Rhone Delta and Borneo’s wetlands


White Camargue horses with ranch branding logos.

FOR the last three summers, I have spent time exploring France’s first Regional Nature Reserve, the Camargue, located where the River Rhone continues to disgorge its sediments into the Mediterranean Sea to create a huge delta. Whilst on this wetland, I reminisced about the times I have visited not dissimilar landscapes in Sabah and Sarawak. In such flat landscapes, whilst thousands of kilometres apart, many similarities exist.

As with Borneo, the Camargue exhibits unique species of wetland vegetation, forever changing river channels, lakes, irrigation ditches, beaches, ornithological wonders, fresh water and salt water fish, people of various races with distinctive local accents and vocabularies, and would you believe it, rice farming and indeed mosquitoes in the European summer months. However there are no crocodiles, apes or hornbills.

The Camargue Nature Reserve was established with the vision and mission to reconcile human developments with nature conservation. Covering an area of 100,000ha and housing 10,000 people with 75km of sandy beaches, it is a very special place. There are over 5,700 species of vegetation and animals (excluding invertebrates).

In its migratory bird path from Europe to North Africa, over 150,000 birds descend on this delta land each year. The abundance of fish in the rivers and lakes provides a valuable food resource for many species of heron. Egrets perch on the backs of beef cattle, picking at ticks and flies much the same way as they do on water buffaloes in Borneo.

The black Camargue bulls are highly prized and bred on ranches. Their herdsmen or cowboys – locally known by name of Gardians – are not dissimilar to the Bajau horsemen in the rural communities of the delta lands of Kota Marudu, Sabah. Both are equally proud horse handlers and expert riders, of gypsy or Romany in origin.

Distinctive white Camargue horses are a contrast to the black cattle. Each horse is branded with its owner’s logo and usually grazes freely in the water meadows. Those horses that have been broken to take a saddle provide comfortable transport for nature lovers wishing to explore the etangs (lagoons) and beaches.

The Gitans or gypsies are a very large community in the Camargue and, as religious people, celebrate most Christian festivals particularly at the now small town of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer right on the Mediterranean Sea. At Eastertide, and not unlike Bajau horsemen, the Gitans race their horses along the beaches and emerge from the waves to celebrate their perceived origins as people from another shore.

Music festivals with traditional Provencal singing in dialect accompanied by guitars, violins and accordions celebrate, with a dash of local wine, their heritage. The distinguished gypsy flamenco singer and guitarist, who recently died at age 93, Manitas de Plata (little hands of silver) made his debut here in 1960.

Just as Kadazan-Dusun farmers in Sabah and the lowland farmers in Sarawak on riverine sites celebrate their rice harvest festivals, similar celebrations exist amongst Camargue farmers in festivals called feria. For the Feria du Riz (Rice Festival), a Rice Queen is elected in much the same way as amongst the rice growing kampungs of Borneo.

Pink flamingoes are seen in transit on their migratory path to Africa for the winter months.

In the Camargue, rice is the major crop while sunflowers (to extract vegetable oil), lavender (for the perfume industry) and vegetables ensure a diversification of farming.

In the Rhone delta, the severe pressure of river water infiltrating the soil in the spring months pushes any saline water from the Mediterranean Sea, which may have infiltrated the soil back towards the sea, thus allowing salt free rice to grow. Here there are massive fields of rice, which are planted in April and harvested in September by machine, similar to the Louisiana rice fields in the United States. I have witnessed an ever-growing trend of such harvesting methods in Sarawak.

The ancient Roman city of Arles is located where the River Rhone bifurcates into the Small Rhone and the Great Rhone, as it discharges into the Camargue. Arles is the focal point of the annual rice festivals with a bull fight, and acrobatic displays of young people leaping over charging bulls, all within a World Heritage site Roman arena.

Camargue Gitans run running bulls through the streets in a controlled fashion. Wandering musical bands move from one cafe to another, delighting the crowds with their playing and singing of old and modern tunes. At this feria, the city heaves with tourists and local families are reunited. Local men are distinctive in their brightly coloured Provencal shirts and leather cowboy hats and children resplendent in Provencal patterned dresses.

It is not unlike the traditional Kadazan-Dusun costumes worn in Penampang, or the Donggongon during ‘pesta’ time. There, as in the Camargue, singing and celebration of the rice harvest occurs fuelled by rice or Rhone wine!

Camargue mosquitoes haven’t the slightest liking for my blood group, unlike their cousins in Borneo. Outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever have occurred there in past times when there was a particularly warm climatic period in Europe. With the present rate of climate change, it won’t be too long before these diseases return.

The well-marked footpaths along the dykes encircling the lagoons are excellent viewing points to get close to egrets and pink flamingoes, the latter in transit on their migratory path to Africa for the winter months. Craning their long necks into the lake bed, their bills sieve the lacustrine muds and they strut in a purposeful fashion along the lake beds.

To see a squadron of flamingoes in full flight reminded me of dusk on the Kinabatangan River when hosts of hornbill come home to roost. Sitting on a very long sandy beach, backed by sand dunes, I marvelled at the variety of plants and small insects colonising the sand dunes. Although tidal ranges are very low in the Mediterranean Sea, the amount of plastic flotsam and jetsam on the beaches – the accumulated rubbish cast overboard, without trace, from passing ships make these beaches no different from those worldwide.

The Camargue is a supreme example of how a provincial government has managed extremely well to preserve its natural beauty, its cultures, traditions and folklore together with its flora and fauna whilst encouraging agricultural changes, and tourism with sensitive developments. It is a model of the preservation of a wetland environment and a splendid example of regional planning of a natural park. I still dream of buttered prawns at Pending seafood outlets and the ‘taureau’ (beef) steaks at Les Saintes-de-la Mer.

The Roman arena in Arles before the Feria du Riz bullfights begin.