Me and Zac Efron? Yeah, we go back a fair way. All the way back to high school, in fact.
Not the high school I went to in the Blue Mountains in the 1980s. No, I’m talking legendary East High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the early 2000s.
Thanks to my daughter, Molly (now aged 21), that’s where I first got to know the Hollywood actor through the movie, High School Musical. Molly was a huge fan of Zac’s schoolboy character, the deadly-handsome, all-singing, all-dancing basketball jock Troy Bolton. The Disney movie was so incredibly successful that along came High School Musical 2 and 3 and their songs were the anthems of my daughter’s adolescence.
I endured and enjoyed all three films being on high rotation at the Lewis household throughout Molly’s teenage years. Millions of other young ladies throughout the world felt exactly the same way about Zac as my daughter did and this appeal has seen his acting career continue to blossom.
As a humble Blue Mountains canyon guide, I didn’t think I had a lot in common with this global celebrity until early 2021 when Zac Efron – in the flesh – walked into my world.
He was filming a second series of his Emmy-award winning Netflix documentary series Down to Earth and, due to the COVID pandemic, it was being made entirely in Australia.
As Zac explains in the first episode, he left the United States for Australia in early 2020 to visit some friends, relax and do some surfing “and then BOOM!” COVID meant his vacation turned into an extended stay in Australia “and what started with me being stuck here has turned into me falling in love with this country”. I feel very chuffed that Zac voices those words in the documentary as he joyfully leaps into a deep pool of water in beautiful Empress Falls Canyon in the Blue Mountains.
It turns out Zac and I do have a lot of things in common and one of them is a love of canyoning in the Blue Mountains. Although I lack Zac’s rippling physique, we also share the same sized wetsuit. (It’s a Seatec size four solid, in case you need to know.)
Zac – now an honourary Aussie complete with his own pair of Blundstone boots - decided he wanted to share the beauty and spirituality of Australia with his family, friends and fans, so he had come to the Blue Mountains with his documentary sidekick, the US wellness guru Darin Olien, to film what became the first of eight episodes of Down to Earth Down Under. He wanted to look at lessons the wider world could learn from Australia when it comes to things like conservation, agriculture, fire, waste management and Aboriginal voices.
Down to Earth Down Under launched on Netflix on November 11. The first 43-minute episode is titled “Habitat Conservation” and the Netflix blurb says: “From Sydney to the Greater Blue Mountains, Zac and Darin meet with leading eco-warriors to learn about protected lands and habitat conservation.”
Nobody has ever called me an eco-warrior before (thanks, Netflix!), but I do try hard to use every canyoning adventure I guide to build an understanding of what a precious place the Blue Mountains is and why its conservation is so important.
As a guide, I have done a lot of work with television productions wanting to use the cliffs and canyons of the Blue Mountains as high-adrenalin backdrops, but they are usually disinterested in looking beyond the action and the scenery to understanding why this place is so special.
What made working with Zac and his Netflix crew so pleasurable was their genuine interest in and respect for things that I hold precious such as treading lightly on this breathtaking landscape of vast biodiversity, acknowledging its deep and rich Indigenous history and culture, understanding the significance of its World Heritage status as a place of universal value. They were also up for the physical and mental challenges of the formidable canyon environment. And they were friendly and pure professionals who respected all that my fellow Blue Mountains Adventure Company guides did to keep them safe.
Indeed, it was a canyoning day like no other. Despite signing a lengthy legal document that threatened me with life imprisonment and bankruptcy if I mentioned to another soul that Zac Efron was going canyoning in the Blue Mountains, I have never had my daughter squeal with such disbelief and delight when I whispered in her ear about what her dad was going to do.
I have never departed on a canyoning adventure with a bodyguard as part of the entourage before. And I have never had the paparazzi following a canyoning adventure before. At the time, Zac was dating Vanessa Valladares, a waitress he had met in Byron Bay, and the tabloid media was very interested in their relationship. But I still got a shock the following day when long-lens photos of them and me on our way to the canyon were plastered across the Daily Mail website.
As part of my research to prepare for the big day, I watched the entire first series of Down to Earth, which launched in 2020 and had Zac and Darin globetrotting to destinations such as Sardinia and Costa Rica. I quickly realised who I didn’t want to be – the hapless guide at the famous Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland who was incapable of answering almost all their perfectly reasonable questions.
On the big day, I was naturally nervous. Molly had politely informed me there would be millions of Zac Efron fans all around the world – including her - hating on me if I let him get damaged in the canyon. When Zac was looking a bit anxious at the top of Empress Falls as he prepared to abseil through its pounding flow, I reassured him that he had nothing to worry about because there was no way I was going to disappoint my daughter. That gave him a smile!
There has been 20 months of nervous waiting since the filming to see if I had avoided the Icelander’s embarrassing fate. As soon as I heard that opening episode start with the pumping sound of awesome Yolngu musician Baker Boy, I had a good feeling about Down to Earth Down Under. That good feeling grew as I watched Zac and Darin meet with Darug elders of the Sydney region for a solemn welcome to country and a smoking ceremony that honoured more than 60,000 years of Aboriginal history.
One of the Darug uncles asked Zac why he was here and I loved his answer: “I guess the reason I’m here is to learn and gain perspective and insight into your culture and your people.”
And then they cut to the Blue Mountains and Empress Falls Canyon and for about 15 minutes I loved the way they made the Blue Mountains look so wonderful and canyoning look so cool.
Using the language of the Darug people of the Blue Mountains, I look forward to saying “warami mittigar” – welcome friend - to Zac again someday.
Empress Falls Canyon is named after another global celebrity – Queen Victoria, who was also the Empress of India in her day – but I suspect that for a lot of people around the world it’s now going to be known as Zac Efron Canyon.
written by Blue Mountains Adventure guide, Dan Lewis