Exploring the Lost Canyons of New Zealand

Packs heavily laden with harnesses, ropes, and emergency survival kit, we ascend the canyon without even breaking a sweat. I pause on a mountainous peak as the sun reflects on a silvery sea below, triumphant, a “freeze-frame” from an extreme-sports commercial. I’m ready for the challenge! 

Joking.

Truth be told I’m a hot mess. Sweat rains off me and in the cool autumn morning you can see the steam radiating from my body a mile away. Lunchtime jaunts to the gym have done nothing for my functional fitness, and entrenched in this remote wilderness, I question whether I can keep up with these canyoneers* as we follow this river path carved by a million years of water.

Amid the rumble of water I hear whispers of a karakia (Maori prayer) as Wayne summons the courage and guidance of his ancestors. I can feel the ancient spirits that dwell here and my hair stands on end at the magic of this land - a sacred wilderness that the locals refer to as ‘the Sleeping God’ Canyon.

I test my equipment while on solid ground. The cool metallic click of my carabineer does little to stem my nerves. “Tell your brain to shut up and stop thinking about it. Just do it” yells my guide. Yet pretending to be brave is not easy when the only way home is by vertical descent. With faith in god and my guide I still my wild imagination and take the first precarious steps into the void. Invigorated by the fresh air beneath me I celebrate the absurdity of dangling in such a place.

To my right, water cascades into the midnight blue pool below, my feet navigate rocks glistening with spray. Around me a kaleidoscope of vegetation transforms the canyon walls into a mass of glittering green. Heaven.

My enthusiasm for the extreme vanishes however when my guides direct me towards ‘The Funnel’ - a vicious torrent of white water that roars off the 50m cliff-top ready to swallow me whole, mid-descent. The only route onwards is directly down the guts of this thunderous fall, all while maintaining sure footing and ultimate abseiling composure. This was to be one of the most mentally challenging moments of my life – but that’s the point. 

As I enter this hollow, the roar of white water and the pounding weight of it on my helmet obliterates all other sounds.   “Breathe” I tell myself.  My brain is screaming, my heart is thumping and every breath is labored. I feel as if I’m suffocating in a wet misty hell. Caught in the agitating motions of this giant washing machine, adrenaline takes over and I coach myself robotically through the final manoeuvres. “Feed the rope through Ocean”, I tell myself. “Use your muscles. The harder and faster you work, the quicker this will be over.”

Finally I am washed up at the foot of the waterfall, a stray and fragile leaf tossed in the belly of this great river beast. It’s at these moments in time you’re reduced to survival instincts and acutely aware of your own fragility. The adrenaline and endorphins kick in. I feel the exhilaration of someone who has just cheated death.

Eventually we emerge from the dense green bush, which characterizes the Kauaeranga Valley, onto a small gravel back-road. No-one talks. Accompanied by the jangling of carabineers and climbing gear, and carrying a story which will remain for the rest of our lives. A “true adventure”, just like it said on the brochure!

* Canyoning is the practice of descending rivers, waterfalls, cliffs and streams using a combination of walking, climbing, abseiling (rappelling), swimming, jumping and sliding. Imagine it as a kind of Hydroslide theme park, carved into stone and located in the wilderness.

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