When spraying broom high in the expanses of the Wilberforce Valley during the summer of 2014/15, I looked across the river and my thought was “those are some pretty nice waterfalls.” My next thought, some time later was, “I’m pretty sure this river isn’t that deep.” As the nose of my Landcruiser vanished up to the windscreen in “not that deep” I figured that as I was going to be there for a while I should at least get onto the roof so that I could get a better look at the waterfalls. A cautionary tale in stream fording etiquette perhaps, but it was also the start of the Wilberforce Canyoning trips.
It was during the summer of 2015/16 that I was introduced to the sport of Canyoning during trips down Mathers and Cross Creeks, and it captured me a little bit. Post the Wanaka experiences I was keen to see if there was scope in those waterfalls up the Wilberforce. Alas summer ended without any progress being made and as the winter rolled into the high country I figured they weren’t going anywhere, but then again neither was I.
As spring 2016 crept in, I had found some people mad enough to have a look with me. The initial objectives weren’t as grand as the Wilberforce trips to come, but we needed a place to warm up and learn how to develop a trip. Having done a bit of climbing development and some caving as well as a few other assorted adventures I figured I had some pretty transferable skills. So along with this small crew, we slid into Lake Selfe one morning in an array of inflatable objects, more than a little nervous but filled with hope and enthusiasm.
One very spiny approach later, standing at the top of ‘The Big Idea’ John, Danny and I realised that without bolts we were going to have to get a bit creative. This really brought the seriousness of first descents home to all of us and the phrase “pray for trees” was a constant companion. The details of the trip are inconsequential, but the effect that it had on us was not. By the time we made it back to our little boats hidden in the scrub by the lake, we were all goofy smiles and congratulations. We were well and truly hooked (a later lesson would be never congratulate yourself too early).
Some weeks later, Andy joined our crew and along with a new (old) drill named Lola and we established another canyon named ‘The Bigger Idea’. We also redeveloped the ‘Big and Little Ideas’ so that there were bolts where they needed to be, ensuring that the pitches made sense and that we weren’t required to deviate too much from the canyon as on the first decent. These three trips, although lacking in water volume gave us a great learning curve on which to hone some canyoning skills and develop some rhythm. It gave us some confidence in ourselves as we stared up the valley to the intimidating canyons awaiting us across the river.
Mona Anderson once wrote a book called ‘A River Rules My Life’; you should read it. It’s a cracking tale of high country life and the beauty and hardships that shaped a generation of people tough enough to run sheep and cows on some of the most imposing country, all while lacking the basic amenities that we (me) would fail to function without. I digress but the point is that there is a big river in the Wilberforce Valley, and that big river sits squarely between where canyoners are and where they want to be.
In late December 2016 just as the sun showed its face above the ranges, I could empathise with old Mona as Kieran Chandler and I prepared to ford the Wilberforce at the most braided spot we could find. Following earlier life lessons isn’t always easy when you can’t see the bottom, but we did make it across and soon (after some minor wrong turns and one extra hill) we found ourselves peering into the entrance of Takahe Stream.
The feeling of being the first to go somewhere is difficult to describe, but thankfully the experience of being in the canyon is not. Once you’re in, you’re in! The waterfalls increase in size towards the end and there is scope for many jumps and slides. Kieran and I have done a bit of stuff together; we quickly found an easy rythym of scouting, locating or creating anchors, rappelling, sharing rope management and bolting duties without the need to speak. It was also a good chance for me to learn a bunch canyon specific skills for which I am really grateful, as the climbing/caving techniques I had been using were creating some small problems.
Coming down the canyon, we were getting the feeling that we had lost enough height and that we’d done enough. We came to a long pitch and then the stream flattened off and the sun shone in. Upon walking around blind corners for 10 or so minutes we congratulated each other on a cracking trip and the mood lightened as we realised we’d survived. In our minds, we began the walk out, taking off jackets and the top halves of our wetsuits and basking in the feelings of success. Soon, one more corner presented itself and we found ourselves looking through the narrowest point in the canyon so far, staring straight across at the mountains and realising how far up we still were. Takahe wasn’t done with us yet…
This little surprise is still my favourite part of the trip and if I could say anything to anyone about the trip, it’s use the guide to get to the top and then put it away, let the canyon scare and excite you, and let it decide when you’re finished because if you know whats coming then you’ll miss the best bits.
Since the first descent Takahe has been run probably 4 times and each time it gets better and better. There’s no mistaking that it is an alpine canyon, but if it were lower down the valley it would be a sport canyon. The jumps and slides are great, with variation upon variation of options, and as we get used to the canyon they continue to reveal themselves. The real bonus is that you get this sporting experience all whilst staring up at 60m high walls and eventually out across the southern alps.
Hut stream was next. It’s like Takahe in aspect, topography and rock type except that it’s definitely not a sport canyon in an alpine environment. From the moment we stepped out of the monkey scrub and into the stream it felt different. Even having done it twice it still feels different, more foreboding, more serious and more consequential. If you screw up in Takahe it’ll let you go, if you get Hut stream wrong it won’t (except for the one time it did). Like all good teams will tell you, communication is the key; nail that and the day will run well, lesson remembered. Setting up the top of pitch two I watched Kieran pull the rope from pitch one and called out if he could pass me the bolts from his bag. Keiran said that John had them, except that John didn’t.
In these situations it’s important not to panic; hard to do, but very important. So once the conniptions had been had by all we discussed the likely problem, which was that the bolts were still at the top of pitch one.
Sometimes you get a bit lucky, and lucky for us the waterfall wasn’t vertical and had a nice scrubby bank which we figured could be/had to be climbed. Not a great start to a trip, but a key reminder to idiot check every pitch and to keep making sure people know what’s going on. Other than that minor issue I can say that on the whole Hut Stream is amazing; it is a place where people learn what they consist of and where boundaries lie. The lack of sporting features make it an almost purely vertical outing but those waterfalls more than compensate you for it.
Last to go has been The Lion King. It is a totally different experience that somehow doesn’t entirely justify itself. Thrashing up through a creek bed you gain nearly 400m before you even see where you need to be, and then the scrub has a go at you. Bias may have been applied as it was wet when we did it. Fiordland wet. During the approach, the virtual river running off my helmet, down my front and out the bottom of my jacket could have been an adventure enough for one day. We did persevere however and were rewarded with a totally different canyoning experience to the other Wilberforce trips. And a ripper it is; open and yet surrounded by the vibrant green of saturated beech. We were encapsulated in fog and cloud and thus totally aware our immediate environment without seeing the bigger context. If it hadn’t been for the cold then I think that we would have pioneered a range of jumps and slides to compliment the excellent cascading falls and quirky features that crescendo towards the final “awkward turtle pitch”. As fun as it was we were stoked to get out the bottom and even more stoked to find that Jerm had dragged beers through the canyon for us all to enjoy, and that no fewer than three kinds of cheese were available with crackers courtesy of Ashley ‘canyon cheese’ Stewart.
All in all I have to say that there is something great in the Wilberforce, and sure there are great things everywhere, some with better rock, some with easier walk ins and some with bigger rappels, deeper pools and potentially warmer water, but the Wilberforce has a kind of remote magic. There are no real roads, you’re closer to the Tasman Sea than the nearest coffee and you are very much alone up there. With the right people all of this adds up to trip after stonking trip where despite the risks and remoteness everyone comes out grinning like they’ve won lotto and for that we’re all a bit lucky.
Tom Johns is a member of the University of Canterbury Canyoning Club and the NZ Canyoning Association. You can learn more about canyoning, and the canyons described in this article on KiwiCanyons.org.