As a geologically young landmass, New Zealand is still subject to aggressive tectonic activity, with both of its major islands continuing to see their mountainous spines forced further upward. Some of the most wonderful white water rivers on earth are here, because of the combination of those mountain spines and well-distributed rainfall.
Rafting has to be the best way to do river exploration in New Zealand. While a multi-day rafting trip would be the preferred way to do this exploration, the reality is most people are short on time and can seldom spare more than a day for a rafting trip.
With this in mind, here is our list of the 5 best day rafting trips in New Zealand. We created this list based on a quarter of a century of experience rafting on these rivers.
Several considerations were involved as we decided which white water rafting trips we would include on the list. The primary considerations include: Accessibility, Number of and Type of Rapids, Season Length, Scenic Views, and Bonus Factors.
We did not include rivers that can only be reached by helicopter, or rafting trips with rapids graded 2 or lower. When a particular river has many parts, the one that is the highest graded is the one selected. We’ve only taken into consideration trips that are no longer than one day, and can be rafted reliably on a commercial basis. We totally acknowledge there are some other great runs, but because of reliability of flow or access issues, these have not been considered.
In fifth place is the Wairoa River and it has just about everything you could want. You can take a trip down this incredibly fun run multiple times in your rafting day, featuring an outstanding put on, great accessibility and plenty of spectacular rapids.
The only reason we don’t rank the Wairoa any higher than number 5 is because, as a Dam Release river, its accessibility to rafting is limited to just 26 days per year. Knowing this, if you’re close when it’s flowing, steel yourself for this fun ride that beats anything at an amusement park.
The Wairoa can be found close to Tauranga, a city on North Island’s east coast.
Rapids – Grade IV+ to Grade V
Length – 2.7 kilometres
Season – a mere 26 days annually!
An inventory of New Zealand’s top rafting rivers has to include the Shotover. Because of its proximity to NZ’s adventure capital, Queenstown, the Shotover gets a great deal more hype than what it probably deserves. However in saying that it is still a wonderful river trip.
Travelling to the put on through Skippers Canyon is a stunning drive that makes the trip worthwhile just for that. The last 1.5 kms on the river includes most of this trip’s action, and you know it’s the end of the trip when you see the Oxenbridge Tunnel.
Early gold miners carved the tunnel out of solid stone and at most rafting levels, rafts can float through it.
Rapids – Grade IV to Grade V (dependent on river flow)
Length – 12.5 kilometres
Season – Year round
This river sees less rafting traffic than any other river in the list.
The Mohaka deserves to be ranked highly, with the number and style of its rapids, season length, and stunning rugged panoramas. However it only makes third on our list because of accessibility.
You literally have to drive hours between Put On and Take Out, making for a very big day. If this weren’t so, the Mohaka would definitely get to second place on our list.
You get to the Mohaka from the Taupo-Napier Highway.
Rapids – Grade III+ to Grade IV+ (mostly based on river flow)
Length – 14 kilometres
Season – Year round, but mainly Spring, Summer and Autumn
My most vivid memory of the Rangitata is 20 years ago flipping a raft in a hole called Pigs Trough at high flows. There was quite a bit of good natured ribbing after that!
It is a fun white water rafting trip, while the majesty of the Southern Alps delivers a great backdrop. The river is easy at the beginning with the braided water that is typical of many Canterbury Rivers.
An area of bedrock that the river must flow through sets the Rangitata apart from many other Canterbury Rivers. It is this fairly short section that generates the bulk of its gradient and rapids.
Rapids – Grades IV+ to Grade V
Distance – 10 kilometres.
Season – October through early May
In the early days of New Zealand river running, the Rangitikei was littered with smashed fibreglass kayaks, and occasionally quite traumatised rafters would walk out rather than continue the trip. It is from these times that the Rangitikei gained a good deal of its fame, and from which many great stories were created.
The starting point for this particular trip is typically the Lodge at River Valley, a scenic 32km drive from the central North Island town of Taihape. The trip begins easily with many rapids that are only Grade 2 or 3, but then things really get moving half way through the run.
A section of 10 major, steep, pool drop style rapids, shortly after the halfway point is the crux of the trip. This run is completed by an additional section of Grade 3 rapids finishing outside River Valley Lodge.
A rafting trip on this section has often turned into a story of legendary proportions after a couple of beers at the Lodge’s Fulcrum Pit bar.
Rapids – Grade IV to Grade V (dependent on flow)
Length – 11 kilometres
Season – Year round
The list we present here is our pick of New Zealand’s best rafting day trips, but don’t let that stop you from trying a trip on any river. All rivers are unique, depending on flow, geology, scenery, and the style and number of rapids. They’re each a one-of-a-kind rafting experience and each provides an amazing day trip of adventure. Our advice – raft them all!
Brian Megaw has been raft guide for 25 years. He mostly guides on the Rangitikei, but has made several other appearances guiding including on the Zambezi in Africa as well as in the USA.