Canyoning in Kahurangi Home
On a day out from the Mardi Gras festivities in Sydney a couple of years ago, Chris , Kris and Andy took a trip out to the Blue Mountains to do some canyoning. And a great trip it was, through a narrow and spectacular limestone gorge in the otherwise underwhelming scenery of the low, rounded mountains. The only problems were the waits at the top of each abseil pitch, as at least four other parties descended the gorge that day.
Canyoning doesn't seem to be such a popular sport here in New Zealand, probably because there is so much else to do in our more interesting mountains. And so it was that on a caving trip to Mt Owen, the tallest mountain in the Kahurangi National Park (in the north-west of the South Island), Andy spotted the spectacular looking entrance to Granity Creek Gorge from a ridge above the valley.
Andy's enquiries amongst the local caving community, who were the most likely people to have attempted the gorge, turned up a blank. Only one caver, Cathy Worthy, had tramped down the creek from its source at Granity Pass, but she'd got out of the valley when it started to turn gorge-like. Perhaps nobody had been through the gorge before! Tramping guides for the region list the canyon as being "IMPASSABLE"
A year went by, and Chris and Andy were contemplating starting an adventure tourism business. They planned to run a trip based in Golden Bay, a beautiful valley sandwiched between the Abel Tasman and Kahurangi National Parks. They had found wonderful accommodation for future clients at the gay-run Autumn Farm in Takaka, but still needed to scout out some adventurous day trips in the area. What better excuse to do some exploring!
Finally, in March 2000, Andy organised a small team of cavers (Kris and Chris from Wellington, and Bruce Mutton and Cathy Worthy from Nelson) to explore the gorge. The plan was to drop down into the valley at about the point Cathy had reached on her tramp, and follow the creek from there.
This late in the season, we had only about 12 hours of daylight, and not wanting to carry camping gear with us (wet suits, ropes, and abseiling kit were heavy enough) we elected to camp at Courthouse Flat at the base of the mountain, and make a dawn start.
The night was still and silent, with a moonless sky lit up by the sort of astonishingly bright Milky Way that you never see around towns and cities. Unfortunately, all that beauty had a downside - all the heat in the valley radiated into space, freezing our socks solid, and making our pre-dawn breakfast more like trial by hypothermia. The gold miners who built a town here in the 19th century must have been a tough breed to survive the cold and the fierce sandflies!
Heading up the trail, which rises steeply up the ridge between Granity Creek and Blue Creek, the temperature rose rapidly, the sun came above the horizon, and within twenty minutes we were complaining about the heat! After about an hour , the trail leaves the Kanuka (tea tree) scrub, and enters beech forest. Another 15 minutes walk, and the trail flattens off for a short distance before heading up steeply again. At this point, we left the trail. The 1:25000 scale map wasn't very much help at here, but to avoid possible bluffs, we decided to contour through the forest to a side valley a kilometre away, and drop into Granity Creek from there. As it turned out, this was probably not the easiest route- as we neared the side valley, the hillside got steeper and steeper, forcing us onto a ledge on a cliff with a 20m drop to the side valley's floor. Bruce set up a rope, and abseiled down. Suddenly, chilling screams filled the air! Bruce had found a lovely colony of Urtica ferox, the Tree Nettle (a giant stinging nettle with a particularly vicious sting), and thoughtfully flattened them with his own semi-naked body.
From there, we crossed the valley into forest, and dropped down towards Granity Creek. Andy followed Bruce, in time to see him stir up a wasps nest. Being a cautious tramper, Andy gave the nest a wide berth, and stepped on a log in his way. The rotten log crumbled, and the far end of this dead tree, which he now saw was balanced above the nest, swung down and hit it with a thwack! He was off as fast as my heavy pack would let him, charging down the hill and.straight into another nest! It didn't take him long to reach the creek, where Bruce and Andycounted their dozen or so stings whilst waiting for the others to catch up.
An hour or so further down the valley, we could see to our left an easy slope to the main track on the ridge- so much easier than the awful route we'd taken! Shortly afterwards, the valley walls closed in form an impressive slot in the landscape, and the creek dropped four metres into a plunge pool. No choice now but to change into wetsuits, and handline down to a point where we could leap two metres into the pool, and throw the bags across. From here, the stream lost height quickly, but for the most part it was small drops rather than abseil pitches, though a few unavoidable plunge pools kept us good and wet. Some time later, a five metre abseil marked the start of the most spectacular bit of the gorge. Chris rigged the rope from natural protection (a large rock), but when it came to pulling the rope down afterwards, it got stuck, and Andy had to climb back up, free it and hang it off a dodgy looking rock spike for an abseil.
At this point, the gorge walls were only 2 metres apart in places, for 60 metres above us. Luckily, the mid-afternoon sun shone straight into the gorge, sending shafts of light to relieve the gloom. We waded and swam through pools, sliding down natural rock slides into plunge pools, hopping over boulders, all the while with just a thin slit of sky visible through a veil of ferns and branches. Eventually we reached a final obstacle, a 15metre pitch.
With no obvious natural belay point, Chris cracked open the bolting kit, and placed a bolt in the solid limestone wall above the pitch. The lack of any bolts already in situ strengthened our belief that we were true pioneers on this trip, boldly going where no man had gone before; one small step for man - you get the idea! Below the abseil, we were back in familiar territory- Bruce had walked up Granity Creek this far prospecting for caves, and assured us that we'd be back at the cars in an hour. We arrived back just before dusk: dinner time, at least for the local sandfly population. After donating our blood to them, we all headed back to Nelson for a fine meal one of Nelson's excellent restaurants.
Andy, having grown up in overpopulated England where every square metre of land has seen countless feet, found it hard to believe that a canyon so close to a road head, in a popular national park, was an untrodden path. But with only 4 million people spread over an area the size of California, and thirty percent of the land area protected for conservation, there is still plenty to explore. Andy supposes that's why he came here on a vacation and made New Zealand his home!