The hostel I stayed at in Nice, Villa Exupery Beach, was good enough to organize adventure tours for the residents. Last Saturday, I decided to try the Canyoning Tour. I saw the video playing on a loop in the lobby and thought it could be fun, but I didn’t really know what I was signing up for. I was just looking for a change of pace, something besides museums and churches for a day. Five of us from the hostel signed up: Melanie, from Montreal, whose fluency in French was indispensable, especially because our guide Daniel’s English has fairly limited; Eric, the musician from Canada; Hariet, who had just spent the last year working in Paris and was taking some time off to see other parts of Europe before heading home to New Zealand; and Craig, the chef from Vancouver Island who, at 20, was the youngest of the group.
I wore my sandals, since there was no way I was tromping around in mountain streams with my new Asics, but when Daniel saw those he just shook his head. He wasn’t happy. Apparently, I needed different footwear. “The rocks, no good”. So we pawed through the bin of cast off hostel shoes and miraculously came up with a pair of lace-up Keds that fit. Now I had shoes! They wouldn’t last the day.
Then we all climbed into a van and headed up into the mountains. We were supposed to stop and buy supplies for lunch on the way, but we were running late and needed to make up time. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were crossing into Italy for this adventure. Ordinarily, the canyoning is done in France, but something was wrong with that location, so they changed the site to Italy the night before. We ended up at a scenic little town called Rocchetta Nervina, where we met up with about 10 other Aussies who were also going along. We all got helmets, 2 piece 5 mil wetsuits (heavy duty), dive socks and a harness dangling a couple of carabiner clips. Everyone fashioned their wetsuit into a makeshift backpack, stuffed all their gear into it, and we started trudging up a mountain trail to the head of the canyon. It took about an hour to reach the start point. A hot, sweaty hour. When we got there, we started squeezing into our gear. I swear, poor Melanie’s wetsuit was toddler-sized. But we eventually got geared up, were given about a minute of instruction, then were told that our first jump would be off a bridge. This bridge:
This was the START of canyoning. Not the big finale. The start. I knew then that it was going to be an interesting day. By the way, at no time did any of us ever sign any kind of liability waiver or next-of-kin paperwork. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.
I won’t try to describe everything we saw and did that day. As Eric said at one point while marveling at the scenery, “There are no words”. There was just so much, and it all went by in an adrenaline-fueled blur. Fortunately, I don’t have to describe it, because I found this cool video on YouTube that someone else took when they did the same route. It’s about 11 minutes long, pretty good quality, not too shaky and it’s set to music that sounds a lot like Freddie Mercury, so if you want to see some of things we experienced that day, it’s out there.
There were some moments from the day that do stick out for me though…
Talking to Hariet before that first jump off the bridge, when she confided that she had a problem with heights. Standing on the ledge of that bridge, I understood where she was coming from. Damn, that was a big first step.
Rappelling down a rock face with absolutely no training whatsoever. About half way through the decent, I just started laughing, partly because it was so much fun and partly because I was wondering how I was going to explain this to my insurance company. What was not so funny was when Melanie rappelled down. Her hair got caught up in the rope and harness. The water was loud and she was on the other side of the water, so none of us knew that she was having a serious problem. She managed to free herself without ripping the hair out of her scalp, but it took her a few minutes. After that, she put her hair up in a bun.
Snake! In the water! With us! The girls saw it first. They were not happy. I was just standing there watching it thinking “Cool”, until Eric hit the water near it, then Daniel started yelling “No good. Swim!” Then we all started moving away from the snake, as quickly as possible. I’m still not sure what kind it was, but when your guide tells you to move, you should probably move.
There was one boulder where we were given a choice: rappel or jump. “None of the above” was not one of the choices. I could see big rocks under the surface of that cool blue mountain water and I knew that they could do some pretty serious damage to bone and tissue. But the boulder jutted out quite a ways and I couldn’t see what I would have to deal with if I rappelled down. What did I do? I took three deep, purging breaths, one running start, and jumped out into space. In other words, I went with the devil I knew.
On the way back, Daniel took the scenic route, a windy mountain back road that was supposed to be two lanes, but was at best a lane and a half. Of course, we came came upon an SUV going the other way. I was on the driver’s side and I can vouch for the fact there was maybe an inch clearance between our vehicles. Then there was the hairpin curve where the guardrail was missing. As we sped up to and past it, I’m pretty sure our collective gasp sucked all of the air out of the van.
Water bugs. Big water bugs. Not like King-Kong-Skull-Island-bugs-the-size-of-dinner-plate big, but still, at a little bigger than quarters, they were the biggest water bugs I’d ever seen skittering on the surface.
Finally, near the end of the route, Craig and I were deep in the canyon, floating down that ice cold river, letting the current take us toward the warmth of direct sunlight waiting at the outlet a hundred yards downstream. Both of us were on our backs, looking up and utterly transfixed by the beauty of the canyon walls and the water streaming down on us when Craig simply said “This is why I travel”. Amen to that, my friend.