Leap Of Faith: Paragliding And Canyoning In Switzerland

Soar through the skies and jump into an icy river in Interlaken.  
paragliding over jungfrau
During the flight, paragliders get a clear view of the Jungfrau, Eiger, and Mönch peaks to the south. Photo: Sanjay Austa

Interlaken is a popular entry point to the Alpine attractions of Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland region, which includes the iconic Jungfrau peak and picturesque mountain villages. Yet, few know that the town has several active experiences on offer. On a recent visit, I budgeted an extra day in my itinerary for exploring Interlaken and ended up having some unexpected adventures.

Easy Morning Adventure

flying out from Beatenberg

Paragliding flights over Interlaken start from a meadow in Beatenberg, a 20-minute drive from the town. Photo: Sanjay Austa

The town of Interlaken is laid out below me like a map, its homes and hotels looking like squat Monopoly structures. I can see for myself where its name, which means “between two lakes”, comes from. Interlaken is located on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between two sparkling bodies of water, Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. A channel of green snaking through the town that links them is a shipping canal. In the large, green area in front of Höheweg, the town’s main street, paragliders are landing one after another, their gliders crumpling behind them. In another 15 minutes, I’m going to be one of them, but right now I’m soaring in the sky, eye-to-eye with a pair of eagles, on a 20-minute tandem flight. Andie, my instructor from AlpinAir, explains how thermals work as we catch one, and the glider is lifted with it to soar higher.

This is easy, I say to myself, grinning and wishing for more thermals to make our flight last longer. The take-off from a meadow near the village of Beatenberg, a 20-minute uphill drive from Interlaken, required a bit of work. I ran downhill with all the power I had as the glider rose up behind us and filled with air. But now, while Andie pilots the glider, pulling handles and ropes to manoeuvre us in the right direction, my sole assignment is to sit tight on my seat in the harness and have a good time. That, I can do. To aid matters, the universe has gifted me a perfect summer day. Though we’re pretty high up, about 2,500 feet, I’m still quite warm. Thin, long, wispy tendrils of cloud curl through the blue sky. They draw my eye to the snow-tipped Alpine peaks of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau that keep watch over Interlaken.

Lost in these sights, I murmur assent when Andie asks me if I’m holding on tight. Suddenly, the glider starts swinging. The snowy peaks are now to my right, then they’re gone, and the treetops on the hillsides that rise up behind Interlaken seem to be in touching distance. The glider oscillates like a pendulum in a grandfather clock, but instead of maintaining a stately pace, we rise higher with every turn until my feet almost point skywards. I’m alternately giggling and screaming, not from fear which I’ve overcome after the first swing, but from exhilaration. Then, just as quickly as it had started, the swinging stops, and Interlaken comes into focus again. This time it is closer and I can see sunlight reflect off swimming pools. There are people sitting in outdoor cafés along Höheweg boulevard, Interlaken’s focal point. The fields surrounding the town look like a patchwork quilt in many shades of green.

The end comes rapidly. Soon we’re over the Höheweg Green Area, and Andie guides me through the landing with a couple of simple instructions. I expect my feet to feel like jelly after being in the sky, but instead it is my jaws that hurt. I can’t imagine why until I see the photographs and videos of me from the flight, beaming excitedly through it all.

Notching It Up In The Afternoon

canyoning down the river

The fast-flowing river carries canyoners rapidly over smooth sections of rock, like a water slide. Photo: Sanjay Austa

After that divine feeling of freedom, it is almost anticlimactic when a few hours later I’m at the narrow gorge of Saxeten, my movements constrained by two layers of wetsuits and a helmet. I feel like I can barely move, let alone climb up a rock or slither down a waterfall, which is what I’m expected to do. Each step feels like a giant enterprise and oddly, it reminds me of the grainy video of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, and his ponderous first steps on the moon. But the terrain around me is positively unmoonlike. Far from barren, it has a dense under- and overgrowth of greenery.

Saxeten gorge is a 20-minute drive from Interlaken’s train station and that’s where I’m going canyoning. The sport involves making your way along a small rapidly flowing river using whatever form of movement that’s convenient for crossing a particular obstacle. By the end of 90 minutes I will have leapt, rappelled, slipped, slithered, climbed, hauled, fallen, rolled, and somehow bumbled my way along a two-kilometre stretch through this narrow gorge.

This course is for beginners, so the instructors at Alpin Raft have mapped every inch of it and figured out the best route for us to navigate, while staying safe and having fun. I quickly realise that the trick to having a good time is letting go and trusting the instructors. Of course, that can be incredibly hard to do when someone you’ve never met before is telling you to shut your eyes and jump backwards into a pool of foaming ice-cold water.

Instructor demonstrates the safe postures for canyoning

An instructor demonstrates the safe posture for canyoners while floating down the river, reminding them to flash a victory sign for the camera. Photo: Sanjay Austa

But a sweaty ten-minute uphill hike wearing two wetsuits can be excellent incentive for taking a cold dip. Casting doubts aside, the five of us in the group—two Koreans, one Chinese, one Swiss, and one Indian—leap in one after another, shrieking as we hit the cold water and it enters our wetsuits. After that, there is no turning back. The instructors rapidly lead us down the course, pointing to a foothold here, a handily tied rope there, to help us along the way. Where the water gushes rapidly over flat, smooth rock, we lie down and let it carry us along. We slither down short waterfalls and learn to rappel down longer ones. One of the instructors urges us to grin at his camera every once in a while, flashing us a morale-boosting thumbs up. After a while, we gain confidence and even begin to show off. In a very short while, an easy camaraderie develops between us and we help each other along, providing a helping hand or a push up when needed. When it is time to rappel into a particularly deep pool and one of the participants baulks at the idea, we cheer her on.

By the end of the course, I’m completely drenched, my knuckles are raw from trying to pull on two wetsuits and my thighs hurt. But I also feel great satisfaction at having pursued two adventures and having had a fantastic time with both.

Appeared in the Swiss Special February 2016 issue as “Leap of Faith”.

As the ferry over Lake Thun draws close to Interlaken, visitors can spot many colourful paragliders floating in the air. Photo: Sanya Austa

The Guide

Paragliding The tandem flight I took was the Top Flight offered by AlpinAir. It lasts for 15-20 minutes and provides a bird’s-eye view of Interlaken, the two lakes of Brienz and Thun, and the surrounding Alpine peaks. The trip includes a pickup from the Höheweg Green Area for the ride up to Beatenberg. Dress comfortably, carry a light jacket even in summer, and wear good shoes. Flights sometimes have to be rescheduled because of the weather (www.alpinair.net; CHF170/₹11,366 per person; 8 a.m.-6.30 p.m. daily).

Canyoning The three-hour beginner’s course I signed up for at Saxeten was offered by Alpin Raft. It requires average fitness levels and no prior experience, and is a great introduction to the sport. Carry a swimsuit and towel. Includes pickup from Interlaken (www.alpinraft.ch; CHF119/₹7,956 per person; 8.30 a.m., 12.30 p.m., and 3.30 p.m. daily from April to October).

Intensity Paragliding is an easy activity for all. Canyoning is best for those who are active and comfortable climbing up rocks and jumping into water.

Good To Know Visitors to Interlaken pay a resort tax that entitles them to a Guest Card with discounts for excursions and activities. It also offers free public transport through the region.

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    Neha Dara is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.

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    Sanjay Austa is a photographer, writer, and a part-time apple-orchardist. When he is not backpacking around the world, he divides his time between New Delhi and Himachal Pradesh.

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