Thursday 26 February 2015

Sawcut Gorge: Part 2

After wading through water, crossing the Waima River at least 30 times, clambering over rocks and boulders in the river bed for the last hour and a three quarters, we took a short steep bush track up and over and into Isolation Creek where the Sawcut Gorge is located. For another 5 minutes or so we scrambled over more boulders before finally turning a corner to find the Sawcut Gorge right in front of us looking very narrow and like a deep cut in the rock wall. Duh- hence the name Sawcut.

Sawcut Gorge is New Zealand’s finest slot canyon and comparable to the slot canyons of Utah in States. The chasm is 50m deep, 50m high and in places only 2m wide.

It’s not until you see a person near the entrance that you get an idea of how impressive the canyon is.

The “Sawcut” itself is a short and narrow passage where Isolation Creek has eroded through a 50m high wall of limestone, leaving a unique slot that’s higher than it is long.

Inside the canyon the water is cool and clear and free of algae (it needs sun to grow), we wade through marveling at the smooth, curved and colourful walls….

.....and the plants that are hanging off the sides in places. David stops to talk to three women coming back through the canyon…..

And I wait until they pass so I can catch their silhouette against the opening & before they exit ….

They also stop to take photos of each other and then they are gone…

David carries on and by the time I catch him up he has settled on a rock waiting to have lunch. The ‘party’ we had been told about were also having their lunch on the rocks just outside the canyon. With little space, we had to walk right through the middle of them to get past….

As did these girls that came through while we were resting. I’m sure they were on a ‘hen party’ weekend, they were carrying water pistols & bow & arrows, some had cowboy hats on and others Indian feathers in their hair bands. They were headed for Isolation Hut, a 6 bunk DOC hut an hour further on up Isolation Creek, I hope there are none others up there otherwise they’re going to be sharing a bunk or two. I walked up the creek after them for another couple hundred metres or so to see if the boulders got any smaller. They didn’t.

After a short rest and a bite to eat, David went ahead of me back through the slot so I could get a silhouette shot of him as we passed through. Two guys were approaching from the other end, both wearing gumboots (wellington boots). Well they had been wearing gumboots, they were holding them and wading through the water, fancy coming all this way wearing gumboots! No grip whatsoever, they must have struggled walking over all those rocks in the riverbed and have sore feet when they did have to remove the boots.

One of the guys had a gun slung over his shoulder, they told David they were heading for the hut where they were going to go hunting for deer. Ah-oh, 2 + 5 + any others = too many people, not enough bunks.

I waited for the guys to pass me before heading out, David was patiently waiting for me. Well actually he was waiting and checking, yet again, his tracking app on his phone- David will never be lost in the bush!

We headed off down the creek, back over the bush track, around the corner and back into the Waima River bed.

The return trip is just as confusing and just as demanding. Nothing looks familiar. Except DOC’s orange triangles pointing the likely way to go.

The stark white limestone boulders are very impressive, they look like blocks of ice at the end of a glacier.

We come across two groups of people making their way to the gorge, the guy on the right is filling his water bottle, the group at the back are having a water fight, cooling down on a hot afternoon. They still have around a 40 minute walk to get to the gorge and it about 3pm. Unless they hurry up they’re going to be walking back down a cold riverbed. The sun is due to disappear behind the bluffs above us.

Back behind us another two groups are making their way back to the carpark. The front group told us, when we saw them later at the cars, that they stopped to have a swim in a large pool- the one we had waded through on the way up. The one with the ‘pet’ eel. They didn’t mention an eel encounter so perhaps he has hibernated through the hot summer.

Part of the track passes through the bush on the side of the river, it’s narrow and steep and requires a bit of maneuvering around and holding onto tree trunks.

It is with some surprise we come up behind a family group gingerly picking their way over the rocks. A couple with older parents, a toddler in the backpack and a 3 year old, holding his own over the rocks. They proudly tell us they’ve been to the Gorge and their son has walked the whole way. We haven’t the heart to tell them that they would have only made it to the reserve where the boulders are big and the bluffs are vertical above the river. It probably looked like a ‘Sawcut’ gorge.

The boulders make way for rocks and the walking becomes easier. We look back up the river and say a farewell to Isolation Hill.

Just a handful of crossings and near level ground ahead of us and we’re back at the car. I wonder if the slips that we see happened in the ‘quakes. And I wonder how long it took for them to be cleared.

Finally four and a half hours after setting off we were back at the ute. We sat on the tailgate in the hot afternoon sun with a welcome cup of tea in hand, reflecting on the walk. With sore feet and stiff legs from all the rock hopping (and for me, a sore arm from carrying my camera the whole way) we decided that while it wasn’t exactly a gut-busting walk, it was very challenging.

You definitely need a walking pole to steady yourself climbing up and down the rocks and to check position & stability of them in the water, and the water depth in some of the deeper pools. A sign at the homestead, by the visitors book, made me smile- ‘Please leave your walking sticks in the river bed where they belong’. It was just as well I didn't get a bunch of flowers for our anniversary the other week, I got a lovely new walking pole from David! I had my hands full; pole in one hand, camera in the other plus sunglasses on my head and pack on my back, it was all a bit of a juggling act!

We also found our Teva enclosed sandals ideal for grip on the rocks and for the river crossings; the gravel only occasionally getting caught under our feet but easy to flush out with the river flow while still walking. And make sure you wear sunglasses on a bright day, the glare off the white rocks is brilliant.

I would highly recommend this walk if you are a reasonably fit and active person (who doesn't have a gammy leg or knee) but personally I wouldn’t like to do it any earlier that mid to late summer; the water level would not only be higher it would also be very cold before then.

And you’d miss out on seeing the 'Naked Ladies'.


  1. Hi Shellie & David, I've been to many such canyons in the states, so sawcut is a definite must, fabulous place for photography, just looking around, and blowing some sounds around. Best to pick a sunny day with no threat of rain, or showers, would also see "a naked lady".... As that's what I call my 1935 alto sax....Which has engraved on the bell .... A naked lady... Beggorah... Once again thanks for the inspiration ��

    1. Now that would be something. To arrive at the entrance and hear a mysterious sound coming through the canyon. Magic! You'd have to take care carrying the sax up there though. Naked ladies are a coincidence! :)

  2. Lovely photos of the Sawcut Gorge! I'd always assumed Naked Ladies were named for their pinkness but someone told me me it was because the flowers come up 'naked' before the leaves.

    1. Thanks Olwen, I like the 'pinkness' analogy which makes perfect sense too. I knew from a child that it was their nakedness without leaves. There was a row of naked ladies right along the bank out the front of our house on the farm. As a kid it always made me giggle! :)

  3. Well - that was some walk. It showed how high it was seeing David walking through. Thanks for taking us along.

    1. You're welcome, and sadly this walk is no longer available. Many rocks crashed into the river bed after the Kaikoura earthquake and it's now impassable. Luckily Sawcut Gorge itself remained unscathed.


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