We woke up early in Camping Huttopia, the air still relatively cool and fresh at this early hour. We had arranged a meet at 8.45am, on a tiny lane about 25 minutes away from the campsite. The company had been concerned we might struggle to find it, but it proved easy and spacious enough for Benny. One car was already parked up, and soon after our guide and the other participants arrived. There would be nine of us in total, ten with the guide. We were handed our required gear; wetsuit, over-jacket with hood, socks, helmet, climbing harness, then briefed with an ingenious way to carry it all by stuffing it inside the wetsuit and forming a rucksack by folding up the legs and looping them through the shoulders. We all faced a 40 minute walk into the canyon before the fun could begin.
Once we arrived near the start of the canyon we suited up and awaited instruction. We were all instantly sweltering in the thick neoprene suits and anxious to get submerged in the cool subterranean water for the first time. After a briefing in both French and English, we followed our guide Jeremy in single file into the canyon. We started simply by sliding in to a small circular pool, feeling the cold water creep into our suits and relieving the sticky build-up of heat and sweat. The air was fresh and clean, the water refreshingly chilly. We moved deeper through the glorious chasm, it mostly open to the blue sky above but cool and shaded at the water level. Patches of light and shadow bounced around on the walls above. Jeremy pointed out the water line in times of flood , about 10 metres above us.
Stone smoothed from eons of fast flowing water formed chutes for us to whoosh down, great circular sinkholes to jump into, narrow fissures to crawl through, each ending in a wild splash somewhere in the deep water below. Our wetsuits granted immediate buoyancy as we popped up like corks and floated downstream. We climbed fixed ropes and jumped from six metres into pools. We saw small curious tiny snakes in the water that swam at us and tried to nibble on our wetsuits. Our last event was a high climb to an overhanging rock. Then in turn we each clipped onto a feeder rope and were lowered backward to a ledge before undertaking a bouncing abseil to a point a few metres above a deep pool. From here our guide released the rope and we fell with a sudden drop into the darkness below.
It was exhilarating in parts and fascinating throughout. The canyon forms were wonderful to look at and to touch, and floating on your back looking up at the curved white walls to the sky was a magical, out-of-body experience. We didn’t want to leave the water, as we all knew what awaited – a dusty, hot, shade-deprived walk back to our vehicles, erasing all the comfortable coolness of the canyon. Nicky chastised one lazy French boy for dragging his wet kit in the dust, something we’d been asked several times to try to avoid. He was such a sullen teenager in his demeanour, constantly dropping his kit and water bottle in the dirt, complaining all the time about the length of the walk. We arrived back, thanked our guide and climbed back into Benny, glad to be away from the moaning teen.
We had a couple of places in mind to stop tonight, and pulled into the first, a paid aire at the foot of Moustiers-Saint-Marie for a look. The act of stopping was enough to convince us to stay, so we parked up, awning and chairs out, and collapsed in the shade hoping for a breeze. We bought the €8.60 ticket from the machine to overnight, although several vans planned to leave before 8am when the local police arrive to check. After lunch we decided to brave the sun and visit the town, set only a few hundred metres away, up a steep hill. There was an easy path to the centre from right opposite the aire. We walked the left side desperate for shade from a boundary wall as the afternoon was again in the 40°s. The close, oppressive heat sucked all the energy and drive from us as we floundered along.
It was an undeniably pretty village, all set in a backdrop of steep mountains. The colourfully neat, flower-strewn streets were lined with wonderful ceramic shops and boutique stores. We nipped into each of them in turn for their welcome coolness rather than any desire to buy their wares. But whatever momentary relief we gained made venturing outside again all the more difficult, like entering a sauna direct from a freezer. We continued our walk up to the chapel above the town, feeling we should, for the rooftop views if nothing else. We retreated back down to the Tourist Office which had both free Wifi and quality air-conditioning. We lingered there much longer than we should have, putting off a return to the furnace. Finally, we moved on, found a small supermarket and bought beers.
We returned to Benny and sat outside with cold drinks, dreaming of a breeze, of shade and of swim spots passed. We sipped our beers in between cold flannel washes, wondering what else we could do to stay cool. On seeing the local Fire Brigade pass by towing a small boat, we had sudden hope that just below the aire there was a river we could cool off in. After rushing down in a fog of excitement, we were left disappointed to find that there was a trickle of a river, but it was inaccessible due to barbed-wire fencing and thick weeds. There would be no cooling dip for us this night. We spent the evening trying to get cool, but without shade the interior of Benny was stuck in the high 30s and this made it impossible to relax. It was long past midnight before the heat reduced enough to allow us to dose.