After closing my eyes for a brief period mid-flight, I opened them at what seemed to be the perfect time, as the clear sky presented a flat farmland plateau. The rigid plan-like uniformity of the ground below slowly disappeared – trees arose and scarred the landscape like moss on a stone.
The descent into Lyon brought with excitement and a little nervousness. What I had planned was three activity filled days. To me, it looked a little too much on paper, and I wondered if I had passed, not so much the age-limit, but the energy threshold for such a break. I wondered if I still had what it took, or if the many years of exercise postponement had set me out on the ‘all-inclusive/bus-tour’ path. If nothing else, the next three days were going to be challenging.
At Lyon airport our ever-cheerful guide Caroline from les Hautes-Alpes tourist office greeted us, before loading us in her van and setting out towards Embrun. The road meandered through the breathtaking French mountainous panorama, with each turn presenting a view worth a thousand photos. Embrun itself was the picturesque quaint little hillside town, full of charm and historic beauty. After a brief walk around, we headed to Luc Eyriey’s chocolatier, where we indulged in a tasting that brought pleasure to the taste buds.
I arrived at Château de La Robeyère around 8pm and admired this vast and imposing French countryside from the hotel’s patio over a much needed coffee, before heading out for a local framboise wine-fuelled dinner.
The next morning we packed our bags and donned our hiking boots for the 350-metre climb to Dormillouse. The climb was tough in parts, but partly distracted by thunderous ice blocks crashing down the mountainside, I made it with no real strain. We sat down to have lunch at the Gîte de l’Ecole in Dormillouse, which provided us with a spectacular view over our ascent and the snow topped peaks that rose high above.
Serre-Ponçon Lake was next, for a short boat ride to Rousset to receive our stand-up paddle initiation. Jérôme from Association Serre-Ponçon Aloha was our instructor, and at first it seemed like not much instruction would be needed. It was so much fun, and I was a natural, paddling faster and faster until… the confidence I had built up disappeared in one quick slip. I went from vertical to horizontal in the blink of an eye, and the crack of a nose. I struggled back onto the board, much like a seal onto land. And laughed along with everyone, but my confidence had vanished, along with my pride.
I hung up my paddle and headed back to the hotel for a well deserved four-course meal and fell asleep, possibly concussed. On the menu for the next morning was an electric bike ride to Place Forte de Mont-Dauphin which, in 2008, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Damien, our escort from Cyclotourisme, went over the basics of the bike before we set out. It would assist me in peddling, and, even on very steep inclines, it was assured it would be a breeze. I loved it. I instantly began picturing all the faces of the people and cultures I would see on my round-the-world cycle. I reached 60kmph at one point, albeit downhill. I passed many of the archaic ‘human powered’ bikes on the way with ease, and a sly chuckle.
We reached Mont-Dauphin and all its beauty after one easy hour of cycling through the supposedly steeply inclined country roads. After a brief lunch in the picture-postcard town, we set out towards the Durance River where I was to be baptized in the art of river rafting. I was told on the way that it was for six-year olds and above. So I felt at ease with that. However, on arriving, Pierre, our guide from Adelante Rafting, told us that we were “lucky”, the summer came early and the snow melt has produced a faster “more torrential” route.
“Good news,” I said with unrestrained sarcasm. I stood at the riverbank watching the upturned rafts of people flow by at a “more torrential” pace. “I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Pierre reassured me. I was not reassured.
It was time; Pierre went over some instructions in French. “Just do what everyone else does,” he said to me with a smile. So, we set out, and I screamed along with everyone else, as instructed. The river picked up pace, and we bobbed and ebbed along, narrowly missing rocks and paddling franticly away from the river’s edge. My adrenaline was racing, and I wanted more, to go faster. I survived the river, and, with it, the trip.
I watched the sunset over this magnificent place from my window and reminisced. The few days spent in les Hautes-Alpes had made me feel like a kid again, and I promised myself that, at least once a year, I would take an activity-filled break like this.