Over the 2015/2016 New Year weekend, a unique event took place at Barcoo Swamp camp ground in Newnes State Forest, NSW, when members of Australia’s canyoning community came together for a fully inclusive, semi-official meet. The Blue Mountains regularly makes lists of the top canyoning spots in the world, and over four days numerous enthusiasts descended the rivers and creeks that flow off the plateau by sliding, swimming, scrambling, abseiling and jumping into pools – basically getting through the narrow slots any way possible.
The chief instigator of the event was Nick Murphy, an energetic character hidden behind a beard of impressive proportions. Having recently returned from a three-year ‘tour of duty’ in Townsville, where he was stationed with the 3rd RAR infantry battalion, Nick decided the time was ripe to organise a festival of canyoning. “Most other adventure sports have their own festivals and in 2014 the Australian Climbing Festival finally happened again,” he tells me from the shelter of his car on day three of Canyonfest “and that’s when I thought to myself: ‘Why doesn’t canyoning have a festival?’ I figured we should have.”
Nick wasn’t alone. As a member of a Facebook group called OzCanyons, which boasts over 1000 members, his event posting garnered encouraging comments with over 100 people registering interest. ‘This is our opportunity as a canyoning community to come together to meet new people, share experiences and make new friends,’ read the event description. ‘The event will be open to anyone who’s canyoned before, but is also an opportunity to introduce friends to the unique experience of Blue Mountains canyons in a safe environment, supported by the skills of a larger group.’
Nick was in the perfect position to organise the event. A local from Dargan – a small village on the Bells Line of Road that is virtually the epicentre of canyon country – he’s been involved in the sport since he was very young. “I can’t recall my first ever canyon but I’m sure it would’ve been either Deep Pass or Twister when I was about two years old,” he says. Nick’s father Derek was co-owner of the Australian School of Mountaineering in Katoomba in the 90s and a professional guide who loved showing his four children the great outdoors. “I remember early mornings, being very cold and eating hotdogs for lunch,” he smiles. “Since then I’ve ticked off a fair portion of the canyons around Sydney.”
Growing up with such a background clearly influenced Nick’s life direction. “I guess it gave me a sense of adventure and of wanting to explore beyond just my immediate background,” he muses, “It also taught me to become more critical and structured in my thinking when approaching problems, and that’s something that’s core to being able to take part in the most extreme sports.” And extreme sports are the kind that Nick is into. In Townsville he spent his weekends mountain biking, rock climbing, canyoning (“of sorts, nothing like the Blue Mountains” he admits), sailing, white water kayaking, bouldering, skydiving and good old-fashioned hiking.
Nick’s also a keen adventure sport photographer. “Canyon environments often have beautiful light and allow for a lot of different creative angles,” he explains, “and because not a lot of people actually see the inside of canyons, you can still come up with some original shots.” He describes his photography as a full-time hobby that he’s keen to take to a professional level. “I’m not planning on making it a full-time job but opportunities are starting to come along and I’m getting a bit of work,” he enthuses. Does he have any tips for budding amateurs? “A tripod, definitely, and some very patient friends,” he replies with a chuckle.
Although Nick didn’t know it at first, his festival was a partial resurrection rather than a brand new idea. In 2004 a Festival of the Canyon was organised by the UTS Outdoor Adventure Club, mainly for the benefit of other university-based outdoors groups. Despite a good run, falling interest within UTS led to the abandonment of the event in 2013, but maybe an event open to the general public would have more success?
Although Canyonfest was due to begin on Dec 31st, the unstructured nature of the meet meant it was inevitable that people would come and go as and when they could. “People were already here in the days leading up to NYE and some had already left by the time I turned up,” explains Nick. “Most seemed to coalesce into groups and organise themselves without any kind of instruction from myself, which was good. Something I definitely wanted to avoid was an expectation from participants that there was going to be any kind of guided feel to the event, or that they had their ability to choose taken away from them.”
Over the course of the event, groups tackled the canyons of the Newnes Plateau: Hole-in-the-Wall was a big favourite with at least four runs; the jumps and slides of Twister and Rocky Creek were also popular; less well known canyons included Heart Attack, Popeye, Surefire and Death Trap. The latter served as a baptism of fire for the festival’s youngest participant – 18 month old Liam Gordon – as he was passed around rock faces and over bottomless black water pools in his baby-carrier, laughing his head off most of the time. He survived the single abseil on his mother’s front and even rode a short, hand-held flying fox improvised from a 10m rope and a carabiner. “That was a great experience,” grins Nick, “definitely something which was manageable only due to the large amount of group experience. Our numbers meant swimmers could ‘spot’ Liam all the way, so it wasn’t unnecessarily risky or dangerous at any point.”
The number of attendees confirmed on Facebook was almost 50 but as with any such RSVP format actual numbers were lower. “I didn’t take a register but we had about 25 to 30 people, and the furthest anyone travelled was from Townsville,” confirms Nick, not too bad for an inaugural, loosely organised event two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Sydney, especially with a weather forecast that promised to shut down the event after two days. Rain is the canyoners’ nemesis; due to the nature of the terrain, most of the locations become impassable if not downright dangerous after a sustained downpour. “It seems it’s going to filter out pretty quickly now due to the expected amount of rainfall,” admits Nick pragmatically, as we watch the windscreen pelted by a summer storm, “but it’s not a big deal – it’s part of the sport.”
Nevertheless, Nick rates the weekend a triumph: “As a free running event and a chance to meet other people, I’d definitely call that aspect a success. It would be nice to have a bigger, more formalised festival as long as it didn’t take away from the free range feel of the sport. We could seek sponsorship from retailers, do competitions and be covered by public liability insurance. It’s not too much to think that that could be achievable in the future.”
The first NZ Canyoning Festival, held at the end of January 2016, could be a model for what Nick is trying to achieve. Partnered with canyon guiding companies, gear suppliers, an outdoor magazine and even Petzl, and with a $50 registration fee towards the costs, the NZ event is something he sees Canyonfest being able to rival in the future. “It’s a great looking event and high on my to-do list,” he says, “and at the same time I’m sure there’s a lot that could be learned from it to improve Canyonfest.”
With the festival over for 2016, the question inevitably turns to the future. “I would love to do this again next year,” says Nick, ”but I’m going to South America in April and I don’t plan to be back for a while.” When pressed as to his plans there he vaguely says something about living in a van with a mountain bike and a bunch of climbing gear. “I just want to do and see as much as possible, finding little bits of work here and there to fuel the adventure for as long as I can.” (In other words, he’s going to be a dirtbag) “It would be nice to hear if someone steps up and this does happen again next year,” he sighs, wistfully. As a community, we can only hope that someone takes up the baton.
Nick can be contacted through his Lost Trails Photography Facebook page.
This profile originally appeared in Wild issue 152. Subscribe today.