Last week we had our first proper outing in Precious, the camper van.

Leaving the farm in the capable hands of son Ruadhri, Chris and I headed away for a two-day break to the Auvergne. Our plans to have similar little overnighters like this in the spring were thwarted by the pandemic, but, better late than never, at long last our van was going to live up to its name.

Messeix

Our first stop was Messeix. Until 1988 this was a mining town with a population in excess of 3,500 in its heyday. Now it’s down to a third of that number. The main mine building has been turned into a museum – Minérail – as homage to the town’s history of anthracite mining. The museum was shut, but we didn’t mind as we hadn’t come to visit it. We were here after an earth cache.

You’ll know by now that Chris and I love our geocaching. An earth cache is a particular sort of geocache: when arriving at the GPS co-ordinates, instead of uncovering a small, hidden cache with a log to sign and maybe a treasure to take, replacing it with another, you discover a site of geographic interest. This particular site was the Messeix mine’s slag heap. That may not sound very cool, but it is because the discarded shale on the heap contains fern fossils. We enjoy fossil-hunting and rock-hounding as much as we enjoy geocaching, so this was a very good day!

It didn’t take long to find some fossils. We found ‘fougères de Stéphanien’ fossils, the fern like plants, and also annularia stellata, horsetail fern fossils.

After soup and sandwiches back at Precious, we headed off to our next stopping-off point: Etang de Farges.

Farges

Scattered liberally across France are places where camper vans can park up for the night for free. What a wonderful resource! Chris had found one such place at Farges, and it was beautiful. We parked under trees in a grassy area, just a short walk from the lake. It had taken a couple of tries to find it, though.

The French have a fiendish habit of only putting signposts at crucial junctions on one side of it. Thus if you are coming from direction A, you’ll see it and all will be well. But if you’re coming from the opposing direction B, then there’s nothing to hint at the presence of this all-important junction. You therefore sail past in blissful ignorance until you eventually realise you’ve gone too far, and then end up going down very narrow roads, hoping like crazy that you won’t meet another vehicle, and doing three point turns and other tricky manoeuvres in order to have another go at finding the turning.

After another spot of refreshment, we set out on a geocaching trail round the lake and beyond. It took us quite a while to tune into the mindset of this particular trail-setter. Usually you can suss them out quite quickly and know what sort of place they like to hide caches in. Most geocachers go for fairly obvious things, such as a strikingly statuesque tree, an usunusal outcrop of rocks, a particularly thick blanket of ivy or a monument of some sort. Others, however, will choose a tree at random in a wood of non-descript trees and give you only the clue ‘tree’. GPS readings aren’t 100% accurate amongst trees, due to the signal being restricted, so such an exercise rapidly becomes soul-destroying. As well as this, some geocaches just weren’t there at all, and, when we checked the log’s history by going online, discovered they hadn’t been for a while. That’s rather sloppy on the trail-setter’s part. A few of the clues bore absolutely no relationship at all to where we eventually found the caches in question, so it was a rather frustrating afternoon. But the scenery was pleasant and we enjoyed the walk.

After tea, which we ate at a very conveniently-located picnic table in the still-deserted (apart from ourselves) park-up site, we set off for a last walk, even though by now we’d clocked dup over 20,000 steps. We’d seen a sign for a dolmen, so of course had to go for a look.

And so to bed. We closed all the blinds – a couple soon sprang open again but we quickly mastered the technique of keeping them shut – and settled down, with our little reading lights on and charging cables for our phones and tablets dangling around us like electronic tree-creepers. We realised we’d have to find a way tidying up these cables or we risked throttling ourselves during the night. We also worked out that we’d need some handy hanging or stick-on storage devices to deal with things like spectacles, torches and water bottles. But for our first night, we muddled through and slept surprisingly well, given that we’re upper-middle-aged and grumpy and take time to adapt to change! OK, not grumpy, just rather set in our ways!

Briffons

We were up bright and early next morning. We had breakfast, took a last stroll down to the lake, then set off to Briffons for a day’s geocaching.

We parked up at another of these free camper van parking sites, this time behind the magnificent church. A bread distributing machine had been thoughtfully located at the entrance to the church’s car park, so we were finally able to financially contribute to the local economy by buying a croissant. And so we began a 15 kilometre trail of 30 geocaches. And we found the lot! A couple needed a bit of hunting since this trail setter oscillated between very helpful, to-the-point clues such as ‘at the foot of the post’, ‘in the tree about 1 m up’, to poetic, obtuse ones that seemed to make no sense whatsoever. ‘Come to the woods’ turned out to be a magnetic geocache stuck on the back of a roadsign, and ‘I sleep well’ was in some rocks by a stream.

We passed by a military barracks, and for several kilometres followed a path through a forest. To the left of us was military terrain, full of foxholes that worryingly all appeared to be designed so that when the snipers were lying in them, they were facing towards the public footpath ready to pick of passers-by. To the right was public woodland, and several of our caches were hidden in this. One cache had been opposite the entrance to the barracks. We felt decidedly vulnerable firkling around in what had to appear to others a suspicious manner this close to so much heavy artillery.

We survived to tell the tale, and got back to Precious footsore and rather warm. From rain and chilliness on Monday morning, by Tuesday afternoon it was boiling. A restorative snack and cup of tea and we were soon ready for the trip back.

Word’s can’t express how delighted we are with Precious, and how much more comfortable she makes things. No more trekking around looking for an open café when we need caffeine. Over the years, tiny cafés in out of the way places have become a highly endangered species. No more equally fruitless searching for somewhere to get a meal at an odd time i.e. not within the regimented 12pm-2pm and 7pm-9pm French eating slots. And not to mention the convenience of your very own, private convenience! Camper vanning life really is civilised.

We can’t wait for our next trip. And next time, I’ll remember to bring the SD card for my camera so I don’t have to make do with my phone.