David Whitley gets away from the tour buses to go canyoning in the Blue Mountains near Sydney.


Unless the inner child has been thoroughly buried, its very existence wiped out by a space age memory eraser, it’s very difficult not to sneakily enjoy water parks. You know the sort – those giant aquatic adventure playgrounds, infested with giant, curling slides that spit screaming kids out into pools of water every few seconds.



Unfortunately, there comes a certain age where it is officially no longer cool to be seen bombing along foaming torrents in a rubber ring, shouting “Wheeeeeeeeeeee!” before creating a giant splash as the big blue snake releases you. It’s somehow a little unbecoming for a sensible adult, even though we’d all probably leap at the chance to have a water park to ourselves for the day. Just as long as our friends didn’t find out, of course. Mercifully, there appears to be a more socially acceptable version. It’s not for kids, it’s done in hard-to-reach parts of the great outdoors, and is actually rather dangerous if not carried out with due care and attention. Perfect. It’s called canyoning, and there’s nowhere better to test it out than in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.


Or rather, I think it’s in the Blue Mountains. Truth be told, we could be anywhere. After the early morning pick up in Katoomba, our small band of hardy adventurers are bundled into the back of the A-Team van and then driven out into the wilds. The roads are bumpy, the foliage thick, and civilisation appears to be a long way away. It is, in short, the sort of place in which you’d stumble upon a log cabin owned by someone with a penchant for collecting dead bodies. The Blair Witch Project effect, however, just adds to the tingle of excitement.


We’re actually in the Wollemi National Park, most of which is a true wilderness. Not many people make it into this neck of the woods, preferring to stay around Katoomba and the other charming towns of the Blue Mountains area. The Wollemi is slightly off the usual tourist route, and thus it’s all about dirt tracks through thick bush, and there’s not another vehicle in sight. For an indication of how well this area is charted, bear in mind that in 1994 humankind first discovered the Wollemi Pine. It is a genus that has been on the planet for over two million years, and had previously only been found as a fossil. It came as a surprise, therefore, when one of the National Park’s field officers just stumbled across it whilst out on an expedition through this untamed land.


There will be no such discoveries on our little adventure, but there is still a pioneer spirit amongst the group. None of us have tried canyoning before, and frankly, we don’t even know what it entails. As the van is parked up in a clearing, therefore, it is time for a brief lowdown. Canyoning, it is explained, is basically a more hardcore version of going for a quiet stroll by the river. The idea is to follow the flowing waters downstream, surmounting any obstacles that may get in the way. When there are no handy towpaths around, this means scrambling over rocks, shimmying across cavern walls and occasionally taking the odd leap of faith from the top of a waterfall.


Naturally, some stretches of river are tougher propositions than others. At the top end, the activity involves abseiling into dark holes, proper ropework and rock climbing skills. At the introductory level things are a little less intense, but extreme care is still required. It only takes one slip or misjudged leap to land in an awful lot of silly bother. Oh yes, and even when doing the baby steps, you are still required to wear the most ridiculous get-up ever devised. Struggling to think of anything that looks more humiliating and less dignified than a skin-tight wetsuit with trainers? Well try adding a bright, bulky helmet to that ensemble and you’ll soon be hiding behind shrubs the moment a camera is wielded.


Once we all look suitably gormless, it’s time for the first leg of the day’s expedition: The Sheep Dip. There are many canyons in the region, but this one is generally regarded as the fun one. It’s not particularly taxing when you compare it to some of the more scary efforts, and has plenty of dips, slides and drops. In essence, it’s a glorious pure pop song amongst a playlist of wilfully difficult avant-garde guitar instrumentals.


After a thorough safety briefing, we’re alongside the river and ready to go. For the next couple of hours, it’s a case of moving along any which way, and a proper test of ingenuity. If there’s nothing to grab onto, then the only option is swimming. It’s only short stretches at a time, but you can tell why people don’t really attempt this in winter. Even with the wetsuits, if the water is mostly starved of sunlight it can be frighteningly cold in places. You can also realise why you’re told to bring along an old pair of trainers that you don’t mind being ruined – there is absolutely no chance of keeping your feet dry.


On other occasions, it’s more like those family woodland adventures that we all remember with rose-tinted glasses, gingerly padding across stepping stones before scrabbling over rocky rubble. It becomes a test of ingenuity at times, having to get from A to B, but with no obvious route for doing so. This is where seemingly insignificant overhangs and boulders come in handy – any port in a storm – but sometimes there’s simply no option but to swim for it. The water depths vary alarmingly – you can never be quite certain of being able to stand up, meaning that every canyoner is probably going to have to break out the front crawl at some point.


Swimming is all well and good, of course, when you’re heading in a straight line, but it doesn’t quite cut the mustard when the water suddenly disappears from underneath you, cascading down a rock face. And this, naturally, is where the real fun comes in. Never is the water park analogy more apt than when you’re sat on the edge of a greasy, slippery stone, ready to push yourself off into the murky pool below. The hardest part is resisting the urge to shout “wheeeeeeee” as you plunge – to do so would hardly be treating the situation with the seriousness it deserves. Ahem.


Some drops don’t have convenient boulders to slide from, however, and that’s when brave leaps of faith from tree trunks come into play. It’s a tremendously satisfying splash when you land though, sinking deep under the surface before emerging like a shaggy dog shaking itself dry. The Sheep Dip is supposed to be part one of a double canyon day out, but as we make our way out of it for the lunch stop, the dangers of the activity begin to become clear. Over the last few days it has rained heavily, and the waters are flowing rapidly. And, judging by the decided grey look of the skies, there’s only going to be more water added soon.


The Sheep Dip is largely all about getting a quick fix of entertainment, while Rocky Creek is a little tougher – more of a challenge for the beginner. And our guide is looking a little apprehensive as we sit down for our lunch on the riverbank. “Hmm,” he murmurs as hot soup is gleefully gulped down. “Not good.”


At the entrance to Rocky Creek, the waters are swirling, raging and foaming down into the darkness, but gung-ho heroics have long since set in. The group, to a man, are guilty of not quite taking things seriously enough. Make no mistake about it, people have died canyoning before, and when the rivers get angry, the dangers multiply. Despite the uncertainties, we’re all willing to take it on, emboldened by the morning’s adventure.


It takes a crack of thunder from above to settle matters. It’s decided that Rocky Creek as a torrent during a storm is too much of a risk, and the day is cut short. But it’s not too much of a disappointment – the spirit of the water park has been brought back for six people who had long since surrendered to maturity.