A Novice In Nature's Playground

By Emma Darragh.

I said yes with mixed emotions. Canyoning in the Kauaeranga Valley sounded like something at the farthest reaches of my comfort zone.

I am not a thrill seeker. But I am a nature lover. This adventure offered both. On the way to our meet-up point, I was nervous as hell. My friend Sam had invited me to accompany her on Canyonz Adventure Company’s Sleeping God Canyon trip. Sam and I had enjoyed many explorations trail running over the years. I respected her grit, so figured she was the right person in which to share a totally new, watery adventure. I didn’t know what to expect, preferring the bliss of ignorance to the paranoia of my overactive imagination. All I knew was to bring shorts for the hike, togs for under the wetsuit, and a water bottle for a huge day, starting at 8.30 am and finishing around 5.30 pm. A little bit of knowledge could have been very dangerous indeed. As it was, saying yes to this adventure was hanging in the balance.

Sometimes when you meet people there is instant rapport. Meeting Canyonz co-owner Russ Hodgson and his fellow guide T (Teri) Brown, was like this. In the first ten minutes, it wouldn’t have mattered had we gone nowhere and done nothing other than hang out with these two. Their easy-going, friendly charm set the tone for our trip and threaded its way through the group. Eager anticipation soon outplayed our collective anxiety. It was there alright, but barely an audible hum. Our group consisted of myself and Sam; both locals from the Coromandel, a young couple, Emma and Matt from Whakatane and a young man, Rik from Belgium. None of us had done any canyoning before.

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The Kauaeranga Valley is one of my favourite places. I have hiked and run its earthy trails many times. Setting off up the Billy Goat track was a great way to start, with its river crossing, steep steps and stunning views. After 45 minutes walking, we arrived at Atuatumoe- Sleeping God Canyon, shucking off shorts and pulling on wetsuits and harnesses. Following Russ and T, we came to the crest of the canyon, torrents of water spilling forth over a jagged ledge. It was here I first learnt we would make the vertical descent of over three hundred metres down a steep set of waterfalls. We would be abseiling up to 80 metres, sliding on our backs down rock-face water slides and jumping from as high as 14 metres into dark pools of ice-cold water.

The Kauaeranga Valley looked different from the canyon compared to the trail. It is a vast, dramatic space and we were deep in the V of the valley, green peaks rising steeply up either side. Where I have learnt to pick a path on pre-formed trails by navigating my way over roots, dirt, mud and branches, Teri and Russ see invisible paths in the shapes of the rocks and the line of the water. Watching them traverse the landscape, I understood they too had picked out a clear vision of the path ahead. The difference? It is vertical. It is a rock face. It is a waterfall. I was impressed.


The first abseil was gentle and yet I felt awkward, like a kid again, doing something for the first time. I let out the rope, taking clumsy cautious steps, trying to coordinate hands and feet and head. Sam summed it up, saying “I wish we were already good at this.”
Watching T repel down the canyon after us was like watching a ballerina hop, skip and jump along a vertical stage. She was graceful, assured and made it look easy! Watching T demonstrated the massive possibilities for the joy of canyoning. I was at the novice end and it was thrilling, but I could see how it could get even better, even more fun, with more practice and experience.


Partway through our canyon descent, we had a two-part waterfall abseil to complete. After completing the first part, one by one we perched on a rock ledge, clipped to a safety line, waiting for all members of our team to finish. I was second to go down, which meant some time waiting, watching from the rock ledge. The immensity of the valley suddenly became overwhelming. The cliff face curved in a semi-circle, so there was no escaping the height or steepness of the drop. Panic churned in my belly, causing my heart to pound. I felt the white noise of fear implode in my head. I closed my mouth and breathed slowly and deeply through my nose. I talked myself through; parenting myself like I do my kids.

It was just a moment. Fear had a habit of presenting itself in the pauses; the still, solitary moments when nothing was happening. When my turn came to abseil, trepidation became a twisted rope in my gut. I looked to T and listened to her patiently repeating instructions for me. Her eyes were clear and reassuring. I trusted her and did as I was told. Once I started moving, there was no room for overwhelm. I became present and calm, mirroring T’s attitude, letting her voice guide me down gently. One foot after another, step by step all the way to the bottom. Near the end of most lines was a cool pool of water, so we would finish our abseil by leaping in and swimming out, or zip-lining over the pool. It was a refreshing way to finish each mission. The biggest thrill for me came in stopping to Look Up and see where I had come from. Wow. Thanks to the expertise of Russ and T, I never doubted my safety.

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During canyoning, I discovered with great comfort that fear translates universally across all faces. Leaping off a cliff into a pool of water is really scary to me. Fortunately, my friend Sam was gutsy, so I stayed close and followed her lead. She jumped. I jumped. Twice more. It was terrifying but I did it! The next jump was slightly higher. I scrambled up, eager, buoyed by my earlier three jumps from a lower height. But hesitation won that time and my daring disappeared. It’s amazing how the mind just locks up. Jammed. No way. I scurried back to the edge of my comfort zone - a place which wasn’t comfortable at all just two hours earlier.

Watching Russ launch and somersault himself off cliffs into pools was like watching a languid seal. He appeared so comfortable and familiar with the environment. It felt like a gift watching our guides’ harmonious and respectful interaction with nature. Russ and T were a terrific team. The flicks and twists of a shared length of rope and their sign language of hand-signals made a masterful choreography. I felt grateful for their patience with us newbies. It was reallys omething to be on the receiving end of their expertise as canyoners. The canyon was their playground. It was a privilege to ‘play with the big kids’.

The team atmosphere was incredible too. The simple act of encouragement enabled us all to leap off cliffs, to take that first scary backwards step over the ledge, to do what we wouldn’t have done without the support of each other. We stopped at halfway for sandwiches and snacks. We were a quiet bunch, content to take it all in and say little. And yet, sitting on the warm flat rocks at the canyon’s edge, I think we realised together how small we were in the face of nature. The beauty, the lessons and the challenge of new experiences quietly consumed us. It was a wonderful moment to share.

Russ and T’s historical and environmental knowledge of the Kauaeranga Valley added context to the adventure, as did their constant good humour, light-hearted banter and personal effort to connect with each and every one of us. As we hiked out at the end of the day, Russ raced on ahead, rock-hopping down the river, agile as a bouncing cat. Arriving back at our start point we could see the reason for Russ’s rush. He had been busy preparing a surprise picnic for us. Tablecloth-covered table laden with cold drinks, fresh food, and hot, salty burgers grilling on a portable barbecue. What a way to finish!

I left the Kauaeranga Valley feeling like I’d done something tremendous - feeling bigger and bolder than before I arrived, but more humble too. I was a beginner there. A novice in nature’s playground with fumbling feet and awkward arms. Yet I couldn’t have loved it more.

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I also left feeling more love for people, place and life itself. Atuatumoe - Sleeping God Canyon heard our Karakia at the start of the day. She held us safely in our vulnerable, flawed and fear-fueled states, showing us to one another in total authenticity. Atuatumoe also emphasised our capacity for great kindness towards one another and tremendous generosity of spirit.

The quality of the Canyonz adventure, the humanity of the people leading it, and the sheer immensity of the day left me with no doubt in mind about saying yes to this adventure. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
* Images supplied by CanyoNZ