Trip report: Camargue National Park, France

August 16, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

If you are not familiar with the Camargue National Park in France let me start with the basics. It is a protected natural park which is situated just to the south of the town of Arles, and stretches all the way to the Mediterranean sea. Shaped like a triangle it has two sections, which are split by the Rhône River Delta, the easter sector called Le Grand Rhône and the western sector called Le Petit Rhône. It is 360 square miles in area, and is Europe's largest river delta. It's note for it's brine lakes which are cut off from the sea, by sand bars and encircled by very tall reeds. The largest of these brine lakes is "L'Etang de Vaccarés", which in itself is around 36 square miles. The result is that this national park is a haven for wildlife, notably bird life. 

Google "Camargue" and you'll be presented with images of the Camargue wild horses. There are many iconic images of these horses online, galloping through the lakes or the sea. This gives you the impression that large numbers of them frequent the park and can be easily viewed. But like all wildlife in reserves, the reality to the images seen on line is very different. These wild horses are often on private landed and managed by Camargue Guardians (Cowboys), so access to photograph them is limited. Many of the images you see on line are staged, through tours or via private photographic tours where the Guardians round the horses up and encourage them to put on a show for the tourists. I don't have an issue with this. However it does break the perception that these horses are truly wild. Yes they are a wild breed, but the way they are managed in the park to me means they are very far from being truly wild. Thus to try and photograph these horses independently, via self drive through the park isn't as easy as you would think. First you have to drive through the road network keeping your eyes peeled on the land to try and spot them. With the long marsh reeds often measuring 2 meters high, this can be an almost impossible task! On one road there was an outlook point next to a road side parking and as I walked to the top to look at the view on the land, sure enough there was one horses well and truly hidden in the reeds. You could see it's back, but head, tail and legs were well hidden. Then when you do find the horses don't expect them to be galloping in groups of 10 or 15 like you see in these iconic images. You'll be lucky if you find a pair together. During my time there I spotted a couple of pairs in different areas, and where I got the best photographic opportunities was when I found 3 horses grazing together. These horses spend a lot of time grazing, or lying down due to the intense heat of the region. With temperatures getting up to 35C during the day, as with all wildlife photography the best time to view is the early hours of the day just before sunrise. 

One of the Camargue horses lying down. After much searching I found some horses that were accessible to take some photographs, but it wasn't easy.

Camargue Wild HorseCamargue Wild Horse

Two of the Camargue horses accompanied by egrets, taken just after sunrise in wonderful morning light.

So should you visit the Camargue with your heart set on reproducing these iconic images of wild horses galloping through the sea, my advice is to find a reputable photo tour guide, there are one or two operating in the area, and arrange a guided visit to take these images. 

As well as the horses there are semi-wild Camargue Cattle or Bulls, known as Raço di Bioù. The bulls are black in colour with distinctive upward sweeping horns. As is often the cases in the South of France the culture of Bull Fighting still exists, influenced with the southern boarder of Spain, together with Bull running ("Corridas" or "Course"). Neither of these practices I agree with irrespective of the cultural or traditionally history. 

Camargue Wild BullsCamargue Wild Bulls

Camargue bulls, Raço di Bioù, taking some shade at sunrise.

​Without doubt the greatest diversity of species in the park is birds. I've said many time on my blogs and with my posts on my Facebook page, I am not a bird photographer. Bird photographers are highly specialist and I have the utmost respect for them, because it is a very challenging discipline. With so much birding available though, I had to capture some images. Birding photography I find the most challenging of all wildlife photography so I think it is always a great opportunity to push your skills to the limit. 

The first thing that struck me in the Camargue was to view birds that I'd seen in Africa, notably Flamingos and Egrets. Only two months ago I was photographing Egrets on Elephants in Kenya. To now see many of them in the South of France following horses and bulls I found incredible. The park is home to one of the largest European populations of greater flamingo. There are an abundance of them throughout the park and even on the outskirts when you dive into the park in the smaller lakes. 

Greater FlamingoGreater Flamingo

A greater flamingo; they are easily the most abundant bird species in the Camargue and easily visible when you drive around the park.

The other distinctive bird that is visible in most of the small lakes around the park is the Heron. At the Etang de Vaccarés there is a very large population on view and that can be easily photographed from one of the small parking areas. They are around 50-100 meters from view and so a long lens (around 600mm) is required to photograph them. Unfortunately many of the smaller lakes are fenced off with no viewing decks. This would be my one criticism of the park. Whilst I understand the need to protect the environment, with provision to park up and view the next logical step would be to put a simple pontoon and viewing platform that allows a closer view towards the lakes. There certainly is enough space to do that without negatively impacting the wildlife or the fauna. 

HeronHeron

A Heron that was perched, I waited and watched and saw eventually he'd take off. Sometimes it all comes together and you get the shot! 

Another heron shot, precariously perched in a tree, there were and abundance of other birds around him.

There were many many smaller birds, probably too many to photograph at distance, even with my 600mm equivalent focal length. I probably needed a 500mm f4 lens with a 1.4 or 2X teleconverter on to do them any justice! However I did manage to watch a couple of smaller birds from a hidden position and got some great shots. One which stood out for me was what I think is a green sandpiper, but would stand corrected.

Green SandpiperGreen Sandpiper

I'm still very much learning about birds, but I'm sure this is part of the Sandpiper family and at a guess I'd go for a green sandpiper, but would be happy to stand corrected in the comments!

When shooting birds in and around lakes one thing I often do is look at the shoreline. As well as an abundance of fish, notably carp coming to the surface to feed, by looking at the shoreline you potentially can spot other water dwelling animals. I spotted something which at first I thought may have been a beaver, but on closer inspection wasn't. What I spotted was a Coypu.

CoypuCoypu

Looking close to the shoreline I spotted a Coypu, but he didn't stick around, after posing on this small rock, he headed off back to the reeds out of view. 

Whenever you stop, or walk around in the Camargue you are going to be presented by an abundance of insects. In fact the region, not just the Camargue, but the Mediterranean coast in France has a huge problem since some years with mosquitos. There has been a proliferation of tiger mosquitos and when these things bite, you won't feel it at the time but you certainly will feel it within 24 hours. Just to put things in perspective, in June I went to Kenya where mosquitos and tsetse flies are prevalent. I got bitten once by a mosquito in 7 days. I used mosquito and insect repellant every day on my arms, legs and neck. After 7 days in the South of France using the same repellant daily, I got bitten 21 times! So if you plan to go and visit the Camargue, take precautions, the Camargue has some of the most ferocious mosquitos around, and unfortunately the French authorities are doing nothing to combat the problem, in the same way that national parks in South Africa do - i.e. regularly spray! Despite the heat, I dressed as if on Safari, with long thin trousers and a long mosquito repellant shirt, rolled up sleeves and repellant on the arms. I was good to go, and didn't get bitten during my time in the park. Despite this, one of the joys of the insect life is dragon flies. In and around all the lakes and wetland marshes and reeds you will see dragonflies of all sizes and colours. The beauty of this is you don't need to change your lens. I had 600mm equivalent for birds and all I needed to do is reposition on the reeds for the dragonflies to get some great shots.

Red DragonflyRed Dragonfly A stunning red dragonfly perches just in front of me. I love the contrast of red and greens in this photograph. 

Within the park itself, you have a couple of towns such as Saintes-Maries-De-La-Mer, and Aigues-Mortes, which are well worth a visit. I managed to visit Saintes-Maries-De-La-Mer, but didn't get time to get across to Aigues-Mortes. 

Would I go back and visit again?

Yes I would!

I think a 4 or 5 day itinerary starting in Arles and then actually staying in a gîte (French B&B) on the western side of the reserve itself would be an idea way to discover the area in more detail. The eastern side feels much less touristy than the western side. The western side is scattered with an abundance of horse ranches offering horse rides, where as the eastern side is mainly wetlands and smaller lakes with very little through traffic and an abundance of birds. I also think staying locally within the park would give you much more access to the "secret spots" the locals know about, that the day tripper will miss. If you love the outdoors and birding photography, without doubt this is one of the best places in Europe to do that. I've heard about a significant population of raptors in the park and the odd roller being spotted. The fact that you can view an abundance of birds in Southern Europe that are also found in Southern Africa I think is really exciting. Due to the nature of the park, if you are looking to combine landscapes and wildlife, you may be out of luck. The high reeds, around the wetlands, and the relatively flat landscapes mean there is little diversity for the landscape photographer. You may on occasion get lucky however (see below). As I mentioned earlier, there are a number of photographic guided opportunities to combine the wild horses with other bird photography opportunities, and I think this is potentially a great option for a short break. If you happen to be in the region for other reasons, I would still recommend spending a day in the park. It's a big park, so you won't get chance to see everything in one day, but picking one area, the eastern or western side is doable. But if you do go, get a good birding book. Next time I return, I'll be getting a birding book and taking some binoculars with me!

You can see my gallery of 12 wildlife/landscape images from the visit here.

A very useful brochure/guide to the park, highlighting the main areas to visit, in English can be found here (pdf file).

SunflowersSunflowers

The main source of agriculture in the Camargue is the rice, but very occasionally you'll come across the odd sunflower field. 

 

Until next time...

Jon


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