Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chaumont to Auxonne

This last section of canal before the Saône comprises of travelling up the remaining part of the hill, through the Bellesme Tunnel, then down the other side, a total of 128km and 70 locks – we’re not really to look forward to it but at least we will exchange stagnant canals for flowing river water, a sort of milestone that is keeping our spirits up.

Chaumont Port

Chaumont was one of France’s big defensive cities built on a hill overlooking the surrounding land. It is only around 5km from the halte but all up-hill to walk. We took a bus to have a look around and when there, was pleasantly surprised at the views it gave. The halte itself is not expensive at €7 per night and provides all the services needed. But all these services come at a price extra to the bill. Water, electricity, showers, washing and drying machines are all separately billed and our three night stay cost us €45.30. Still it was pleasant enough, and with LeClerc’s a twenty-minute walk away, we couldn’t complain. Wifi was a problem, I could connect but it kept dropping out every few seconds – no one knows why.

We left Chaumont on Monday 1st August 2011, and travelled the 10km to the first lock at Luzy to be met by our friendly VNF lads. Apparently another boat was some distance behind and they wanted us to wait for it to catch up. The VNF are very reluctant to allow single boats through the locks for the obvious reason of water shortages. I’d heard from a fellow boatie that the Bourgogne Canal had been closed a few weeks earlier due to low water levels on the canal - he had to change his route to along our canal. Anyway, the second boat was going to take an hour or so to catch us up so we entered the lock, tied up and took lunch. A lovely moment, the sun just peering over the lock wall onto us and a waterfall cascading over the top of the up-lock gates providing a cooling back-drop, very feng shui!

Lunch in Luzy Lock

We continued in convoy throughout the day and stopped at Rolamport for the night, 29km done with 15 locks. The following day we set off at 0900 hrs to make our way to the last up-hill halte at Langrés. Only 10km and 7 locks but it was another hot and sunny day. Langres is another hill-fort similar to Chaumont. Another bus ride took us to the walled city and the spectacular views of the surrounding land. From the ramparts a noticeboard pointed the way to the Bellesme Tunnel way off in the distance (at the foot of the hills, below the pylon). Langres, or Champigny-Langres as the halte is called, is the last halte on the up-side – only one more up-lock to go, whoopee!

The view from Langres ramparts – Bellesme Tunnel is at the foothills, centre.

At 1000 hours the following morning, we left Langres to tackle the last up-lock then follow the reach to the tunnel and start the long downward wind. However, the last lock turned out to be more memorable than we thought as we had a bit of trouble getting out of it. The lock cycled through to fill but failed to open the gates to let us out. We waited, and waited, and waited until it was obvious something was wrong. After all the days with the VNF lads with us, today, at an automatic lock, not a sole around! I rang the VNF mobile but no one answered. I went to the lock-keepers hut and used the intercom but no one answered. I pressed the fill button on the remote again but nothing happened. I tried the mechanical lift rods, just in case one was stuck, but nothing happened. I was running out of ideas to contact the VNF – and then I saw the alarm button on the remote. This is a situation for the alarm surely, so I pressed it. A loud clunk came from the two lock gates and the alarm light flashed on the indicator poles – at last something worked. I then went back to the intercom and someone answered. I told the woman of the problem which she seemed to understand and she told me to wait until for someone to arrive. Lo and behold, ten minutes later, a VNF lady that we met the previous day arrived. She tried various things but seemed dumbfound at being unable to open the gates. Then, out of the blue three vans arrived together in a screech of tyres on the dirt path. One of them, obviously the boss man from the noise he was making, came to us and, I think, began telling me off about something, certainly he wasn’t happy with me, waving his arms and talking loudly. I was now getting the impression that I should not have pressed the alarm button, as this clearly brought in the life brigade. After much, finger-pointing, moaning, cable-checking, walking to and fro, handle-turning etc., the ‘response team’ (I guess) got the gates to open. The boss man had calmed down by then, I think he realised that I had caught his drift and accepted his admonishment. We parted cheerfully, but I left the lock far quicker than I usually do!

Bellesme Tunnel was a few kilometres down the canal. It is 4.82km long, lit throughout and operates on a traffic-light system. We saw a péniche exit the tunnel and a boat enter as we rounded the bend towards it. Unfortunately the lights turned to red before we got near and we had to wait an hour until another péniche came out of the tunnel. We were then allowed to enter. I remember this tunnel as, about half-way through, Hil suddenly burst into song. I thought she’d hurt herself on something but apparently she was singing a love song to me. The Dutchman’s insanity had finally worked its miracle on Hil!

We were aiming to stop at one of two halte’s on the down-side before the myriad of locks, but found them both full. Rather than enter the sequence of six automatic locks, we tied up on a bank side somewhere in the middle of nowhere (well actually at PK 175 but no one would know).Another 26km and 17 locks done.

When we woke up on Thursday 4th, both Hil and I felt done in. Although this down stretch was shorter and had fewer locks, they were a metre or two deeper and after all the up-locks we’d gone through we decided to have a break for a day or two. We travelled the first series of locks to Cusey Halte and settled in to chill out. Only 7km but 7 locks today.

Cusey Halte

Cusey was a nice place, once again miles from any serious inhabitation but it did have its own chip shop. Yes, a real, live, on-site static caravan fitted out to serve a range of meals based on chicken kebab and chips. What I didn’t know was that on Friday nights this was THE place to be, as the place was heaving with locals – all good fun though.

On Saturday 6th August we left Cusey and trundled our way down the canal. After the past few days of good weather, the heavens opened after lunch so we moored up at a one-boat quay to sit it out. Saint Seinne/Vingeante was supposed to be a picnic halte but obviously the locals didn’t pursue their plans. Only the short concrete quay was there. The rain persisted so we stayed there overnight.

We wanted to finish with the canals, so the following day we put a spurt on to get to the Saône. We left at 1000 hours and 16 locks later at 1700, passed out of the canals onto the Saône at Hueilley sur Saône. We’d hardly seen a boat since Cusey so wondered what it would be like. We soon found out as we waited in the first Saône lock, a motor boat, speedboat and hire boat joined us to drop down into the river Saône proper. The short distance to Pontailler opened our eyes to the Sunday evening pandemonium on the river. Pontailler is the only marina in the vicinity so everyone heads towards it. It is also the tourist hot spot and attracts fast boats and water skiers - a bit of a shock from the desolate canals! After queuing to get into the marina, we rapidly lost water inside and skimmed the bottom. The second ‘skim’ was on something solid so we backed out the entrance channel and rafted against an empty boat. It wasn’t empty for long – the owner quickly arrived and gave us the big heave-ho! Back outside on the river the only other mooring place was the public quay which we found was not much deeper than our draft. This became clear when a speedboat passed us and we dropped onto something solid. Luckily, we managed to keep a metre or so away from the quay with a ‘fenders/fender board/fenders’ concoction that gave us a bit more depth. As evening was drawing in, the traffic on the river went quiet so we had an uneventful, but nevertheless worrying night. 31km travelled with 17 locks.
The public quay at Pontailler-sur-Saone

It was clear that we could stay alongside the quay so we left the following morning to find a berth further downriver. I had seen in the Fluviacarte Guide that there was a public quay at Auxonne but whether it was better than that at Pontailler, I couldn’t find out. As it happens, we rounded the bend into Auxonne to find a brand, spanking new marina just waiting for us. Blow the high winds and rain, this place is where we are to spend the next few days!

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