I Went Canyoning in Australia's Blue Mountains (So You Don't Have To)
But maybe this article will help you decide if crawling, sliding, and swimming through a narrow, river-filled canyon might be for you.
Brent and I recently stayed in Australia’s Blue Mountains, and I’d heard “canyoning” is popular there, so I wanted to give it a go.
For the uninitiated, canyoning is the exploration of a narrow gorge or ravine using techniques such as climbing, sliding, jumping, bushwalking, swimming, and “abseiling” — that is, climbing that requires rope, as well as special equipment such as harnesses and descenders, which control the speed of descent.
“Wet” canyoning involves descending a canyon with a river. “Dry” canyoning means water is not present.
I wanted to try wet canyoning.
I work out frequently, can pretty easily walk 20 kilometers in a day, and love to bike and swim. But I also just turned sixty. My back can be tricky, my knees aren’t awesome, and I have to pee a lot. So I was a bit apprehensive about how challenging canyoning might be.
I settled on Blue Mountains Adventure Company (BMAC) and their Twister and Rocky Creek Canyon trip — an “introductory” route through what they said were fairly simple canyons.
In Australia, the most “difficult” canyons are rated seven. This was a three.
But BMAC’s website described the route as “family-friendly,” which worried me. I was looking for a bit of adventure; I didn’t want to end up doing the Berenstain Bears Go Canyoning. On the other hand, I also didn’t want to end up like James Franco in the movie 127 Hours, cutting off his own arm to save his life.
BMAC required participants to have “good mobility”; be able to move across uneven terrain; carry a backpack weighing up to ten kilograms; and swim in cold water for extended periods of time.
Brent had wanted to come, but he’s been having a problem with his foot, and we didn’t want to risk another injury. If I loved it and thought he could safely do it, the plan was for him to do it on another day.
Our canyoning group consisted of:
Jon, our twentysomething guide — not as fit-looking as I was expecting, but a capable guide.
Gareth, a fit man in his mid-40s.
Jess, Gareth’s 12-year-old daughter.
The inclusion of Jess made me wonder if I’d chosen a trip closer to the Berenstain Bears, after all.
Equipment for the day included a wetsuit, helmet, dry bag, backpack, thermal socks, water, food, and a harness for climbing, even though I had specifically chosen a trip without abseiling.
Jon, our guide, assured me we wouldn’t be doing any abseiling, but he had the harnesses just in case.
In case of what? I wondered.
Up first was Twister Canyon, the easiest canyon. I was told it was the least attractive of the canyons, but that it was a lot of fun, with pools you could slide or jump into. One jump was even from eight meters — or twenty-six feet — up the side of the canyon.
After a long, dusty, bouncy drive, we arrived at the parking lot and bushwalked thirty minutes to our staging point. Here we put on our gear, then walked the rest of the way to Twister Canyon.
By the time we got there, I was hot and sweaty — definitely ready to jump into some cold water.
Jon went over basic safety rules and described what descending through the canyon would be like: jumping from ledges into pools, sliding and scrambling down rocks into pools, as well as walking and swimming in Rocky Creek itself. The canyon was only a kilometer long, but it would take about three hours.
It sounded pretty easy. Then Jon mentioned the five-meter/sixteen-foot “climb-down” we had to do at the end of the canyon in order to exit. He explained we would use a fixed rope to make the climb.
Hold on, I thought. I’d been told there wasn’t any climbing. Then I realized I’d been told there wasn’t any abseiling. Technically, this wasn’t abseiling.
I figured if both Jon and Gareth thought Jess could handle this “climb-down,” then I could too.
I did have one challenge no one else had: I wear glasses. Given that we’d be jumping into pools, I’d bought a strap beforehand, so the water wouldn’t tear them away. What I hadn’t counted on was how hard it would be to see through water-streaked and fogged up glasses.
Despite my glasses, Twister Canyon proved to be a lot of fun. We waded and swam along Rocky Creek, jumping and sliding from pool to pool as we descended downward. I was up for all the jumps, except the eight meter/twenty-six feet high one.
I wanted adventure, but I ain’t crazy.
Jess skipped that one too, although Gareth didn’t hesitate.
The truth is, Jess turned out to be very adventurous — up for most of the physical challenges, but smart enough to ask questions before attempting something she wasn’t comfortable with. She also quickly realized I couldn’t see very well and began warning me about potential pitfalls.
The end of the canyon was so narrow that jumping into the last pool meant you could possibly hit the wall on either side. Both Jess and I asked questions about that one.
But it ended up being a total blast.
Twister Canyon was also more beautiful than I expected — threaded between sandstone walls covered with ferns, grasses, and all sorts of greenery. Despite the narrowness of the canyon, and the lack of light, there were even a few trees.
It felt a little like a South American jungle, and like Indiana Jones could show up at any moment.
I was still a bit worried about that final climb-down. But that too turned out to be no problem at all.
Unfortunately, there was something much harder still to come.
The next canyon was a different beast altogether. For starters, Jon said it was a kilometer and a half long, but it would take five hours. Partly, that was because we’d have to go in and back out again.
But it was also just plain harder.
This was a true “slot canyon,” which meant it was much deeper, darker, and, heck, even twistier than Twister Canyon.
A few trees could survive in Twister Canyon, but there were none here.
The walls were also much narrower. Sometimes the sandstone walls soared so high above us that the sky was just a thin ribbon of light. In some places, you could even reach out and touch both sides of the canyon at the same time.
Exactly like the canyon where James Franco had to cut off his arm in 127 Hours.
Rocky Canyon started off with a jump into a pool — and then another climb-down I hadn’t been informed of.
A really difficult climb-down.
It came at the top of a waterfall too dangerous to jump. Jon ran a rope through a narrow opening in the rock, and using that rope, we were to climb down to the pool below.
I had to go through that narrow opening, bracing my feet against the sides as I descended. Then, halfway down, I was supposed to twist my body around 180 degrees.
I was certain I was going to slip and bash my face.
Thankfully, I made it down sans face-bashing. Then again, I’d have to do this climb again on the way out — and I knew going up would be harder. Plus, I’d be tired.
I hoped I could manage it. There was no other way out of the canyon.
A bit later, we came to another pool. Jon told us we could either jump into it or — if we wanted more of a challenge — reach it by swimming through an underwater tunnel you could get to via an opening in the rock.
I came here to challenge myself, I thought.
I lowered myself down, took a deep breath, ducked under the water, and swam for dear life.
At one point, my helmet bumped against the rock of the cave above me, and I thought, What the hell was I THINKING?! I’m going to DIE!
But then — after less than two meters — I entered the pool, and my head popped up into the air.
Even so, I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to mention this part to Brent.
After that came a lot of swimming. When we weren’t swimming, we mostly waded downstream.
This brought new challenges. Remember when I said that participants needed to be able to carry a ten-kilogram pack?
That’s ten kilograms when the pack is dry. When swimming or wading, the pack fills up with water — even as a water-tight bag inside your pack keeps essential things dry.
When you stand, the water drains out, but your pack still gets a lot heavier. It was already riding loose on my back — I’d never really gotten it properly cinched — and this was making things a whole lot worse.
It’s true, I’d signed up for “wet” canyoning, but I hadn’t expected any of this, and I soon found myself struggling.
I also hadn’t expected all the uneven surfaces we walked on. It turns out a loose backpack half-filled with water really throws off your center of gravity.
Between that backpack and my fogged up glasses, I started slipping and falling — a lot.
I mean, a lot a lot. If I’d been watching me, I would have thought I was drunk.
Over and over again, I slammed my shins into rocks, and scraped my hands up as well — to the point I even bled a bit. I was going to be banged up for a long time after this.
Finally, we returned to the spot of our original climb-down — where I was supposed to somehow climb up again. But now I was pretty battered and exhausted.
Jess didn’t even try and do it on her own. Jon and Gareth pulled her up.
How is this family-friendly?! I thought. There’s no way I’m letting Brent do this with his injured foot!
But there was also no way I was asking for help for myself. I wasn’t going to be the sixty-year-old guy in need of rescuing.
The first time, I couldn’t make it. Fortunately, no one else was paying me much attention.
I tried again, and this time, I somehow made it all the way up.
But the danger wasn’t completely over. Look at what fell near us in the forest as we bushwalked our way back to the van:
Canyoning in the Blue Mountains was a lot harder than I expected — and I’m a fairly fit guy, and this was a “family-friendly” route rated only a three.
I do think the company’s online description is a bit inaccurate. But I have no regrets.
The canyons were even more beautiful than I expected, especially the very end of Rocky Canyon. At one point, I floated downstream on my back and looked up at a world so primal and untouched that it felt like I was also drifting backward in time.
I’m really glad I challenged myself. When we finally made it back to the van, I felt a real sense of accomplishment — despite all my scrapes and bruises.
It’s more than a month later, and by now, all those injuries have healed and gone. But I also have some pretty cool memories, and they’re just as clear in my mind as ever.