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New Zealand: Canyoning with Maori spirits

A watery encounter with Sleeping God Canyon is both terrifying and exhilarating

New Zealand: Canyoning with Maori spirits
Sleeping God Canyon, New Zealand. Image: Ocean Belcher

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Mā te marama e whakaora ia koe 
i waenga pō. 
Mā te ua e horoi
ōu māharahara. 

Our canyoning guide, Wayne, bows his head in deep respect while offering a karakia (Māori prayer) to the earth god Papatuanuku. In the hidden depths of Coromandel on the North Island is this secret canyon: a sacred wilderness that the locals refer to as The Sleeping God.

It’s where the power of water carves ancient paths and tree limbs grab you as you pass. It’s where the ghosts of our ancestors whisper with footsteps and long-forgotten faces peer out from blackened rock. These are the Tangatawhenua — the people of the land, and it’s only through their grace that we pass through unscathed. 

Wayne explains that the longer you spend exploring these canyons, the more you recognise your own insignificance. I’m certainly feeling small as I sit perched on the edge of a waterfall, preparing for descent. Natural features spiral and twist below me: waterfalls, rivers, rockslides and clifftops. A kaleidoscope of green and fluorescent colours paints the horizon of the Kauaeranga Valley, which meets the waters of the Pacific Ocean. 

I test my equipment while on solid ground, which does little to stem my nerves. “Tell your brain to shut up and stop thinking about it. Just do it!” yells Wayne. Pretending to be brave isn’t easy when the only way home is by vertical descent, but I attempt to still my wild imagination and take the first precarious steps into the void.

With a cool metallic click of carabineers, my mind enters a disembodied state as my feet lead my body into the void. My heart is beating like a hummingbird’s wings, so I meditate on Wayne’s instructions, using them to coach myself robotically through movements. Feeding out the rope little by little, I take a moment to pause and marvel at the absurdity of dangling in such a place. There’s a slow-motion blur of moving water and I am deafened by Mother Nature’s orchestral masterpiece.

My guides direct me towards The Funnel — a vicious torrent of whitewater that roars off the 165ft clifftop and is poised to swallow me whole, mid-descent. The only route onwards is directly down the guts of this thunderous fall, all while maintaining sure footing and ultimate abseiling composure. Eventually I drop off the bottom of my rope into the deep blue pool below. The cool sting snaps me back to my senses. Flapping about like a seal in whitewater with screams of euphoria, I must look like an idiot.

And I’m yet to tackle The Big One. I’d felt confident during my lower practice jumps, but now I’m overwhelmed with fear. As I struggle to find my balance on a rocky outcrop, someone sails past my head leaping recklessly into the abyss. He suspends just long enough to give a double thumbs-up and a sly grin. In this moment, my desk job feels a lifetime away. When it’s my turn, I call upon the sleeping gods with a Māori prayer, and jump.