Home to some of the best white water in the UK, Perthshire has become a top destination for river sports including canyoning and rafting. Neil Ratley takes the plunge, and lives to tell the tale.
From deep highland lochs, to bubbling fresh springs, Scotland is a country overflowing with water. The lochs hide the monsters of Scottish superstition, while the spring water is fused together with malted barley to produce the ‘uisge-beatha’ or whisky. The value of the monster and the malt for luring travellers to Scotland is no secret, but the rivers themselves are increasingly becoming the reason for thrill-seekers to head north to make the most of the excellent river sports.
I travelled to Perthshire, Scotland’s ‘adventure capital’, for my own adrenaline fix. The sun was shining as I arrived in the tranquil village of Aberfeldy, having taken up an offer from Activ8s Adventure to have a go at canyoning down Allt a’ Bhealaich Gorge, followed by rafting on Loch Tummel. A newcomer to the sport of canyoning, I had been told that it involved jumping, sliding, abseiling and otherwise employing any means necessary to get downstream with no other aid than a life vest. This vague description became a more urgent reality when, at the start of the course, my group were presented with a leap of faith from a sheer rock face into a pool ten feet below.
As I jumped in, the clear refreshing water bubbled about me. I quickly sank and then bobbed back to the surface with the help of my life vest. Slowly, the current and flow of the stream pulled my group towards another ledge where, this time, we held onto our stomachs and scrambled down, expertly using our buttocks to slide over the slippery smooth boulders. A combination of rock climbing, swimming and more leaping brought us to a roaring 30-foot waterfall that our guide, John, instructed us we were to abseil down. John set up a secure line and I was attached to the rope, then, leaning over the edge of the falls, I began my descent. The water bounced hard off my helmet all the way and I was drenched to the bone by the time I reached the bottom, but there was barely a chance to exhale a sigh of relief before we were urged on further down the gorge towards the final part of the descent.
My last challenge was to navigate a series of fast-flowing water flumes, without much skill or decorum, simply by sliding down on the posterior of my hard-wearing wetsuit. I dropped into pool after pool of fresh mountain water, down seemingly endless sets of small waterfalls, until finally I splashed down in front of the river bank and was able to haul myself onto dry land.
The second instalment of my adventure took place on the Tummel River, a few miles outside the sleepy village of Pitlochry. The trip began on the grass of the riverbank where we received our safety drills. ‘Over lefts’, ‘all downs’ and most importantly ‘hang the hell ons’ were taken onboard and memorised and shortly we were on the calm waters, hearing only the dip of paddles, birdsong and the annoying buzz of the infamous Scottish midgie. Soon enough, however, the gush of faster flowing water cut through the midgie melody and the first of the rapids approached.
We dug our paddles in and launched the raft through the wash, propelling ourselves away from the rocks and swirling eddies of the rapids. The success of our efforts led to some self-congratulatory backslapping, and dare I say it, even a splash of over confidence. Pressing on, we spun, twisted and fought our way down the river as protruding rocks attempted to thwart our passage and overhanging trees tried to pry crew members overboard. We thought we were doing well, until we smashed into a submerged boulder and one of our crew was bounced out of the boat. The plucky Serbian made his way to the riverbank where we were able to port and drag him back inside.
The trip had taken us across deep pools, through the ‘Zig Zag’, ‘Bone Yard’ and ‘Shark’s Tooth’ (technical rapids graded 2-3) and had now brought us to the brink - an 18-foot drop (grade 4) into the calm of Loch Faskally below. The raft gathered speed and our guide bellowed instructions over the thunder of the falls. In a haze of spray, paddles and adrenaline we launched the raft into the air, gliding perfectly through the sky before landing gracefully on the loch. Some of our fellow rafters were not so lucky and ended up shoeless and submerged after their boats fell foul of the drop.
Survival had many rewards. It allowed us to float away cheering in relief at overcoming the (slight) danger. It also meant that tales could be told, in the comfort of a warm and dry pub, of hardy adventurers, risking it all for a momentary thrill, and surviving the wilds of Scotland.
Try it yourself
The Coachyard, Aberfeldy, 01887 829 292, www.active8s.com
Ballinluig near Pitlochry, 08450 178 177, www.naelimits.co.uk
Grandtully near Pitlochry, 0845 6444 755, www.freespirits-online.co.uk
Splash White Water Rafting
Dunkeld Road, Aberfeldy, 01887 829 706, www.rafting.co.uk
Dunkeld Street, Aberfeldy, 01887 829 837, www.ultimate-limits.co.uk
Taybridge Drive, Aberfeldy, 01887 820 298, www.dunollyadventures.co.uk