I’m a relative newcomer to outdoor festivals. I generally go into the outdoors to get away from everything, including people. Call me antisocial but I like the peace and quiet. But the 2018 New Zealand Canyoning festival changed my mind on all that. Now I couldn’t be more excited for the next one!
The 2018 festival was held at St Arnaud, on the edge of Lake Rotoiti, a couple of hours south of Nelson. The lake is amazing just by itself and is definitely worth a visit even if you are not canyoning. The town had limited accommodation but plenty of campgrounds, all of which was booked out in the lead up to the festival. The weather, although initially looking apocalyptic (pretty accurate) due to the tropical cyclone that was passing by the west coast of New Zealand, it actually turned around for the better at the last minute to provide a great outlook!
When I arrived on Friday afternoon, the town was full of canyoners and I felt right at home! It was hard to miss all the bright colours of canyoning attire.
Assembling at 8AM on Saturday 3rd February at the St Arnaud community hall, we were briefed by Richard Bramley, one of the committee members of the newly formed New Zealand Canyoning association, on how the next few days would run. Most of the festival goers had put their names down for trips and workshops that were being run on a volunteer basis. The expectation was that they were not guided trips and that each person would be able to look after themselves. The workshops were there to provide a little extra training and knowledge to help people safely descend the canyons.
Those who had missed out on the limited numbers could easily organise their own trips with others in the same position. The weather, although initially looking apocalyptic due to the tropical cyclone that was/had passed, it actually turned around at the last minute to provide a great outlook!
I had opted for some workshops on the first day, but they ran almost every day so everyone would get the chance to join one. We met with our trip leaders and drove to the nearby Buller river to get wet. I had particular interest in the swiftwater session so it would broaden my awareness and experience in whitewater management.
In New Zealand canyons, whitewater is one of the biggest hazards and needs to be taken very seriously. Even small flows, when constricted, turn into nasty hydraulics that can be dangerous or fatal. Anyone caught in one needs to be extracted within seconds or the outlook is slim. This has always been in my mind in the canyoning environment so the swiftwater training would be perfect.
Keith, one of the trip leaders, is a canyoner with a background in white water kayaking. He started with the basics. Defensive positions.
Learning how to maneuver and position your body to conserve energy while still advancing and staying in control isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes practice. So that's what we did. Running laps back and forth, we learnt to angle our bodies and protect our tailbones, which happen to be uncomfortably close to getting smashed if we lowered our butts in the water too much.
Along the way we were also told of some of the hazards to look out for. Eddies can be our friends by providing safe zones from the fast flowing sections, until they get too big and can pull us into re-circulations.
We soon moved on to aggressive swimming, and knowing when to use it or not. It’s hard moving to where you want and shows that it’s extremely important to think and observe before getting into any white water.
Combat dives, throw lines and an inflatable training strainer were also highlights. A strainer is, in a canyon environment, a log or rock that filters water through and can trap a person getting swept into it. Being ready for them in the correct position is important and can make the difference to being pinned on one or flowing over the top. A good lesson to remember, one which was vividly remembered with the training strainer.
After the swiftwater, we moved onto some rope skills at another location nearby. We had a great time learning counterbalances, (safe) rope cutting in emergency situations and simple hauling. It’s always good meeting in a group to do those things together as everyone has little tricks or variations that are cool to learn.
The feedback I heard from the other workshops was similar. They had been extremely helpful and informative and well worth doing.
With so many canyons on offer it was hard to choose. But it had to be done, the stress was real! I personally prefer enclosed and narrow canyons. To me, that’s what it is all about.
I ended up joining a trip to lower Chandler creek and Barefoot Burn. Both of these were done in a day and involved a water taxi ride across Lake Rotoiti. We had exclusive use of the taxi for mornings and afternoons as we had many groups heading out to the different areas. A big thanks for that too! Hours of walking was saved.
I will cover my trip on lower Chandler and Barefoot in another post but let’s just say that as expected, they were awesome!
Also on offer where competitions on speed ropework (like ascending lines or passing knots in the air) as well as good natured fun like the tug of war we had on the last night where the kiwis versed the rest of the world. The kiwis won, maybe they had practised beforehand? Either way, there was loads to do when not canyoning!
THE DIDYMO PROBLEM
One very important aspect of canyoning in New Zealand is a thing called Didymo. Hated (and rightly so) with a passion by all outdoor enthusiasts, this algae grows rampart in infected waterways. Not only is it unsightly but it can also harm insects and other wildlife and disrupt the natural balance of the ecosystem.
A sample of Didymo from the Buller river.
Awareness of the issue was continually brought up during the festival and the strict guidelines of disinfecting gear was followed. It’s a pain to do but it really does have to be done to prevent further spread of this introduced pest.
There are 3 ways, as noted by the Didymo campaign, that must be followed to prevent its spread.
CHECK: All obvious Didymo should be removed from boots, shoes or gear. Leave it at the location.
CLEAN: Soak and scrub all items that have been wet in a 2% detergent solution (2 cups) with water for 10 minutes or more in a quarter filled 100L.
DRY: After items are dry, a further 48 hours wait until entering another waterway.
The best way we found was to do the 2% solution and leave most gear soaking overnight if canyoning the next day. Massive annoyance, but Didymo in every waterway would suck even more!
THE CANYONING ASSOCIATION
Another big part of the festival was the introduction of the canyoning association. Like many outdoor associations, it will help canyoners in New Zealand access, and keep access open, for many places that contain canyons along with providing funds for bolting and maintenance.
This may not be of any interest to non-canyoners but the important thing that many of these associations do is fight for the land to remain in recreational use as opposed to say, having casinos built on them or the land chopped up for mining as we see around the world.
You may not care what climbers, canyoners or hikers do with these associations, but all these groups fight to have more land available for everyone to use. I think this is pretty crucial in a world of ever sprawling cities and resource competition.
So if you have a outdoor hobby you love, see if there is a club or organization you can get behind and support!
You can read more about the canyoning association HERE.
On the agenda for the festival, though not open to everyone including myself, was the SAR-EX event. This search and rescue exercise was hosted by Land SAR NZ and was aimed to better prepare for the eventual mobilisation of a canyoning rescue. With the event organised by the Nelson Speleo Group Cave SAR team, we heard it was a great success and many points learned and worked on. Its great to see an active interest in making the canyons safer with specialised rescue training.
Already in the works is a canyoning festival for 2020 to be held somewhere in Canterbury. The festivals date will allow plenty of time to develop new canyons in the area. Who knows, you or me might even get our very own first descents! What is amazing in New Zealand is the concentration of canyons in may areas. The large amount of rain, coupled with the right kind of rock, will easily create beautiful places we can discover and play in.
Lake Rotoiti is amazing just by itself, let alone having so many canyons in the surrounding valleys! I wonder where the next one will be!
What I loved most about the festival was the vibe. It was fantastic and everyone felt included no matter their skill level. One other festival I went to the year before, covering a different sport, had nowhere near the kind of openness that this one did. It was refreshing to meet up with a great group of people who didn't worry about what you had or hadn't done, it was all about having a good time.
If other outdoor sports want to have a good model to follow to provide an amazing experience on their own festival, they should take a page from the New Zealand canyoning festival!
The kiwis winning the tug of war!
And a big thanks to Richard Bramley and everyone else involved for the organisation of the festival! St Arnaud also did well to put up with the 100 or so canyoners running around their town and disinfecting gear on every campsite. So thank you for having us!
A big success all round for the canyoning festival of 2018!