I wasn’t supposed to be here — wearing a slightly too-big wetsuit and standing on top of a waterfall in Piha, a 40-minute drive west of Auckland — but my original plans for the day, sailing along the city’s bays, had been thwarted by the wind. And participating in an adventure sport of some kind is mandatory when visiting New Zealand, or at least it should be. So, canyoning near Piha in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park it was.
Comprising 16,000 hectares, the park is home to lush rainforest and beautiful coastline, black-sand beaches and more than 250 kilometres of walking trails. I managed to take in a little bit of everything in one afternoon under the guidance of Cam Bowen, of AWOL Canyoning Adventures.
Canyoning is, in essence, hiking, but with caving, wading, climbing, jumping, swimming and abseiling breaking up the walk. My travel mate and I had changed into our rented wetsuits at a roadside public bathroom and followed Bowen through the rainforest to our starting point at the top of a cliff beside that rushing waterfall. As he hooked up the ropes and our safety gear, he explained that six-year-olds can, without fear, abseil the rock we were about to descend, so we wouldn’t have a problem.
My friend, a local who’d done this before, went down first with a smile on her face. I then got strapped in, and gamely leaned back, preparing for my first leap off the cliff. “I got this,” I thought as I launched myself off the rock face and, in theory, down alongside the waterfall. “I don’t got this,” I rapidly realized as I gasped to breathe and squirmed to avoid the rushing water splashing directly onto my face.
After what seemed like far too long a descent, I finally made it to the shallow pool at the bottom. I sighed deeply then laughed. I had, for all intents and purposes, fallen down the waterfall. If that was the start, how would the afternoon end?
It turns out, magically. Our walks turned into swims through invigoratingly cold water, and scrambling up rocks turned into wading through caves. At one point, standing on top of a cliff and facing a 10-metre jump into a dark pool of water, Bowen offered an alternate route down. I looked down and thought, “I can’t do this.” And then, “I can’t not do this.”
I closed my eyes and I jumped. And I’d do it all over again.