Monday 4.30 am. The alarm brutally wakes me up after a short and restless night. Half-awake, I walk to the shower in my hotel near Schiphol. My flight leaves at 07:50 am, and given how crowded the airport has been in the last weeks, I really have to be there at a quarter to six. Today I am going to the French region of La Plagne for Gearlimits, at the invitation of the tourist office over there.
After some yogurt and a glass of orange juice, that’s all my stomach tolerates at 5 o’clock in the morning, my bus leaves for Schiphol. The advice to be there at least 2 hours before departure, is not superfluous. The queue for customs zigzaggs outside of the building, back inside, upstairs and zigzagging again before me and my luggage can go through the detector.
Are you wearing a dress
At a quarter past 9, I arrive at Lyon airport. With a few long hours ahead of me, I sit down on a bench to wait for Sean, an English journalist with whom I share a taxi to Aime. His plane is delayed and there is nothing left to do but wait for him to arrive. I wait…and wait…until finally at 1 pm my phone rings. The taxi driver doesn’t me. She doesn’t speak English, I don’t speak French and Sean is taking over the phone. ‘Are you wearing a dress and are you waving at me?’ he asks. Of course, I’m not wearing a dress, because today there is survival training on the program ;-).
With another hour and a half of travel ahead, Sean and I chat in the back of the cab about his adventures since he is working as a travel writer for The Times. About that one trip when he learned to ski jump and that time he went to a nudist resort and ended up on the front page of the newspaper with his bare buttocks.
Survival in nature
After about 2 hours we arrive at the village of Aime, in the department of Savoie in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Guillaume, the survival guide, picks us up at the hotel and we are leaving Aime for survival training in the mountains.
On the way up we encounter a flock of sheep, which is guarded by Pyrenean mountain dogs and Anatolian shepherds. When I take a closer look at the dogs, I see that they are wearing metal spiked collars. It looks terrifying and Guillaume explains that the spikes protect the dogs from an attack from wolves. It makes me wonder…because the second night we will sleep in the woods.
Due to the delay earlier today, it is already late in the afternoon and there is a chance that there will be a thunderstorm. In 3 hours’ time, we get a crash course ‘survival in nature’, a training that Guillaume normally offers as a 2-day program.
Finding water, keeping yourself warm and creating shelter are vital skills. On a flat stretch next to the river we learn how to orientate ourselves with only a map, where we can find dry wood even when it is raining, that we can use resin from trees to make fire, that we can turn a simple poncho into a tarp and that we should never sleep right next to a river.
We make tea from pine needles. Guillaume says that when we bruise the light green tips of the tree branches and a citrus scent is released, it is safe to eat them.
Back at the hotel, I join dinner at 7 pm. Sean and I talk a bit about the day’s impressions, and I go to bed early because tomorrow will be another busy day.
Severine, the lady from the tourist office, is in front of the hotel at 8 am to take us to Essaonia rafting, where 2 French journalists will join us for a two-day rafting expedition.
We are welcomed by Pauline, Alice and Thibault, our guides for the next few days. After introductions, we start with yoga in an outside studio that also serves as a boat house, right next to the river Isère.
At first, the roar of the river distracts me, but soon the sound merges with the rhythm of the exercises. I have little experience, but Alice knows how to position me with small directions in such a way that the postures feel comfortable. Alice is very calm and with her smile, she encourages me to persevere when the going gets tough. We finish with breathing exercises that will come in handy during the rafting the next days. After an hour I feel relaxed and focused.
After coffee, we are introduced to fly fishing. Philippe, president of the local fly-fishing association, shows how he makes artificial flies from feathers or animal hairs, which imitate the natural food of the fish. Casting the line is a special technique and after Philippe’s explanation, we try it ourselves. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly not wrong for the first time.
After a delicious, fresh, vegetarian and primarily gluten-free lunch made by Pauline, it’s time to get the boat ready and pack our things. Today we will raft to a place to sleep in the forest. Everyone gets a dry bag, which contains a tent, sleeping bag and a sleeping mat. There is still a little bit of room for some personal items. It seems I’ll have to photograph 2 days with my iPhone instead of my camera, as there’s only just enough room left for dry clothes and a pair of flip-flops.
We put on a wetsuit, shirt, socks, shoes and a jacket and with the sun high in the sky, it is very hot with all those layers on top of each other. Within a few hours, I will find out that this is not a superfluous luxury. The snow in the mountains started to melt 10 days ago, which means that the water is now about 9 degrees.
La Plagne is proud of the part known as the ‘valley’, whose main asset is the river Isère, which rises in the Alpine massif and flows into the Rhone, 8 km upstream from Valence. The section located in the Haute Tarentaise contains 3 parameters that make the river truly “sensational”: the natural elevation of the terrain, the melting of the snow and the precipitation during the spring.
We start slowly and Pauline teaches us the commands. She knows the river well and sees exactly where we can and cannot pass and it is of the utmost importance to follow her directions if we want to avoid flipping the raft.
Arriving at a relatively quiet part of the river, we are supposed to practice swimming, in case someone falls overboard. “Remember this morning’s breathing exercises. When you get into the cold water, it seems like you can’t breathe…but you can.’
Rafting between steep rock walls
As a child, I was terrified when I had to swim underwater. The moment I can’t breathe often results in a panic attack. The longer I hesitate to do it, the harder it gets of course. I don’t want to be left behind and I ask Pauline if we can do it together. The idea is to swim to the middle of the river, turn on my back and let the current carry me along. Pauline is right behind me and the moment I’m completely in the water, I feel the cold of the river… right through every layer of the wetsuit. The cold takes my breath away and I gasp for air, just as a wave is approaching… Coughing and spluttering I see Alice and Thibault ahead. Just when I think I’m about to float past them, I feel my swimming strokes take hold and I join the others where Thibault tightens my apparently too loose life jacket one more time.
As we move through the valley of La Plagne, between Aime and Centron, impressive, steep rock walls suddenly rise on both sides of the river: the gorges de la Pucelle.
Not much further we arrive at the place where we will set up camp for the night. Our luggage has been brought with another raft and the boats are hung with tension straps against the upright sides of the riverbed. We set up camp, hang the wetsuits to dry and Sean makes a campfire with the knowledge we gained the day before.
With Alice, we do another yoga session under the tarp and meanwhile, a delicious fresh curry is made by Pauline. Around half-past 11 I fall asleep to the sound of the rain on my tent.
During breakfast, Sean tells that he heard a deer near the camp last night. Apparently, I slept pretty soundly, because I didn’t hear anything and I’m just glad that it was not a wolf. We put on our cold, still wet wetsuits. I am awake immediately, but luckily the neoprene heats up quickly. Along a steep and now slippery path, we bring all our gear to the raft for the last part of our trip. The rapids are more intense and longer than the day before, but with the very experienced Alice opposite me in the boat and the determination with which Pauline manoeuvres us through the water, I don’t feel unsafe, not even for a moment.
Back to square one
After an hour and a half, we are back at Essaonia, where we left yesterday. I say goodbye to the French journalists and Severine takes Sean and me to a caterer in Aime. We still have enough time for lunch on the terrace and Severine has arranged for us to have a quick shower in the local sports hall before the taxi leaves for the almost 2-hour ride back to the airport. In the car, I am already working on my travelogue and at Lyon Airport I say goodbye to Sean and I wait, again, for a delayed flight.
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