Locals know New Zealand as Aotearoa, which translates to Land of the Long White Cloud. It is also the Land of the Long White-Knuckle Drive. Don’t be fooled by its small size—vertigo-inducing switchbacks and swift-flowing fords plague many worthwhile shuttle roads. The secret to unlocking the best kayaking in New Zealand is to either move here for an endless summer, or allow at least two months of travel time.
Tips for kayaking New Zealand on the cheap
Fortunately, spending a few weeks or months in New Zealand doesn’t mean spending a fortune. Because the country is such a huge backpacker—read: dirtbag traveler—destination, it is easy to find a quality vehicle for cheap. Buy a functional beater from the Backpackers’ Car Markets of Auckland or Christchurch—the main metropolitan hubs of the North and South islands, respectively.
Spend a bit more for a roomy camper van, share the expense with three or four mates, and enjoy decadent comfort while taking advantage of NZ’s best benefit for kayakers on a budget: freedom camping. Nearly every roadside pull-off, parking lot, trailhead, put-in and take-out is fair game for free camping.
Your next purchase should be a copy of New Zealand Whitewater by Graham Charles. This guidebook has invaluable information on over 250 runs but local knowledge of water levels still makes the difference between showing up at a dry river or one that is prime. Luckily, Kiwis—native New Zealanders, not the fuzzy fruit or rare flightless bird also indigenous to the islands—are passionate about their rivers and always keen to help a fellow paddler.
New Zealand’s rivers are as varied as its geography. Many have wonderfully warm waters while others bubble out of frigid underground springs, tumble off 10,000-foot peaks and course through deep, shadowy gorges.
Best Kayaking in the North Island
The best plan is no plan at all
With so many rivers, it can be difficult to know where to start. Having spent the last five summers touring from river to river, I’ve learned that the best plan is no plan at all. If you are motivated, tirelessly opportunistic and willing to chase the rains, it is possible to paddle every day of your trip.
Just head three hours south of Auckland, sandwiched between the crater lakes of Rotorua and Rotoiti, the hamlet of Okere Falls is a great starting place with year-round kayaking on the Kaituna River. Boasting a large community of boaters, it has been dubbed the epicenter of NZ paddling. Shake off jet lag with a few laps on the river and stock up on local beta before heading further afield.
Whitewater spots vary by season
Most of the smaller rivers on the North Island are rain dependent and dry up during the height of summer, from January to March. During wetter months, however, creeks like the Tuakopi and Waihi are the place to be, with drop after vertical drop.
A handful of the North Island’s larger rivers maintain flows throughout the summer. The Wairoa, Tongariro, Waikato, Rangitaiki and Rangitikei cluster within three hours of Rotorua and offer up a variety of whitewater ranging from fun to full on. On the volcanic Central Plateau, beneath the shadows of NZ’s still-active triple threat—mounts Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe—deep underground aquifers feed the Waihohonu and Ohineponga rivers with continual, icy flows.
Best kayaking in the South Island
To Murchison and beyond
Eventually, the alpine wilderness and incessant rains of the South Island lure all thirsty paddlers. The confluence town of Murchison is nearly everyone’s first pit stop upon departing the Willing Picton ferry. Centrally located near several small creeks, the Matakitaki River and the high volume Buller River, Murchison is home to legendary NZ paddling pioneer Mick Hopkinson’s New Zealand Kayak School and the country’s largest whitewater festival, Bullerfest.
Up in the air
From Murchison, the west coast is just three hours away. Here, the Southern Alps shoot up out of the Tasman Sea, creating a stunning backdrop for a slew of steep, crystalline creeks. The Mecca of steep creeking is the seaside town of Hokitika. Because the rugged landscape limits road access, a helicopter is often the only feasible shuttle rig. Flights with Hokitika’s local pilot, Bruce Dando, usually range from $80–120 NZD per passenger, depending on group size.
Traveling further south towards NZ’s self-appointed adventure capital, Queenstown, and on into the immense, sheer landscape of Fiordland National Park offers countless more paddling opportunities.
Find world-class kayaking in New Zealand
NZ is truly a paradise for whitewater kayakers, offering huge variety and jaw-dropping runs. When you make the trip, take your time and spare no effort to search out the best kayaking in New Zealand. After a couple months in Aotearoa, if you haven’t hit at least a dozen world-class rivers, you’re not driving hard enough.