Between a rock and cliff face, Steve Dickinson experiences Wānaka's 'iron road'
Looking up from the bottom, it seems impossible to think it will take more than three hours of climbing to reach our destination, 320m above us. But Laurel, our guide from Wānaka's WildWire, explains that looks can be deceptive.
We are at Twin Falls, two side-by-side waterfalls that cascade 450m vertically down through canyons and crevasses on the outskirts of Mt Aspiring National Park, and we are about to climb up. A via ferrata will help us, but it's not going to be easy.
Laurel explains that via ferrata translates literally to mean the iron road or path. The iron, in this case, is the bolts and footholds (more than 2000 of them) placed on the cliff face to enable almost anyone the chance to experience what it's like to climb a rock face.
Protected climbing routes like these have been used for centuries, with villages in the Alps using them to connect each other to their high pastures. In WWI, the locals used them to help transport troops across steep mountain ranges.
"The modern via ferrata typically involves a steel cable which runs along a route and is periodically fixed to the rock," Laurel explains. "This allows climbers to secure themselves to the cable and climb using iron rungs, pegs, bridges, and ladders while being connected by a set of safety ropes." You need no climbing experience.
Laurel, a glaciologist from Canada, met her adventuring Kiwi husband, Mark, on a trip to Antarctica. She finished her masters degree in glaciology, and Mark worked for Antarctica New Zealand as a safety guide. Their shared love and appreciation of the outdoors, in particular rock climbing, led them to the idea of developing WildWire in Wānaka.
Twin Falls was the perfect place. Although visible from the road, it was while Mark was abseiling the multi-pitched falls that he realised it would be ideal for a via ferrata. So, he took Laurel "bush crashing" to the top to show her the spot, and their dream became a reality.
WildWire offers three levels of climbs – Go Wild, a three-hour experience where you climb to the top of the first waterfall, and cross four bridges to get 150 vertical metres above the start point; Wild Thing, which carries on a further 170 vertical metres, adding another two bridges as well as a three-wire bridge with a 60m drop below; and Lord of the Rungs, for more experienced climbers, which takes you to the very top of the waterfall, 450 vertical metres above the ground overall. This involves nine bridges (two of them wire bridges) and finishes with a helicopter ride back down to the beginning.
We are taking on Wild Thing, and after a briefing at a practice boulder, we set out on our climb.
Safety is high on the list and, using carabiners, we are always linked to the wire by either three clips or two. Those in our group who start out afraid quickly gain confidence. Laurel encourages them to test the safety of their equipment while they are still close to the ground by sitting back in their harness and relying on the carabiners and safety ropes to hold them in place. As the climb and the distance underneath our feet increases, the solid metal rungs reassure everyone.
Before long, we are hanging off the side of a sheer cliff, climbing our way towards the first bridge.
We climb through the hidden pools and over suspension bridges; stopping time and again to take photos. Never far from the waterfall, we find ourselves transfixed by the noise and the spray, and exhilarated by being a long way off the ground, or, as Laurel says, with "plenty of air under our feet".
After approximately an hour of climbing, Laurel points out the exit point for level one. I'm surprised by how much you would get to see and experience just completing this level. However, we are destined for higher things, and after a short break, we continue upwards.
Although I know we are safely clipped in at all times, and the rungs offer us a huge advantage, it still feels like we are rock climbing. The higher we climb, the more challenging the experience becomes.
My only regret is that it eventually comes to an end. Before, I assumed that once I'd tried it, it would be ticked off the bucket list and need not be repeated. I was wrong – it's so much fun and a fantastic mixture of adrenaline, environment and challenge that I would happily go again next week… and the week after.
I've been fortunate enough to experience a lot of these types of adventure-based activities in some of the most amazing places on earth. But WildWire is now absolutely at the top of my list. I love it, for so many reasons – from location and challenge, to being Kiwi-owned and operated. WildWire ticks all the boxes for a must-do New Zealand adventure for everyone.
For information about WildWire and to book, go to wildwire.co.nz
For more things to see and do in the region, go to lakewanaka.co.nz
For more travel inspiration, go to newzealand.com/nz.
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