Canyoning in Queenstown: An adrenaline-packed adventure

We're standing shin-deep in icy water, beneath a timber footbridge where Twelve Mile Creek empties into Lake Wakatipu, near Queenstown. The entrance to Queenstown Canyon is immediately behind us and our canyoning guides, Oklahoma Andy and Irish Stew, have just run us through our equipment.

We've squeezed into 10-millimetre diving wetsuits and slipped on rubber socks, booties and balaclavas. Various karabiners and a figure-eight-shaped descender dangle from climbing harnesses fastened around our hips. I'm also handed a silver helmet that's branded, in large lettering, with the word "Dude" above the brow. It's a name suggesting a person of relaxed demeanour – hardly appropriate considering how much I'm shivering. And it's not from being cold.

Andy suggests we start by getting used to the cold water. This is possible, he assures us, if we all "dive like Superman" into a shallow pool. Stew then steps forward to demonstrate what he means by that, launching off a boulder with his back arched and arms outstretched. When he slaps against the water, his chest and stomach bear the brunt of the impact. This is, in turn, cushioned by his wetsuit. And he sinks barely inches into the water. Where I come from, we call it a bellyflop.

There's always one gung-ho member in a group such as ours and in this case it's an Italian who pushes to the front of the group until he's standing atop the boulder. Marco (pronounced Ma-cho) curves his back, tilts his head upwards then flies off the rock into the water. His German partner executes her dive equally as well. They make it look easy.

It's my turn and I leap high into the air. It all feels like it's going the way I pictured it to until my face smacks hard against the surface of the water. If I don't adjust my trajectory next time, I'll have a splitting headache before the day is out.

I'm still clearing my head when Andy decides we're ready to head into the canyon. We scramble up rocks and trip over tree roots. At the top of a rise that Andy calls Hangover Hill we walk to a cliff edge, where a steel cable has been wrapped around and fastened to a sturdy old beech tree. Roughly 50 metres away, across the opposite side of a canyon that's equally as deep, it disappears through a gap in the forest. Presumably, the other end of the cable is secured to another tree there.

Andy slips a dry-pack off his back and pulls out a trolley that he wedges on to the zip line. Next is a short rope that a karabiner hangs from. He ties that the underside of the trolley.

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"Okay. Who's first?"

In what's fast becoming a pattern, Marco volunteers. He clips the karabiner into his harness, clasps his hands over the trolley then sprints off the edge of the cliff. With his legs cartwheeling, he whoops and hollers high above the canyon until he vanishes among the greenery opposite, where Stew is waiting to unclip him.

I'm next in line and Andy locks the karabiner to my harness. With a gentle prod, he nudges me forward. "Off you go."

I run in a straight line until the ground drops away beneath my feet. With knees bent to soften the landing, I focus solely on Stew, my saviour at the other end of the cable. "Did you look down into the canyon?" he asks, after my feet touch ground. I tell him I didn't even think to.

We continue uphill to a second, third and fourth zip line. Each one is faster and longer than the previous one and I ask Andy if we need the zip lines to get to where we want to go.

"Nah," he confesses. "It's just a bit of fun." Only in Queenstown could abseiling and jumping into pools of rushing water not be enough.

We abseil down a 30-metre cliff into a pool of rushing water before we reach what turns out to be my biggest test of the day – jumping into a pool off the top of a thundering, seven-metre-high waterfall. Now, I'm usually no squirm when it comes to jumping off high ledges into water, except when they angle outwardly and have nasty kinks that stick out halfway down, like this one does. I'll need to don my red cape and tights just to reach the pool.

"What you need to do is plant both feet on the rock then jump feet first," advises Andy. "Don't step forward, whatever you do. You'll probably slip and crack your head against the rock." After hesitating, I do exactly what he says I shouldn't. But I make it, and at that point, I feel more relieved than foolish.

Perhaps there is some Superman in me after all.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

newzealand.com/au/

GETTING THERE

Jetstar, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia fly direct most days from Sydney (3hrs) and Melbourne (3hrs 15mins) to Queenstown. Qantas also flies direct from Sydney to Queenstown on select days. See jetstar.com, airnewzealand.com.au, virginaustralia.com or qantas.com.au

CANYONING THERE

Canyoning Queenstown operates half- and full-day canyoning trips in Queenstown, Routeburn and Dart canyons. Prices range from $NZ199 ($185) for the half-day Queenstown Adventurer trip to $NZ450 ($418) for the full-day Dart Challenger option. See canyoning.co.nz

Mark Daffey was assisted by Canyoning Queenstown.

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