Zigzags, U-turns, bisecting arcs and even an attempted vertical ascent - Richard Weekes takes the helm on a barge cruise along the Midi and Lateral canals
GUNNING SOUTH down the French autoroutes to pick up our canal boat at Negra, south-east of Toulouse on the Canal du Midi, we were sold on the whole Stevensonian ideal: "To travel hopefully" was the thing. It could hardly be about arrival, since the schedule allowed us a whole week to cover the 90 miles from Toulouse to Agen, on the Canal Lateral a la Garonne. Ninety miles in a week? You could knock them off in an hour on Autoroute 61.

There would surely be plenty of dejeuners sur l'herbe, lots of twilight bike rides along the towpath, afternoon reveries as the second bottle of Cote du Frontonnais slipped down and the dappled sunlight slanted through the plane trees. Perhaps, where the dense foliage formed a green tunnel, we would become Bogie and Hepburn in the wheelhouse of the African Queen, the roar of a waterfall around the next bend and bad guys crouched in the undergrowth.

So much for the fantasy. What we hadn't reckoned on was the physical and mental energy required to manoeuvre a 35ft boat through lock gates and past other craft for six hours a day, particularly with two young children. The complete Robert Louis Stevenson quotation might have given us a clue: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is labour".

Our penichette (little barge), the Laberaudie, looked docile when moored, but once it mixed with other boats it became an untamed beast. For some reason the Locaboat agency's 20-minute introductory course does not include the two iron laws of canal boating: one, the boat suffers from chronic under-steer, so the temptation to keep turning, left then right, charts a manic zigzag course; two, the movement of water through the locks creates a steady current, making it impossible to keep the boat stationary when heading downstream. Unless both ropes, bow and stern, are secured ashore, the loose end will swing around, leaving you facing the wrong way.

We got an early initiation into the second law. After casting off, we breezed the first three locks before realising we were heading towards the Mediterranean, not Toulouse. The U-turn proved negotiable, but as we approached our starting point again we found a bottle-neck of boats waiting to enter the lock. We would have to tie up behind a much larger craft crewed by Germans. One child got ashore with her rope at the prow, the other, astern, did not. The stern began to swing out in the current, tracing a perfect arc that bisected the German boat. Guttural imprecations were uttered by our neighbours. Just when I was ready to give up, I had the idea of reversing. We shot across the canal and pinned a moored dinghy against the bank. More shouts, this time with French grace notes. At this precise moment my wife screamed: "Stop! I'm not going another inch if you can't control this boat". Great timing.

The final indignity awaited us at Montigiscard. My wife, now on relief duty at the prow, fastened the rope between bollard and boat leaving no slack, so, as the water drained out of the lock our bow was winched skywards, threatening to tip us all out of the stern. Fortunately the lock-keeper was a quick mover, and he closed the sluices and refloated the boat before our deck reached an angle of 45 degrees.

As if in retribution for our shameful performance, it rained that night, and most of the next day, ending all thoughts of sightseeing in Toulouse.

But the following day dawned sunny and warm, and the local paper, La Depeche, brought cheering news of some penichettes like ours on the eastern stretches of the Midi that had been swept over the bank into a field when the storm raised the canal by 150cm (5ft). "It was a phenomenon that happens only once every 30 or 50 years," said Francis Clastres, regional head of Waterways. "I've never seen anything like it before. It's not the fault of [17th-century canal architect] Paul Riquet's design or a mistake by the lock-keepers. It's simply that the increased water flow could not be absorbed."

Riquet's great feat terminated in Toulouse, from where boats initially had to descend the unpredictable river Garonne to reach the Atlantic, until the Canal Lateral, linking Toulouse with Bordeaux,

was completed in 1856. The stretch through Toulouse's north-western industrial suburbs showed signs of neglect. A dead dog floated past, plus other evidence that the locals treat the canal as a dumping ground. The Lateral runs much straighter than the Midi, and by lunchtime we had reached Grisolles, where a smart new quayside is being built. After the torments of the first two days, we decided to eat out. Le Relais des Garrigues, a good hotel restaurant run by Fred and Michelle Calandra, serves all the regional specialities, such as foie gras and cassoulet, but is worth a visit for their starters alone. The cake of mussels and salmon mousse won several votes, and the chicken-liver salad was delicious, washed down with the fine local Frontonnais rose. Fully restored, if slightly drunk, we resumed our journey happy in the knowledge that the next 15 miles were lock-free. After three days of relentless lock duty, the call to prepare to moor had worn away initial enthusiasm. Eventually, the children felt like a Ferrari pit-stop crew, the only aim to get in and out under our personal best of six minutes, 39 seconds. At Montech, though, it was all hands on deck for the staircase of five consecutive locks, which larger barges bypass on the pente d'eau, or w ater slope, where two locomotives on rubber wheels drag a movable lock up a ramp. After a morning in the food market at Castelsarrasin, we crossed the Tarn by aqueduct and entered the beautiful town of Moissac. Here, boats may drop down via two locks into the Tarn itself. Only three miles downstream lies the vast confluence with the r iver Garonne. All the pressure of navigation on a narrow canal evaporated, and for the first time we could leave the boat on autopilot. We crossed the great basin to the port of Saint-Nicolas-de-la-Grave on the far bank as herons and waders stood sentry in the shallows. Moissac was a stop for mediaeval pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela. Back on the quayside we met a couple of modern pilgrims spending a leisurely six weeks taking their ocean-going cruiser from their home in Bordeaux to Carcassonne and back a long the canal. I suddenly realised that the slow pace they had set was the best way to experience the canal. Even our 90 miles in a week was too fast a schedule, leaving too little time to explore the towns and villages on the way. We had chosen a one-way trip in order to see as much as we could in seven days. So, after the final leg to Agen in the shade of plane and maple trees, I took the train back to Toulouse to pick up the car from our point of embarkation. That TGV ride, most of it hugging the canal bank, was like a fast rewind of the previous week, replaying the film of those seven days in less than an hour. It seemed to convey a message, that we had merely skimmed the surface of this delightful waterway. fact FILE on the midi and lateral canals Getting there Richard Weekes travelled on a Penichette 1107, sleeping four in comfort, as a guest of Locaboat Plaisance (tel: 0181-994 6477 or 01572 821330). Prices from about pounds 700 to about pounds 900 per week. Canal season runs from mid-March to October.

Getting around Bicycle hire costs pounds 2.60 per day per bike and is recommended as most stretches of the Canal du Midi and the Canal Lateral have good towpaths. Some locks are automatic: a length of rubber hose is suspended over the canal alongside four traffic light s, ahead of the lock. Grasp the hose and twist it a quarter turn to the right as the boat passes underneath. The lights should respond: two reds means the lock is not free (stop and wait), green and red means prepare to proceed, two greens means enter th e lock. Most locks close for lunch. Your car can be delivered to your destination for pounds 70. Enclosed parking where you embark costs pounds 2.50 a day.

Further information The Navicarte guide to the Midi costs pounds 13 from Locaboat bases.