We decided it was time to ask some questions about how canyoning in the Abel Tasman started. Toine Houtenbos is the Founder and Managing Director of the successful tourism business, Abel Tasman Canyons Limited. Toine and his partner Eva set up Abel Tasman Canyons in 2012 and have since been on the ride of their lives through the trials and tribulations associated with establishing a business in the Adventure Tourism Industry of New Zealand.
Toine is part of the solid foundation of the canyoning scene in New Zealand, he is one of only a handful of New Zealand Outdoor Instructors Association (NZOIA) Canyon Assessors. He is also one of few leading the charge in exploratory canyoning trips in New Zealand, accomplishing many first descents throughout the South Island.
What were you doing before you set up Abel Tasman Canyons?
When we first came to New Zealand, my partner Eva and I went traveling around the country in a campervan, in search for a suitable spot to settle down for a while. We went on heaps of cool adventures along the way (tramping, rock climbing, surfing, and skiing). After a job at the Ohau Ski Field near Mt Cook, I went on to canyon guide in Queenstown. From there we moved to Christchurch where I worked at Adrenalin Forest as the Operations Manager for three years.
Torrent River is the most popular canyon trip that Abel Tasman Canyons offers, how did you find it in the first place?
This is actually a cool story on its own! A good friend of mine Daniel Clearwater and I go on a canyoning mission every year for a few weeks exploring and trying to find new canyons. On our trip in 2011 we had done a few canyons through Arthurs pass, then headed up the West Coast before arriving in St Arnaud. We were heading out to do the first descent of Whisky Falls when it started pouring down. We decided to abort that mission. It turned out that the rain wasn’t stopping, and the whole area flooded out. This left us with very limited options. We were looking at weather maps and rain radars, trying to figure out where we could go. Our options were slim, in a way the weather forced us up into the Abel Tasman. Usually when we are looking for canyons on a topographical map, we are looking for something steep with a bit of volume. The Abel Tasman didn’t really have any of that! But we didn’t have an alternative option so thought we’d give it a go. We walked in from Marahau to Torrent River and canyoned down from way above where we now start trips, right to the bottom at Cleopatra’s pools. In relation to what we usually do, it wasn’t a very technically challenging trip, but it was just beautiful! Walking back to Marahau we both sort of said, “Well, that was nice!”
What is it about Torrent River that inspired you to offer it commercially?
It wasn’t until 2 or 3 weeks later whilst sitting at home looking through the photos that I found myself thinking: “Wow that really is an incredibly beautiful place.” Beautifully sculpted granite rock, emerald green pools with crystal clear water, walls lined with lush ferns and deep green moss, and all surrounded by stunning native forest. Hovering over the map of the whole Abel Tasman National Park and surrounding areas, I noticed that there might be more of these canyons and potentially more technical descents too. I had never thought about starting a commercial canyoning guiding operation, but that idea started to develop. Slowly I started to piece together that the key ingredients to make it work were already in place: walking tracks, water taxis, other high quality activities, a strong tourism base, and great weather. That was the moment I started toying with the idea of taking people through. A few more exploration trips in the area discovered more canyons at different levels and that confirmed it for me. “This really has potential and people need to see this!” Torrent River is now by far our most popular trip and it’s more than just canyoning. It’s such a cool day out, zooming up the coastline on a water taxi, say good morning to the seals on Adele Island, then walk along the famous Abel Tasman Coast Track and the less travelled Inland Track to the top of the canyon. That journey by itself is great and then the best part of going down the canyon is still to come. Halfway down the canyon there is a huge flat granite slab where we get a chance to briefly calm our nerves, take a breather, and have a good look around. On that slab I often point out to the group that we’re inside NZ’s smallest and busiest National Park and we’ve got this ultimate natural playground all to ourselves. What a privilege!
What were the biggest hurdles to overcome when starting up the business?
Well first of all I had to talk to my partner Eva. I had to plant the seed that potentially we would move away from Christchurch where she went to University and had lots of friends, to a much smaller place. She was quite surprised. She wasn’t completely against it, but she initially said she wouldn’t settle for anything smaller than Nelson.
The second hurdle was to find out whether it was actually possible or allowed to set up a canyoning company that runs trips in the Abel Tasman National Park. I had a chat with the people at the Department of Conservation. I first had to try to explain what canyoning actually was. That was a bit of a challenge in itself! Abseiling, zip lining, cliff jumping, swimming and scrambling through the river bed. They weren’t against my idea, but they did mention that it might all be “a bit too exciting” for the National Park. At the time Abel Tasman was seen as a place to relax on the beaches, take a walk, or go sea kayaking. I explained that I wanted to take people away from the busy coast and give them a unique opportunity to view the interior of the park. We talked a lot about the environment and what impact we would have. We came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to have more impact on the canyon environment than the regular floods that come through the gorge. After big floods we find logs perched on ledges up to 8m above the regular water level and boulders the size of vans that have moved. It was also in our favour that we wouldn’t add extra pressure to the coast, which is where the majority of visitors go. They encouraged me to apply for a concession.
That process was epic to say the least! It took me months to complete the application. Eventually I sent it out and they got back to me with a green light in July 2012! Which is when the next challenge came along; suddenly I only had 2 months left before the season would start in October. We had to move from Christchurch to Motueka, order all the wetsuits and the technical gear, prep the canyons for guided trips, set up a website, get brochures printed, meet with other operators, find a guide, get all the paperwork sorted (ACC, safety audit, accountant, SMP, TSL….) and the list goes on. These months were extremely stressful.
What were your biggest fears when starting up?
It was quite surreal by this point. The whole idea had started when a rained out mission with a friend forced us into the Abel Tasman. That had led to my curiosity in the potential of running guided trips. When the Department of Conservation gave me the green light, I thought well I guess we are going to do this. Whilst I was working on getting everything ready I started to worry: ‘Is this going to work? Are people actually going to sign up for it? Are people going to be able to do it? Are the logistics too complex? Is the canyon too remote? Will people like it?’
Did any key mentors or other inspiring people encourage you to take the leap?
Absolutely, one of them is my old employer and friend Jean from Adrenalin Forest. In terms of running a business he has been an amazing mentor. He has taught me so many essential skills: marketing, staff management, safety management, networking, and finance. Even more importantly his passion and drive to make his business to a great success has definitely inspired me to do the best I can and fully commit to making it work.
Eva, she has supported me the whole way. It was quite stressful at times, thinking about what I had committed us to. Thoughts sometimes crept into my mind about whether I was doing the right thing. Eva has always encouraged me to carry on and make it happen. Even though I made her move to Motueka (Marahau was taking it too far!).
Of course Daniel Clearwater, my canyoning buddy. He has been amazing, not just for being there on the day we discovered Torrent River. He came back with me to the Nelson region to see if there were more canyons which we could offer commercially. Together with Dan and another friend Julian we explored and set up Waterfall Creek; a trip that we now offer as our expert canyon. Dan’s passion for canyoning has fuelled mine, he got me into recreational canyoning missions. He showed me how worthwhile the long bush bashing, fighting your way up a steep hill is, knowing you are the first people to ever lay eyes on a place.
My parents probably helped more than they realise. Dad is a sportsman and has taken me and my brothers on countless trips and adventures (hiking, canoeing, surfing, sailing, and cycling). This is how my love for the outdoors and adventure activities started. Mum comes from a family of entrepreneurs and as I grew up, my mum had her own business, without her as an example I would have never even recognised the opportunity. My brothers have followed in her footsteps setting up their own businesses and so did I.
And then there is Jeff. We have been mates since primary school. Whilst I was toying with the idea of setting up Abel Tasman Canyons, Jeff started his own design studio Ryde Style in the Netherlands. From day one he has done all our graphic design work and some mental coaching on top of that. It has been amazing to be on this journey together with Jeff.
Furthermore, our friends in Christchurch have been amazing calming my nerves and uncertainties and joining me on brainstorming sessions on the logo, website blurbs, etc. So yeah, I definitely couldn’t have done it alone, there have been many influential people.
Can you describe the differences between the first season and now (the fifth season)?
Well you can’t really compare the two! I suppose in our first season the business was a little bit smaller than what it is now. When I started I decided it was a bad idea to go into remote places by myself, so I needed another guide. I called a friend in Japan, Mike Harris. Mike owns a canyoning company there so I asked him if he had any guides that might be interested in joining me on this adventure. He put Lee forward and Lee was quite excited. There was not a lot I could offer Lee. I had no idea what would happen. He signed up to the unknown anyway and I really thank him for that. Together, Lee and I set up all the systems we still use today. It started off as an experiment and now we’ve got it down to a fine art. As the season went on we got busier and at some point we guided for 3 days in a row! That was really exciting. Our groups were mostly 2 or 3 people, every now and then we would get a big group of 6 or 7. When I was in the canyon, Eva answered the phone which rang maybe twice a day, one of those calls would be someone calling the wrong number. The feedback was absolutely amazing, it was such a new activity so we were just totally buzzing thinking, ‘We are actually doing it!’
So from just Lee and I going in there, with what was sometime a ratio of 2 customers to 2 guides, we now have 7 guides as well as staff members in the office. Eva is also always helping, she’s pretty much the backbone of the office. I’m not sure she was prepared for that when I first mentioned the idea to her! We still can’t believe how lucky we were to get to know Lee. He’s an extremely talented guide and without his input we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are now. We are now in season 5 and Lee is still working here in the role of Operations Manager.
Lastly what is in the pipeline for the future of you and Abel Tasman Canyons?
There are so many things that can be done! Most recently we have developed the New Zealand Canyoning School which is really exciting. I am very passionate about sharing knowledge and teaching people the skills to go canyoning recreationally, as well as teaching future guides how to take customers safely down a canyon. Canyoning in New Zealand as a sport is growing rapidly. Now is the right time to educate and train people so we’ll be putting more and more effort into the school.
Finally I intend to continue doing many more first descents. New Zealand is riddled with world class canyons which have not been descended yet. There is nothing I am more passionate about!