New Zealand, the land of adventure... And Lord of the Rings. While activities such as hiking dominate the list of outdoor activities people do when the visit New Zealand, a lesser known sport is quickly making a name for itself…
Canyoning is the outdoor activity of descending canyons via rappelling, scrambling, swimming, jumping and walking. It’s an activity that has distinct grades, from easy to hard, and can be done all around the world by everyone of all ages.
Each area that contains a canyon, or canyons, can be completely different from another. The appeal is in the beauty of it. You are exploring parts of the earth that are not frequently travelled, searching out the amazing rocky features carved out by water over the millennia.
It’s amazing what you can find down there!
Some places in the world have dry canyons as well, like arid landscapes, and offer completely different experiences to those canyons that have water running through them.
For New Zealand however, here are the many reasons why you should go canyoning there right now!
WHY YOU NEED TO GO CANYONING IN NEW ZEALAND!
If you have never seen the water in New Zealand, like even from a photo, you are missing out! It’s clear, like REALLY clear! And when its not clear, its some ridiculous stunning shade of blue. You’ll always feel tempted for a swim when you see it.
In fact, it’s got some of the clearest water in the world. The Pupu water spring had a lab measured visibility of 83 meters! That’s crazy, right?!
Water also adds some extra technicality to the canyons. Above certain grades, you need to know white water techniques to keep yourself safe. If you are experienced for these particular canyons, these are extremely fun places to explore.
What is canyoning? Is it for you?
Descending The General. Is This One of New Zealand’s Best Canyons?
On the south island of New Zealand, you’ll find the magnificent Schist canyons that have white quartz streaks running like lightning through the grey and black walls. Marble, granite, and sandstone canyons also exist, with rounded walls and features, each adding their own characteristic flair to the canyon.
Like all canyons, water sculpts and carves them into stunning passageways, drops and pools. Some canyons will have a focus on the abseils with massive sheer drops, while others will have countless pools, offering numerous opportunities for jumps and slides.
With the combination of rock and water, playgrounds are made by nature that we can enjoy. Canyoning has a huge focus on teamwork. This teamwork creates solid bonds with each other and you’ll find yourself among friends in no time, even if just visiting from overseas.
Canyoning gives us an excuse to be a kid again, to jump off that rock, slide into that pool, or get soaked under that waterfall. We find ourselves laughing and smiling a lot, and that's what its all about. Having a good time in the outdoors!
Canyoning in New Zealand also offers a lot of technical challenges for the adventurous. Most canyons are rarely packed with people (if any at all), and you’ll find they all have a wonderful ‘wilderness’ feel to them.
Approaches are often through pristine forest, along faintly worn trails, and can be an adventure in itself in some cases. Popular places for canyoning are well equipped, but recent rain can always change levels and make them far more challenging.
Huge white water filled monsters exist for those with a thirst for the extreme. Canyons like ‘Gloomy Gorge’ only see a handful of descents every few years.
‘The General’ is a great internationally recognised canyon for those who like bigger days. It had also only been descended a few times and really felt 'wild' going in. You can read about my epic trip into this canyon HERE.
No matter your level, New Zealand canyons offer something for everyone. You may already be experienced or have never done it before. So what do you need to do to get started?
TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED CANYONING IN NEW ZEALAND
There are 2 excellent books you need to get for canyoning in New Zealand:
► Canyoning in New Zealand Guidebook
This guidebook by Dan Clearwater is the absolute best (and only) resource for a canyoning trip. Highly detailed topos and descriptions for many canyons, there's enough to keep you busy for a whole season and more.
► Canyoning Technical Manual
Covering everything from ropework to water, from rescue to teamwork dynamics, it’s the ‘must have’ book for anyone wanting to learn more about canyoning. The book alone does not constitute competency in rope skills, so should be paired with instruction from a course or experienced individual.
For the latest updates on canyons, be sure to check the Kiwicanyon’s website, and also enquire about conditions and other questions by posting on the Kiwicanyons Facebook group. You can also contact me for any questions about gear, especially those coming from Australia.
Self Sufficient Canyoners
If you have canyoning or climbing experience, and are equipped with the right gear, you can quite happily begin with some of the easier canyons. Canyon grading should be taken seriously, and based on an international system, you can start with canyons below the V3A3 grading.
You can read more about the canyon grading system HERE.
The standard system of abseiling in canyons around the world is to use single ropes with releasable systems (figure 8 or a munter locked off, for example) because of the water flows. The standard practice in Australia for recreational canyoning is the ‘double rope toss and go’, and this will not be suitable for the flows of A3 canyons and above!
More information can be found about this in the Canyoning in New Zealand guidebook.
For the best training, you can do a course with several canyoning companies, one being the ‘New Zealand Canyoning School’.
You can also start enquiring if anyone is interested in teaching you, though remember that experienced canyoners receive a lot of requests for this. A incentive such as paying for fuel and dinner or driving everyone there for example, can sometimes work. You can read more about starting adventure sports in my article HERE. It talks about many of these things in more detail.
To those not familiar with New Zealand conditions, expect the water to be cold, and its levels to be highly dependent on rainfall. The guidebook mentioned earlier provides the only photo reference for being able to judge and know what water levels will be like in the canyon.
A thick wetsuit (4mm+) is recommended, as are wetsuit socks, gloves and hood. Some canyons can be distinctly colder than others.
For those coming from warmer locations, such as the United States or Australia, you may have a 3mm wetsuit already and wonder if you if can use that?
In short, yes you can, however, bulking it up with extra layers is highly recommended. A thick wetsuit top worn over or under the 3mm, in addition to the socks, gloves and hood, will be crucial in enjoying the short canyons, and surviving the longer ones! You should not attempt canyons longer than 3-4 hours unless you have sufficient wetsuit thickness or layering.
Remember, with the right gear, you will be warm and happy and be able to enjoy the canyon!
An important note: Didymo is an invasive pest introduced to New Zealand waterways in 2004. To stop the spread (and avoid massive fines), you will need to disinfect and clean your gear in between waterways. This is easier to do than it sounds, doesn’t cost much (less than $40 for your whole trip most likely), so read all about it on the Kiwicanyon’s Didymo page.
If you do not have any experience in canyoning or climbing, you should first see if you like it by taking a guided trip. There are many around New Zealand, and on the south island there are 3 hubs for canyoning:
► Queenstown (Canyoning Queenstown)
► Wanaka (Deep Canyon)
► Nelson (Abel Tasman Canyons)
They will provide everything you need, and the guides are awesome at helping you have a good time. I would say 99% of people that try canyoning LOVE IT.
I ran trips through my adventure club in Australia and it was always the most sought after activity!
From there, to get your knowledge of the rope and white water skills, you can do courses with places like the New Zealand Canyoning School, or attempt to find some experienced people that you can learn off.
You can read more about starting adventure sports in my article HERE.
No matter your skill level, canyoning in New Zealand offers something for everyone! It’s well worth including in your trip if you are visiting, you will not be disappointed!