You find me in an unfamiliar situation. I’m behind the wheel of a Jeep Renegade 4x4 on the outskirts of Cardiff. In front of me is a wall of gushing water. In my rear view mirror, nothing but blue sky. A man in a frog suit called Darren is beckoning me to drive forward off the 30-degree ramp that I’m on and down into the swirling water-wall. How did I get here?
Five minutes ago, with my landlubber feet safely on dry land, I was looking out over the 250m concrete piste that makes up the Cardiff International White Water centre. The Olympic-standard facility is usually used by plucky Duke of Edinburgh Award participants learning how to kayak through choppy rapids, or adrenalined-up stag party groups taking on white water rafting before they go and make merry on the streets of Cardiff.
Today will be different though. I’ve been challenged with driving a car through 250 metres of wheel-arch-deep white water, turning back around and driving back up the course again. Sounds simple enough – and I admit that I was feeling pretty confident on the train down to Cardiff. Then, over coffee in the centre’s cafe, conversation turns to survival techniques when your car is submerged in water. One journalist opines that you should let the car fill up with water first to equalise the pressure before trying to open the door. Maybe this is more serious than I thought…
Fortunately help is on hand to calm me down in the form of the day’s star attraction, top snowboarder Aimee Fuller. Indefatigably upbeat, Aimee has just become the first person to drive a car up and down an Olympic-standard white water course after taking on the challenge in the Jeep earlier this morning. “The only sketchy bit is the ramp to get in and out of the water,” she tells me. “The rest is fine.”
Unfortunately, it’s that ramp that I’m on now… and it is indeed ‘sketchy’. To get onto it, I’ve had to drive off a ledge seemingly into thin air, with only the frantic gesticulation of Frogman Darren to guide me on where to put my front wheels. One wrong move here could be hugely dangerous for me. I could end up on YouTube…
Alongside me in the Jeep is offroad instructor Ian. He’s your classic instructor: 100% unflappable and full of reassuringly crap jokes that are as well-worn as Darren’s scuba suit. With my trembling foot rising incrementally off the brake, I ease the front wheels of the car down into the flowing water. Ian checks my natural instinct to start turning right onto the course too soon – doing that with the rear wheels still on the ramp could quickly turn this into a low budget recreation of Das Boot. Finally the rear wheels plop into the water. The Jeep bobs slightly. This is weird.
After executing my first ever aquatic three-point turn – I even stop halfway through and check for traffic, like a moron – we’re facing down the course and ready to commence offroading.
The Jeep creeps forward in the water, occasionally lurching to the side as it’s hit by the current. “Going slow is the key,” Ian tells me as we start to get going – and I’m not arguing. The first obstacle is a kayak gate above a metal ramp submerged in the water. I edge the Jeep over to the right hand side of the course. Apparently the best way to line yourself up for an obstacle is to turn early and then let the water float the rear of the car into line. It’s basically like doing a very slow powerslide in a rally car on gravel.
We negotiate the gate and continue our descent down the course, Ian guiding me left or right using Yoda-like sensibility (or so I thought – I later found out he’d recced the course sans water earlier in the day. Cheat). It’s surreal, feeling the car go light in the deep patches of water, then feeling it yaw and shimmy when it’s blindsided by the flow of the rapids.
At the bottom of the course, I execute another three-point turn, scarier now in a deeper section and with four tonnes of water smashing into the driver’s door every second. Then we’re heading back up the course. Ian reaches down, presses a button and locks the differentials on the Jeep to make all the wheels turn at the same time, helping us power against the flow. The going is noticeably tougher now as the current pushes back, slowing our progress.
Up through the top gate again, another three-point (OK, nine-point) turn and it’s time to get back on that ramp. Darren now appears high up on the quay and helps me direct my front wheels on. The car rolls forward and the rear wheels follow suit. I’m pointing up at the wide blue yonder now, and as I accelerate, I lose sight of Darren’s head as the Jeep rears up the ramp.
Darren stands on his tip-toes and I can just see his hands above the bonnet line giving me my final directions. Then we’re levelling off, the tyres touch down on the concrete and we’re out. By my reckoning, I’ve just become the sixth person to drive a car up and down an Olympic-standard white water course, the Edgar Mitchell to Aimee Fuller’s Neil Armstrong. There have been more impressive records, I admit, but I’ll take it.