Canyoning in New Zealand

Blast from the past from issue 187


I looked into the spray lashed darkness and wondered what I was doing here, 8m above a churning pool of white water on a narrow ledge barely the width of my foot. Touch and sound were my only senses. It was dark and I was teetering above the final drop of the canyon and needed to move quickly. I stepped out into the empty darkness and felt the thrilling sensation of falling before splashing into the cold pool below. As I surfaced and pulled myself onto a slimy rock I wondered how I had come to be here.

The canyoning trip began two weeks prior when I was invited to go exploring near Wanaka. Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I jumped at the opportunity. The area’s schist rock is soft and easily abraded by water. Over thousands of years, streams flowing off of the Southern Alps have gouged out steep, deep gorges. Because of this, Wanaka has become a Mecca for canyoning in New Zealand.

The local canyoning power couple, Annette Phillips and Alain Rohr, have explored many new trips in the area and opened up the canyoning community’s eyes to the potential for new discovery and first descents. Alain, originally from France, was mesmerized when he first arrived and saw unexplored canyons throughout the region. Alain says, “in Europe almost all of the canyons have been explored, bolted, mapped and put into a guide book. Here only the most accessible trips have been looked at; New Zealand is a canyon explorers dream.”

Like Rohr, many people in the New Zealand canyoning community are driven by exploration. While staying in Wanaka Rohr talked me into going on a trip through Gloomy Gorge. Gloomy Gorge is a deep gash in the earth cut by a river draining from the Bonar Glacier below Mt Aspiring. For years, trampers and climbers en route to Mt Aspiring have carefully peered over the edge. The scene below is breathtaking. Glacial waters tumble over and between truck-sized boulders before disappearing into a 200m deep void. The river emerges some 500 meters below onto the tranquil Matukituki River flats. What lay between that big drop and the flats was unknown. Due to the gorge’s isolation and high volume water flow, canyoneers had deemed it virtually impossible.

Such an exploration requires an expedition-like approach. In early 2013 a French team called Aotearoa 2013 arrived in New Zealand. Alain assisted them and convinced them to visit Gloomy Gorge. He said, “The French team were a little naive at first and thought they would be able to explore the canyon in just one day, maybe two.” In the end, the gorge took 7 days for the team to explore. They descended into the canyon, and tackled it piece by piece. It was the toughest canyoning ever done in New Zealand and would have been impossible without such a solid team. As it was, they ran out of time and had to leave before the first through-trip could be completed. Having been on the French expedition, Alain felt a sense of pride and desire to complete the original goal so he organized a second team.

Gloomy Gorge is overwhelming in the extreme. The walls climb 200m above the water and only a murky grey light filters into the canyon. The river noise is unrelenting and you have to constantly shout to be heard. Time and time again we swam, boulder-hopped, and abseiled. At times we had to make moves at the last second, grabbing a rope or slippery rock to avoid plummeting over a waterfall. I’ve been scared before but it was nothing compared to this; in Gloomy Gorge I felt on edge for the full 22 hour trip.

It left me feeling dazed and completely drained for days. Every drop of adrenalin in my system had been spent. Alain and Annette took me down Wilsons Canyon on a later trip. I had been told before that Wilsons Canyon was one of the toughest in the area. We swam into turquoise pools as clear as Bombay Gin and jumped and abseiled off of waterfalls. Sunshine penetrated all the way to the bottom of the canyon in places and it seemed like a breeze after Gloomy.

As I drove north through Westland afterward I could see more clearly where the hillsides through Haast Pass were lined with hidden creeks and dark ravines. Many are likely to hold unexplored canyons; it only takes a little imagination to see the possibilities. Next year, there are at least a couple of expeditions planned which aim to explore canyons in the Wanaka Region. Canyon exploration is heating up. There’s scope in many other regions too. Fiordland’s dense bush is likely to hide thousands of new canyons and Westland also has the potential to become a destination for canyoneers. There, massive rivers sink into canyons in inaccessible areas such as the Douglas. Until now these areas have always been considered too difficult. Perhaps the exploration of Gloomy Gorge will change perceptions on what’s possible and such places will begin to be looked at with a fresh eye.

Canyoning is quickly becoming a popular sport, likely due to the growing availability of information. There are estimated to around 100 regular canyoneers in NZ. If you are interested in canyoning, take a look at the New Zealand Canyoneers Facebook page KiwiCanyons which acts as a hub for NZ’s small but growing canyoning community.

For seasoned pro’s and international visitors check out www.kiwicanyons.org. This is filled with reports on exploration trips of some of New Zealand’s best canyons. There is also talk about collaboration on a new guidebook for canyoning in NZ. Hopefully, this will be realized in the near future.


from adventure 187 – by Neil Silverwood


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