My first experience of canyoning had actually been in Baños, Ecuador – a city renowned for the number of adventure activities it supports in an impressive rainforest setting, ranging from horse riding to rafting, paragliding and bridge jumping. Canyoning was another sport amongst many, but it stood out as a way of exploring the waterfalls in the area. Basically, it is mountaineering in reverse: descending a canyon, using abseiling techniques, rock scrambling, swimming, and good old sliding on ones bum.
The sport in Australia evolved out of hiking*, and still retains a following of canyoners/bushwalkers rather than extreme sport enthusiasts . However, as it has grown in popularity and technicality, it has incorporated techniques from abseiling, caving and rafting (usually with lilos – inflatable mattresses used for extended swims), and gear that was once borrowed from rock climbing is now being specially made for the purpose. It can certainly pose a risk, what with cold water, long falls and exit tracks that can be missed, and the danger of flash flooding. Canyoners have and do die. But safety precautions, from helmets to EPIRBS to rescue equipment, help to minimise this risk. Moreover, many canyons (particularly in dry Australia) are highly suitable for beginners, and canyoning seems to be classed more as an ‘adventure’ rather than an ‘extreme’ sport.
In any case, with abseiling practice in the gym and a few experienced canyoners, we set off to the Blue Mountains for the long weekend. This wilderness area outside of Sydney is famous for its sandstone slot canyons, which were the first canyons ever explored by Europeans in Australia in the 1940s†. Although there is evidence of Aboriginal occupation close to some canyons it is unknown how far into these any Aborigine penetrated.
Our team of five Australian National University Mountaineering Club (ANUMC) members was headed for the South Wolgan area and the associated canyons. It was a long drive, made even longer by the masses of people in Newnes campground and our decision to push on to Barcoo Swamp. The tents went up, and we went down for the night.
On Saturday we made the most of the last morning before daylight savings to head off early for Heart Attack Canyon, actually named after an incident on the Friday night of the trip (and not the rather more dramatic rumours that we were told, of someone having a heart attack in the middle of the first abseil!). It was a lovely day and the bush was full of wildflowers, though the aggressively abrasive and overgrown vegetation made me wonder how naked canyoners manage the walk in.
We reached the end of the ridiculously overgrown ex-firetrail (given back to the bush after the declaration of the Wollemi Wilderness area) and began searching for our canyon entry. And searching.
Until eventually we’d explored half the gullies of the area, missed our abseil get in and found the second get in. By then it was too late in the day for a long canyon that we’d never explored before, and we had to return somewhat defeated to camp. Thankfully, cheese makes everything better.
Sunday saw us up a little later (what with the hour less of daylight at that time), but this time our scrub bashing actually resulted in the delightfully named Death Trap Canyon (for, we assume, the pools that are apparently difficult to pull oneself out of in low water). In spite of the original intention of the trip to explore dry canyons, this one was wet, and even with wetsuits a few of us were feeling the chill of early canyoning season. Still, we moved quickly through the swims and the scrambles to the only abseil, which was gloriously bathed in sunlight.
We finished off the canyon through a beautiful rainforest, and then used a handline to descend through a rock fall. Then of course there was the walk out.
Post lunch we decided to tackle Twister Canyon too. It is a great canyon for beginners, as it has no abseils and is an almost constant series of pools and carved rocks that one slides and jumps through with glee. Unfortunately we were a little cold and the hour too late to tack on Rocky Creek to the end of this day as well, but the two canyons certainly made us feel better about our previous effort. The melted hot chocolate drink with biscuits helped too.
Monday was back to dry canyoning, with – again, ominously named! – Tiger Snake Canyon. There was, naturally, a bit of navigating involved, but we made it to the rather dramatic slot entrance to the canyon without any incident (including a decided lack of snakes).
And once inside the slot, I realised how people could become so obsessed with canyoning.
It was beautiful, seeing the water-carved walls bending and flexing down the passage, a thin window of light far above our heads.
It was also quite entertaining, what with chockstones that moved (we checked that we had an Aaron Ralston appropriate knife to saw anyone’s arm off if need be) and anchors that looked like enormous piles of matchsticks.
A 17 metre abseil between the two sections of the canyon, and then onto the second gallery.
This was the first descent of Tiger Snake that anyone in our group had done, and we were all pretty awe-struck.
But, it was a Monday, and it was a long drive back to Canberra, so we parted ways with the canyon.
Yet the weekend was not ended on such a high, for we were not the only ones using the area. Although studies have suggested that canyoners are likely to have some impact on local ecology, they also conclude that canyoners are concerned about their impact and attempt to minimise it. Even though we had camped at Barcoo Swamp to intentionally avoid the crowds, on Saturday night a few utes with chainsaws and barking dogs had rolled in well past nightfall. We’d not been too bothered by them for the most part, as we were away most of the time, but we were horrified by the battlefield of beer bottles, butane canisters, leftover meat and cheese and rubbish that we found at their abandoned campsite on Monday.
As our car flew back along the Hume Freeway to Canberra, I wondered whether perhaps the problem was with how people view the bush – as a place to enjoy, exploit and abandon without empathy for the next user, or as an extension of their own backyard. Don’t get me wrong: I think that it is wonderful that so many Australians do embrace the bush, rather than spending their long weekends indoors, and I have nothing against the drinking or the four-wheel driving – I’ve certainly enjoyed these things! But I do wonder whether other people don’t experience that sense of wonder and delight that we’d experienced in the canyon… or whether they just don’t care.
For the story of the weekend from another of the ANUMC canyoners, check out the blog post of Nick Ward.
*The origins of canyoning seem to be debated, with some arguing that Native Americans practiced it, followed by the colonial settlers of America, and others arguing that French caver Édouard-Alfred Martel started the trend. Certainly, in Australia, it evolved out of bushwalkers going bushwalking; for more information, see the link in the next footnote!
†For more information on the history of Blue Mountains canyoning, check out David Nobel’s excellent essay on the matter.
For a fuller selection of photos, check out my Flickr album.