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White Water Rafting in Queenstown

A thrilling rafting adventure on the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers, Queenstown

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The route along the Skippers Canyon Road

The route along the Skippers Canyon Road

Image Courtesy of Queenstown Rafting

If excitement is what you are looking for on your trip to New Zealand, then a white water rafting trip near Queenstown should definitely be on your agenda. It's a thrilling (and spilling) tumble down the rapids of what is regarded as one of the best rafting areas in the world.

Queenstown Rafting operates two tours, one on each of the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers. These two rivers are renowned for their fast flowing waters, obstacles and magnificent scenery, all of which were captured in the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy.

Both trips operate daily throughout the year and take approximately half a day. This includes transport to the river and up to two hours on the river itself (depending on conditions).

The Shotover River Rafting Trip

Grade: 3-5

Rafting trips world wide are graded according to difficulty and adventure level, from 1 (very easy) to 5. Anything over 5 is Niagara Falls type stuff! The same river trip may be classified as different grades at different times, dependent on a number of things. These include the height of the river and the actual volume of water flowing through the river. This can vary greatly throughout the year, with the amount of rainfall the biggest factor. This is why the most thrilling rides (Grade 5) are usually after a prolonged and heavy spell of rain.


When you arrive at the Queenstown Rafting base you will be fitted out with a wetsuit, boots, jacket and helmet. The water river is fairly cold at any time of year and if there is one thing you are guaranteed to get on this trip it is wet!

Getting the rafts in the river

Getting the rafts in the river

Image Courtesy if Queenstown Rafting

Getting to the River

You will then board a small bus for the journey to the start of the raft trip. In many ways this is as exciting as the rafting itself. The route takes you along the Skippers Canyon Road; this road was built in the 1880s as a route for goldminers to access the upper reaches of the Shotover River and the Skippers Canyon. The Shotover was in fact the richest gold-bearing river in the world, with more gold per kilometer than any other.

Today much of the road is as it has been for the last century. It is unsealed, a single lane in most places and with sheer drops of hundreds of feet, in places only inches from a vehicle's wheels. This is one of only three roads in New Zealand where rental cars are not insured.

The Rafting Adventure

The dropping off point for the beginning of the rafting is deep into the Skippers Canyon. After a safety briefing, it's time to climb into your raft with your fellow rafters (usually eight plus the guide) and start paddling. For safety and convenience there are usually a number of rafts travelling down the river together.

There are several groups of rapids to negotiate. Each have colorful (and sometimes alarming) names such as 'Aftershock', 'Squeeze', 'Toilet' and even 'O Sh*t'. There is also a tunnel which adds an extra thrill.

In between the rapids there is time to take in the majestic scenery of the river and surrounds. Evidence of the old gold rush days still remains, with the odd piece of rusting machinery or abandoned shack.

But in the rapids themselves the only thing to do is concentrate on staying in the boat. Falling out is not uncommon, however, and it all adds to the adventure.

After the Trip

Back at the base there is a welcome opportunity to dry off and warm up with a sauna and a cup of coffee. Hot food (and maybe even a nerve-calming drink) is also available from the cafe.

The Kawarau River Rafting Trip

Grade: 2-3

This is a slightly gentler trip than the Shotover and would be a good choice for those unsure of rafting or who would like to combine some of the thrills with a bit more time to enjoy the wonderful scenery. "Lord of the Rings" fans might recognize this as the river Anduin from the movies.

One of the rapids on this stretch of the river is the longest rapid in New Zealand used for commercial rafting trips.

Going through the 'Mother' rapid on Shotover River

Going through the 'Mother' rapid on Shotover River

Image Courtesy of Queenstown Rafting

What To Expect and What to Take

This is not a dangerous trip but it is essential to be very safety conscious. You will certainly find the adrenalin pumping in places. The guides are extremely professional and competent and will make sure you have a wonderful time.

Expect to get very wet. You may wish to take a towel to dry off with afterwards although these are available for hire for a very low cost.

Both the Shotover and Kawarau River white water rafting trips are a fantastic experience. If you are an adrenalin junkie (and even if you're not), it's something you should make a part of your visit to Queenstown.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.

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