White Horses of France’s Camargue 2013 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on May 14, 2013

Between two forks of the Rhone River in southern France lies the unique area of the Camargue marshes. Here, the Camargue delta covers more than 500 square miles. The largest river delta in Europe, it originates as an effluent of the Rhone Glacier in Valais, Switzerland, and terminates in the Mediterranean Sea. It is an area rich in cultural history and wildlife, including shorebirds, pink flamingos, Camargue bulls and the main focus of our trip—the famous white horses of the Camargue.

Considered to be one of the oldest breeds in the world, the Camargue horses are said to be descended from the extinct Solutre’ horse—dated as far back as 17,000 years ago. Ancient cave paintings, like those found at Lascaux, provide evidence that horses have been part of the landscape of southern France since the Paleolithic. Numerous occupations by Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Franks and others have influenced the breed. The Camargue horses evolved in this marshland habitat over thousands of years and are well adapted to today’s brackish environment.

Camargue horses are always white in color, although they are brown or black until about the age of three before turning white. Officially, their color is considered to be gray—but from our own visual perspective they are appear white. Despite being semi-wild, they are the traditional horses of the Guardians (”cowboys”) who use them to herd the Camargue bulls, animals prized for their fine beef and used for bull running (where a young man tries to pull a cockade from between the bull’s horns).

As a horse enthusiast, with my own horses and a rider for many years, I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to lead this trip to the Camargue. Together with co-leader and local guide and photographer Patrice Aguilar we had an amazing time. Since our main focus was to photograph horses we scheduled numerous photographic sessions in different ecological habitats throughout the Camargue region during the week. The shoots were planned for sunrise and sunset in marshes and wetlands—and even in the Mediterranean Sea. Altogether we had eight separate shoots of horses running in water, including silhouettes, mothers with foals, and stallions fighting. There was enough flexibility built in for possible inclement weather. Our first morning with running horses was cancelled due to rain and thunderstorm activity, but rescheduled for later in the week. The weather was mixed for the trip as we had arrived at the tail end of a significant storm front that affected all of southern Europe. However, my photographic philosophy is that weather makes the image, so the broad range of conditions during the shoot added interest and variety. We used every lens from wide angle to 400mm for the running horses. Zoom lenses worked best and the choice of lenses for our group was the Canon 100–400mm and the Nikon 200–400mm. My main lens in the quiver for this shoot was Nikon’s new 80–400mm which proved to be outstanding. It comes highly recommended for those looking for a lighter and more versatile lens rather than the heavier Nikon 200–400mm.

One of our more unique photography experiences was with the Camargue bulls. With their large up-curved horns they remind me of our own American bison. Static images along with some herding by the Guardians was our original plan, but then a suggestion of running the bulls in the water was made to Patrice—and one phone call later he had planned an action shoot which we later referred to as the “running of the bulls.” A nice add-on and something you do not have a chance to shoot every day!

Later in the week we visited Parc naturel régional de Camargue, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with a focus on flamingos, wading birds and other assorted waterfowl. If you want flamingo images, this is probably the best place I have found to get up close and personal! The site was only about a mile from our lodging and we had a wonderful evening shooting the birds.

During off-times we visited several local cities. One of my favorites was Arles, a city with a long history combined with fine examples of European architecture. Many buildings date as far back as 2,000 years when the city was occupied by the Romans. The architecture is rich with Roman and Romanesque influences and the area is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage monuments site. Some of the architectural highlights included structures such as the amphitheater, outdoor theater and other landmarks from Roman occupation. Our leisurely day was spent touring the sites, having lunch at the town square and people watching.

Prior to the trip, I had been forewarned about the evening meals at our lodging by Joe Van Os, who said “this place serves the finest food I have ever eaten.” A huge statement from someone who has traveled extensively around the globe! I was well aware of the fine cuisine France is known for, but still not prepared for our evening feasts—five course meals lasting well into the night! Out-of-this-world food and stellar service made for a great treat after spending our days in muddy marshes. Joe, I second your opinion…the food was absolutely the best and alone worth the trip!

Overall this is one great trip. The excitement of running horses through shallow water, the abundant bird life, the flavor of France, and the hospitality of the local people make the White Horses of the Camargue a memorable photography expedition. Take a look at the gallery of images and whet your appetite for another photographic journey Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris will be offering in 2015. This is one for the bucket list! See you at dinner. Bon appétit!

Trip Report Archive