tzerland! Deep lakes, high mountains, edelweiss and cheese. Also the home of world class freedivers and my destination back in June to take part in a freediving meeting in Locarno, by Lake Majore.
At the Cyprus competition I had met three Swiss freedivers, and they had invited me to the meet, entitled ‘Freediving friends seeking for the sources’. One bucket flight later and I found myself in Zurich where I took a legendary efficient train down to Locarno. The scenery was spectacular, as I passed, nose pressed up against the glass of the only non-smoking carriage, perfectly clipped near vertical fields and gardens, Heidi houses and Mordor style mountains which touched the sky.
I was taken to a house high above the lake and sat back on the veranda, wondering how my communication skills were going to hold up over the weekend. Switzerland has four official languages and I could speak none of them. Well, not entirely true. I could give directions to ‘la Banque’ in French, say ‘Help help! My arm is broken (or was that leg?)’ in German and declare ‘I have the head of a watermelon’ in Italian, which, surprisingly, has got me out of several tricky situations in the past. My hosts however were gracious and helped me by translating and trying not to laugh when I spoke.
Despite Switzerland having perfect lake diving conditions, we were going to recreational freedive in rivers around Locarno. The first morning we were up early to meet with local freedivers and drive in convoy up to the Verzasca Valley. Among our party of about fifteen were Joanna Massacand, member of the Swiss team and national record holder, Fred Goliasch, the team coach, and Massimo Romano the AIDA Swiss President.
Safety was paramount and there were constant warning signs about the dangers of the rapids. Despite the warmth in the air and sunshine it was only twelve degrees at the surface and so suited up in my 7mm suit and a pair of borrowed bi fins. The water was crystal clear and we spent about forty-five minutes in each section, exploring nooks, picking up glittering stones and writing our names in the silt on the bottom. The depth never got below 8 metres and me and my buddy Susanne Jegge, who runs the Dolphin Cup, never lost sight of each other.
We then walked up the road to a new section of river, which had a chute of water at the far end. We took turns carefully swimming around a protective rock and then swimming up underneath the force of the water as far as you could against the flow. It was the most delicious sensation as my whole vision filled with tiny bubbles and I clung onto a rock underwater as long as I could before being dragged out of the washing machine into calmer waters, laughing hysterically.
We had lunch on the rocks in the sunshine and picked tiny alpine strawberries. It was so like the Switzerland I had in my imagination that I half expected the Von Trapp Family to climb over the hills to the sound of music. As I lazed about, I watched some of our group jumping off the overhanging rocks ten metres down into the water below. Due to vertigo my stomach was turning at this, and the feelings didn’t improve when we drove back down the valley and stopped at the huge dam which a fine British man, Mr James Bond, bungy jumped off at the opening of ‘Goldeneye’. Crawling to the edge and looking over, I tried calculating how far down my personal best was and how far down were the no-limits records… There were plenty of people emulating the Bond bungy experience, but I was most certainly not one of them…
That evening we were fed like kings at the local Cultural Centre with an Italian banquet and I staggered to sleep well after a proper freedivers bedtime.
The next morning we had a non freedivers breakfast of crepes with butter and nutella. Well, it’s a holiday, not a competition! We drove in convoy up a second valley, ‘Majore’ for a mixture of freediving, climbing and ‘Canyoning’, whatever that meant. Just as long as it didn’t involve heights… The water was stiller in the pools we swam through and much warmer, with the temperature being twenty degrees on the surface. It was breathtakingly beautiful as we swam through tiny gorges, with white rock walls. The sun glittering through the water and catching the scales of the fish who flicked away around us.
There were ‘caves’ which went in about four or five metres deep, and we also spent a lot of the time out of the water, scrambling up rocks to get to the next pools. Igor, the leader of our group informed us that there was an optional jump coming up into the next pool. I had spent the weekend watching people jumping off heights and felt so frustrated that I had not yet conquered fear number 453. I announced that I would jump. ‘Carazy Eengleesh’! came the response as they recalled my hands and knees reaction to the dam. I stood overlooking the water about eight metres below and my stomach turned. It reminded me of my first visit to the SETT tank in Portsmouth where I couldn’t even leave the side in case I ‘fell’… Soon all the others had climbed down and were waiting for me. My mind told me I was going to die. My body told me I was going to throw up.
And landed. On my backside.
The pain. Oh the pain. I had shut my eyes as I leapt (fell?), and had instinctively brought up my knees, thus maximising the impact on the base of my spine. It still amazes me how any of the water stayed in the river… I had not conquered my fear but had confirmed it. Never, ever again!
Limping on we reached the final pool, almost totally walled in by steep rocks, cutting out the light and giving the still water a very peaceful feel. This was the deepest of the sections, sixteen metres deep in the centre and I swam down a couple of times to surface on the second next to a diver who had found a dead snake at the bottom. Yum…
We clambered back to the road and walked the easy way down in time for me to get the train and plane home. It was an amazing weekend in an incredible setting with a bunch of wonderfully friendly funny people. It was cheap to get to and the weather was perfect. Hopefully next visit I will get to dive in the lakes and I also intend travelling to the Dolphin Cup in January.
Many thanks to the organisers, in particular Igor Liberti. I’m now off for another appointment with the Osteopath