New Zealand is one of the best places in the world to go rafting, whether you want to gently glide down a quiet stream or race down wild rapids to get the adrenaline pumped.
The key is the way nature has designed New Zealand, with mountains in both islands feeding rivers and streams that flow to the sea.
To help rafters choose what’s appropriate for them, rivers are graded from 1 (for the most sedate) to 5 (strap yourself in!).
Many companies and guides are available to supervise rafters, offering a range of experiences from a couple of hours to several days.
Here’s a guide to the best rivers for rafting in New Zealand.
Best places to go rafting in the North Island
This is the only rafting experience in our list of 10 that doesn’t require white water.
One of New Zealand’s wildest rafting experiences is to take on the challenge of “black water” and navigate the glow worm caves of Waitomo, in the Waikato.
The truly adventurous can abseil, swim, climb or raft through the labyrinth of caves that are among New Zealand’s best-known natural attractions.
Black water rafting – using rubber tubes – was introduced in 1987 and tubers can go underground to enjoy caves The Black Abyss, Black Labyrinth and Black Odyssey.
The Tongariro River, which is part of the “mighty” Waikato River, runs down to Lake Taupo from the Tongariro National Park. It has three sections of white water (grades 2 to 4), ranging in length from 5km to 13km and taking between an hour to four hours to navigate, depending on conditions. The Tongariro is the most fished river in New Zealand, a source of rainbow and brown trout.
The Rangitikei River is one of New Zealand’s longest, at 185km, and it runs from the centre of the North Island (south-east of Lake Taupo) and then past towns such as Taihape, Hunterville, Marton and Bulls to the coast at Tangimoana, south-east of Whanganui.
It’s home to many adventure activities including grade 5 white water rafting, bungy jumps, horse treks, kayaking, fishing and flying fox rides. A section of the river was depicted as Anduin River in one of the Lord of the Rings movies. Camp grounds line the banks of the river, including Vinegar Hill which is popular with the LGBT community. It’s also near Mokai Reach where you can bungy jump.
Bay of Plenty
The Wairoa River runs into Tauranga Harbour releasing water that began its journey in the Kaimai Ranges. The river has been home to canoeists and kayakers since the 1970s. The upper section of the river hosts an annual kayak racing event in February with paddlers taking on grade 5 waters.
The river is hydro-controlled and dam releases are staged on 26 days a year, creating the conditions for rafting and other activities. The dates usually begin in September and end in May. Rafting on this river provides grade 5 thrills with rapids through a tree and rock-lined gorge.
Bay of Plenty
The Kaituna River is a 45km stretch of water running from Lake Rotorua and Lake Rotoiti to the Bay of Plenty coast. It includes the Tutea Falls which are seven metres high and are claimed to be the highest commercially rafted falls in the world.
The 170km-long Mohaka has rafting open in spring, summer and autumn, and offers the range from grade 2 half-day raft and duckie (inflatable kayaks) trips to full-on grade 4-5 white knuckle trips.
The river has steep gorges and runs through native forest with opportunities to stop and enjoy a soak in natural thermal hot springs.
Best places to go rafting in the South Island
The Rangitata River is the closest grade 5 white water rafting river to Christchurch (two hours drive away) and is 25 minutes from Geraldine.
Guides can take you on one-day rafting trips, and there’s also the chance to swim or surf in the turquoise waters of the river. You have the option of choosing the rafting experience that’s right for you (grades 1-5). The river featured in the television series The Amazing Race (Australia v New Zealand).
The Whataroa River has its source in the Southern Alps and flows west to the Tasman Sea. You need a helicopter (or be a proficient hiker) to start your river trip in the upper reaches of the river. Fished for brown trout, the river has three gorges and rapids graded 3-4. The rafter can enjoy views of green bush, snow-capped mountains and glaciers.
This is one of the best examples of West Coast rivers and can combine a rafting trip with visits to the Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.
The Shotover River is world famous thanks to the photogenic nature of Skippers Canyon and the desire by tourists to go home with images of their white-knuckle ride on the Shotover Jet boats.
The river used to be mined for gold but these days it’s a gold mine for adventure tourism operators who offer a range of activities including rafting the grade 3-5 rapids. Queenstown backs up its reputation as New Zealand’s adventure capital with appropriate names for sections of the river such as Aftershock, Squeeze, Toilet, Oh Sh*t, Pinball and Jaws.
The river includes a 170m dark tunnel, the Oxenbridge.
The Kawarau River is for those who have found themselves in the adventure capital but are not game for the extreme nature of grade 4-5 rafting.
Instead, the Kawarau offers grade 2-3 rapids, perfect for first-time rafters who want to take in the scenery, the site of New Zealand’s first bungy jump and end their trip with the longest commercially rafted rapid in the country, the 400m Dog Leg Rapid.