Travel Section, 'France Off Road' Page


Classic Cars

Contact Me

Last Page

Narrow trails cross the Auvergne
Off-Roading in the Auvergne, Spring '02

Piste de Lions,
Randonée led by 'Voyages Amada',
Spring 02

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, ruts 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, not Discovery's.

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 when required).

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 up.

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 the trees...'

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.

Contact: Amada Travel
Agence des Voyages Tous Terrains
Tel: 04 72 10 88 00
Fax 04 72 10 01 23
Click on any picture below to enlarge


Click here for other pages

'Morocco Off-Piste' -November 2001
Photo Safari to the dunes, gorges and desert pistes
-click here
Chinguetti - Holy City in the Sand
Mauritania travel article,
-click here
Vehicle Preparation
Hints and tips for overland travellers -click here
Desert Trip to Libyan Fezzan
Proposed trip across the Awbari sand sea, Libya 2002
Photo Gallery - 'Desert and Travel'
Desert and travel photographs - click here

Travel Photography

Site regularly upgraded - more to come! Bookmark site and come back soon....