Canyoning In Wanaka, New Zealand
Alex and I were almost finished planning our trip to the South Island on New Zealand. I was sure I had thought of everything: we were hiking, dolphin watching, even bungy jumping! But then I watched a YouTube video that changed everything. In the video, a couple was jumping off of waterfalls deep in the forests of New Zealand.
How. Can. I. Do. That.
After a bit of research, I discovered Deep Canyon canyoning adventures. They offered a variety of trips, from beginner to extreme. Although we were beginners, with our typical “go big or go home” attitude, Alex and I opted for the next highest level, which was the option listed as “step it up!”. We would be going down “Big Nige”, a canyon in the hills beyond Wanaka.
When the day finally arrived for the trip, we arrived at their store in Wanaka bright and early. Looking around at the photos on the wall of people having the time of their lives I was so excited to get on the road.
Getting to the remote canyon area required a ride in a van to beyond the outskirts of Wanaka. Our guide (I forget her name now but she was the best!) chatted with us about the area as we passed farmland and gave right-of-way to lazy cows.
The van pulled into a small grove of trees, lined with the equipment we would be using. Big empty wet suits hung from clotheslines and used shoes sat in neat rows beside a stream. Our guide got us started with finding suits and shoes, and once we were all properly clothed, we began a hike up the side of the steep hill that would take us to the top of the canyon.
Hiking in a wet suit is no joke! Luckily the weather was on our side. Our wet suits had extra padding on the rear for cushioning, but it sort of resembled a diaper. Our guide checked the water flow, and although it was on the high end we were going to press on!
The First Waterfall
We first rappelled down into the canyon with our guide carefully observing us. I lowered into the water with a splash, the cold seeping into my borrowed sneakers. The rest of our small group of five quickly followed.
Our first task was to get to the first waterfall! As seen in the photo on the right, it was a bit of an adjustment walking through the water. Whenever I’ve walked through a stream, I would carefully place my bare feet. With sneakers on, it was tough to keep my balance as I made my way through the different depths.
At the first waterfall, the sound of it drowned out our voices, and our guide had to shout to be heard. I looked down over the edge with trepidation. Heights were one thing, but I was afraid of the power of the water shooting over the edge. We would have to go down in that?? Our guide explained that we would have to keep our chins tucked to our chest to get air, and that we’d need to keep rappelling down to get more air. Gulp.
Alex bravely volunteered to be the first down. We watched him rappel over the edge and disappear into the roar of the water. I held my breath until he appeared in the pool below and signaled that he was safe.
When it was my turn, I found it difficult to lean back until I was completely horizontal. Though I like to rock climb, the roar of the water right beside me made me worry that my grip would be slippery. Luckily, my guide was ready with encouraging words (and a back-up rope).
I began walking myself down and delved into the waterfall. The pressure on my head was immediate, making my helmet shake. The sound was so loud and the water so cold that I gasped for breath with my chin against my chest. I hastily lowered and squinted through the deluge. I could just make out the pool below me. I dropped down into it, pulling the rope free. Alex was waiting for me with a huge grin and an outstretched hand.
A World of Water
Deep in the canyon, we were now in a different world. The high walls isolated us from the outside, and the sound of river was a constant drone. The rock around us was alien, completely smooth and slick from the water eroding it.
An endless series of rappels, jumps, and slides awaited us. The first rappel had shaken me, but I now knew what to expect. Our guide explained that the first waterfall had the most pressure, which made me feel better. The next rappel was a little easier, and I soon relaxed into the environment.
Our next big obstacle was sliding down a waterfall like a slide in a playground. I was thrilled about this! Our wet suits had extra padding built into the back for just that reason (finally I would get to utilize the diaper). We zipped down into the water below, the hood of the wet suit keeping our heads dry as we were dunked under.
A Scary Moment
The biggest challenge I faced was our first big jump. We were free of the ropes here that I had come to depend on. I had to run a step forward, relying on wet rock to grip my shoe, before pushing off into a fifteen foot jump to the water below. I was more worried about slipping than I was about the jump itself. My guide gave me a countdown, and I launched myself when she got to zero. I crashed into the water below, the wet suit quickly buoying me back to the surface. In hindsight, that was the coolest part of the whole day! It always feels good to face down a challenge.
Near the end of our trip, we were able get more playful with our methods of descending. We could take a zip line, go down headfirst superman-style, or take a few minutes to enjoy a particularly pretty pool. Our guide even surprised us with hot tea and cookies, which was great after being in the cold water all day.
The day went by fast, and as we reached the small glade where we had started I was delighted to see there was a late lunch waiting for us! We were able to eat and change into dry clothes before loading back into the van.
Should you try it?
If you’re not familiar with canyoning, but enjoy outdoor sports, this is a really unique experience. It’s made even better by the fact that it lets you see a rarely glimpsed wild area in New Zealand. I found Deep Canyon guides to be incredibly professional and helpful throughout our trip. The old adage is “don’t go chasin’ waterfalls”, but in this case you should definitely consider it 😉
Done anything similar? Leave your story in the comments below!