Uncovering a hidden gem for adventure travelers

Editor's note: SmarterTravel.com Editor Molly Feltner is currently traveling around New Zealand and reporting back to us about her experiences in the "Adventure Travel Capital of the World."

I'd never heard of Wanaka before planning my trip to New Zealand, but during the process someone recommended it to me as a smaller, up-and-coming alternative to the more frenetic Queenstown, the self-proclaimed "epicentre of adventure" in New Zealand. Queenstown was fun, but a bit overrun with adventure travelers and hippies from Europe, Australia, South America, and Asia (not one other American spotted!)

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I was hoping to find a more local scene in Wanaka, and although rich foreigners are starting to buy up houses around the town's beautiful lake, it is indeed a lot smaller and less flashy than its neighbour, Queenstown. Its size doesn't keep it from having a diverse array of adventures, however. In fact, it offers access to a few activities that are better or not available from Queenstown.

I only had a couple days in town and so had to be selective about experiences I booked. I really could have used at least a week. My first day I chose to go on a full-day canyoning trip on the Niger Stream with Deep Canyon, one of the most highly regarded canyoning companies in New Zealand. For those of you who don't know, canyoning involves descending a steep river canyon by abseiling (rappelling), sliding, and jumping down various cliffs and waterfalls. Kind of like rock climbing, only wetter.

It has the potential to be quite dangerous, so going with an experienced, safety-conscious guide is essential. Luckily, my guide James, a New Zealander who has spent most of his life working in the outdoors, was better than I could have expected. Not only did he know the canyon inside and out, he was a walking encyclopedia of New Zealand history and ecology.

The trip began with a sort of baptism by fire. After abseiling down into the canyon, James ushered me and my companions (an Irish-Swedish couple) to a 30-foot waterfall, which we had the option of either jumping or rappelling down. For jumping, James pointed to our landing spot, a frighteningly small patch of white light reflecting off the pool below. We had to hurl ourselves out a few meters so as to land in the light, avoiding the rocks. I was terrified of jumping but determined to conquer my fear, and so, after contemplating the view for a little too long, I leapt off the edge—and I didn't die or hurt myself! It was very smooth in fact. My confidence was boosted tremendously. It's great to know that your body and mind are capable of overcoming obstacles that seem impossible at first.

That first test made all the other abseils, jumps, and slides seem easy. By the end, sliding down a rock waterslide face first seemed almost natural.

Canyoning will be hard to beat, but tomorrow I'll see how it fares against the Siberia Experience. . .

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