Readers of Slow Bleed will know that Dr Jemma Sands flees the police through the Gorges du Verdon, one of Europe’s mightiest canyons. This month I revisited the canyon to see if I could put myself through Jemma’s endurance test.
Driving upwards through the Gorges du Verdon – the French equivalent of the Grand Canyon – the sinuous echo-ey blues of Led Zeppelin on the car stereo seemed the perfect accompaniment. The Gorges du Verdon is a couple of hours north and a world away from the trashy glitz of St Tropez. This mountain area is for hikers, kayakers and extreme sports enthusiasts. This is the real France, nothing to do with vulgar yachts and Beyoncé/Jay-Z/Kanye Riviera bling.
Canyoning is a mixture of rock jumping, abseiling and swimming – well, to be honest, more like doggy paddling on my part. It apparently traces its origins back to Native American Indians, who would descend from the scorpion-hot plains in summer to camp at the bottom of cool canyons.
The adventure starts easily enough scrambling over rocks as you work your way down the canyon. All you can hear is the roar of water. Soon, I was pushing myself along improvised rope zip wires and jumping 20 feet off cascading waterfalls into dark rock pools, where the shock of the cold water makes you gasp. And this is in high summer.
Our guide was ever-so-slightly ridiculously too cool for school, wearing a khaki kepi beneath his rock climbing helmet. You felt that he and his colleagues were the sinewy mountain men who would have led the Resistance in the war.
The highpoint for me was a potholing moment when our guide pushed me down a hole you would have to be a fairly supple rat to squeeze through, and I found myself traversing a rock face on my back before plunging into icy water.
After a couple of hours of the daredevilry getting riskier and vertical drops getting steeper, I did start to wonder why I was going this. Compared to my teenage companions, I felt like an old horsehair sofa lumbering down the valley – next morning a couple of springs had definitely gone. The anaesthetic bliss of a large gin and tonic or wolfing down an entire packet of chocolate biscuits was the only thing that kept me going, as our guide would grin, “Ca va?” before another death-defying leap. And that’s the thing. Once you start, you cannot turn back. Hanging there in pitch dark, with freezing water pounding my head, the moment before being dropped into an even colder pool, I did wonder, “Wait, and I’m paying for this?”
Having finally staggered back to my hire car weighed down with crash helmet, safety harness and claustrophobic wetsuit, I did feel a sense of achievement though. Not for me the listless selfishness of staring into a holiday villa swimming pool – I had achieved something with my afternoon.
You can go canyoning with Aboard Rafting, Castellane (8, place de l’eglise 04120 Castellane). Tel +33 4 92 83 76 11 or email firstname.lastname@example.org