The region around St. André-les-Alpes is well known for its strong thermal activity, even after the sun has set behind the westerly hills. Many cross-country pilots are thankful for getting the last (unexpected) thermal home, instead of having to spend the night outside. And many are those having had that slight regret when leaving the still abundant evening conditions, in order to find the landing field before it had completely been swallowed by darkness. Rumour has it that a tiny minority just won't stop there and has even done the usual Crête des Serres cross by night. Since we all know that we are not allowed to fly by night, we must assume that this rumour is indeed nothing but a rumour.
Despite these heroic stories circulating in the village, most pilots will find themselves going down, for thermal or legal reasons, when the sun goes down. If this happens to be on the landing field, then you are probably one of those lucky cross-country pilots that always seem to get back, no matter what the conditions are. Or a skilled pilot, rather than a lucky one. Maybe you have the luck to be both. If you have friends, you could try and wait for them to pick you up. If not, or if you don't like seeing them after your failure to return, then you can (hitch-)hike your way back to where you came from, or to wherever you had planned to go that day.
The tough pilots among us probably find this hard to imagine, but sporadically it could happen that you are completely done with all this vol bivouac stuff and just want to get back to base or even home. It could also happen that you are just training for vol bivouac by flying cross-country, without the staying overnight part. In these cases, one of the easiest ways to get back to base is landing near a railway station and taking the train. The signs that say 'Gare' will point you in the right direction, and probably signs such as 'Café de la Gare' and 'Hôtel de la Gare' as well.
Your train will probably be a TER, which stands for Transport Express Régional. It is the regional train or bus (i.e. it runs within the administrative region), that connects large villages and minor cities, often terminating in the bigger cities. Here you can transfer to long distance trains or a TER from another region. The TER does not run that frequently outside the vicinity of the big cities, so plan your flight carefully if you do not want to miss it. My planning consist of getting as close to a station as possible, spend the night pleasantly, and take the first TER opportunity the next day. In this way I am not in a hurry when flying. And since most trains seems to shut down at the end of the afternoon, you will be too late for you return after a long flight anyway. For example, the last train from Briançon that allows you to reach Digne-les-Bains in time for boarding the TGV to St. André, leaves at 12h50. You probably won't make it on time when taking-off from Chalvet. Besides that, you probably prefer to spend the afternoon in the air instead of a train.
In this particular case it pays to fly a little bit further north and catch the morning train at Albertville. Getting back to St. André from there, starts at the more convenient time of around seven or eight o'clock, depending on the day's connection. Along the way, there will be lots of opportunities to admire some of the stations and cities as you wait a few hours for your next train. The TER may not be that fast, but it is not that expensive either. Mostly because two thirds of your ticket has been funded by your fellow French passengers, or rather any French citizen paying taxes. An additional reason for loving the French and forgiving them the occasional friction they seem to inspire. The lack of excessive speed also provides an opportunity to have a good look at the country side and discover new routes to fly. You can safely look around without risking to park your car into oncoming traffic or trees.
For the purist pilots among us who are convinced that no train, bus, bicycle, or any other means of transport for that matter, should be used for getting around during vol bivouac, other then your feet and wing, I would like to state
that you are right, now piss-off!that they are completely correct. I would like to take the opportunity to sincerely apologise for my blatant public transport propaganda, destroying a myth in the process. The myth of the lonely (and often loony) vol bivouac pilot fighting with the elements. The myth of psychologically panzered pilots that persist against all odds and adversities. Finally conquering these obstructions after an heroic, Hollywood sized effort. I am fully aware of the fact that taking the train is not really in the spirit of vol bivouac's independence idea, except when it is your return trip after you reached your destination. However, you can always change your destination along the way. Stay in control, even if this means lowering the targets you imposed on yourself. Remember that it was you who set the targets for the trip, didn't you? Not the people you want to impress. I have seen pilots doing really silly things in order to get on with their trip when the most logical decision would simply have been to stop and go home. Encouraging these pilots to simply take the train if such situation occurs, might help in mitigating those mistakes.
There is no TER in the St. André region, but fortunately the TGV runs from Nice to Digne-les-Bains (and back as well). I like all methods of transport (hiking, hitching a ride, trains, buses), but I prefer the TGV when I am tired and near to it. Especially when the day is close to ending and my chances of making it back with other means are getting smaller and smaller as the sun sets and traffic decreases. Hitching a ride with a tired mind, a tired face, does not work that well and is something I would not like to inflict upon my eventual company. Sometimes I am simply too far out to walk my way home that day, while it is just a short train trip. Even when I am near my goal, it could still take a while when there is a mountain range in between me and my destination. Mountain ranges have the habit of forcing me around or over them. Trains trick, using tunnels. This could well be the difference between an eight hour walk or a eighteen minute train ride. Being tired, the choice is easy.
The last Nice ⇄ Digne TGV that still gets me back to St. André is the 17h15 departing from Nice and the 17h30 departing from Digne. The TGV takes about three hours and 24 minutes from Nice to Digne and three hours and 27 minutes the opposite way. I expected it to be the other way around, since Nice is downhill from Digne, but I have been told this three minutes difference is caused by the sea breeze which accelerates up the Var valley and gives the train an additional push.
By dividing the 3,5 hours needed for the whole trip by the distance that the train has to travel to the station of your choice, you will be able to estimate the departure times for the last train home while you are still in the air. All this without completely memorising or unfolding the paper timetable. Somehow, the timetable is often in your other trousers anyway when you need it, so memorising the last departure times usually works best. When for example I am flying above Puget-Theniers, I know that I am about one third of the distance from Nice. That means about one hour and ten minutes of train travel from Nice. Departing at 17h15, this gives an ETA of 18h25 for the TGV in Puget-Theniers. The actual time is 18h39, so I am not far off. I even have some margin left if I landed further away from the station then foreseen. Entrevaux is just a little bit further up the valley. It is here that the westerly breeze often successfully counters my plans of getting back to St. André by air, despite the convergence the conflicting breezes create. That is why the exact departure time of 18h48 in Entrevaux has been programmed in my brain by now. When I have enough time left at Puget-Theniers before the train arrives, I prefer to fly just a tad longer and save a few eurocents on the fare at the same time.
The TGV is not very fast, but it will get you back to St. André eventually. That is, if it does not burn down (happened in the summer of 2008), does not close down (almost happened a few years ago), does not break down (happens every now and then, but less often than you would expect from vintage equipment that makes all kinds of strange mechanical noises), or simply gets delayed for some other reason (happens now and then). This might sound like I am not a great fan of the TGV, but in fact I am. I love it. If its owners would love their train and their employees just as much as I do, they would not muddle on in the current manner as they have done for so long. Every time I board that trembling train on those rickety tracks, I feel already at home. It somehow fits the flying mood I am in, since it is not very fast and there is lots of throwing about. It would be nice if it had seatbelts though, in order to prevent you from ending up everywhere except your seat. It would have even been better if it had been a steam train instead of diesel, but I guess I am just a bit too nostalgic for ancient technology. Like those perfect performance wings of 20 years ago, that were really top of the bill (20 years ago that is).
Currently (summer 2009), modernisation of the trains and the tracks are planned for 2011. Since this is France, it might take a while before the paper work and everything related to it has been smoothed out. The actual work might not be happening for a long time. Hopefully they will be able to conserve the special character of the TGV when the works start, but it probably will not be the TGV anymore. Considering the major modifications that have been made to the only other TGV in France, only the name will remain. Not the vibrations.
Sadly, some of the tracks have already been renewed, almost completely destroying the charming character of the train by replacing it with comfort. I was dreamily dozing off during my twentieth or so return from Digne to St. André this summer (2009), being cradled by the rhythm and music of the train, when all of a sudden I woke up frightened that something had terribly gone wrong with the train. It was no longer shaking, vibrating, or making loud warning noises. Contrary to what you might think or to what so called railway experts might tell you, these noises are meant to warn people not to cross the track when the train is coming, they are not caused by defects or ageing in any way. Fearing for my life in a derailed burning carriage, about to smash a window in order to save myself, my glider, and my fellow passengers, I realised that the train was still moving without any apparent problem. The TGV was smoothly floating on the newly laid tracks, almost without noise and vibration. For once, it felt like a real train. Like a Swiss train. Which, being in France, caused a rather strange sensation. Is there nothing sacred in this world!? What is up next? Paragliding with a motor strapped to your back? Guzzling gasoline while there are free thermals to be found?
Just an additional note: some visitors told me they were unable to find or book the aforementioned TGV. Please stop harassing the SNCF and note that in the region between Digne-les-Bains and Nice, TGV stands for Train à Grande Vibration and not for Train à Grande Vitesse.