Hitching a ride that begins at 10,000 feet

With the glories of the Auvergne spread out below him, Frank Jezierski summons up his courage and leaps from an aeroplane
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The Independent Travel

There are many ways to view the landscape of the Auvergne, not the least being from the edge of a very large hole in the bottom of an aeroplane, while not wearing a parachute. I was, however, wearing a parachutist. Loïc was firmly strapped to my back - or perhaps I was strapped to him - an admirable arrangement that enabled the novice to assign the prosaic details of life and death to the professional, the better to confront a state of mind which in the pre-euphemism age might have been described as rank cowardice.

There are many ways to view the landscape of the Auvergne, not the least being from the edge of a very large hole in the bottom of an aeroplane, while not wearing a parachute. I was, however, wearing a parachutist. Loïc was firmly strapped to my back - or perhaps I was strapped to him - an admirable arrangement that enabled the novice to assign the prosaic details of life and death to the professional, the better to confront a state of mind which in the pre-euphemism age might have been described as rank cowardice.

The knot in my stomach had grown ever tighter as we thundered skywards from the airfield, and shacks that proclaimed themselves to be "The European Parachute Centre". Ascending with us were members of the French national parachute team who, disconcertingly, had not engaged in the banter in which their young compatriots so loudly indulge on, say, a cross-Channel ferry. Where was their sense of fun?

Instead, these knights of the air, who might have been expected to jump 10,000 feet into emptiness as readily as the rest of us jump into a bath, stared grimly ahead, their expressions suggesting that they were thinking the unthinkable about what they considered a sombre, inescapable duty. Surely they could have injected a little synthetic levity for the sake of their terrified novice companions?

Suddenly they rose, performed arcane bonding rituals suggestive of an antipodean rugby team's, formed a circle, and soundlessly vanished into the hole. Others on board the surprisingly spartan and appropriately named Skyvan followed. Each time, I tried to stifle negative thoughts about the quality and preparation of the chute. My companion, Finbar, who had seen his fears over what would be our first jump reflected in me, became increasingly agitated as this dark metallic cavern emptied and his moment approached. But my turn came first.

As I quivered forward with Loïc, the brown-hued land below seemed almost ethereally distant. Fleeting thoughts of "I really can't do this" had to be suppressed, and, anyway (though my recollection is hazy) Loïc behind me gave an unconcerned nudge.

Then I was tumbling through the light, before rapidly stabilising as Loïc and I put ourselves into the recommended spread-eagle position, our heads back as if, despite the pain from the wind raging in my ears, I was experiencing an extended moment of physical delight (which I almost was).

My fear completed the metamorphosis into elation as Loïc pulled the cord to open the chute and we were gliding down over a mottled vista of woods and fields stretching into the haze. He steered us almost precisely to the spot where the 20-minute epic had begun.

Would I parachute again? Some of those at the Parachute Centre were doing repeated jumps, the cost of which would have run to nearly £1,000 a day. However, for physical thrills the £28-a-time white-water ride down the Allier river might seem a better deal (and leave change for the magnificent Michelin two-star restaurant of the same name to which we were later treated).

The delights of the Haut Allier were a reminder that the Auvergne is a paradise for the active holidaymaker - although the warnings of our leader, Jean, had struck a discordant note as we contemplated the smooth, quiet-flowing waters ahead of us. Feet must be wedged into the edge of the boat, he said. Failure to heed his advice could have dire consequence.

Despite its appearance at the starting point of our ride, the Haut Allier is as far as can be imagined from the serenity of the Loire, of which it is a tributary. Minutes after departing downstream we were riding cataracts beneath soaring cliffs and crags. An ancient monastery was the last apparent habitation. If there were mountain folk watching us as in the Jon Voight movie Deliverance, they concealed themselves well. But there was scarcely time to look at the buzzards overhead or the historic Paris railway hewn along the rock beside us. All was roaring water and alarming drops where the river fell so rapidly that it was invisible until we were riding down. This ride was three hours of concentration, scares - and exhilaration.

The highlight of our visit to the Auvergne was supposed to be the spa at Vichy, where we stayed in the luxurious Hotel des Célestins. There, in the name of Gallic concepts of good health, I was steered into a bath. In comparison with parachuting and riding white water, this was a truly tepid pursuit. I made my excuses and left.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Ryanair flies daily from Stansted to St Etienne from around £70 return.

Where to stay

Sofitel Les Célestins (00 33 4 70 30 82 00; www.accorhotels.com), Boulevard des Etats-Unis, Vichy has doubles from €240 (£165).

What to do

A tandem jump costs €230 (£160) at the European Parachute Centre in Lapalisse Aerodrome (00 33 4 70 99 18 03; www.lapalisse-aero.com). Tonic Aventure (00 33 4 71 77 25 64; www.tonic-aventure.fr), Base Ile d'Amour, Langeac, offers half-day rafting for €40 (£28) per person.

Further information

Comité regional du tourisme d'Auvergne (00 33 4 73 29 49 49; www.auvergne-tourisme.info).

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