Camargue or the Rhone Delta is a swampy region in the south of France, which has formed from deposition of sediments carried by the Rhone river as it flows toward the Mediterranean Sea. It covers an area of 930 km ² (145,300 ha), being one of the most highly protected deltas in the entire world. The whole region is actually included within the borders of the Camargue National Park, a protected area since 1970.
Camargue is home to a lot of very diverse animal species, although it is world-renowned for three species: a species of black cattle which are smaller and thinner than the one used for the corridas, the beautiful Cheval Camarguais, a species of local white horses, and the over 50.000 pink flamingos which visit the marshes during the summer months. Every year a Camargue Festival is organized in order to celebrate the entire region, this being the best proof that ecotourism and etnotourism are flawlessly implemented.
We set out on our expedition from the city of Arles, which is situated on the northern border of the Camargue area. We contracted a company specialized in local safaris, which can take place either in the morning (9:00-13:00) or in the afternoon (14:00-18:00); either way reservations have to be made 1-2 days in advance, depending on the season. The safari takes place in Land Rover Defender 4×4 trucks, which are modified so that visitors can freely observe and photograph the park’s fauna. The roofs of the cars are removed so you get an open-air feeling, and as a bonus, it is sufficient to stand up in order to get an excellent observation point. A single safari takes around 4 hours (which practically seem to fly by) and includes a 30-minute stop in Saint Maries de la Mer. From my point of view, it is sufficient time to take the photographs you want, but if you are not a photography enthusiast, you will also have plenty of things to see, experience and take a few snaps on.
The Camargue Horses
The first area of the national park we visited was a suburb of the city of Arles that is mainly used for agriculture and where you can find many farms (Mas) which offer horseback and carriage rides through the reservation. It is here that we had the pleasure of meeting the famous white horses of Camargue as well as the Guardians of Camargue. In order to become a guardian of Camargue you must start your training from a young age and we had the opportunity of seeing an equitation school for young children, which were also being taught how to care for these magnificent animals. We were told that it takes a special kind of training which is quite difficult, in order to manage and ride these wild horses.
The Camargue horses are predominantly white but we also found out that when they are born their color is dark brown. As they grow, their color turns from brown to a light gray, and they finally turn white when they reach maturity. The horses are free and only the stallions are used for riding and pulling carriages; the mares and the colts are left to enjoy their freedom, they never enter the stables and the feed mainly on the wild grass of the brackish planes. The mares get pregnant every year, giving birth to a single colt (two colts on very rare occasions).
Once per year, in the autumn, the horses are rounded up, checked and marked in special holding pens. It is also the time when a local celebration takes place in the region, livening up everyone and everything. A Manada in Provance is truly a spectacle: the word describes a herd of cattle or horses that roam the swampy area of Camargue, all under the supervision of a Camargue guardian.
When we finally arrived in Saint Maries de la Mer we took a short walk through the city and saw the famous arenas where the corridas take place. Although shrouded in controversy, these corridas are a part of the Camargue tradition and have the goal of developing local tourism.
The Camargue Bulls
Camargue is home to a unique species of cattle. The Camargue bulls represent a species of cattle that has adapted to this particular environment. They live in semi-freedom, being mainly raised for the superior quality of their meat. There are even a couple of original dishes prepared solely with the meat of these cattle, dishes which are also very appreciated by the tourists.
The bulls look very similar to the famous Spanish bulls used for the Corridas, the only major difference being the position of their horns. The Camargue bulls have considerably long horns which point upward, while the Spanish bulls have shorter horns pointed forward, while also being more muscular and more aggressive.
The Camargue bulls take part in a local kind of Corrida (no blood is spilled though) where brave young men called “razeteurs” must pluck a cockade from between the horns of a bull; this type of events date back as far as the 16th century. The bravest and most temperamental bulls are not killed, as is the tradition in Spain; they are highly appreciated and receive a special status among the locals. We even visited the grave of one suck bull, which was buried with his head pointing north, and which also had a small monument built on top of it, attesting the bull’s courage.
According to the locals, today there are 3 major varieties of bulls:
- – The pure breed bulls, which live free and are used for the so called “course provençale” – the bull event described earlier.
- – The mestizos – hybrids between the Camargue bulls and the Spanish ones, destined for the “capetas” or the “Economy Corridas”.
- – The Portuguese and Spanish pure breeds, destined for the classic (Spanish) Corridas.
Camargue is also home to large concentrations of pink flamingos which nest in Europe. Here over 50.000 flamingoes gather every spring, usually forming numerous flocks. They nest in the marshy areas, building curious-looking nests out of mud and salt so that the frequent tide shifts will not drown their young.
The flamingos are specialists at consuming plankton: they fill their beaks with water, which is rich in microorganisms, and filter it with the help of the special features lining their tongues and the sides of their beaks. A large quantity of the organisms that make up the plankton which the flamingos consume, are crustaceans (this is the main reason for the pink color of the plumage).
We arrived during the dry season, the water level being very low and many of the canals and watering holes being empty; the marshy area, however, was very large and this made our journey toward the flamingo flocks a lot more difficult, but we could freely admire their elegance and impressive size even from afar.
The Camargue Natural Park
The flora found here is typical to the South of France, the main species being wild lavender, tamarisk, iris, wild rosemary and juniper. The lakes and the salty lagoons are surrounded by naturally formed sand dunes which are constantly remodeled by the winds. Here salt is formed through a natural process: water evaporates under the summer sun’s merciless rays, leaving only the immense natural salt pits of Camargue. Today, the salt fields of Saint de Girard are the largest in Europe, spanning for approx. 11.000 hectares, the total salt production being around 1 million tons per year. During the winter, a part of the salt pits are flooded by seawater, but in the spring, once the waters of the river Rhone start rising, these transform into swamps that teem with life.
The famous marine dam of Camargue was built in the 19th century with the goal of creating a protective barrier, which would impede the flooding of the delta by seawater. It is 20km long and is bordered at the east by the Saint de Girard salt fields and to the west by the sand dunes and the hazelnut plantation, cultivated here in order to maintain the consistency of the sand formations. The dam has it’s own flora, with species that are distinct from the ones in the fields and the lagoons. It is also a very important habitat for many species like terns, seagulls, plover, curlew and pied avocet.
The Camargue forests span over a relatively small area, compared to the entirety of the reservation, but play a crucial role in local biodiversity. We find them along the Rhone river and on the Vaccarès dunes. They represent the habitat of the various mammal species, such as rodents, foxes and warthogs.
Delta, Biosphere Reserve, National Regional Park, a fairytale land and a refuge for romantics and nature lovers alike, Camargue has survived miraculously until today, protected by very vigilant laws, which we hope will be implemented very soon in the continuously threatened Danube Delta.