Deep Down Under

With ropes but no GPS, daring Aussies plunge into the hidden canyons of the Blue Mountains.

This story appears in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The Swiss have mountains, so they climb. Canadians have lakes, so they canoe. The Australians have canyons, so they go canyoneering, a hybrid form of madness halfway between mountaineering and caving in which you go down instead of up, often through wet tunnels and narrow passageways. Unlike other places with slot canyons, such as Utah, Jordan, or Corsica, Australia has a rich, deep heritage of canyoneering. In a way, it's an extreme form of bushwalking, something Aborigines were doing tens of thousands of years before Europeans arrived. But without ropes and technical equipment, Aborigines couldn't explore the deepest slots.

Today perhaps thousands of Aussies hike canyons, hundreds descend into them by ropes, but only a handful explore new ones. These driven individuals tend to have a rugby player's legs, knees crosshatched with scar tissue from all the scratches, a penguin's tolerance for frigid water, a wallaby's rock-hopping agility, and a caver's mole-like willingness to crawl into damp, dark holes. They prefer to wear Volleys—canvas, rubber-soled Dunlop tennis shoes—ragged shorts, ripped gaiters, and thrift-store fleece. They camp beside tiny campfires and make "jaffles" for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Jaffles are sandwiches containing all manner of ingredients—including Vegemite, a nasty-tasting yeast extract—cooked inside fire irons over the flames. Above all they search for the most remote, difficult to access canyons. "The darker, the narrower, the twistier the better," says Dave Noble, one of the most experienced canyoneers in the country. "People say, What if you get stuck in there? But that's what you are after. To be forced to improvise to get yourself out."

During the past 38 years Noble has made some 70 first descents in the Blue Mountains, just a few hours' drive west of Sydney. This unexpectedly rugged region has hundreds of slot canyons. The "Blueys" aren't mountains at all but an ancient sedimentary plateau deeply incised by river erosion and densely carpeted in eucalyptus—imagine the canyonlands of Utah covered with Louisiana foliage.

Defiantly unconventional, Noble, 57, has never driven a car. He bicycles nearly 20 miles a day through suburban Sydney to teach high school physics. Although he has drawn heavily annotated topographic maps of canyons that he has explored and named—such as Cannibal, Black Crypt, Crucifixion, and Resurrection—and has posted pictures of them on his website, he won't tell anyone where these canyons are. He won't even let me have a good look at his maps. "It's our ethic," he says. "Wilderness canyons should be left undescribed so they remain pristine and so others can have the challenge of exploring them on their own. That's part of the mystery."

Noble's chief rival in the sport is a canyoneer named Rick Jamieson, who earned Noble's disapproval some years back by writing a guidebook that revealed a few secrets of the canyon landscape. More than a decade ago Jamieson, also a physics teacher, took me on the first complete descent of two big canyons in the Blueys, Bennett Gully and Orongo. A huge, good-natured boulder of a man at 70, he's still canyoneering and still laughing.

Taking the Plunge

Watch expert canyoneers descend Danae Brook Canyon's rocky chutes and waterfalls.

"Mighty!" exclaims Jamieson in his thick Australian accent when we get together for a beer. "We're lucky those GPS's don't work down in the canyons. Keeps the adventure."

Canyoneering by sunburned white people began in the 1940s, but the biggest slots weren't explored until the 1960s, when modern climbing ropes and equipment were adopted. Danae Brook Canyon, hidden in the labyrinthine heart of the Blue Mountains, is one of the most difficult. In his guidebook Jamieson describes it as "one very, very long day" in which canyoneers must make nine or more tricky abseils, a climbing term for descending on a rope. Both Jamieson and Noble have done it, yet neither man is available to go with me. But wiry John Robens is keen to give it a try.

We meet at his home in Sydney. Most weekends for the past ten years Robens, 39, has escaped the city to go canyoneering in the bush. A shaggy-haired, wry, soft-spoken, self-employed computer consultant, Robens, like Noble, fearlessly bicycles the city streets, and he has thighs like Lance Armstrong's to prove it. He lives with his wife, Chuin Nee Ooi, also an elite canyoneer and fellow computer programmer, in a compact midtown house that appears to have been hit by a typhoon: carabiners, canyoneering ropes, and mud-clotted clothes are scattered among computers, hard drives, disks, coffee cups, and a grand piano. A large wooden box on the diminutive porch is filled with worn-out Volleys.

Robens and I drive west from Sydney for four hours, camp in Kanangra-Boyd National Park, and by dawn are tramping down the Mount Thurat fire trail. We have wet suits, a rope, and lunch in our packs. After crossing Kanangra Creek, we strike out into the trailless bush, navigating by map and GPS. Canyoneers share an ability to travel swiftly through seemingly impenetrable brush; Robens glides through this giant briar patch so efficiently he's hard to keep up with. Following a compass bearing, we hop over fallen trees and branches and crash through scrub, passing through giant spiderwebs, mouse-size spiders scurrying across our necks.

"'Tis only the spiders that live in the ground that can kill you," Robens says brightly.

After less than an hour Robens has guided us precisely to the top of Danae Falls, although he's never been here before. A brook rushes to the edge of the plateau and leaps off.

"Our first abseil is off that," Robens says, pointing to a tree jutting precariously out over the cliff. We stretch into sticky wet suits, clap on helmets, cinch up our harnesses, and sail out into space. It's like rappelling off the edge of a green-cloaked Grand Canyon.

Up this high, Danae Brook hasn't yet cut a slot in the rock face, so we rappel through plumes of spray beside the waterfall, our feet slipping on giant fern fronds. By our next rappel the Danae has sliced a fissure that's only four feet wide but cuts 50 feet back into the stone. We descend at the back of the crack, looking out at a vertical seam of blue sky.

At the top of the third rappel we're deep in the dark slot, standing on a slick, sloppy ledge in a pouring waterfall. "To keep the rope from getting stuck," Robens shouts, "we'll have to pass to the inside of that dodgy ralstone."

"Ralstone?" I yell.

"You know, roll stone," Robens says with a smile, nodding toward a chockstone the size of a refrigerator in the slot below us. It's a canyoneer's hard-knocks joke: "roll stone" for "ralstone," referring to Aron Ralston, the American who was forced to cut off his arm when a boulder rolled on top of it in a Utah canyon.

The walls are covered with moss. Sliding to the inside of the giant stone turns out to be like squeezing into a narrow, ten-story elevator shaft pouring with water. We're forced to swing into the pounding waterfall, an awkward maneuver that slams us both into the rock. But it's worth it: Standing in a pool at the bottom, we easily pull our rope down.

Below the big boulder the slot closes up, and the silky water flows horizontally along the cavelike chamber back out to the edge of the cliff. We still have a thousand feet of air below us. We rappel directly into the bludgeoning waterfall. Halfway down I make the mistake of looking up, and the blast of water almost tears my head off.

The next three descents are just as extraordinary and drop us into hanging ponds of frigid water, like swimming pools midway up a skyscraper. We backstroke across these ponds, using the dry bags in our backpacks for flotation.

At 10 a.m. we share lunch on a sunny boulder with a water dragon, a two-foot, dinosaur-like lizard with a brilliant crest, and drink directly from the cool, delicious Danae. Holding my head under the emerald water, I spot blue-shelled yabbies, the native crayfish, clawing their way along the bottom of the pool. Then we both strip off our wet suits.

Robens is perfectly happy to continue in his birthday suit, but I pull on heavy nylon pants. Two weeks earlier in another canyon I managed to step into a stinging tree, a uniquely horrific plant that burns like stinging nettles and leaves a painful rash that doesn't go away for a month. Mine is in an unreasonable place.

Several short rappels and two huge jumps follow. Robens throws himself off the stone, howling like a free man, arms and legs spread wide in the air, closing them like a butterfly right before he hits the water 20 feet below.

When we reach the bottom, the Danae becomes a steep boulder field, which Robens, naked but for his pack and tennies, practically runs across. He leaps, lands on a slimy, snot-slick stone, almost loses his balance, finds his balance, and leaps again, all in one fluid motion. It's amazing to watch, like witnessing the movements of some earlier, better adapted human. In an hour we cover a distance that typically requires three. Stumbling and falling, I watch Robens dancing and hopscotching as if he'd been born for it.

Where the Danae meets Kanangra Creek, our descent is complete. But like climbers who reach a summit, we can't celebrate yet. In canyoneering what goes down must come back up. We cross the creek, rest for ten minutes, then begin the agonizing, bushwhacking ascent. We could go up a slope like Murdering Gully but take a rocky rib instead, nicknaming it Manslaughter Ridge. The climb is so vertical we're pulling ourselves up branch by branch.

Wet with sweat, we reach the peninsular plateau of the Gangerang Range, directly opposite Danae Brook Canyon, shake hands, and whoop. From here we can take a trail, the Kilpatrick Causeway, and the going will be easy (although in 2006 a hiker fell off a 230-foot cliff on the same trail and died).

Striding along the track, the sun at my back, dreaming of the avocado-tomato-prosciutto-provolone jaffle I'll cook over our campfire tonight, feeling warm and tired, my body and mind cleansed by the descent of Danae, I see Robens swerve off into the bush.

"Wanta show you something," he says over his shoulder.

We curl around a sandstone knob on a ledge, and suddenly before us is aboriginal art. A row of stick figures drawn in ocher red, obviously naked, all with their arms and legs spread wide, all quite obviously rejoicing.