taking the plunge
The tortuous roads of Cilaos, whose ambitiously-drawn dividing lines at times make it impossible to stay in one’s lane, barely leave enough room for two cars traveling in opposite directions to pass one another. Yet, we somehow found enough space to park three cars at the point where the road bisected the Fleur Jaune canyon and to spread a tarp so that we could equip ourselves for the adventure that lay ahead. Undressing by the side of the road, we donned polyprene vests, wriggled into full-length wetsuits, and ensconced ourselves in long-sleeved hooded jackets with a bottom that had to be clipped around the right leg, resembling a leotard. Over all of these layers we put on thick jumpsuits to ensure that the polyprene would not tear. We were also issued helmets and harnesses so that, by the time we were dressed, we looked as we were headed for some strange space mission.
Entering the canyon, we had the opportunity to practice our rappelling technique on a couple of small falls, roping in from above and using an eight to control our descent as we walked down the sheer wall at an almost perpendicular angle while pulling the rope taut to brake, thereby maintaining balance. Satisfied that we had mastered the technique, the guide led the way to the first of seven larger falls.
Fleur Jaune’s distinguishing characteristic is its narrow chutes, which had been chiseled into the smooth, sheer rock walls by a steady stream of fast-rushing water. When the water level is high, as it was at the end of the rainy season, walking down the slippery rocks with the cascade beating down on us often proved impossibly difficult. Thus, we descended many of the falls on our back, gliding down nature’s water slides while taking in the views, occasionally sneaking a peak at the pools of water below as we fed the rope inch by inch through our eights.
A few of the pools were shallow, but most offered excellent cliff jumping opportunities while we waited for the guide to set up for the next descent. Most of the falls were between 10 and 25 meters, a few of them being wide enough for two people to descend simultaneously. We tried that once, but tangled our ropes so that S, who had gone first, wound up tugging on D with her rope. On one particularly sheer segment, the guide purposely shortened the rope so that somewhere in the bottom quarter of the waterfall we literally arrived at the end of the rope and had to let go, plummeting into a deep pool of refreshingly cold water, whose temperature had been quoted as 13° Celcius (55° F). The highlight of the day was a 55-meter waterfall, which left our arms numb with exhaustion. The rope was so heavy and water-logged that we were forced to pull it through our eights in order to descend, only at the very bottom reaching a point when it slid through on its own, requiring us to brake in order not to fall the rest of the way.
After rappelling down 300 meters (1,000 ft) of Fleur Jaune, we arrived at a part where the canyon flattened out. One could go further, but the descent was more technical and the way back up significantly tougher. Instead, we changed into dry clothes and had lunch before packing our wet, heavy gear into backpacks to lug it back to the top. The return route looked as if it had been forced into an unaccommodating mountainside. We kept our helmets and harnesses, clipping into multiple lengths of rope that were anchored either to pitons or to the roots of trees to facilitate what proved to be an arduous 45 minute climb, which offered as compensation sensational views of the canyon we had just descended.