Australia’s slot canyons

Deep Down Under

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

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.

“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.”

Australia’s slot canyons