Weâ€™re white-water rafting in the suburbs of London. Itâ€™s one of those absurd concepts that modern man has dreamt up, Faust-like, seemingly to goad his Creator. Not content with the rushing torrents of Dartmoor, the Highlands or Snowdonia, let alone the great rivers of Africa or New Zealand, you can now take the 09.42 from Liverpool Street station to Waltham Cross and, half an hour later, arrive at a series of purpose-built foaming rapids.
Itâ€™s all down to the Olympics. Iâ€™m at the spanking new Lee Valley White Water Centre, an artificial cascade powered by massive pumps, built at a cost of Â£31m to host five days of slalom canoeing next summer. In the glorious language of London 2012, the site is opening this weekend as â€œan early legacyâ€. In fact, itâ€™s the only new Olympic venue that members of the public can use before the Games begin.
Already thereâ€™s one lovely legacy, the low-slung wood-and-glass clubhouse by architects Faulkner Browns. But the rest is not much to look at â€“ a 300-metre circular waterway descending to a lake, with a conveyor belt taking the rafts back up to the start. This isnâ€™t how I remember white-water rafting. The only time Iâ€™ve done it before was on the Zambezi: millions of litres of crashing water created a rainbow-like mist, crocodiles were rumoured to be lurking nearby and an elephant had recently been washed over the falls. In contrast, the Lee Valley version, with its concrete banks, feels more like a sewage works on a choppy day. Although, to be fair, the impressively clean water sparkles in the sun like an Alpine stream.
White-water rafting isnâ€™t yet an Olympic sport. But Paskell Blackwell, the Great Britain team captain whoâ€™s showing me round on an early preview, hopes that by 2028 it will have become one. Rafting will be the main use for the centre after the Olympics because canoeing in rapids is too demanding for anyone outside the â€œpaddle communityâ€, as he puts it.
Itâ€™s easy to scoff at the Olympic jargon but you quickly forget such niceties when youâ€™re wetsuited up and squashed into an inflatable raft with eight others. We practise our moves. Actions are limited to paddling forward or back, leaning right or left and getting down into the boatâ€™s hull. Then weâ€™re off.
The screaming is what makes it. Blackwell tells us to begin paddling and soon flat open water gives way to a slight incline. Our momentum builds and then â€“ whoosh, we drop into the first rapid. Thereâ€™s a collective groan and we all unleash a cry of delighted terror. From here on, weâ€™re in the moment, listening out for Blackwellâ€™s barked commands â€“ â€œpaddle right, stop, lean left, down!â€ â€“ and wondering whatâ€™s coming next. Because of the bends, you canâ€™t see very far ahead, which adds to the suspense.
The course takes us about six or seven minutes to get around, but packs the rapids in more intensely than most rivers. The cleverness of its design is that itâ€™s not steep, which saves energy in pumping all this water round. Instead the white water is created by strategically placed Lego-like plastic blocks that channel the flow into angry rapids. Beforehand, Iâ€™d assumed weâ€™d be on part of the River Lee but in fact the water comes from a borehole, is pumped round and lightly chlorinated every 36 hours.
On our second and third circuits, Blackwell ups the adrenalin levels by increasing our speed and giving us all the chance to sit in the â€œpartyâ€ seat at the front, where a soaking is guaranteed. On our final lap, Vicki, a press officer for the Lee Valley Park, is swept over the side. Iâ€™m alerted to this only by a panicked cry from one of the team. A sense of guilt kicks in â€“ I didnâ€™t even notice her go. Where is she? Then sheâ€™s resurfaced and Blackwellâ€™s hauling her in. Slightly dishevelled but grinning broadly, she says it was â€œscary and amazingâ€. Iâ€™m a bit envious: sheâ€™s had the full white-water experience and itâ€™s all perfectly safe â€“ you can bodysurf the whole thing if youâ€™re separated from the raft.
Afterwards, taking in the sun on the clubhouse terrace, Blackwell talks about his hopes for the World Rafting Championships in Costa Rica this autumn. Britain is ranked third in the world behind Brazil and Japan, which, unlike his team, are both professional. It seems like an unlikely sport to me. There must be skill involved for the experts but for our crew the thrill was being out of control, hoping for the best and knowing that the worst is only a quick dip.
A cross between rafting on a river and the log flume at a theme park such as Alton Towers, itâ€™s perfect for parents of bored teenagers looking for diversionary activities. The Olympic course has an age limit of 14 but the plan is to open a more gentle course for younger visitors and canoeists. However, at Â£49 per person, for about 90 minutes on a blow-up boat, itâ€™s not cheap. But then whatâ€™s the alternative? The 09.42 from Liverpool Street doesnâ€™t stop at Victoria Falls.
Published in FT Weekend on April 22 2011