Nature's foam bath

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You're out of control, plunging into utter turbulence - and you're high on adrenaline. Even in Scotland, writes Hamish Scott, white-water rafting is addictive.

The deep, slow-flowing river seems deceptively benign as you drift downstream through broad meanders. Occasionally you paddle with a gentle rhythm, keeping time with your companions to negotiate an eddy or some placid pool, but more usually the bulbous rubber raft follows its own nose along the currents like a lazy cart-horse plodding a familiar lane.

Lulled into a dream of riverine contentment, you feel absurdly overdressed in wet-suit, life-jacket and crash-helmet ... until the current sweeps you gently round another bend and you see what lies ahead.

A swollen wall of water announces the approaching rapids. Beyond, the river plummets out of sight. "Hard forward!" shouts the guide, as he steers the raft mid-stream.

For a moment you retain some semblance of control before the prow tilts briefly to the sky, then dips and plunges down into the maelstrom. Now you're living for each second.

Paddles racket off the foaming rocks, spray hits you in the face and the raft careers over another lip. Braced against the impact, you paddle frantically, balanced like a rider on a bucking bronco and whooping with exhilaration as the torrent rips and buffets through the gorge.

"Down!" The guide's command is scarcely audible above the roar. Six bodies throw themselves into the belly of the raft, which lurches upwards in a final fling, then thuds into a swirling pool of deep, untroubled water. As you struggle back into a dignified position and wipe the spray out of your eyes, the guide is still poised nonchalantly on the stern.

"That was the Washing Machine," he says. "Grade three-plus. The next one's rather more exciting."

Excitement is the essence of white-water rafting, although, as any guide will reassure participants, the real risks involved are slight. Modern rafts, tough inflatables with multiple flotation chambers, are virtually unsinkable when commanded by a skilful helmsman, and, so long as proper safety gear is worn, even a brief ducking in the water should injure little more than pride. This is not, however, the impression gathered by a novice who has never, in the usual course of life, plunged head-first down a waterfall. The experience is memorable.

Most guides employed by reputable rafting companies are skilled white- water kayakers whose idea of a mild challenge would be to overturn without a paddle above a cataract in an Andean canyon. As rafting guides they can both subsidise their habit, and introduce quite innocent members of the public to the adrenaline-fuelled roots of their addiction. After being churned and hurtled through the Washing Machine, dry land can feel a little dull, and, for many, a further cycle is imperative.

In Britain, the finest rafting rivers are in the Scottish Highlands, most particularly the Tay and River Orchy. With the severity of rapids graded one to six, Grandtully on the Tay merits three, quite sufficient for most undeveloped tastes, while some stretches of the Orchy can be virtually ungradable in autumn flood. But the pleasure to be found in rafting does not entirely lie in momentary terror. Rivers are man's oldest highways, and there is a primeval sense of satisfaction and discovery to be found in negotiating a long watercourse from mountainside to plain.

Travelling for two days down the Tummel and the Tay, camping overnight on lonely riverbanks, the rafter can experience an almost prehistoric sense of place within an ever-changing landscape that presents some new delight or challenge with each turn of the current. There is still a wild Britain, not glimpsed from any motorway.

For true addicts of white water the most intense experiences are, however, found abroad. The alpine streams that radiate from Briancon in France are perhaps the best in western Europe, but even they cannot compare with the Marsyangdi, the "raging river" of Nepal that cataracts through endless miles of Himalayan gorges. Trips through this remote area must be booked at least six months in advance. Alternatively, the Zambezi river in Zimbabwe offers an exciting challenge in a climate that precludes the need for any wetsuit.

River-deep and mountain-high, the world is foaming with white water, and experience is not required for its enjoyment. Just steady nerves, life-jacket and crash helmet ... and a trusted guide.

Splash White Water Rafting (01887 829706) organises year-round trips in Scotland, Europe, Africa and Asia.

The Scottish Rafting Association will provide up-to-date information on rafting activities and river conditions. Call 01887 830633.