The need for speed

Raft­ing in Slove­nia’s Soca Val­ley is ex­hil­a­rat­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

I HAVE never been a speed freak, and the older I get, the more my fear of heights edges to­wards a fully fledged phobia. But I do love the great out­doors, and water­sports have started to sat­isfy my yearn­ing for ad­ven­ture — es­pe­cially the adrenalin-filled hit that is white­wa­ter raft­ing.

Over the past 30 years, Bovec — a small town poised in Slove­nia’s Soca Val­ley, a lit­tle over 10km from the Ital­ian bor­der — has built a rep­u­ta­tion as the coun­try’s ad­ven­ture sports cap­i­tal. Here the Ju­lian Alps of­fer the chance to climb, cave and ski, while also pro­duc­ing the ther­mals that make the area such a draw for paraglid­ers. And then there’s the Soca River it­self, at times calm and al­lur­ing, at oth­ers alive and kick­ing, its clear, turquoise wa­ters froth­ing with anger.

Bovec is a pris­tine place, re­built many times over the past cen­tury due to war and a trio of earth­quakes that struck the re­gion, the most re­cent in 2004. There’s half a dozen sport­ing spe­cial­ists clus­tered around the main square, all of­fer­ing the chance to take on the fast-flow­ing, freez­ing wa­ters of the Soca.

White­wa­ter raft­ing first came to Bovec in the mid-1980s. Now, when the alpine snow melts and swells the flow of the Soca, the river be­comes a wa­tery play­ground from March through to the end of Oc­to­ber.

‘‘What­ever is pos­si­ble on the river, we try to of­fer it,’’ says Pri­moz Zorc, di­rec­tor of Sport­mix. ‘‘But this is not flat wa­ter, this is not a play­ground. You must re­spect the wa­ter.’’

The Soca Val­ley of­fers some of the most tech­ni­cal white­wa­ter in Europe, and safety is para­mount. At most en­try points to the river, signs warn: ‘‘Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the wa­ter and over­es­ti­mate your­self.’’ Our three-hour trip throws us straight into a fast-flow­ing sec­tion of the river, fol­lowed by a calmer stretch and then a fi­nal as­sault on a fear­some set of rapids.

My part­ner Julie and I are joined by a group of young, friendly Croats, here on a week­end trip. Four join our boat, which is pi­loted by Betty, a slight, ath­letic Hun­gar­ian who’s been com­ing back to Bovec for the raft­ing sea­son for eight years, while spend­ing the win­ter as a ski in­struc­tor in Aus­tria.

Hav­ing hauled the in­flat­a­bles down to the wa­ter’s edge, we’re given a quick les­son in the art of raft­ing. Betty ex­plains how we need to lis­ten to her in­struc­tions and act quickly, how to avoid crown­ing each other with our pad­dles and, im­por­tantly, how to drag some­one out of the wa­ter us­ing the straps of their life-jack­ets.

To ac­cli­ma­tise to the wa­ter, we start our jour­ney by edg­ing out across a rick­ety wooden bridge be­fore throw­ing our­selves into the swirling river be­low. The wa­ter is icy, and de­spite the wet­suit, the shock sucks the air out of your lungs.

We swim to our raft, clam­ber in and Betty is soon putting our pad­dling skills to the test, veer­ing us to­wards a huge rock be­fore scream­ing for the right side to pad­dle back­wards, to see if we have the skills to cor­rect our course. We man­age to avoid the boul­der and then there’s a surge of adrenalin as we slam into an­other big rock be­fore slid­ing down into the eddy on the other side.

Two more huge boul­ders loom above us and Betty deftly steers the raft into the bub­bling tor­rent surg­ing be­tween them. She shouts for more ef­fort as we dig deep, try­ing to keep a rhythm. A wave of wa­ter crashes over the bow. At times, I can’t help but feel I’m just there for the ride, with the wa­ter in com­plete con­trol of my des­tiny.

‘‘Does the pad­dling re­ally make any PIC­TURES: WWW.SLOVE­NIA.INFO (ABOVE); GETTY IM­AGES (LEFT); ALAMY (BE­LOW) dif­fer­ence?’’ I ven­ture, as we exit the rapids. ‘‘Of course,’’ says Betty. ‘‘With­out the pad­dling I would have no con­trol . . . we would tip over.’’ There’s a mur­mur of agree­ment from a cou­ple of the Croats in the boat, vet­er­ans of pre­vi­ous raft­ing ex­pe­di­tions. I re­dou­ble my ef­forts.

As we bob along the easy stretch, gaz­ing up at the beau­ti­ful wooded slopes of the Soca Val­ley, it’s hard to imag­ine the bru­tal fight­ing that took place here dur­ing World War I. The area be­came a moun­tain­ous ver­sion of the Somme as Ital­ian troops tried to wrest the strate­gi­cally im­por­tant val­ley from Aus­tria-Hun­gary. Even­tu­ally there were more than one mil­lion ca­su­al­ties. Many of the trenches, forts and gun em­place­ments that were dug out of the craggy moun­tain­side re­main as out­door mu­se­ums, linked by a way­marked trail called the Walk of Peace.

Betty breaks our reverie. To test our bal­ance, she or­ders us to stand on the bul­bous rim of the boat, hands on each other’s shoul­ders. As we wob­ble and teeter, the other boat slams into our side, send­ing half the crew into the freez­ing wa­ter in­clud­ing, much to her an­noy­ance, Betty. She has to be un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously hauled back into the boat, a scowl on her face.

And then to the fi­nal stretch. With great skill, Betty steers us through the rapids, al­though at times, with a mis­chievous whoop, you can tell she’s de­lib­er­ately tak­ing the most dif­fi­cult course, test­ing her own abil­ity while at the same time giv­ing us the thrills we crave.

The boat dips vi­o­lently into a swirling pool, the wa­ter bil­low­ing over the front of the boat. And then we shoot out the other side, hearts pound­ing. We’re wet but un­scathed and ju­bi­lantly high-five each other with our pad­dles.

‘‘Bovec is just the best for adrenalin sports,’’ says Betty, smil­ing. ‘‘Whether it’s the river or the moun­tains, there’s some­thing for ev­ery­one here.’’ sport­mix.si slove­nia.info

The Soca River be­comes a wa­tery play­ground from March to Oc­to­ber, with rapids, above, and scenic pad­dling, left; the cap­ti­vat­ing land­scapes of Bovec, be­low

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