Piste de Lions,
Randonée led by 'Voyages Amada',
France boasts a
great following of off-road enthusiasts who make the very best
of their national parks, peaks and communal forests. One of
these areas is the Forez region of the Auvergne, between
Lyons and Clermont Ferrand.
I booked in for
a two-day randonée, a drive-around on a challenging off-piste
route. The group assembled at a ski hostel, high above the beautiful
mountain village of Chalmazel.
The old Château at Chalmazel
We started at 7.00
am and were issued with the all-important 'road book' which
gives detailed route instructions and distances in 1/10th kilometres.
We set off in two's and three's and soon found ourselves driving
across grassy upland meadows with wild violets, cowslips and
anemones in bloom.
The road book directed
a sharp turn into the forest. Indications of steeply rising
ground demanded a gear change as we scrambled across stones,
and fallen branches. The forest got darker, the track steeper
and the rocks bigger. I selected diff-lock and dropped to second
gear in low ratio. The Land Rover Discovery proved unstoppable.
At last we emerged
from the forest at a high grassy clearing under blue skies,
with precipitous cliffs above and picturesque farms in the valley
below. Far away a deep
blue lake glinted in the morning sunshine.
Emerging from the forest
Out of diff-lock
and now back in high gear, we followed an easy and picturesque
trail down an old drove road, criss-crossed with forest tracks
and bordered by stone walls, oak trees and broom. Soon the broom
was so dense I couldn't see the car in front. I retracted both
wind mirrors to avoid damage, and charged on.
Now the trail led
through an oak forest, the floor be-speckled with a carpet of
fallen, leaves, concealing, in parts, some fairly large rocks.
The trail steepened and we headed down a precipitous incline;
my lead car disappeared out of sight and reappeared far below.
This was a serious slope and I engaged lowest gear for engine
braking as the ground just disappeared in front of me. I slithered
down the precipice onto a track running off through the forest.
The trees were very close together and the rocks huge and unmountable.
There was little option to take evasive action and I winced
as I missed one tree by centimetres at the front, and another
by less at the rear. This track was built for forest ponies,
We stopped regularly
to cherish the view or to consult the road book. Most vehicles
were equipped with a 'Terratrip' navigator to count off
each turn point and tot up each kilometre - essential equipment
for a randonée. The vehicles were an assortment of Land Rovers,
Toyotas and Nissans, and the biggest single group was the Classic
Range Rover, most of them 2-door models and most fitted with
raised suspension, (for increased ground clearance), 'knobblies',
(aggressive off-road tyres),
and 'lockers' (which can lock the axle differentials
Of the 55 cars on
the randonée I was only ever aware of two or three at any one
time. Everyone was very friendly and would stop for a chat if
we met or passed by.
We were now driving
on a narrow winding track on a steep hillside. Suddenly the
Range Rover in front stopped. There was a fallen tree completely
blocking our route. Undeterred the driver backed down a little
and charged off up the sheer side of the cutting. I thought
this obstacle was undriveable, and it very nearly was. With
full power and all diffs locked, he roared half way up, with
mud, sand and debris flying everywhere and almost made it. The
next time he did, and I was amazed. The Lada Niva followed and
stuck half way up. We anchored him to a tree and winched him
Then it was my turn.
"N'hesitate pas" advised Jean-Pierre. I nodded, with some
misgivings, and took a run up the track before turning at 90'
into the hill. With engine roaring, spinning wheels ploughing
great gouges in the sandy soil I made it to the point where
the Lada stuck and sank heavily into his ruts before coming
to an ignominious halt. I reversed down, across the track, revved
up and tried again. All I could see through the treetops in
front was the sky; this slope was steeper than any one-in-one
I have climbed. This time I made another 5 metres - almost there.
I pulled over to let the wide-track Defender try. Up he went,
rather too fast, and collided with a tree on the crest. The
noise was sickening, but the damage slight. He waved me up.
'mountain trail passed close between
This time the Discovery
made it, shedding years off the tyres, no doubt, and now we
were all up the bank. Descending the other side revealed a similar
precipice with a 90' turn at the bottom. I watched the Range
Rover descend as his nearside wheel lifted a full 2 feet off
the ground. My Discovery did the same, regained it's balance
with a dull thud and levelled off back on the trail.
We drove on through
a rich variety of countryside, stopping briefly for lunch at
a lakeside restaurant; and by dusk we were still on the trail.
Perhaps lunch hadn't
been so brief after all…!
We finished long
after dark with 160 invigorating off-road miles behind us. We
joined all the others for a drink and a meal and set alarms
for 06.30am for an early start next day. I left the main piste
around mid-morning and dawdled through some beautiful scenery
with woodland, streams, meadows, cliffs and peaks. I stopped
to drink in the sheer beauty of a French springtime, paused
to cross an old stone bridge and squeezed up a narrow track
bordered with broom.
It was a wonderful excursion into
the great wild countryside of the French Auvergne. 'Voyages
Amada' did a splendid job arranging accommodation, food,
'road books' and backing up route instructions in faltering
English when required. Coralie extended
the 'entente cordiale' and all contenders were
invited to share a pot (cup-of-good-cheer)
after the day's exertions.
Agence des Voyages Tous Terrains
Tel: 04 72 10 88 00
Fax 04 72 10 01 23
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