From abseiling down waterfalls to cliff jumping into deep blue pools, canyoning offers an experience few have tried
PERCHED ON MASSIVE boulders amongst pools of sparkling waters at the top of Sleeping God canyon, we bow our heads, as our guide Wayne Darlington says a prayer in Maori.
“To our creator, wash over us your peaceful waters so that we may be blessed as we embark on our journey,” he translates.
We’re in the heart of the Coromandel Forest Park, about to descend 300m down Atuatumoe Stream in the Kauaeranga Valley. We’ll be abseiling, cliff jumping, sliding down slippery rock chutes, and zip-lining across vertical gorges for the next few hours. A prayer seems only fitting.
But the prayer is not just about our safety. It’s also about recognising the elements we’re about to face.
“It refers to the environment, and becoming one with it,” Darlington explains. “When you’ve been in the canyon enough, you see it in different ways. You recognise how insignificant you can be.”
Wilderness joined Darlington and Russ Hodgson of Coromandel-based Canyonz for a day to get a feel for what canyoning is all about. It’s a combination of tramping, rock climbing, and caving, taking participants deep into the heart of some of New Zealand’s most untouched river gorges.
Before commencing the descent, we don 5mm wetsuits, helmets, harnesses, and canyoning-specific shoes – like tennis shoes, but with extra-grippy soles – to help stay put on slippery rocks.
Following the Billygoat Track, we set off toward the top of the canyon. Darlington takes the lead, explaining the history of the valley. The name Kauaeranga comes from ‘Waiwhakauaeranga’, meaning ‘waters of the stacked-up jaw bones’, referring to a bloody battle in which members of Ngati Maru stacked the jaws of their defeated enemies on the banks of the river.
It’s also the site of extensive kauri logging; Darlington described the massive scope of deforestation, which began in the 1870s. Tracks from an old tramway, which was used to carry the massive logs down the steep face of the Kauaeranga inclines, line part of the trail.
After roughly an hour up the Billygoat Track, we take a side track that splits to the left, leading to the entry point of Sleeping God. Placid pools and smooth boulders provide a gentle introduction to the incredible gorge we’re about to descend.
We begin with a lesson in abseiling. With a short rope attached to an anchor next to a small pool, our group of six practises lowering slowly a few metres down a moderate slope until everyone in the group had a good handle on the technique.
Pausing before we begin, Darlington finishes his prayer.
“May your gentle breeze allow the seeds to blossom within each of us so that growth may ensue, like the creation of the great spirits that stand amongst us, like the pureness of the snow, the beauty of the pohutakawa, the scent of the raukawa, and the majestic strength of the great kauri.”
We then make our way to the edge of a massive waterfall; our first descent.
“Canyoning is a very committing activity,” says Daniel Clearwater, author of Canyoning in New Zealand. “When you retrieve your rope after the first abseil, it usually means you’re committed to completing the canyon to the very end.”
Clearwater is a canyoning guide based in Wanaka. He says canyoning is exploring a waterway in its most basic form.
A typical route will have several hundred metres of descent, and involve a dynamic combination of elements. “A good canyon will be not just one waterfall or one gorge, but it’ll be hours and hours of enclosed amazing slot canyons, bedrock walls, and deep blue pools that you can jump or slide into, rock formations, and powerful waterfalls – it’s just another world of beauty that you can get into,” says Clearwater.
Clearwater has been canyoning since 2004. Back then, just a handful of Kiwis were doing it.
Coming from a background of rock climbing and mountaineering, he found he didn’t enjoy the risk and exposure of being on top of a mountain. But, he loved the problem solving element of climbing, so he decided to try canyoning after a recommendation from his climbing mentor.
Clearwater found very few canyoning resources to help him get started. The only reference he could find was a few short words in the Tararua Footprints guidebook by Mervyn Rodgers.
“Mervyn spoke about the headwaters of these really rough streams in the Tararuas, and he said generally you avoid them, because they’re really steep, and they have waterfalls and gorges where trampers don’t want to go,” Clearwater says. “But then he said Chamberlain Creek deserves mention, because it’s the roughest in the area. People have been known to go down this using a rope over the falls, chucking off their packs, and jumping after them.
“That’s pretty much the only thing I could find about canyoning.”
It was enough to get him started – and hooked.
“I thought it was fantastic, but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I muddled my way through using rock climbing, bush walking and tramping techniques, and got to the bottom in one piece.”
At the time, the sport was in its infancy here, so Clearwater traveled to Australia, the United States and Europe to learn from experienced canyoners. He says the canyons he explored in Europe were most similar to those found in New Zealand; typically located in the mountains and with more water.
When he returned, it was clear there was incredible potential to explore New Zealand’s canyons, but first he needed to find like-minded people to share information with. Following the lead from the Australian canyoning community, Clearwater started a Yahoo group called Kiwi Canyons. He began writing canyoning trip reports for Wilderness, and as people caught on to the sport, the community grew. He later set up a website – kiwicanyons.org – to act as a forum and resource for canyoners.
“I was hoovering up information about any trip I heard of,” he says, and after several years of compiling trips, he put together his guidebook, released in 2015.
Richard Bramley, based in Nelson, found the canyoning community through Clearwater’s website about five years ago. With a background in caving, he says he found canyoning ticked similar boxes for him.
But unlike caving, Bramley says canyoning is a more accessible form of adventure.
“You can just look on a map and identify possible canyons – you can’t do that with caving. You actually have to go and walk and find holes. So, you can bite [canyoning] off in chunks,” Bramley says.
When he’s searching for a new cave, he might spend a week just looking for holes in the ground. By contrast, if he can spot a possible canyon on the map, he’ll scout out the best way in, ring up his canyoning friends, and make a day trip out of it. He says that while there aren’t too many people who have the interest and expertise, the ones who venture into uncharted canyons all have the exploration bug.
“Exploring canyons is an all around adventure. You’re navigating in the bush, you’re often carrying heavy packs up really steep country and you’re exploring areas that have no tracks,” he says.
Bramley is also a trail runner and adventure racer, which occasionally leads him to find new canyons to explore.
“When I’ve been training, I’ll do a little detour up a creek to try and get a look in. It’s quite hard sometimes to actually see if it has really steep sides,” he says.
“I’ve been tramping and seen a few canyons and thought, ‘oh I have to go do that’. All it takes sometimes is a little bit of knowledge of what you’re looking for, and commitment just to leave the track. Because canyons are naturally quite enclosed environments, you might walk past a stream, and all you’ve got to do is walk up that stream 200m to get to the steep part to see the waterfalls coming down.”
Sometimes a bridge over a gorge will hint at a possible canyon. For example, on the Travers-Sabine circuit in Nelson Lakes National Park, Bramley says there’s a bridge that crosses a deep canyon over the Sabine River.
“No one’s been through there yet. Partly because it’s a day’s tramp to get there, and partly because it’s bloody scary because you’d be completely locked in.” It’s on Bramley’s list to explore; he said he wants to go in with some friends who are white water kayakers, because he suspects the water to be more tricky than the verticality.
It takes a trained eye to understand what makes a good canyon. Bramley says the common characteristic is waterfalls, pools, and vertical, enclosed walls which force you directly into the water. That committing element is exactly what defines a canyon worth descending.
“It feels a bit artificial if you can just walk next to it. In a good canyon, you’ve got no choice – you have to get wet to make it down the canyon,” he says. “It’s just fun. It’s like a giant waterpark.”
An area ripe for canyoning development is Canterbury. Nola Collie and James Abbott from Christchurch say they were canyoning before they even realised it was called canyoning.
“We’d done a lot of tramping, and often descended streams – because sometimes I carry a rope while I’m tramping – and we really enjoyed that experience. But I didn’t know it was called canyoning,” Abbott says.
Accidental canyoning gave way to intentional canyoning when they ventured into Woolshed Creek, an introductory level canyon in the Mt Somers area in Canterbury.
Collie says it was the sheer beauty and lushness of the canyon that attracted them. “The water-sculpted rock and geology is breathtaking,” Collie says. They savoured the uniqueness of every descent, the quick decision-making, and the team aspect of the sport. “It takes good skills and even better judgment,” she says.
“We were totally addicted, trying to find as much information as possible, which was really difficult,” Abbott says. But after they got connected to the community, the world of canyoning completely opened up.
They then took a canyoning course, where they learned technical skills such as rigging for canyoning pitches and rope retrieval. They teamed up with their friend and canyoning mentor Grant Prattley for a number of trips, gaining skills and experience and eventually learning enough to go on their own exploratory missions into new places.
In March 2016, with a year of canyoning under their belts, they did a more advanced canyoning course, where they learned how to lead in a canyon, self- and group-rescue skills, and exploration tips. With their new skills, they completed six first descents last year.
Most of their trips are day trips, exploring the Canterbury region and especially Arthur’s Pass.
“We start really early, and have an amazing wilderness mission, and then [after the canyon] have a pie or coffee somewhere,” Abbott says.
More than anything, it’s the stunning landscapes that hooked them.
“It just takes your breath away. Some of the places we’ve been into are simply incredible,” Collie says.
To find new canyons, they pore over maps, looking for catchment areas and steep gradients. They’ll then tramp into the area with minimal gear – just a rope, harness and camera – so they can scout out the canyon before committing to do it. If it looks good, they’ll head back in with the full kit at a later date.
With five developed canyons in Canterbury, they say it’s easy to also do a quick day trip with friends who want to try it out. Developed canyons are usually bolted, which makes them easier and more accessible to newcomers.
There aren’t too many developed canyons in New Zealand, but it’s easy to see why the Coromandel’s Sleeping God is one of the most popular. It’s close to Auckland (just 1.5hr drive to Thames) and is used nearly every day by commercial guides, which means there’s a series of permanent bolts used as anchor points.
As we line up to abseil down the first waterfall, the guides fix a pair of brightly coloured ropes to the bolted anchors. We careen down, one by one, until we’re all standing around the rim of a deep pool. Hodgson announces that it’s time to test our cliff jumping skills, as he proceeds to climb up one side of the pool to a ledge five metres high. With a brief explainer on proper technique – legs together, arms in, assume banana shape – we follow him in, each getting a taste of the thrill and preparing our nerves (and stomachs) for higher jumps further down the canyon.
The next abseil leads to a water slide, which provides a bumpy shortcut into the pool below. A 10m cliff jump is around the corner.
We then lower over a sharp ledge, below which a powerful waterfall roars over jagged rocks. The descent leads straight into the belly of the falls, forcing a careful lowering into the narrow chute below.
Then, a zip line and quick scramble to the next big pool, at the top of which lies a massive section of a kauri log.
A 14m cliff jump is next, which aside from the guides, only one in our group had the nerves to do. We then carefully made our way to the final abseil and a beautiful big pool at the bottom of the canyon.
It’s a short hike downriver before joining the Webb Creek Track and crossing the Kauaeranga River to get back to the parking area.
Canyoning is a demanding sport. It draws people into areas of New Zealand that are rarely explored.
It’s also technical. It’s recommended that no one goes alone; there are just too many things that can go wrong. The water level was low when we were in Sleeping God, but in times of heavy flow, the canyon can become dangerous quickly. Waterfalls pick up speed, the pools fill up, and rock ledge pathways disappear.
Clearwater stresses the importance of learning from an experienced canyoner. He says the only place that’s safe for newbies without a guide is the Tararuas, where if you’re a tramper who knows how to rock climb and abseil, you can probably do it without too much trouble.
“But if you tried that approach [in Wanaka] you would get yourself in trouble big time,” Clearwater says.
“Canyoning is not tramping, it’s not rock climbing, it’s not caving, it’s not whitewater kayaking – it’s a different activity that needs specific techniques and skills. You should either go with people who know, and learn from them, or do a course and learn from a professional. That’s the most responsible and safest way to get into it.”
He says lately he’s seen a lot of people taking up the sport who haven’t done their homework.
“We published a guidebook with pretty pictures, and so people are charging off to do it, which is what I wanted, but it’s nerve-wracking because we’re seeing a lot of people who are doing it without the right skills or equipment or preparation,” Clearwater says.
There are numerous options for people to learn how to do it safely. Companies offering courses include Canyonz in Coromandel, Big Rock Canyons in Canterbury, The New Zealand Canyoning School in Motueka and Deep Canyon in Wanaka.
The more experienced canyoners in New Zealand have a veritable playground to explore. There’s a small pool of qualified canyoners, but they’re spread far and wide around the country. While the popular areas are Coromandel, Nelson/Tasman and Wanaka, there are plenty of places where avid canyoners are seeking out first descents.
Darlington says he’s exploring canyons in Te Urewera, and Clearwater says there’s great potential on the West Coast.
“One of the coolest things about the sport is that it’s still early days,” says Clearwater. “There are thousands of canyons left to be discovered in New Zealand.
“There aren’t many activities where you can be the first at something, these days. But with canyoning, there is a plethora of opportunities.”