied-up with horses through its history. White horses, they are. Many of them roam freely over the marshy land. Many more of them are available to rent by the hour.

Yesterday, we were on a not-quite-so-remote-piece-of-beach-as-we-were-on-today. At around 6pm, some five or six horses were brought along the beach at a fair old gallop by their riders (all young girls), who decided to them take them into the sea right beside us. They were clearly used to the sea, and had a rare old time pawing at it, cantering through it, galloping along the beach beside it for the sake of one of the girls recording it on her iPad, and generally getting thoroughly wet. Great to watch such accomplished riders on such fearless horses.

Not galloping down the streets, but far easier on their hooves, I would think.
Sea horses?

I really think I like this place.

Sun/Wed – 31st Aug/3rd September

Err – what the sign says

We find ourselves in Saintes Maries de La Mer, in the hot, sunny Camargue. I don’t quite know what to say about it, really!

We’ve never been to the Camargue before; it’s on the South/Mediterranean coast of France; it has beaches; it’s supposed to be windy (there used to be a windsurfing speed channel at Saintes Maries de la Mer where the world windsurfing speed record was broken in 2005); and we wanted to head South, so it seemed to be a suitable choice. It has a couple of campsites and a couple of aires, and the holiday season is just about over, making the choice more reasonable.

The Camargue itself is the flat marshy delta where the Rhone meets the Med. It has Hispanic links (though I’m not sure of the origins of these) and is famous for Romany gypsies, and white horses that seem to roam freely over the area, as well as being used for equestrian recreation (as could be well assumed by the clear evidence of their passage just about everywhere).

In summary, the words that come to mind are dust; drains; dragonflies and flamingos. After 24 hours here, there is a not-so-fine layer of dust over everything inside the van. When we arrived, there was a gently breeze that petered-out in the evening. In the night, the van started rocking and I had to wind the awning in as the wind was really working itself into a frenzy. I wanted wind for windsurfing, but the wind we had was crazy. It was also blowing dead offshore. This is the famous Mistral wind that blows from the mountains down the Rhone valley, over the Camargue and out to sea. Because of limited space, I brought my middle-sized windsurfing board with me, plus just two sails: this should cover me from force 4 to force 6 ish. We had force 6 to 8. With this strength and direction, there was no way I was going to risk life, limb and equipment.

Despite all the lakes (étangs) around here, this is a very arid spot. Many of the étangs are presently nothing more than somewhat smelly saltings right now. So the area is dusty. Actually, very dusty. In fact, the dust is sand; it’s very fine sand and it takes very little to make if blow into spindrifts. The rug we placed outside our doorstep got buried overnight and – despite trying to keep the flyscreens over the windows – we cannot keep the dust out. It’s got everywhere. We’ve given up trying to keep it out – though today, the wind seems to be moderating [incidentally, the wind forecast for the next several days is… none at all. Bummer.]

The étangs are home to flocks of flamingos. There are thousands of them here. If I remember correctly from visits to Slimbridge bird sanctuary, I recall them being particularly smelly creatures. That recollection seems to be confirmed here. The smell is overpowering.

To be fair to the flamingos, I don’t think I can lay all the smelly blame on them. The drains around the campsite are something else, and the wind seems not to help keep the smell at bay. I did notice a complete absence of U-bends/bottle traps on the washbasins, so we’re living with different standards here. Similarly, I have completely failed to detect any sewage treatment works which makes me also not too keen to get in the sea just here.

There’s a dyke that runs behind the beach between Stes Maries and Beauduc, further to the East. We cycled about 5 km E along this dyke and onto the beach there. We were about the only people there. It was fantastic. The sea, however, is cold. Far too cold for anything other than swiftly cooling off.

Dragonflies are everywhere. They are huge, fabulous, flapping giants that accompany you everywhere. I can see a dozen or so outside the van right now – though they’re struggling with the wind, too.

We ate out on Mon night. It wasn’t easy as most of the restaurants were closed. Day off, or closed for the end of season? Most restaurants major heavily on fish, shellfish and “tareau” (beef, as in the Spanish “Toro”, or bull; bullfighting being a part of the way of life in the Camargue). We eventually found a restaurant that suited both of us. The service was surly at best, the prices – whilst lower than many other restaurants – was still slightly eye-watering, the steak was tough.

Today, we’re going to up-sticks from the campsite and camp up along the seashore. When we arrived, there were camper vans parked in the official aire outside the campsite, and along the track at the top of the beach. I’ve never seen so many mobile homes – they seemed to stretch into the distance. We’ve cycled alongside and seen there are still vacant spots: Let’s see if we can grab one. There’ll be no more Internet connection for a while, though! I’ll try to upload some photos next time I have a decent connection – possibly back in the UK 🙁