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The Gardians of the Camargue

Wild white horses in the Camargue area, racing through the sea waters

The man was lean, fit, perhaps five-feet-eight, with a rugged face bronzed by the sun. His wide-brimmed, black felt hat shaded his dark eyes from the harsh sun. Smoking a cheroot, he let his eyes gaze over the flat plain. The dappled white horses were grazing on the salt hay, occasionally snorting, flicking their tails at the intrusive flies and mosquitos. The younger ones were skittish, playful, chasing each through the flatlands, running as far as the eye could see.

Wild horses and cowboys

Gardians, French cowboys, riding white horses, Camargue

The half-wild horses looked up from their grazing, snorted, then pranced and galloped several feet away. They hesitated, glancing at the horse and rider, and continued with a watchful eye over their shoulders. The fierce noonday sun was relentless, scorching the land, laying waste to it from late spring to early autumn. In the winter, the cold winds of the mistral sweep down from the north, freezing the lands, but the horses still run wild.

To the right, in the distance, six black, long-horned bulls grazed on the muddy flats, seemingly unconcerned about the horses or the rider. The man urged his own dappled white horse slowly forward. As he approached the bulls, he lowered his ten-foot prong, prodding the cattle, driving them closer to the rest of the herd.

The man was a gardian of Provence, in the southwestern part of France, one of the cowboys of the Camargue, who herd horses, cattle and sheep on more than 340,000 acres of marshland, not unlike the bayous of Louisiana, in the United States. The area, some 120 miles west of Nice, is loosely framed by two branches of the Rivière Rhône, the Grand et Petit Rhône. For hundreds of years, it was detested by French farmers because of the high salt content and root-destroying muck. Not to mention the swarming flies and mosquitos. The searing heat of summer, and the bitter winters caused by the mistral.

An isolated but stunningly beautiful land

Sea reflecting the azure sky of the Camargue area, France

The area is useful for only one activity: grazing of cattle, horses and sheep. The large tracts of land were bought up by the manadiers, or landowners, who hire the gardians to work on it. Those gardians live in traditional homes, tiny and whitewashed, made of local materials: walls of mud and thatched roofs of reeds. Often half-hidden by tamarisks, the homes provide a basic shelter from the cold and heat: bed, table, a few chairs, a fireplace and some household utensils. They are often shared by hunters seeking refuge from the cruel winters.

The gardian is a folk hero to many French children, much as the cowboy is in American culture. The gardians continue to live and work deep in the Camargue, as their ancestors have done for centuries. At annual festivals, in Arles and Nîmes, they dress in traditional garb and participate in bloodless bullfights where they attempt to snatch a red ribbon from between the horns of the bulls.

Entrepreneurs have also built upon the rich traditions, selling symbols of the gardians – felt hats, leather pants, boots and even cattle prongs – to tourists, forcing the gardians into the modern world.

Beware mosquitoes

I pulled my rented Renault to one side of the dirt road as a gardian herded cattle past me, across a small canal, and onto open flatlands. The mosquitos were fierce, with one or two managing to enter the car. The air conditioning was on high, the humidity and heat nearly stifling; yet, what I saw made me ignore that.

This is magnificent, I thought. I remembered growing up with westerns and wanting to become a cowboy. Unfortunately, I grew up in a town with steel mills and a lot of acid rain and industrial pollution.

I was fascinated by how horse and man melded. By how the animals moved when pushed and prodded, even though they were half-wild and could have easily run away or attacked the rider. The bulls, with their long horns were massive creatures, able to abruptly change directions, attack and destroy a threat.

I also knew it was time for some serious bug spray and spread it generously over my face, neck and arms. My friends had advised me to wear jeans that day, it soon became clear why. I looked to the side as another gardian came into view, herding horses my way. I climbed out of the car, raised my camera, and caught the ballet of horse and rider guiding eight horses toward, then past, me. There was an absolute beauty and fluidity in their motion.

Bulls, birds and beauty

Flamingos, Camargue at sunset under a pink sky

A herd of black bulls thundered past, they had an air of power and force, of permanence, almost unmovable. Those same animals could just as easily destroy a matador in one of the arènes (amphitheaters), at either Arles or Nîmes.

I could see a gardian’s house. Low, tiny, its whitewashed walls almost lost in the marshlands. I photographed the isolation of the hut; slowly zooming in, I let the grass and water frame the images. I reached for the door handle, and hesitated, steeling myself for the fist of hot, humid air. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed around me, but the repulsive repellant worked.

The Camargue reminded me, in many ways, of the Upper Chesapeake Bay in the United States. Open, flat, marshy, and in August, hot and damp. I inhaled deeply, taking in the intense, tangy smell of the salt.

Despite the livestock roaming the landscape, the major export of the Camargue is sea salt. When the marshes dry out in August, the salt marsh is heaped into camelles (mounds) up to 8 meters high, about 26 feet.

Suddenly, to my left, a flamingo rose out of the marshes. Its massive pink wings flowed in undulating waves to lift her. I read in a guidebook that there are more than 400 species of birds. Herons and owls, hawks and kingfishers, flamingoes and countless others. It is all private, but governed by state rules. Everything is protected…even the hordes of insects!

Regional nature park

I swiped at some flies, although none dared risk the evil lotion on my skin. Around me was a seemingly desolate landscape, continuing for miles in any direction. I turned full circle, examining the flat, wet marshes, squinting against a harsh glare off the Sea. I wished I had more time to spend there, examining and exploring the fascination of the barren scape that surrounded me, and the shoreline to my south.

The French government has established Le Parc naturel régional de Camargue (Regional Nature Park), with educational and outreach programs to increase public awareness of the region. And La réserve naturelle nationale de Camargue, a research center designed to study and preserve the flora and fauna of this unique region.

It is a place where relatively few visit. Those who do are immersed in a world that will profoundly enrich their lives and enhance their relationship with the natural environment.

I love the Camargue and the simplicity and purity of what I saw. In some ways, I fought the challenges that it posed; but I am also glad that those challenges exist. Despite some minor inroads into the way of life of the gardians and the Camargue, I believe that that unique world will continue as a reminder of a balance in nature between the land and human kind. That is something to be encouraged. Visiting in an enriching experience, impossible to forget.

By John Pekich  producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA

Read more about the Camargue in The Good Life France magazine

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