The Complete Guide to Whitewater Rafting in New Zealand

bright turquoise river winding through rocky landscape and a raft floating on it
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A nation of mountains and rivers, it's only natural that New Zealand offers some fantastic whitewater rafting opportunities. Beginners and experienced rafters alike will find something to suit them across New Zealand's two main islands. As well as being great fun (if you don't mind getting wet), rafting allows you to access parts of the country that cannot be seen any other way. You can travel through remote canyons, jungle-enshrouded gorges, and even down waterfalls—unforgettable experiences that you can't see from the back of a bus.

Main Areas and Rivers

New Zealand offers many whitewater rafting opportunities, so wherever you're based or passing through, you're likely to be able to find a rafting experience nearby. The most convenient jumping-off points for rafting trips are Rotorua, Taupo, Murchison, Christchurch, and Queenstown. The following list is not exhaustive but covers a broad geographic area.

North Island

The central and eastern North Island is where most of the whitewater fun is on this island, on rivers running from the high mountains and lakes of the volcanic central plateau.

  • Auckland: Believe it or not, you don't actually have to travel to the mountains to experience some good whitewater fun. The Vector Wero Whitewater Park on the outskirts of Auckland simulates a whitewater river and is as close as you'll get to riding the rapids without going to the river. It's a good option for families as different experiences (such as a waterfall drop, placid lake, and advanced course) are suitable for different abilities.
  • Kaituna River: New Zealand boasts the highest commercially raftable waterfalls globally, Tutea Falls on the Kaituna/Okere River. The 23-foot drop of the falls is surrounded by beautiful native bush and provides sights you just can't get any other way. It's not the only exciting part of a trip down this river, as there are other Grade 5 rapids. Trips on this river usually start from Rotorua.
  • Tongariro River: Starting in the Tongariro National Park and flowing into enormous Lake Taupo, the lower Tongariro offers exciting (but not too exciting) Grade 3 rapids, while the upper Tongariro has the more extreme rapids.
  • Waitomo Caves: The Waitomo Caves technically doesn't belong on this list because it offers black water (rather than white water) rafting. But if you've been there, done that on white water, and want to try something different, you can't beat this activity. Float on rubber tubes down an underground river through the belly of the famous Waitomo Caves, your path lit by glowworms.
  • Mohaka River: The Hawke's Bay area of the eastern North Island is better known for its wine, but rafting on the Mohaka River that runs into Hawke's Bay gives a different perspective of the area. Easy (and more exciting) day trips are available on Grade 2-5 rapids, but if you have the time and the stamina, a multi-day trip of up to a week is an incredible experience.

South Island

The Southern Alps mountain range runs down the center of the South Island, so good whitewater rivers can be found at various points on this island.

  • Queenstown: A rafting trip on the Shotover River starting at Skippers Canyon is exciting before you even get to the Grade 3-5 rapids: driving along Skippers Canyon Road is an adventure in itself: the road usually tops lists of "New Zealand's most terrifying road trips." Queenstown is the South Island's one-stop adventure sport shop, so if you want the thrills without having to paddle, join a jet-boating adventure instead.
  • Rangitata River: If you have rafting experience but your friends don't, Canterbury's Rangitata River is a good option as it offers trips on rivers with all grades of rapid. You can opt for an easy Grade 2 or bounce along Grade 5 rapids between October and May. It's a couple of hours' drive from Christchurch.
  • Whataroa River: While not exactly a low-budget option, heli-rafting on the Whataroa River from Franz Josef is often classified as one of the world's top rafting experiences. The adventure starts with a helicopter ride from Franz Josef, on the lower West Coast of the South Island, to a stretch of the glacial Whataroa River that can only be reached by helicopter or by multi-day hike. The rapids are up to Grade 5, and the water is cold (to put it mildly!)
  • Murchison: Half-way between Nelson and the West Coast, sandwiched between the Nelson Lakes and Kahurangi National Park, the small town of Murchison is a great rafting destination because it's close to so many rivers. Murchison is at the confluence of the Buller and Matakitaki Rivers, and the Gowan, Mangles, Matiri, Glenroy, and Maruia Rivers are nearby. You can stick close to town on an easy day on the Buller or venture up to Karamea and the Kahurangi National Park.

Whitewater Kayaking

Although whitewater rafting and whitewater rafting are by no means interchangeable (kayaks can navigate some rivers that rafts can't), the two activities do often go hand in hand. If you've been white-water rafting before and loved it, take things up a notch by learning to white-water kayak before throwing yourself in the deep end. Two-plus-day kayaking courses are a great idea, as they teach you how to read the river, identify hazards, undertake rescues, and be prepared to kayak independently on New Zealand rivers. Most places that offer white-water rafting experiences can also provide kayaking lessons.

Safety Tips

Whitewater guides in New Zealand are extremely well trained. Becoming a guide takes a lot of work, and New Zealand is proud to have some of the most stringent requirements for whitewater guides of anywhere in the world. That means wherever you go, you'll be in good hands.

Having said that, whitewater rafting is an inherently risky activity. It's important to know what you're signing up for and the challenges related to each type of river. Grade 1 is the lowest whitewater classification and suggests a calm river (or stretch of river) with no significant rapids. Grade 5 is the highest and suggests technical rapids that require a lot of skill to navigate. Most families with kids will feel most comfortable on Grade 2 or Grade 3 rivers, which provide enough excitement without too much fear. Experienced rafters who are strong swimmers and really seeking an adrenaline rush will enjoy Grade 4 and Grade 5 rivers.

All necessary safety equipment will be provided on rafting trips, including helmets, life jackets, and wetsuits when necessary (most of the time on New Zealand rivers!) Guides will sometimes be able to put valuables in their dry bag to keep them safe for you, but don't rely on this. If you must take a (waterproof) camera of your own, it's also a good idea to take your own dry bag. You'll need to take your own appropriate footwear, too: shoes designed to get wet, that won't easily come off, are ideal.

For safety's sake, there are age and weight limits on some trips and sections of river. Different companies have different limits, but in general, the higher the grade of rapids, the higher the minimum age. On lower-grade rivers, 8 and 10-year-old may be welcome, while on the higher grades, you need to be at least 13.