Venture off the track and into the canyon in the well-visited Top of the South Island…
The top of the South Island is renowned for its beautiful National Parks; many are drawn each year from across New Zealand to explore the backcountry by foot, by kayak, or by bike. However, the backcountry also holds another, and more exciting, way to explore: following the rivers and creeks by jumping, scrambling, sliding, and abseiling. So next time you’re heading up that way, how about you also pack your wetsuit and ropes and get into the lesser-travelled backwaters? Here are a few sweet spots to whet your appetite.
When most people think about Abel Tasman National Park, they are drawn to paddle the beautiful blue seas in a kayak, or to stroll across the sands along the Great Walk. However, delve deeper and you will discover a number of fun canyons, which even finish with a stroll to the beach and another swim if you haven’t had enough already! The orange coloured separation-point granite of the area has been eroded over thousands of years to leave these uniquely wide and less intimidating canyons with lots of smaller cascades.
To reach the oasis of Torrent River you must leave the coastal forest and head inland across Manuka and Kanuka bush, descending steeply to a spacious and sunny get-in. What follows is a mellow v3a4III* canyon, where water twists and turns through a number of fun aquatic features, great jumps and a couple of choice slides too. This canyon is commercially run by Abel Tasman Canyons throughout the summer season, so please call them for more information and to avoid a hustle at the pitch-heads!
Just across the bay lies Falls River, a step up from its brother across the way, at v4a5III**. The access track crosses a pool where you may encounter an infamous Eel – protect your sandwiches (or your fingers) as she snaps at the scent of a crumb dropped into her territory! The route to this canyon was re-cut in 2015 so you may need a keen eye to find the way (call Abel Tasman Canyons if you want some beta!). An airy traverse kicks off the fun to avoid an exciting aquatic; soon followed by a committing abseil. Careful positioning is needed to avoid being belted by the full flow. Great jumps and sweet slides follow, some of which can be lapped for more fun, before scrambling down to meet the path once more.
The park’s pièce de resistance is Table Creek. This 9 hour canyon is full on at v4a3V**, and only done a handful of times. It is an epic, and I’ve yet to find the topo! You may need to recruit some logistical assistance as you start the day up near the Canaan Downs, and finish in Awaraoa 8km away! If you jump on this trip, you may be one of the few who do as I believe that fewer have run this canyon than the number of people to have walked on the moon (which is 12, by the way!).
If water isn’t your thing, and you’re new to canyoning, a trip to Blue Creek is a great day out in the Kahurangi. The walk is fairly short and sharp, but you go through beautiful beech forest and pass by mine relics en-route. A series of abseils take you down through this beautifully sculpted limestone chasm. Negotiating the various log-jams requires a certain amount of balance as the rock can be pretty slimy, and you need to be wary when approaching the pitch-heads. Towards the end two pools may just get your underwear wet, though sometimes a leader can nobly take it for the team and hold the rope out of the water to save the others. If you have a speleological interest, it is worth packing your torches as you can head underground near the resurgence and explore some of the passages. The hydrology of this area isn’t fully understood, so avoid this ‘dry’ canyon after heavy rain as this canyon seriously flash floods.
Hope River (v4a2II**) & Ellis Creek (v4a2II*) are two other great trips in the Kahurangi. If you’re feeling keen, they can both easily be tackled in a day (and if you’re a little shorter of time, you can just do the lower section of Hope Creek). Hope River can be split into two sections, sadly separated by 800m of walking; the upper section is a series of 4 abseils off natural anchors, the longest being 32m. The lower section (the crux) is really one 60m cascading waterfall which includes an optional 12m jump, and a slide of 10m. This is followed by a natural waterpark with countless downclimbs and jumps as you follow the flow back towards where you have parked the car. Ellis Creek is another pretty canyon, kicking off with an 8m slide and followed by a beautiful 40m abseil. A series of jumps and slides take you back down to the river where after about 500m it is easier to escape onto the path to get back to the car.
Nelson Lakes hosted the Kiwi Canyons Festival earlier this year, and it easily managed to keep canyoners from across the country and around the world, fully occupied. The Greywacke canyons are a lot more enclosed and vertical in nature than those further North and create some very atmospheric abseils. From the head of Lake Rotoiti waterfalls can be spotted cascading from the steep sides of the Arnaud range, enticing you for another adventure.
Whiskey Creek (v5a2IV*) might be the most picturesque of these canyons; it is great for your rope skills with 11 abseils with the best saved until last – a 53m abseil landing you right next to the Whiskey Falls Track. Another great canyon-value trip is found by combining the lower section of Barefoot Burn (v4a2III*) and Lower Chandler Stream (v3a3II**). The upper section of Barefoot Burn descends 140m in a series of downclimbs and abseils (the longest being 40m). However, the lower section is more exciting with back-to-back waterfalls which are mostly in the flow. The final abseil was the highlight for me, anchored off a tree to the right of the flow you continue down the mossy wall before making a committed leap across the flow to safety. Not everyone makes the mark, and their penalty is a pounding in the flow; if you don’t mind sitting in the spray you can laugh as your mates either make it, or don’t! Lower Chandler is amazing because it’s so easy to get to: a mere 20 minute walk-in…what?!!! Then back-to-back abseils and jumps, the last of which has a cracking 5m jump from a small ledge on the true left. But the fun isn’t over, you can also scramble out to the true right and lap a great 7m jump. Once you’ve taken all that the canyon can offer, it’s a 5-minute stroll back to the Coldwater Hut – easy!
Clearwater (v3a2III*) is another classic Nelson Lakes trip – 12 rappels means it is not only picturesque, but also pitch-tastic. The highlight for me was the 20m pitch where you can look out through the beech forest and across the lake. It’s a safe bet when the water levels are a little higher in other canyons as most of the rappels can be done out-of-the flow. Shift Creek (v4a3IV***) became infamous at the festival after a storm created a great log-jam through which you had to descend while in the flow – exciting! Cupola Creek (v4a5IV***) is definitely worth a mention – finally descended in January this year when the weather finally co-operated by Lee den Haan and team; check out the video to get you psyched!
What makes some of these canyons even more special is the access to them. Torrent & Falls River are both best reached by boat, shortening the walk-ins by about 3 hours. You can choose whether to paddle or to catch a water-taxi but splashing across the Mad Mile and spotting the seal pups (or a dolphin if you’re lucky) is a pretty sweet way to get to the fun. The Nelson Lakes canyons are also best accessed by boat to save time, and you can choose to charter a water-taxi or to paddle across. Those walking along the lakeside can expect to receive strange questions from tourists who are perplexed as to why you might be wearing neoprene and carrying ropes!
Sadly, I have to mention the dreaded Didymo in this article. For those who aren’t aware of this ‘rock snot’, it is an algae that is clogging some of the most pristine rivers in the South Island. It has reached Nelson Lakes, and so please be super careful when you’re in this area and clean your kit between trips. If you’re unsure what to do, Dan (Chucky) Clearwater makes it very clear here.
Hopefully this round-up has got you inspired to check out some of the canyons in this beautiful area, but I’ve only briefly mentioned a handful of the treats on offer. In the past couple of years there has been tons of exploration, with some of the keenest of canyoners pushing for first-descents, so keep on the look out for more exciting developments in the area.
Before going out there…
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