‘You can borrow any of these pairs of trainers for your canyoning experience’, said our guide Javier. ‘They were left behind by past tour groups that didn’t make it.’
This was my introduction to Kiwi tour guide humour (we’ll skim over the fact that our guide on this occasion was Chilean). If you do anything scary in New Zealand and look nervous, they jump right on it and take every opportunity to tease you. It sounds cruel, but the jokes actually help lighten the atmosphere and ease the tension.
I’d met my fellow canyoners, Ruby and Ben, in central Auckland for the 1-hour scenic drive to Piha. After stopping briefly to view the beach and it’s very un-lion-like ‘Lion Rock’ from above, we pulled into a parking space by a shed and clambered into some heavy-duty wetsuits and jackets. AWOL Canyoning Adventures also provide rubber booties to keep your feet warm under the ‘trainers of the deceased’. All in all, you’re guaranteed to be toasty warm.
Once we were suited and booted, we left all our belongings locked inside the shed and drove up the road to a forest clearing so Javier could ‘show us the ropes’ (ba dum tsssh).
LEARNING THE BASICS
Hanging from a tree, we learned how to unhook the rope from our harnesses. Javier also explained that the first person to reach the bottom of a waterfall should hold the end of the rappel rope and tug it hard if they sensed that the person abseiling had lost control. Little did I know this safety technique would be put into action later on!
It was a short but steep climb up the mountainside through dense jungle to reach the top of the waterfall. We began with a jump into a pool, which Javier warned us contained sheep-eating eels. I’m not gullible enough to believe that, but I later found the eels he was referring to at Auckland’s Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater Experience. Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t know what they looked like when I took the plunge…
THE TRICKY PART
Before we set off down the first waterfall, Javier decided it had been too long since the last time he’d taken the mick. Grabbing my carabiner, he inspected it, pulled a face as though there was something not quite right and then said ‘Ah well, it’s too late to change it now!’
The waterfall we abseiled down as part of the Piha day trip was made up of four descents. The first is a fairly easy 15 m. This is followed by a very tame 5 m drop. Section 3 is the one that will have you shaking in your wetsuit booties. It’s 55 m and there’s a fair bit of water splashing you as you make your way down.
I was just starting to feel comfortable and build up a bit of speed when I reached an overhang and there was nowhere to support my feet. Sucking up all my confidence I tried to shimmy sideways to a flatter spot. It turned out I’m not very good at shimmying, and I finished up dangling at the end of the rope, with Ben having to lower me to the safety of the next ledge!
The fourth waterfall is about 30 m, but it had rained so heavily the night before that it was too dangerous for us to attempt it. Javier took us to peer over the edge and sure enough, there was a tonne of water pouring through a narrow crevice.
This didn’t dampen the experience though. We had successfully traversed three sections of waterfall, including the biggest drop of them all, and it had been an exhilarating day filled with personal achievements – especially for those of us with an acute fear of heights.
OTHER TOUR OPTIONS
As well as the Piha day trip, AWOL Canyoning Adventures offer a half-day trip with less time abseiling, and a Blue Canyon trip, which is more of a hardcore adventure course including pool jumps, natural slides and some abseiling too. They also operate a night canyoning trip where your head torch and a smattering of gloworms are the only illumination. Prices and further details can be found on their website.
GETTING TO AUCKLAND
Many people arrive in New Zealand via Auckland’s international airport. If you’re already in the country, Intercity Buses provide services to and from the following popular destinations (rough times in brackets): Paihia (4 hours); Hamilton (2 hours); Rotorua (4 hours); Taupo (5 hours); and Wellington (11 hours). Click below to search for a journey.
I was a guest of AWOL Canyoning Adventures. They did not request that I write a favourable review and all of the opinions expressed here are my own.