Authored By Brian

Day before yesterday we left Queenstown and headed up to Wanaka, about an hour north, to hang out while we wait for the Routeburn track to re-open. We decided to try something that we saw in a brochure called canyoning. It looks like running down a riverbed with a thick wetsuit on and it said suitable for anyone over 7. Most importantly, it seemed like something that bad weather couldn’t really ruin.

Turns out we were wrong. All canyoning trips on our first day in Wanaka were cancelled because the water flows were too high. We put our name on the waitlist for yesterday and instead headed out to take a day hike to the Rob Roy Glacier.

The Rob Roy hike is located about 50km from Wanaka; only 20km of that is paved. The rest is “unsealed” or “chip” or “metal” road in NZ-speak. This matters little in travel time because the locals do nearly the same speed on the dirt roads as they do the paved. It’s no wonder why rally drivers come from countries like this. Minus the drama of fording a couple of small rivers in Oprah and we were setting off on our first hike of the trip. It was estimated by the Department of Conservation (DOC) as a 3-4 hour return hike. For whatever reason, tramps are estimated in time rather than distance so you rarely see the actual distance you’ll cover unless you have a map.

The path was pretty steep and very root-covered. We started out in a sheep-farm meadow, crossed a big swing bridge and quickly ascended through beech forests working our way up a ravine with a fast river, large boulders and big trees. We went all the way into a sub-alpine climate at the bush line and had a fantastic view of the glacier. With fresh snow from the past couple of days, the scenery has been just amazing around here. There were a bunch of people at the top of the hill having lunch which we sat down to enjoy as well. While eating, we saw two instances of ice falling from the terminal face of the glacier and crashing all the way down the mountainside!

We were also treated to quite a show by our now-familiar Kea friends. There were signs everywhere in about 4 languages saying not to feed the Keas. Ooops. There were two of them about and they were harassing everything with food. This gave us a good chance to get some portrait close-ups but there was a group of Irish girls who were scared to death of them. They must have seen the movie, “The Birds” one too many times. There is something a little creepy about the hopping but they are very smart and clever birds.

We also met a group of three girls whom we chatted with at the top before we snapped a couple of last pictures and headed out. On the way down we passed a guy who was RUNNING up the track. Insanity. He passed us not long later on his way back down, clearly on some kind of a training exercise.

By yesterday, things had settled down enough for us to go canyoning. We had 6 people total; a Canadian named Lea (who is actually one of the girls we met at Rob Roy), an Australian named Sarah and a couple from outside London (who were also at Rob Roy the same time we were! Small world), plus two guides to keep us in control. We drove out about an hour, nearly back to where the Rob Roy track starts and unloaded a heap of gear that included wetsuits, booties, gloves, helmets, splash suits and our pick of a pair of shoes from their pile of secondhand sneakers. The idea being to destroy their stuff instead of ours which sounded fine to someone with only four pair of underwear and one pair of shoes.

Jennifer and I had separately wondered how we would get to the top of the ravine for the canyoning. Would one guide drive us up and then meet us at the bottom? Maybe one was just a transporter and the other would actually take us on the river. Nope. Turns out we have to hike up this hill that is only suitable for billy goats. The pictures of the mountains that we’re driving past on the way to Rob Roy? Those are the hillsides we have to hike up so our slave driver of a tour guide points up the hill and we hoist our gear on our backs and start the trek.

The guides weren’t sure if we would be able to go because there was more snow than they had anticipated and the weather was relatively warm meaning it would start melting quickly. Like in Milford Sound, the water levels here can rise very quickly if snow starts to melt and at a certain point the water level is no longer safe. As a group we decided to go to the top to double-check instead of just going home so up the hill we turned.

The climb was brutal. Like steep stairs the whole way plus crossing an electric fence. Jennifer was having a pretty tough go of it so I took her pack about halfway up. I’m starting to look like Santa Clause as the rest of the group is sprinting off to the top. It felt like we had mistakenly dropped in with the Olympic training squad or something. The good news is all of the exercise got us warm and then we suited up, went through an abseiling explanation, some safety procedures and the guides checked the water one last time telling us we were right at the limit. Then we jumped into the water.

My. Dear. God.

I have never felt water so cold. I have never felt anything so cold. Not the -10 celsius at the Antartic Center for sure. As it filled the wet suit, I could feel the air just being sucked out of me. Until this time, the coldest water I had experienced was probably the Eel River just below the dam at Lake Pillsbury where we went inner tubing a handful of times during and after college. It was 100F outside then so although it was cold, it seemed bearable.

This was some kind of Guantanamo torture. I instantly started panting and yelling “BAA BAA BAA BAA BAA BAA BAA BAAAAAA” trying to regain my composure. I thought water turned to a solid when it got to 0 but apparently they figured out a way to keep it flowing into my wetsuit.

After a couple of minutes, we hopped back out and walked to “The Welcome Mat”. It’s literally a welcome mat taped onto a pipe about 30 feet above a pool of fast moving water below where we would have our first abseil. Abseiling is what rock climbers do on the way down using the ropes to slide back down the mountain. The guides had a safety rope on us but with the water rushing all around you, the first time you lean back off the flat ledge and trust the rope is a real rush. At the end of the abseil rope you push off and let go and fly into the pool of water (which, not surprisingly, is STILL FREEZING COLD) and the other guide helps you climb onto a log and up onto a ledge while the rest of the group makes it through. Jennifer went before me and did such an awesome job the whole way. She made it look easy which really relaxed me as I completed my turn.

Then came the exciting part. The next step was to either abseil or JUMP down a 12m (~40ft) drop into the next pool. Jennifer went first and abseiled it and I was 100% convinced I would do the same. Then the guide started asking if I wanted to jump and I said no-way. The first guide has jumped initially and he was like a frog jumping waaaaay away from the rocks. I figured I couldn’t get that far. The other guide said he was showing off and that people practically fall off the ledge without getting hurt. He started making me feel like a schoolgirl.

So I stepped up to the ledge, unclipped my carabineer from the safety rope, and jumped. I am never the first one to jump off anything. Like I said, heights and I have an uneasy relationship. But for some reason I did it. The last thing I saw before I leapt was Jennifer with eyes as big as saucers looking up at me like I was nuts. It was just a blur as I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before hitting the water. And then back into the freezing, frothing, fast moving water. The guide threw a safety rope and I climbed out of the water as excited as if I had just won the World Series. I clenched my teeth so hard I had a headache when I came out of the water. I don’t know if that’s because I was scared or because I was once again shocked at the water temperature.

While Jennifer and I were waiting for the rest of the group (including our Canadian friend Lea who jumped off the next ledge up for about a 55ft jump), we noticed the water level rose about an inch and started flowing over rocks it wasn’t previously. Sure enough, once the last person was down, the guides told us the water level was past the safe mark and we had to pull out. We exited the canyon through a side path and hiked back down to the bottom for lunch and then a ride back. Really sucked but it was insane while it lasted. They gave us half our money back and offered to let us do it again for ½ the price so we are thinking of trying to make it back. There are supposed to be a bunch of exciting slides, jumps and more abseils in the remaining 80% of the canyon.

The guides told us that they have never taken a group with the water that high before and that “conditions are not normally like this”. We’ve been hearing that a lot lately… Whoever created the brochure that said anyone over 7 would be suitable is nuts. If I was 7, I would have been crying like a little baby.

We unfortunately couldn’t bring a camera so I stole some pictures from their website to give you an idea what it was like. I assume this is possible in the states and I would encourage you to look it up. Tons of fun!

These aren’t all yet, but here are most of the pictures.

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