Matthew Pike discovers why New Zealand could be on the cusp of a canyoning boom
Many of New Zealand’s most popular outdoor pursuits have legendary names synonymous with the activity’s rise to popularity. Trampers in the Southern Alps have the likes of Moir, while mountain bikers have the Kennett brothers.
In 50 years or so, if canyoning has become mainstream on these shores, perhaps the name every canyoner will associate with the sport’s rise to success could be ‘Clearwater’.
Ever since Dan Clearwater descended his first canyon in 2004, discovering new and thrilling descents of the country’s most scenic gorges has become an obsession.
But this obsession is more than a lust for whitewater and emerald pools. Dan has led the way in creating New Zealand’s first canyoning community and preparing the sport for the masses. After creating canyoning’s first New Zealand-based website and Facebook page, he has helped form the NZ Canyoning Association, a guide qualification, a partnership with Federated Mountain Clubs and he’s even organising a canyoning festival in Wanaka this month.
But Dan believes the sport has reached the point at which it will experience a surge in popularity. This is because of his latest project; a guide book – Canyoning in New Zealand.
Inside, Dan features 52 of the best canyons he’s descended with detailed information about access, water levels, waterfall size, escape points, committal points, as well as maps and photographs.
He has also included brief descriptions of 120 other canyons, many of which he’s also descended.
Dan says other popular sports in New Zealand became mainstream once a guide book was released.
“If you talk to any old timer rock climber, they will tell you about the times before guide books when rock climbing wasn’t popular,” he says. “Within a few years of a book coming out, rock climbing exploded.
“I spoke to Jonathan Kennett who said there was no-one with a mountain bike anywhere until his guide book came out and now it’s absolutely a mainstream sport.”
Dan strongly believes canyoning will take off in a big way over the next few years, but doesn’t think it will be as popular as rock climbing and mountain biking.
The reason being it’s a dangerous sport if you haven’t learnt how to do it properly. “Canyoning has quite a high entry skill level. It’s a technical and committing sport,” he explains. “There are a number of easier canyons in the book suitable for intrepid trampers – people experienced with wet weather travel and off-track travel. But the majority are for people who know what they’re doing.”
Once you’ve made the commitment, he says, the rewards are unlike any other sport. “A tramper might go and see a gorge, but as a canyoner you get to go through that environment and sometimes get to places no-one apart from a canyoner could possibly go. First descents are common in canyoning – it’s where mountaineering was 100 years ago in that sense.”
Dan has completed 40 first descents and says there are thousands still to do, particularly in Fiordland and Westland. “Look on a topo map and potentially any blue line could be a canyon.”
The 33-year-old took the sport up after progressing from tramping to rock climbing and mountaineering. But the mountaineering terrified him so he asked his instructor if he could try something technical but less death-defying. “He suggested giving canyoning a go, so I shot off on a haphazard adventure to Ruapae Falls, in the Tararua Ranges, with no idea what I was doing. I somehow used rock climbing skills to make my way down a canyon and survive, and I thought it the best thing in world.”
Looking back, he is amazed he got through those early days without a major accident and he wouldn’t recommend others start like that. “The good old ‘give it a go yourself’ method may work for the easy ones, but there are very specific skills needed to get into anything harder.”
But back in 2004, there wasn’t a canyoning community and the only online advice came from abroad and was often in French.
Since then, Dan has done much to help New Zealand catch up with the rest of the world, where canyoning has been big in Europe since the 1960s and has experienced recent booms in Australia and the US.
Dan says New Zealand’s canyons are up there with the best found around the world. His love for the sport has enticed him away from a life in the air force in Palmerston North, to a life as a canyoning guide in Wanaka, where he’s surrounded by a seemingly limitless number of descents.
If there is a boom in the sport’s popularity over the next decade, he will be right at the centre of it.
– Canyoning in New Zealand ($60) is available from kiwicanyons.org
Clearwater’s favourite Canyons:
My favourite canyons are generally those with plenty of whitewater, lots of jumping, beautiful pools and deep bedrock canyon walls
Griffin Creek, Taramakau Valley, Hokitika-
A long, challenging, high volume canyon. Nearly 10hr round trip through countless rapids, deep blue pools, challenging whitewater swims, big jumps and solid schist bedrock.
Wilson Creek, Mt Aspiring National Park-
Perhaps the most continuously deep and narrow canyon in the country. Wilson has plenty of water and amazing sapphire pools. In places the canyon is only an arm-width apart and 60m, or more, deep. Four-six hours of pure commitment, with no escapes after your first abseil.
Cross Creek, Mt Aspiring National Park-
The highest pay-to-play ratio of any of Aotearoa’s canyons, Cross Creek offers 3-4hr of constant jumping, sliding, swimming and abseiling. The drops aren’t too high, and just keep coming. It’s an extremely playful trip, and also very beautiful with green emerald pools, dark grey schist and bright green moss.
Falls River, Abel Tasman National Park-
Open granite slabs, lots of whitewater, some great slides and big jumps make Falls River a great outing. Getting there and back in a day is pretty difficult, which means you get to spend a night at one of the park’s gorgeous beachfront campsites.
Clearwater’s favourite canyons for beginners:
Beginner canyons often don’t require the use of ropes, but do require wetsuits, scrambling ability and river travel skills. In normal, low water conditions, these canyons can be completed by water-confident and determined off-track trampers.
Kauaeranga River Gorge, Coromandel-
A float, swim, jump and scramble through a gorge steeped in history, with kauri dams and great views on the approach track.
Pukehinau Canyon, Tongariro Forest-
A short swim through a limestone slot canyon, tucked into a little-visited part of the Tongariro Forest.
Atiwhakatu Gorge, Tararua Forest Park-
Close to one of the Tararua’s most popular tracks is a short gorge that is a great introduction to the canyon environment; cool, wet, beautiful and committing.
Doom Creek, Mt Richmond Forest Park-
A slightly more technical canyon with some tricky downclimbing, technical jumping and a short abseil. Suitable for beginners led by an experienced canyoner.