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Active Traveller: Conquering the rapids of Slovenia's Soca Valley

Rafting in Slovenia is cold, wet – and exhilarating

I've 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 white-water rafting.

Over the last 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 last 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.

White-water 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," he warns. "You must respect the water."

The Soca Valley offers some of the most technical white water 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 the last 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 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 the First World War. The area became a mountainous version of the Somme as Italian troops tried to wrest the strategically important valley from Austro-Hungary. Eventually there were over one million casualties. Many of the trenches, forts and gun emplacements that were dug out of the craggy mountainside remain as outdoor museums, linked together 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 others' 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. Like the rest of us mere mortals, she now 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 bellowing 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."


Getting there

Wizz Air (0906-959 0002; wizzair.com) flies from Luton to Ljubljana; easyJet (0843-104 5000; easyJet.com) flies from Stansted.

Staying there

Pension Boka, Zaga 156a, 5224 Srpenica, Bovec (00 386 5384 5512; bokabovec.si). Doubles start from €35, including breakfast. Hotel Kanin, Ledina 6, 5230 Bovec (00 386 5389 6880; hotel-kanin.com). Doubles start from €86, including breakfast.

Rafting there

Sportmix Bovec (00 386 5389 6160; sportmix.si) offers rafting trips starting from €37 for 90 minutes.

More information

Slovenian Tourist Board slovenia.info