I’m flipped into the fast-flowing river just as it starts to snow. There’s no fighting it. I cling to my rubber tube, too shocked to register the cold, as the current crashes me over rocks. Somehow, I manage a thought: I was told this was the mellow option.
Spotting a chance to bring myself to the bank, I manoeuvre into calmer waters and catch my breath. As the sleet rushes down around me, I can feel icy pools gathering in my waterproof socks. I’ve swallowed a generous measure of river water. And I can feel the bruise on my ass forming.Perhaps some people would, at this point, concede defeat and clamber out to towel off. But when my guide, ‘Full-On John’, asks if I’m enjoying myself, I splutter a “yes” in the direction of his zany grin, and set off on my tube into the current once again.
There’s something about the wilderness here in northeast Scotland that instils a determination not to wimp out. One story about ‘Full-on John’, a keen kayaker from Canada, reveals that he once climbed a Cairngorms mountain in a snowstorm with kayak on back, in order to master a river on the other side that no one had ever dared paddle. With this in mind, opting out of river tubing just because it’s snowing and I’m half-drowned would seem unbearably girly. It’s little wonder a man like John has been drawn to the Cairngorms National Park. Home to Britain’s highest mountain range, with five of Scotland’s six loftiest peaks, and 55 snowy summits above 900m, the 4528sqkm park (Britain’s biggest) also boasts acres of pine forest and an impressive collection of crystal-clear lochs and rivers.
The weather’s schizophrenia – I arrived this moring to blue skies and sunshine, unpacked to the patter of hail, spent the afternoon riding the river in snow, and am cadging a lift back to my lodgings with John while it rains – just might be a selling point. “What’s great about this place is there are so many outdoor pursuits, you can have an adventure whatever the weather,” John tells me. As if to prove his point, a man casually rollerskis past us.
The next morning, significantly bruised of bum, I decide to try a whole new sport – bikerafting. Originating in Alaska, this enjoyably bonkers enterprise involves cross-country biking with a packraft on your back – a lightweight inflatable boat with collapsible oars. It allows for an ultra-versatile way of navigating terrain, for as soon as you hit a body of water, you dismantle the bike, blow up the raft, tie the bike to the bow of your craft and paddle onwards.
Though our group never strays more than 5km from my base in the Highland town of Aviemore, the scenery suggests we’ve been teleported to Canada. I bike over forest trails gnarled with roots, then paddle across Locah an Eilein, where I’m filled with a surging sense of peace – the sky blue and cloudless, sun bouncing off bright snow-white mountains, and pine forests fanning out across the splendid silence.
We finish up paddling down the Spey to the Old Bridge Inn pub, where a woman is so taken with the image of our brightly coloured boats with bikes strapped on, she starts filming us. Comically flimsy as these crafts may look, however, my tutors Andy and Rob – both Brits brought to Aviemore by (a) the outdoors and (b) the cake – have taken them (successfully) white-water rafting.
My final day in Aviemore is spent ziplining 1km of wires over a gorge – which, compared to the previous days’ activities, proves agreeably tame. I’m still yet to meet a Scot native this weekend, and today’s guide, Charlie, is no exception. Once a salesman in London, he tells me that he came up here for a holiday and never went home. It doesn’t seem to be an uncommon experience in this town – you have been warned.
Rivertubing starts at about £45pp with Full On Adventure fullonadventure.co.uk
Two-to-five day bikerafting tours start at £245pp with Backcountry Biking backcountrybiking.co.uk Ziplining costs £25pp with G2 Outdoor g2outdoor.co.uk
Catch the Caledonian Sleeper train from London Euston to Aviemore with Scotrail from £62.90 one way. scotrail.co.uk
Eat Drink Sleep
The menu at the Old Bridge Inn is easily the best in town – the braised Iberian pork cheeks are sublime. An inventive programme of live music (brass-band-funk when we were there) means it’s always buzzing
on weekends. Mains from £10. oldbridgeinn.co.uk
The Potting Shed tea room has been named one of the top 10 places to eat cake in the UK. We love the White Lady (sponge layered with apricots and cream and covered in marzipan). Tea and a slice from £5. inshriachnursery.co.uk
The food at Skiing-Doo is disappointing, but folk consistently flock here, which means the basement bar (Doo Below) is always lively. Pints from £2.90. (9 Grampian Road, PH22 1RH. Tel. 01479 810392)
The Cairngorm Hotel is a relaxed spot for a beer and some banter. Pints from £3. cairngorm.com
The Inshriach Yurt on the sprawling Inshriach Estate is a quirkily romantic way to glamp. From £70pn. canopyandstars.co.uk
The Aviemore Bunkhouse offers self-catering dorms from £17pn. Doubles also available. aviemore-bunkhouse.com