Rafting in New Zealand: 7 top rivers

New Zealand is scattered with rivers (and caves!) where you can practice the exciting sport of whitewater river rafting. While making your choice, the most important criteria to consider would be the rapid classes. Here’s a quick low-down to refresh your memory on the different rapid classes:

  • Class I: Moving water with small waves – beginner level.
  • Class II: Easy rapids, with little navigation required.
  • Class III: Waves up to 4 feet with narrow passages.
  • Class IV: Long and difficult passages, turbulent waters.
  • Class V: All features as the rapids above with additional features like spinning, twisting, gushing, and requires expertise.
  • Class VI: Un-doable waterfalls or rapids

In this article, we will cover 7 rivers in New Zealand from the North to the South of New Zealand, along with their rapid class, for you to consider. Note that we didn’t mention any class VI rivers because it is impossible to go rafting in them. From an urban setting like Auckland to the remote town of Taihape, this list has something for you.

Whitewater river rafting in Vector Wero Whitewater Park, Auckland, New Zealand.
Whitewater river rafting in Vector Wero Whitewater Park, Auckland.

Tamariki river in Vector Wero Whitewater Park, Auckland

Auckland justifies its position as the biggest city in New Zealand, as it has a lot to offer, including whitewater river rafting! The Vector Wero Whitewater Park is a 20-minute drive, south from the city center making it the easiest spot to access.

Class I and class II rapids are recreational and not physically demanding, the Tamariki river at this whitewater park isn’t an exception. The activity, including safety briefings, takes around 2 hours and is probably the most child-friendly activity. Class I rapids are rare to find in the wild, making this spot quite unique.

The anxiety of an unpredictable accident that you may feel while rafting in the wild is replaced by unprecedented joy and fun at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park. It is a place where you can truly enjoy the sport of whitewater rafting without having to worry about anything else.

Whitewater river rafting in Kaituna river in Rotorua.

Kaituna river in Rotorua

The Kaituna River is situated in the Bay of Plenty Region of the North Island of New Zealand. The closest town is 40 minutes away in the form of Rotorua but Auckland is just 3.5 hours away – making this spot easy to access.

The reason Kaituna river makes our list of places to go whitewater river rafting in New Zealand is that it has the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world – The Tutea Falls at 7 meters. The river is rather short at 50 km but packs a punch nonetheless. Even though the river is scattered with Class V, they are beginner-friendly. That’s because the river has a pool drop, meaning, every rapid is followed by a cushioned landing in the form of calm waters.

Whitewater river rafting in Tongariro river near Taupo
Whitewater river rafting in Tongariro river near Taupo.

Tongariro River near Taupo

The Tongariro river can be found in the Tongariro National Park, which is South of Lake Taupo. The river is a 4-hour drive, South of State Highway 1from Auckland, and easy to access. Tongariro’s claim to fame would be the Tongariro Alpine Crossing among other activities such as skiing, snowboarding, and jet skiing, but in this list, we shall focus on rafting.

The activity lasts a total of 4 hours, including 2.5 hours of water time, and navigates over 60 heart-pounding roller coaster rapids making the experience satisfying. What’s more is that after the activity, you can soak yourself in a refreshing thermal spring from the area.

Rafting on this river is special for 3 reasons. The three rafting variants make sure there’s something for everyone while they feel the bumps on the whitewater of Tongariro

  • Family rafting (class II): As the name suggests, this activity is not so much about the sport but more about having fun and in the river with loved one. The activity costs around 70 euros (subject to change) and gives you 1.5 hours on the river with class II rapids.
  • Whitewater rafting (class III): 60 thrilling class III rapids await you if you pick this option, over the course of 14 kms. The activity can be done by beginners as well so feel free to subscribe. The approximate cost (subject to change) of the activity is around 85 – 90 euros.
  • Overnight rafting trip (class II and class III): This option is a wholesome experience we would highly recommend if you have the time. For just approximately 240 euros, you could raft (along with your gear) to a cozy campsite. After spending the night at the campsite, bonding over campfire and warm food, get ready to raft down the river once again.
Whitewater river rafting in Rangitikei river in Taihape
Whitewater river rafting in Rangitikei river in Taihape.

River Rangitikei in Taihape

Less than 3 hours away, North on State Highway 1 is the small rural community of Taihape. Along with being home to River Rangitikei, Taihape also has around 1790 inhabitants, including people from the Maori tribe.

So why go whitewater river rafting in a remote town such as Taihape? The Rangitikei is one of the wildest stretches in the world to put your rafting abilities to the test. It is renowned for its 10 major sections, giving you a head spin with its powerful torrents. You must ensure you step into the ring with a good team as the river will test your coordination and communication skills. The activity will last around 3 hours but the speed of the current might cloud your judgment of time. 12 km of unparalleled fun, including 10 big rapids ranging from class III to class V – is not for the faint of the heart.

Whitwater river rafting in Waiau, Hanmer Springs.
Whitwater river rafting in Waiau, Hanmer Springs.

Waiau river, Hanmer Springs

Hanmer Springs is a resort town in the Canterbury region of the South Island of New Zealand, characterized by therapeutic thermal springs. It can be accessed from Christchurch in under 2 hours by road.

The 147 km long river rises in the Spenser Mountains and flows eastward to the Pacific Ocean. During the activity, you will tackle Class II and Class III whitewater rapids which will make it difficult for you to fix your gaze on the Marble Rock, but we urge you to try anyway. The activity itself will last around 2 hours with one hour of rafting time. Beware: you might feel tiny as you make your way past the mammoth Waiau Gorge.

The starting point for this activity is a 10-minute drive, South from Hanmer Springs on Highway 7A. The activity is a good introduction to the sport of rafting. 

Whitewater river rafting in Whataroa river near Franz Josef Galcier
Whitewater river rafting in Whataroa river near Franz Josef Galcier.

Whataroa River in the Franz Josef Glacier

Whataroa River flows close to the Franz Josef Glacier in the South Island of New Zealand and although it is remote, access is not a problem. 30 minutes North from Franz Josef on Highway 6 will guide you to the Whataroa River and potentially an adrenaline-fueled rafting experience.

The river has its source in the Southern Alps and before it empties itself in the Tasman Sea, it pays a visit to huge limestone gorges. You can be sure to experience whitewater drops and big volume rapids to get your heartbeat going! In terms of difficulty, the Whataroa River is a mixed bag of rush and relax.

Depending on your budget, time constraints, and interests, rafting in the Franz Josef Glacier comes with its own options for you to choose from: 

  • Rafting half-day: A 2 hour rafting experience on class II and class III rapids which costs around 80 euros, inclusive of all the gear.
  • Rafting full-day: A 5 hour rafting experience on class II and class III rapids, which costs approximately 110 euros and includes lunch.
  • Heli-rafting: Confused? You will still go rafting in the water, however, reaching the campsite will be done in a helicopter. Once you start rafting, you will do so for 2 hours on a class II and class III rapids, which costs around 260 euros.
Whitewater river rafting in Shotover river in Queenstown.
Whitewater river rafting in Shotover river in Queenstown.

Shotover River, Queenstown

The Shotover river is a 2 hour drive, North from Queenstown in the South Island of New Zealand. The river that has its source in the Southern Alps, is furious in nature and its name is indicative of its length. (75 km)

Navigating in the river is rather difficult, making rafting in it the obvious choice. Class III –  class V rapids make the ability to swim a necessity, rather than a bonus, in the Shotover River. The highlights include rapids such as the aftershock, squeeze, toilet, and pinball. Things can get dark, literally, as you make your way through the 170 m long Oxenbridge tunnel and eventually shoot the Cascade rapid to finish. Beat the cold with a warm shower or sauna right after the descended.