Coaster Kingdom

Congo River Rapids (Alton Towers)

The idea of many theme park rides is to mimic as closely as possible a real life adventure, invariably one that people cannot experience first hand. Free Fall rides try and created the closest feeling to parachute jumping as possible, and Bolliger and Mabillard said themselves that they wanted to get as close to the sensation of flying as possible with the inverted coaster.

One of the more successful attempts was the rapids ride, originally thought up by Swiss manufacturers, Intamin. Designers wanted a completely random and varied sensation, as close as possible to real life white water rafting. Through time, these rides have become better themed, faster, more varied and more wild.

Alton Towers didnít wait long before jumping on the rapids bandwagon, something many other parks have since done. Although a rather simplistic ride, a lot of time and effort goes into building them due mainly to the amount of excavation required. Alton Towers also had rock dating back to the Triassic period to combat, eventually removed by the liberal use of explosives.

When this mile-or-so long gorge had been created and filled with concrete creating the course familiar to you and me, Alton Towers had themselves one of the longest Rapids rides in the world. The Grand Canyon Rapids as they were then called, along with the Log Flume were part of the Aqualand section that existed in the days of John Broome and the Thunder Looper.

As the Beast moved to the area next to the Thunder Looper creating Thunder Valley, Aqualand was re-themed to deepest Africa, namely Katanga Canyon, and Gloomy Wood debuted with the Haunted House. These changes occurred when Tussauds brought out the park, and the Katanga Canyon area featured the new powered Runaway Mine Train as well as more theming around the course of the Grand Canyon Rapids, the name of which was now the Congo River Rapids.

What had before been a rather baron and forgotten area of the park was now one of the most thriving, and with the Haunted House linking the path to the Thunder Looper, Alton Towers was now a more consistent and tight knit theme park, as opposed to a few rides dotted here and there requiring the stamina of a sprint walker to get to each.

From Merrie England the path will weave through densely foliated paths, following for the majority part of the Congo River Rapids course. The six-seater boats are thrown over churning waters and through waterfalls as they work their way around a lake, into which a jeep has crashed.

To enter the ride, you turn right just before the entrance to the Runaway Mine Train and then work your way around a hillside next to the lake. The rest of the park disappears from view as you hike around this incredibly lengthy queue-line.

You wrap around the outside of the African themed station, before crossing a few bridges that take you into the centre of a large turntable. From here you can board your boat. Each has six high-back seats facing the centre. Common sense is your only restraint as it is up to each rider to take hold of the circular grab-bar in the centre of the boat.

At the end of the turntable, the boat peels away before turning 180 degrees through the first bend. You accelerate down a straight stretch of water, over bumps and ripples in the water, under a bridge, before a gradual turn to the left takes you into your first taste of the rapids.

The pace slows as the boat negotiates waves and swells, dips created by the pipes under the water, and splashes rebounding from the walls. To each side, bushes and trees, and as you finally pull out of this rough section, you enter a long, dark tunnel.

It isnít unknown for the boat to hit a wave in complete darkness soaking riders, so here you must be vigilant. Your attention may at one point be distracted as the tunnel is shared by the Runaway Mine Train that may clatter though, with 38 riders vigorously waving at you.

You endure a slow part of the course where wave machines virtually stop the boat. You pass behind the Katanga Cookhouse restaurant, and then under a bridge that takes people into the centre of Katanga Canyon.

The waterway then widens, now under the watchful eye of park visitors on the trail leaving or heading for Merrie England. Here, wave machines thrust the water to the far side meaning that there is virtually no forward moving current. The boat hovers for what seems an eternity, hitting the side frequently.

It isnít rare for boats to pass you at this point, and as you start to wonder whether the boat will actually continue along the route, the boat is violently bounced off revolving barrels in the water before continuing along the raging torrents of water.

The pace speeds up, although there are some notably wet dips and splashes to watch out for, before you pass a ramshackle hut, home to the on-ride camera before you head towards one of the most incontestably menacing sections of the ride Ė the waterfalls.

Looking like the sea has parted for Moses, two walls of water on each side cascade down into the rapids below. The boat seems to slow here, and although the waterfalls do not directly pour down on you, the spray as it hits the side of the boat is enough to get you wetter than you perhaps wish, or indeed expect.

As you gently turn away from the walkway, the pace is brisk yet the water is still quite choppy with still a chance of you getting wet. You then slow right down before coming to a stop at the base of a large conveyor that will take you back up to the station.

Arriving at the turntable the boat is turned so that you can get off safely before you cross the same bridge that you entered, forthcoming riders surveying you as they wonder what is in store for them.

They should be reassured by the likelihood that your back and backside would be wet, otherwise to all intents and purposes unscathed.

By moving your upper body around on the ride, leaning out of the way of waves and turning your legs away from the sporadic splashes of water that may come gushing down the steps into your boat, the worst that can (and probably will) happen is for a wave to splash over the back of your seat soaking your back.

As rapids rides go, the Alton Towers one is a good one. Although the theming around the circuit is as good as non-existent, which is (surprisingly) customary, rating just the dips and dints around the route created by the water-course it seems to get the balance of saturation just right.

Many rapids rides you go on expecting to come off soaking, some are fast but have no dips, the Congo River Rapids seem to get you wet enough to tolerate in the questionable British climate, but not wet to the point that you would ever need or want to avoid them for that reason.

There is a great mixture of fast, smooth sections, and slow, rough sections. The wave machines tease you by holding up proceedings and it has both the habitual tunnel and waterfalls. The waterfalls are superb; they donít hit you, just the boat, therefore you still get wet, but not drenched.

Another factor that works in every rapids favour is the air of unknown, the complete haphazard aspect meaning that whilst on one ride you can leave practically parched, the next you will leave drenched. Admittedly, this scale is somewhat less vivid on the Congo River Rapids, but each ride remains polls apart.

Although the scenery is lacking, and around the course there isnít enough to look at, dodging waves and having fun on the Congo River Rapids is hardly demanding, and you will probably enjoy coming off without needing a change of clothes on standby.  

4/5 Marcus Sheen