Operation Aqueduct: Cowboys and Flamingos in France

We had toured the village of Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, but we were not yet done with the Camargue. The bus containing the delegation left the town, passing beneath the old church and passed back through the same road towards the north. On the left, I saw a marshy pasture on which four flamingos sat. As strange as it seems, flamingos do hang out in France, and migrate between France and North Africa. Specifically in the Camargue, they like to return to this area that has an optimal climate. June was on the edge of the low season, so these flamingos were the only ones I spotted from the bus. Quick on the draw, I drew my camera and captured them in a photograph. I noticed they were in the same swamp on the way down south, and for a second I wondered if some clever local took some of those plastic flamingo lawn ornaments and put them there to fool tourists as a joke, but I doubt it.

Flamingos in a lagoon in the Camargue.

We left the national park and returned to the Occitanie administrative region. Although this area was not officially the Camargue, culturally the Camargue belongs to both parts. We passed villages with churches and small buildings, finally stopping at a small ranch. The heads of the French planning group reached out and they were eager to show the American group a fun time at a local ranch overseen by gardians, relatively obscure cowboys of the South of France that managed many of the indigenous horses and bulls. The farmers loaded us onto a hayride and drove us all around the ranch. One of the ranchers pointed out the sights. We passed through a field and were able to see some of the Camargue’s special Camarguais horses, which can be brown or black at birth but mature into a unique white coat after about four years. These horses are used to living in almost wild climates, not requiring excessive food or water from humans. A guide said if these horses were treated in captivity like other horses, they would die from the unusual lifestyle they had never experienced. These horses happily prance around, flies buzzing around their eyes. There was also a donkey, if I remember correctly, that was delighted to observe the humans coming past.


Next we drove up to a field where a herd of bulls was seeking shade beneath a canopy of dark green trees. They were of multiple colors, with brown and black coats. You could tell they were Camarguais because of the distinctive, scary-looking horns that adorn their heads. Ugo, my host, told me not to shout even from a distance as it could infuriate the bulls and prompt them to charge us. I learned that many bulls like these are candidates for bullfighting, like in non-lethal matches as in Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer. If what I heard was accurate, bulls must undertake four tests of durability and performance. If they fail any of them, even one, they are not eligible to compete. One of the ranchers mentioned that those who fail go to two places; A) some sort of home in the Southwest of France, or B) the slaughterhouse. Some of the details went over my head on what exactly goes on in that first option. However, it reminds me of that time my fish was sick and my dad told me it had a new home at the aquarium, so I’m not going to eliminate the possibility that option A is a sugarcoated version of option B. (And if you’re wondering, bull meat is a staple in the South of France. And yes, it tastes pretty good.)


We returned to the field near the ranch’s main farmhouse, and were treated to some refreshments before the final stage of the tour progressed. That was when a pair of experienced riders came in and showed us their skills. The woman, a seasoned horse trainer, rode in on a Camarguais horse with a beautiful white mane. Soft music poured out of hidden speakers as she did a great presentation of these local horses’ agility and cleverness. The other horse trainer was a man in full gardian attire, with a blue long-sleeved shirt, a black vest, and a flat, fedora-like hat. He held a wooden object that looked like a spear in a special position between the inside of his elbow and his shoulder. It was a lightweight wooden rod, and pointed towards the sky was a miniature trident. It was a small pitchfork, one I suspect is used to prod bulls that run out of formation.


For his spectacle, he rode on another Camarguais horse, and showed how he ran around on the horse. He used the spear to guide the horse, forcing the shaft of the tool into the ground and guiding the animal into sharp turns and corners. You could admire the craftsmanship it took to guide the horse and use the tool; it required practice, and fine gestures that took skill.



After thanking and congratulating the professionals who showcased their equestrian talents, we returned to the bus and made our way back to Nîmes. The day wasn’t over yet… and the night was just beginning.

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