Canyon Tales
God’s Own
by Julien Sénamaud

Ok, here’s a couple of stories from Godzone, or God’s Own, as we call the pretty country I happen to be aging in. One is a first descent, one a no–descent.

•   I   •

Back in ’98, a friend and I are looking for some canyoning to do in the North Island. Problem is, there are no known canyons there, and everybody thinks canyoning is about going down rivers on plastic boats. So out come the maps. I had some ideas of where to look, namely the Coromandel Peninsula, about 1 ½ hours drive SE of Auckland, the country’s biggest city (1.5 million if you like figures). Like most of the North Island, the landscape in Coromandel is volcanic—basalt, rhyolite, andesite, you name it. Having toured the area a few years back I had noticed very steep valleys in spite of the low altitude (just about 3000 feet at the highest point). It looked a bit like some of those Pacific Ocean islands, or some tropical land, with vertical pinnacles sticking out of thick rainforest. Kind of. Minus all the snakes, spiders, scorpions and other friendly animals those poor buggers of Australians inherited.

Anyway, we start looking. And there it is. Obvious, with the contour lines nicely squeezed in an orange blur. (Maps in NZ don’t go any more precise than 1:50 000. Enjoy your GPS while you can. That’s what happens when you don’t have a strong military: maps are crap. I say increase the Defense budget to make canyoning easier). It looks like a drop of a good 1000 feet in a very short distance, with a few streams converging just above the drop. So there will be water. Phew! Mind you, there is always water in NZ, a country where some regions get as much as fifty feet of rain in a good (bad?) year. Don’t expect dry canyons here. Bring your wetsuit. Not your drysuit, the volcanic ‘cheesegrater rock’ will deal with it quickly.

Knowing that there will be lots of running water, we bring the bolt kit, as we don’t have the luxury of digging into the sand at the bottom of the pool to leave a deadman, or any of those funky dry canyon techniques. Besides, we prefer leaving a small bolt than a big sling. Retrieval of the rope is the priority here.

Interlude • Please do not even try to argue with me here about bolts, I won’t listen. I’m right, and I know it. •

We also take two 200’ ropes, lots of food (2 muesli bars) and emergency supplies (another muesli bar), and a first aid kit (one more muesli bar). There are 3 of us and one will only come to the top of the first waterfall. The walk–in is so easy we cannot believe no one has ever done this canyon. The walk–in starts over a swing bridge, then the popular hiking trails winds its way past stunning prehistoric scenery, with giant fern trees, palm trees and some towering, ancient macrocarpa trees. It is very green out here, very dense and absolutely gorgeous. We admire the scenery before tackling the 450 steps up an ancient cog railway used to ferry the harvested logs down to the valley floor.

Soon we reach the stream, which we start descending until the first big waterfall. The water has a strange hint of yellow or light brown from the tannin of the surrounding rotting vegetation. Very pretty. Being at the top of that first waterfall gives you an idea of things to come: you can see the valley floor not so far away, but quite far below. From below we could only see 3 waterfalls, but we knew there would be more. How many, and how big? We don’t know.

We find a flake suitable for a sling for this 100’ rap down the side of a powerful waterfall. First mistake of the day (no, wait, that was also the last one), I instruct the person who is staying at the top to remove the anchor and rope, once the other 2 are both down, and to throw the whole stuff down to us. I do not want anyone to know that we have been down that canyon, and removing that anchor sounds like a nice idea ... except that the cliff is full of spikes and flakes that are only too happy to catch the rope and slings attached. So here we are, at the bottom of the first waterfall, with our rope attached to some slings terminally wrapped around some stupid flakes. Impossible to pull the rope down.

Things are looking good.

Luckily my friend Stephane just loves climbing wet, rotten rocks in a wetsuit under a waterfall. Well, at least I convince him that he loves it. It looks pretty nasty, so I look away. Remember The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where some guy wears special glasses that go completely black when the wearer is in mortal danger? He is therefore blind and cannot see any of the dangers. I’d like to get a pair of those. Anyway, Stephane is getting there. Actually, it gives him the opportunity to jump off into the pool from 40’ when he has released the rope. I know he is grateful to me that I gave him the chance to do this jump. He just doesn’t want to admit it.

Swimming away, we notice a huge drop getting closer as we get to the rim of the pool. We will use both our ropes on that one. There is a nice rewarewa tree right where we need an anchor. Good anchor, and good honey too when the tree is blooming and the bees are around. We throw the ropes down, plainly conscious that they are going to be too short. I already picture myself bolting a blank wall, hanging in my harness. Fun fun fun. Stephane goes down first and after what seems like a long time it’s my turn. What a rappel! I weave my way through columnar basalt with hues of red, black and yellow, all draped in whitewater. It’s grandiose. Meanwhile the ropes are slowing running out. As I go over an edge I notice that the ropes end a few feet off a ledge where Stephane is waiting. Right. Hopefully my muscular weight will weight the rope down and maximise the stretch. I don’t make it to the ledge (still not enough muscle mass I guess—have to eat more French pastries), and I have to in fact disconnect in a nearby tree. We are careful not to let go of the end of the rope, as it would bungy back up. Pulling the ropes down ensure our neoprene–clad bodies reach boiling point, but at least we get our ropes. Another rap from the said tree gets us down to the bottom of the cliff. Looking back it’s a good 70 metres, 230 feet. Not bad, and pretty damn nice location.

This canyon never stops, and the next pool empties out into what looks like a 30’ waterslide. A few humps and bumps later we agree that is a great waterslide—as long as there is more water to carry you down the not–so–smooth rock in relative comfort (i.e., without diggin trenches into your wetsuit and butt). The pool we are in ends up on a slab and the water flows into another waterfall, which drops about 30’ into a deep, dark pool. Hhhhmmm. Looks like a jump. If only we knew what’s in that pool down there. If only one of us would rap down and check it out, therefore missing out on a great jump. If only we did canyoning by the book. Stephane looks so keen that he has to be first. I forgot how we reached that decision but it suited me fine at the time. As it turns out the pool is deep enough and Stephane doesn’t seem to have lost any height in the landing.

Swimming away, we then encounter a small waterfall that can be downclimbed on the side. The next drop, however is definitely NOT a downclimb, and the waterfall crashes into an unseen pool somewhere down there ... but where? Another tree comes to our rescue, and we can see it’s not that bad, only about 100’, into a peanut–shape pool with a massive tree trunk jammed in the middle. Big wow–factor, lots of flickering lights, shades and rainbows everywhere. Once we land on the log, we realise it is a real slippery log, so decide to straddle it and ride down it into the other half of the pool. Interesting ‘woodslide.’

Another swim to the rim and the next drop, a good 130’ down a funnelling waterfall. This will prove to be the most dangerous part of the canyon during other descents with more water. The water funnels down into a crack at the bottom and hits you full force. It sure does wake us up, in case we were sleepy. We use a piton and our first bolt for anchors. It is only a few feet to the next drop, a 45’ funnel/ramp that looks like the Waterslide of Death. Still haven’t found a volunteer to slide that one yet. Maybe Dave Black with his rubber–coated fat ass? We place another bolt as the rock is absolutely bare of any features. Nowadays we jump this waterfall but it’s still a good 45’ jump into a faraway pool. Scary. The pool is black and bottomless. Brrrr ...

The stream turns right, then left, over another jammed log, and falls down another 60’ into a huge pool. That’s another one we would like to jump one day, but we don’t know where from. Maybe we will build a jumping platform out of concrete one day. But for the moment we just find a rotten thread to rap off, bang under the waterfall for a more efficient wash, and into the next pool for a complete rinse.

And then it’s flat. Nothing else. No more waterfall. Finished. 6 hours of exploration and we want more. The stream is now too peaceful. We were expecting a soft transition, but this not a soft stream. We catch our breath, which we had been holding for quite a few hours. The descent was so full–on that we can’t quite believe it’s over. What a trip. I’ve done it over 30 times now but still marvel at the beauty of it.

•   II   •

The second story is short, as the canyon is still unexplored.

Falls Creek. The name is a good omen. Go to the South Island of NZ, in the Alps. Keep going south until you reach one of the wettest places on earth—Fiordland. The place looks like Norway, with a multitude of fjords. One of the big differences is the forest, unique in its appearance. Mosses, ferns, green everywhere. At some stage the road crosses Falls Creek. Look and dribble at the waterfall upstream from the bridge. Looks like a huge waterslide, doesn’t it? Follow the track up the side of the gorge. Steep track, and so is the stream. You cannot see the stream, as it is well hidden between huge granite walls. But you can hear it, rumbling, threatening.

After a 1500’ climb you reach the top of the gorge. Go to the stream and follow it down to the first waterfall. Stop. Look down. The waterfall is so big and so high, the walls so narrow that you cannot see the bottom of the waterfall. There is a serious amount of water, and this is the ‘dry’ season. You’re thinking that you might need scuba gear just to be able to breath at the bottom of the waterfall. You’re thinking that there is so much water you might end up spending all the time above the water on running lines or tyrolean traverses, so what’s the point? You’re thinking that this looks really lethal. You’re thinking that this looks really good and you really want to do it.

You don’t have any canyoning gear. You know this was just a roadside canyon, and that there are many more in the mountains, unchartered, unknown, unexplored. You go home with the objective of keeping it secret.

You tell everyone about it ... Nobody cares.

You write about it on the egroup ... NZ is invaded by US canyoners.


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© 2002 Julien Sénamaud