Only the bravest are prepared to walk the walk on white-knuckle ride
John Powell joins fellow hikers from Dartmoor’s Moor Strollers group on an action-packed trip to the French Alps.
It all started so well. The giant red whale of an inflatable that was to take us on our white-water rafting adventure lay beached on the banks of the turbulent River Giffre in the heart of Sixt-Fer-a-Cheval not far from Geneva.
The voyage in the flimsy raft through a series of rapids and the Gorges des Tines was to be the climax of our Alpine holiday with companions from the Moor Strollers, a Dartmoor walking group.
Just five of us were brave enough, or foolish enough, to undertake the hour-long voyage along the river, swollen by melting snow high up in the Alps, and Yann, the young oarsman at the rear of the raft, made it clear what he thought.
"You will be scared, you will be frightened, but you will not die," he said. He had already taken three parties through the gorge that day.
Gael Bertolini, the man in charge of NunaYak, the rafting company in Sixt, told me that the French had no equivalent for the English phrase "white knuckle" – and winked.
As we set off the white water whipping off the front of the raft grew, in my mind at least, to tsunami proportions – Yann was right. "The first rapid is the worst – or the best, of course," he yelled. At his signal we stopped paddling and crouched in the bottom of the inflatable, which seemed to have developed a life of its own, leaping, twisting and wriggling.
Wall after wall of icy white water crashed into us, filling the inflatable. Ah, I realised, that's what the holes are for in the bottom that I was so worried about to begin with but was too timid to point out to Yann. They drain water out, not let it in.
Four more rapids followed plus our passage through the gorge – a narrow, gloomy defile waiting to catch the unwary with a crack on the head or a sudden ducking.
As we flew down to Samoens on tidal waves only slightly less intimidating than before, we felt elation, a sense of triumph and allowed ourselves high fives all round.
But, what was this? A raft full of shouting schoolchildren charged by at ramming speed and swamped us with water and jeers – wow.
The white water rafting was something of a diversion on the last day of our walking trip to the Alps, organised by Liz Miall, leader of the Moor Strollers. The 17 of us had set up our base in two chalets on the outskirts of Sixt – which is about 40 miles from Geneva in the Haut Savoie – run by Gill and Graham Giles of L'Oreade Chalets.
Liz, who while she is a trained Dartmoor guide, stresses she is not an Alpine expert or a mountain guide, had spent the previous week in the area checking out various walking routes on our behalf.
On one we trekked from the Col de Joux Plane to La Bourgeoise at 1,770 metres high for views of snow-covered Mont Blanc, another took us up the valley of the Giffre to le Fond de la Combe by spectacular waterfalls with mountain peaks all around.
On our return, a national park ranger pointed out Ibex, the Alpine goats hereabouts, impossibly perched on sheer cliffs. They climb to such amazing places to lick salt from the rocks he told us. "And how do they get down?" I asked. "By parachute," he said, keeping a straight face.
Liz had carefully planned our walking itinerary to build us up to a crescendo on the penultimate day – a true trek which would see us climb steadily up 700 metres for two hours through the tree line and out into Alpine meadows. It was an exhausted troop that reached the isolated refuge at Bostan-Tornay for a cool drink.
A strange whistling greeted our arrival and it was only then we spotted the marmots we had hoped to see all week. Small, furry rodents, they were lounging in the sun near the refuge and occasionally whistled loudly, presumably if alarmed. Alpine choughs swooped low and there was a profusion of butterflies – marble white, swallowtail, orange tip and the diminutive Marazion blue.
On the way back we met Franck, who runs the Sherpa supermarket in Sixt, perched on his mountain bike ready for his hair-raising descent. He recognised us and greeted us as long-lost friends. Who's running the shop, I wondered? "I've got to get back to open up," he said, and off he careered.
He really rather summed up the friendliness of the local Savoyards, from Ghislaine in the Auberge de la Feuille d'Erable at Sixt who gave us all a glass of the local digestif Genepi – "gratuit" – after our meal, to the ranger at the horseshoe shape Cirque de Fer-a-Cheval, with its spectacular waterfalls, who took a lot of effort explaining and showing us the countryside he is obviously so proud of.
For one of our walks Liz let us have a breather – by taking a chair lift from Maison Neuve to Les Vagnys – more usually the form of transport for skiers. It runs all year because walking in the summer is as big an industry here as skiing in the winter.
Thunder bellowed and lightning cracked as we swung our way down the mountain with spectacular views
John Powell and the Moor Strollers walking group stayed at two chalets run by Gill and Graham Giles through the company Chalets l’Oreade in Sixt. The couple, who used to run a restaurant in Hatherleigh, will provide guests with a daily continental breakfast for 35 euros a week and evening meals each day costing 14-28 euros. They are also a mine of useful local information. To find out more go to chalet-loreade.com
NunaYak, run by Gael Bertolini, has a base in both Sixt and nearby Samoens. White-water rafting between the two centres costs 36 euros for adults, which includes wetsuits, life jackets, helmets and friendly expert help and advice from Gael and his crew. NunaYak also offers canyoning, climbing using local via ferrata routes and hydrospeed, aka white-water ‘sledging’. See alpes-rafting.com
Sixt is a pretty, small village with some excellent restaurants including the Auberge de la Feuille d’Erable and No 27, both serving local Savoie dishes as well as a range of other meals. Chez Claudine is a bar with an excellent terrace alongside the River Giffre and the local Sherpa supermarket is small but well stocked and run by the friendly Franck.