A Walk Along the Vallée de Bonnan

In my previous post, I wrote about the village of Milhars in the Tarn. The old part, perched on a hill, was a revelation, a warren of stone-walled alleys radiating from the château, enclosing some delightful buildings. Since the weather last Saturday was absolutely glorious, we decided to go back for a walk along the Bonnan Valley below the village.

A number of circular walks start from Milhars, and you’ll find ample parking outside the Salle des Fêtes beside the River Cérou. The walk we chose officially starts at the bottom of the valley, where there are some parking spaces. I’ll give the link to it at the end, if you’re interested.

I wanted to have another look at the village, so we walked up to it and then down to the Bonnan.

Haven of biodiversity

The Bonnan Valley is a wetland area noted for its biodiversity, home to newts, salamanders and exotic green frogs. The Bonnan brook flows between marshy areas and green pasture. Sheep formerly grazed the pastures, which are mown for hay today. The network of hedgerows and natural borders (known as bocage) that divides the fields is a precious habitat for wildlife.

In spring, the valley is a riot of wildflowers, including orchids, and butterflies. The wetland areas favour plants like wild angelica, which can attain 3 metres in height, and horsetail ferns. The contrast between the valley floor and the arid hills that surround it, with their Mediterranean drought-tolerant vegetation, is marked.  

Arid hills around the Bonnan

Summer in winter

We took the Sentier de découverte (discovery trail) that runs along one side of the stream and back along the other. The first thing we noticed was how dry it was underfoot. The Bonnan was a mere trickle in places. It would normally be flowing fast in February, swelled by rain and meltwater.

We had less than average rainfall in January and barely any this month. The springlike temperatures and azure skies of mid-February were welcome, but they have exacerbated the extended drought of last year. We had dressed for February weather, but as we walked and the sun’s rays grew warmer, we shed coats and jumpers in temperatures more akin to those of May.

The sun had tempted the butterflies out of shelter. They flitted about in their deceptively random fashion, jewels of black and red, egg-yolk yellow and mottled brown. Buzzards sailed on thermal currents high above us, while smaller birds rootled in the undergrowth and blackbirds sounded their alarm call at our approach.

Trees shade much of the trail, making it a good summer walk. We saw stands of regal poplars by the river, feet in the damp soil, their slim silhouettes swaying gently in the breeze high above their more stunted neighbours.

Elegant black poplar

On the banks beside the path, a forest of box trees is now a tangle of phantom limbs, ravaged by the box tree caterpillars. Thick strips of moss hang from the branches, giving the place a Tolkien-ish atmosphere.

Dry waterfall

One of the highlights of the walk is a cascade pétrifiante (lit. petrified waterfall). The limestone-impregnated water has formed layers of hard crystalline sediment, over which sheets of moss have grown, forming a unique habitat for fern-like plants and moisture-loving fauna.

The cascade should be in full spate in February. It was bone dry. In the photo below, you’d have difficulty seeing that a waterfall ought to be there.

Where the waterfall ought to be

Further on, we came upon this dry, sandy area, which looks as if it has been quarried for the sand. These parched, South-facing slopes are well drained with thin soil over the limestone, allowing only scrubby bushes to take hold. They also favour wild orchids of many different types, making this a place to visit in May, if you are an orchid buff.

We had seen a few other people taking advantage of the radiant weather to enjoy the valley, all encountered with the complicit “Bonjour” that walkers exchange. As we approached the end of the walk, a couple came the other way and asked us if the waterfall was in that direction.

“Yes,” we said. “But there isn’t any water.”

Stupefied, they looked at us for a moment. “What do you mean, there isn’t any water?”

“There hasn’t been any rain.”

They seemed a bit crestfallen but decided to go to look at it anyway. We exchanged thoughts about the weather before going our separate ways.

We climbed the hill back to the village. At the top, sadly, we saw this dead badger. We didn’t investigate closely, but it didn’t appear to be damaged, so we don’t know what happened to poor old Brock. Perhaps old age simply caught up with it. C’est la vie.

We sometimes see a badger on our lane at night, waddling along, caught in the headlights, but they scarper pretty fast if they think they are in danger.

If you want a short walk on flat terrain, the “official” walk is apparently 4.17 km, as listed on the tourist office website. You’ll find longer walks in the area, too. We extended it by about 2.5 km by walking up to the village and from there to the Bonnan. I recommend doing that and spending some time discovering the old part of Milhars.

I suggest that spring would be a good time to see the wild flowers, but make sure you are well shod. In normal conditions, the path is damp.

Visorando, a site where walkers post randonnées with detailed descriptions, also lists walks of varying lengths around Milhars.

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