As white-knuckle rides go, rafting is a thrill, but it's not for the faint hearted, as Catherine Eade discovers
The sound of 13,000 litres of water per second whooshing down the rapids just below me almost drowns out the pounding of my heart. I glance over at my two teenagers – paddles poised – waiting for the command.
‘Forward!’ shouts the guide at the back of our boat and we paddle furiously, driving into the foaming torrent below, the icy-cold water seeping inside my wetsuit, every cell in my body tingling. I open my eyes to check my children are OK and notice that they too are soaked through – and grinning from ear to ear.
Admittedly, we’re not in the notoriously dangerous rapids of the River Zambezi or the Niagara Gorge, but at the Lee Valley White Water Centre in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire.
However, the experience feels every bit as real and exciting as if we were paddling for our lives.
The stretch of rapids my children and I are tackling was created for the 2012 Olympics and, while safety is paramount – with a team waiting to rescue those who tumble into the water – the 300m Olympic course with its Grade 4 rapids and 5.5m descent is no picnic.
We’d started our day with a safety briefing in which Chris, our personable young instructor, had outlined some of the possible hazards of the activity ahead of us in such a humorous way I genuinely believed that we would paddle around the Olympic course with the minimum amount of drama.
Kitted out in wetsuits, buoyancy life-vests and helmets, we’d practised how to pull people back into the boat in case they fell out. (How we laughed!) Then came the ‘swim test’ in which each of us had to leap into the water and allow ourselves to be carried by the rapids down river feet first, then swim ‘aggressively’ to the bank.
Finally climbing inside the raft, we’d learned the manoeuvres: how to paddle forwards, backwards, lean to the right and left, duck down in the boat and sit with ‘paddles up’ to keep them out of the way.
I hadn’t considered that the other people in our boat, four women and two men, might turn out to be more interested in thrillseeking than I’d expected. Although perhaps the wet hair and general air of dishevelment of those returning after their session should have given me a clue of what was to come…
Five enormous water pumps each weighing five tonnes force water around the circular course, while 1200 underwater ‘Rapid Blocs’ (like giant Lego bricks) change the way the water behaves for different competitions.
In amongst the big blue rubber rafts we spot hardened canoeists and kayakers battling their way round the course where Team GB won gold and silver in the London 2012 Canoe Slalom Event.
My teens watch incredulously as a canoeist in a Team GB vest is flipped upside down by the furious swirling waters and rights herself effortlessly.
Since first opening in April 2011, more than 600,000 people have visited the Lee Valley centre, and various athletes, Olympian medal winners and up-for-it celebrities have braved the Olympic course.
While I have two of my children, Alice (16) and Joel (17) joining me on the white-water rafting course, one of the other groups is headed by an 85-year-old great grandfather.
Don Tozer is one of the oldest people to ever raft down the centre’s famous Olympic run and he’s gathered 17 of his children, grandchildren and other family members onto two rafts to celebrate his birthday with an adrenalin-boosting adventure.
After two quite manageable and hugely enjoyable rounds of the course, and a rather hairy third round where only by grabbing the thigh of the man next to me did I avoid falling in, Chris asks the team if we want to ‘step it up a bit more’.
To my surprise, everyone shouts 'yes!'.
Ten minutes later, as the raft rears up and flips everyone into the swirling eddies, self-preservation kicks in and I grab the rope which runs around the outside of the boat, hanging on for dear life.
It’s only when I open my eyes I realise that I am now the only one left in the boat other than Chris.
My son Joel is swimming to the side further upriver, and Alice is floating down the rapids towards me with an expression that’s a little closer to fear than enjoyment. Chris pulls her back into the boat and she manages a smile despite her soaking.
Our fellow rafters appear one by one appear on the bank and climb back into the raft, adrenaline racing, and there is much good natured ribbing about the events of the last five minutes.
We’ve managed to negotiate four rounds of the course in just less than an hour, each one more extreme than the last, and Chris announces that it’s time to call it a day. The relief on Alice’s face as we paddle back to dry land is unmistakeable.
The next day I phone the centre to ask after Don, who apparently ‘loved it’. (Having run the London marathon aged 75, he’s clearly even more of an adrenaline junkie than me.)
Would I recommend it to others? No doubt about it, a white-water rafting experience makes a great after-dinner story – but if you do go, expect a jolly good dunking.