Wildwire in Wanaka: New Zealand's newest adventure offering is not for amateurs

Off the side of a cliff outside of Wanaka, I'm hanging from a thread of wire and a couple of karabiners. A waterfall floods through a chasm beneath me, skidding its way to the plain almost 300 metres below.

It's terrain where rightly only rock climbers should dare, but as I step up onto the next metal rung fastened into the rock, it feels little different from climbing a rather glorious stepladder.

"We've had children as young as five up here," says Wildwire guide and owner Laurel Morrison. "Even though you can do this as a beginner, there are some really exciting bits." I let go of the rungs and lean back, held to the cliffs now by just the lanyard on my climbing harness. Exciting bits, indeed.

I'm climbing on one of New Zealand's newest adventure offerings, but this is not traditional rock climbing. Wildwire is a via ferrata route, scaling the cliffs beside Twin Falls with the aid of metal rungs, suspension bridges and a safety system of metal cables and karabiners.

Via ferrata is a concept that originated in Italy. Meaning "iron path", it was a series of assisted climbing routes created through the Alps and Dolomites during Word War I to help move soldiers and equipment through otherwise impassable terrain. They later become recreational routes, providing quasi-mountaineering experiences. More than 1000 via ferrate now exist across the Alps and Dolomites.

The concept has since trickled beyond Europe, inevitably reaching adventure-avaricious New Zealand, where there are now two via ferrate: one at the edge of Queenstown, and this more remote and spectacular climb at Twin Falls.

From Wanaka, we make the 20-minute drive to Twin Falls, wrapping around Lake Wanaka on the road towards Mount Aspiring National Park. Cloud and water wisp down the mountain as we fit our harnesses before climbing to a locked wooden gate that marks our entry to the falls.

From here we will ascend 300 metres on hundreds of metal rungs and foot pegs, five plank bridges and a wire bridge that will have us stepping over the waterfall on a cable just a centimetre thick.

At first it feels like an act of faith, climbing on these metal rungs like large staples, but each rung has been tested to hold three tonnes. It's like rock climbing with no risk, with our lanyard system clipped continually to a cable bolted into the cliffs. With two carabiners clipped to the cable there's pure safety; with three carabiners attached, I can hang off rungs or bridges, dangling into infinity.

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Creating the via ferrata was a seven-year task for Laurel and husband Mark, a long-time Wanaka guide who, at the age of 18, had been one of the first people to canyon through Twin Falls.

As the name suggests, Twin Falls pour down in two separate flows. Past the wooden gate we step into the shallow canyon carved by one of the falls, scaling its walls on rungs and foot pegs: clip, climb, unclip; clip, climb, unclip. It's like climbing the mountain from the inside.

Like this, we inch up the steep cliffs, rising into hollowed-out landings at the base of each section of the waterfall. It's a stairway to heaven, with the waterfall constantly pouring down beside or beneath us, scouring it's way towards the plain.

At one point I can poke my head around a corner of rock and into the flow of the waterfall, its heavy drops reverberating against my helmet like a thrash-metal drummer. Other times we pause, sitting out on rock ledges, still attached umbilically to the mountain, looking out over the world. The deer in the farm below look like dots now rather than animals, and Lake Wanaka has risen into view beyond the next line of hills.

By the time we reach the top of the via ferrata we've been climbing for three hours. We'll walk out from here, but as I glance at the rock face that continues above, there are more metal rungs ascending skywards. These are part of a yet-to-be-opened extension that will make this the highest waterfall via ferrata in the world. Clients on this day-long ascent will be helicoptered off the top.

At our own top this day, beside one of Twin Falls' tallest tiers, we aren't alone. In this adventure-saturated region, paragliders swirl past, swooping in close to the falls, sometimes passing between us and the sun, casting shadows that drift over the land. 

"It always makes me think of a dragon passing when that happens," Laurel says. On a day on which we've hung from an iron path on towering cliffs, a bit of mythology seems appropriate.

TRIPNOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-zealand

newzealand.com/au

lakewanaka.co.nz

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia flies direct to Queenstown daily from Sydney, while Jetstar has a daily direct flight from Melbourne to Queenstown. Wanaka is a one-hour drive from Queenstown. See virginaustralia.com, www.jetstar.com

CLIMBING THERE

Wildwire's Wild Thing climb runs twice daily year-round, departing from Wanaka. See www.wildwire.co.nz 

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism New Zealand.

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