By Cynthia DrescherIt’s almost exactly one year before the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and what am I doing? Well, squeezing my butt into a wetsuit is the short answer, but the long answer is heading out on the manmade rapids that comprise the Lee Valley White Water Centre just outside of London, for a sampling of what the Olympians will be going through this time next year, and what the adventurous public can experience now.
Did you ever go to an amusement park with little rides for kids that involved a blue track of shallow water with a slow current that lazily propelled round floating rafts until time was up? The Lee Valley White Water Centre is that, for adults, times a zillion, with the addition of major adrenaline rush.
White water rafting?! In London?! I know, I know. It’s totally not what tourists plan to fit into their busy schedule of Westminster Abbey-gazing and afternoon tea-slurping, but it’s really what the city needs to put a kick back into things.
I’d been rafting before—like 10 years ago during high school trips to the New and Gauley Rivers in West Virginia—but witnessing the rapids froth from manmade power is something else entirely. Not to mention that the majority of rafters on this day were first-timers, a little pale in face and a little quaky in step, but a plunge in the 20-degree Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) waters was quick to change all that.
I was suited and booted, with a wetsuit, wetsuit boots, helmet and lifejacket of course. I was setting out onto the most basic of white water plans: the basic rafting adventure which involves safety instruction, equipment, practice, a test swim run in the rapids (awesome), and as many times rafting the rapids as you can fit into your allotted time slot. My boat—filled with British airline employees more accustomed to being in the air than on the water—managed three clean, wild runs down the 300m Olympics Standard Competition Course. An entry for the journal of life, if ever there was one. Where’s my medal?!
The facts on this place are astounding. There’s 13,000 litres (3,434 gallons) of water per second pouring down the course, enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in three minutes. The rapids are formed from 62 underwater “gates,” made of 1,200 blocks which can be moved and rearranged to adjust the flow of water and challenge level. The water is ridiculously clean; this place would be an awesome freeform swimming pool for a billionaire if it wasn’t an Olympic venue. It’s hard to believe that the Centre will only be used for five days of Olympic competition—Sunday, July 29, 2012 through Thursday, August 2, 2012—for canoe slalom and white water rafting.
Anyone is welcome to come and raft on the Centre’s open days; see when those are here. Note that Olympic prep is happening right now, so you can’t jump in again until after August 6. The starting price is 49 GBP per person ($80), but if you can muster up 17 other friends, the price comes down to 30 GBP per person ($49). And, like any proper tourist attraction, souvenir photos of your adventure are available for purchase. Scaredy-cats are welcome to walk all around and watch the rafting action, and this was what many locals did while I was in the water.
Three steps for making a white water trip to the Centre happen:
- From London Liverpool Street station, take the National Rail to the little station of Waltham Cross, an easy 20-minute ride away.
- Google Map the location of the Centre before setting out, because from Waltham Cross station, you’ll be walking another 15 minutes to reach it, and there aren’t signs at the train station indicating the directions (yet).
- Walk up the short drive to the Centre and check in/sign-up at the reception desk.
Disclosure: I visited the Lee Valley Centre and tried the white water rafting as a guest of VisitBritain, but rest assured that all photos, video and opinion presented are completely my own.
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