Enjoying New Zealand’s most extreme sports doesn’t require a flight to Queenstown. At the other end of the country, a quick drive from Auckland, lies one of New Zealand’s most extreme experiences – canyoning in the dramatic Kauaeranga Valley, right at the gateway to the Coromandel Peninsula. Atuatumoe, or The Sleeping God, Canyon offers not just spectacular scenery, but the sort of platform-like volcanic rock and waterfalls that are seemingly ideal for abseiling and jumping down. Ideal, at least, if you’re insane, which today apparently I am.
Quick tip: if going canyoning, ready yourself for your first day of water-based thrills and spills by seriously taking the temperature into account. As I discover all too late, the warmer you are, the more you’re going to want to jump off ledges and launch yourself down nature’s little slides throughout the canyon.
While Russ Hodgson and Wayne Darlington, my canyoning guides, check numerous times if I’ve got my neoprene gloves, hood, vest, helmet and over jacket on, I make my bid to stay warm and toasty with a bonus pair of thick woolen socks and thermal underwear.
Suited up and ready to go, a 45-minute walk up the valley provides additional warmth and endless distractions to quell the nerves of this first time canyoner (that’s me). On the way to the summit, Russ explaines how the early pioneers in the valley tried to dam the canyon and float gigantic kauri logs out of the valley for processing into floorboards and building materials. It’s not without a trace of wistfulness in his voice that we learn almost all of the mighty kauri trees are now gone. The remainder were carted out by rail a century ago.
Going down, down, down
Wayne, familiar with the traditions of the Ngati Maru, the valley’s earliest Maori descendants, offers a heartfelt karakia (Maori prayer) to Atuatumoe, requesting his blessing and protection during the tour. I think I’m going to need it – the Sleeping God tour is a vertical descent of 300m down a ridiculously steep set of waterfalls.
The abseils of up to 80m require a degree of fitness that I frankly don’t have, and it’s not the first time I worry I’m going to hold up our nervously-enthusiastic team of five – Wayne has already relieved me of my pack after noticing me struggle up the steep ascent huffing and puffing.
Panic sets in. How on Earth am I going to manage the water slides and survive jumps as high as 14m into deep dark pools if I can’t even bear my own pack? But there’s not much time to think about it – we’ve arrived at the first waterfall. It’s crunch time. I have to abseil straight down a waterfall face. Peering apprehensively upriver I can see the water level is high due to lots of rain and it’s not the first time I wonder if my thrill-seeking nature needs some serious curbing.
I’m immediately reassured as I watch the expert skill with which our guides start unfurling the ropes from their bags and set up the first descent. Then, it’s a tentative glance straight into Russ’s eyes, which is met with a broad smile and a reassuring nod, as I lower myself over the edge.
The water splashes on my face, my feet falter on the slippery rock face and I grip the rope with my neoprene gloves for dear life. I’m not quite sure how to regain my balance and then remember the briefing just moments before: lean backwards into the harness and let the rope take your weight. Suddenly I’m grinning broadly and making my way down, courage building with every inch I cover, until suddenly I’m at the bottom.
A big smile from Wayne tells me I did all right and I’m told to clip my safety lines to the rope anchored in the rock. Here we sit perched, like frogs on a log, and wait for the rest of the party to make their way down.
Just as I think I’ve got the hang of the abseiling, it’s time to zipline over a chasm – not a wide one, mind, but my breath catches in my throat when I look down. I land on a small patch of earth with a thud, my whole body pitches forward and Wayne, ready and waiting, grabs me and sets me down properly on solid ground. I realise there’s quite an art to ferrying this small party of five down 300m of abseils and zip lines, safely to the bottom of the canyon.
Heading into late afternoon and after a 10m jump, body fatigue sets in and I really note the cold for the first time as my body’s defenses pack in for the day. I start shivering in earnest and the guides keep reminding us to watch our footing and go bum first if we have any doubts.
I’m nearly out of the canyon and onto shallow ground and I’m tired, oh so tired, but still vigilantly watching my footing, because it’s when fatigued that we’re most likely to break an ankle. Oh God, don’t let me break an ankle and wake up the sleeping god of this canyon, I pray. It’s with relief I find myself suddenly on the banks of the river, not in it, and tentatively picking my way across the swing bridge back to the van. The day ends with an unexpected munch at the DOC information centre a short drive away – never has a sausage tasted so god damn delicious. I grab a second and feel a warm glow of achievement start to spread through my cold belly.
In just 12 hours I’ve become a converted canyon addict. Who would have thought one of New Zealand’s premiere adventure attractions would be found right here, smack bang on Auckland’s doorstep?
Now, let’s face it, a taste of the Coromandel wouldn’t be complete without a heads up on where to get the best local tucker, would it? Aaron at the Pepe Café in Tairua serves up some fantastic local food. The Pepe Grill, a whopper meal only for the seriously hungry, includes two breakfast sausages made especially for Pepe by the Tairua Butchery, award-winning purveyors of some of New Zealand’s best bacon.
For the health conscious, there’s The Veggie Grill and for you coffee addicts, the good old Coffee La La, roasted right here in the Coromandel, in Kuatuna, by a mad American who long ago adopted the peninsula as his home. The coffee fuels me up for the drive to Waikino and helps rally my strength to cycle a section of the Hauraki Rail Trail.
The Wheel Deal
It turns out I needn’t have worried. The hugely popular Hauraki Rail Trail is the easiest riding trail in the country. It’s in close proximity to Hamilton, Auckland and Tauranga and accessible from Thames, Paerora, Te Aroha and Waikino. I start the trail at the cascading and picturesque Owharoa Falls, a short drive from Waikino.
Cycling the 1.1km tunnel through the rock of the stunning Karangahake Gorge, I’m reminded for the second time on my trip of the tenacity of the early settlers. To blast and pickaxe a 1.1km tunnel out of the gorge? Impressive. What is not so well known about the hugely popular trail is that it also offers the perfect opportunity to sample some of the Coromandel’s best food and beverages along the way. So, if you missed Pepe’s at Tairua, never mind, there’s much more depending on what stage of the trail you join.
Cycling back through the tunnel and up to the bistro directly opposite the falls, I discover a hidden culinary gem, The Falls Retreat, run by part-Maori chef Brad King and his British wife, Emma Walters. The Bistro has a reputation for excellent wood-fired food. A tasting platter of the Bistro’s meats and fish arrives smoking and succulent, perfectly matched with a great Pinot Noir. Brad’s vision for a full vegetable garden from which he can supply his restaurant is already well underway.
If you’re doing the trail in full, from Thames to Waikino in around three days, why not park up for your last night in the Rose Cottage? Attached to the main house at The Falls Retreat, it comfortably sleeps four. You can share a pizza if money’s tight or sing for your supper! Brad is welcoming backpackers to work at the Falls Retreat so get amongst it and learn what you can from this culinary maestro!
Damage and Details: CanyoNZ’s Sleeping God Canyon Trip costs $360pp canyonz.co.nz; Hire bikes on the Hauraki Rail Trail from $30 per day haurakirailtrail.co.nz; Beds at Sunkist Backpackers, Thames, cost from $25pn sunkistbackpackers.com; Beds at Tairua Backpackers, Tairua, cost from $25pn tairuabackpackers.com; Falls Retreat’s Rose Cottage, Waihi, costs from $130pn fallsretreat.co.nz