New Zealand’s North and South Island are ribboned by rivers – some twisted into raging rapids and others calm and peacefully meandering through native forests. They all hold a special appeal for Kiwis and travelling by raft is an experience to savour. By Derek Morrison
Karamea River, West Coast
The Karamea River is probably more famous in adventure hotspots around the world than it is with New Zealanders, but it is a true hidden jewel. The rapids vary from the manageable Grade 3 upper reaches to the demanding Grade 5 sections through the Karamea Gorge. This beautiful earthquake-tortured river will take three days to raft and because of its remoteness requires a helicopter flight to the starting point or a two-day hike from the eastern edge of Kahurangi National Park.
From the boulder gardens and deep pools of the upper Karamea to the vertical granite rock walls of the gorge – this 30km-plus journey is expedition rafting at its best. The river funnels into full volume through the gorge – a frenzy of whitewater and boulders as the river forces through to the Tasman Sea. If you get the chance between raft-swallowing whirlpools then the scenery and views will dazzle.
Getting there Helicopter companies operate out of Karamea. Or choose one of the many guided operations. If you’re hiking, start at Flora car park and walk 13km to Salisbury Lodge (22-bunk). Next day hike 18km to Karamea Bend to begin rafting.
Map BQ22, BQ23, BQ24
Motu River, Bay of Plenty/Gisborne
Tagged for a hydro operation in the 1950s, the stunning Motu River is now protected, but to really soak in this river’s beauty, challenges and remoteness you will need to spend between three and five days as you negotiate more than 90km of rapids, falls and river bends through the Raukumara wilderness. The river is a Grade 3 to 5 and challenging enough to demand experience among any rafting crew. Less-experienced rafters should explore a guided option – there are a lot of quality trips to choose from.
There are three main gorges on the Motu and this is where the challenges lie. The Upper Gorge is a labyrinth of narrow, steep rapids that become very dangerous in flood. The next gorge, Te Paku, is a little deeper and less fearsome, but the third, the Lower Gorge, is very narrow and turns the heat on again with some of the most difficult rapids you’ll encounter. Negotiating fallen trees is a real hazard in the narrow walls of the Upper and Lower Gorges.
The first people to raft the Motu took 10 days – so be prepared. Tramping out or walking down the river’s edge are not options in this untouched part of New Zealand.
Getting there Drive to Matawai on SH2 and take Motu Road to Motu township. Rafts can be launched about 7km east on Motu Falls Road.
Map BE42, BF42
Landsborough River, West Coast
For those with less rafting experience, but a desire to travel through one of New Zealand’s most amazing wilderness environments, then the Landsborough River will deliver. The two to three-day, 35km-plus trip meanders along crystal clear water through the Landsborough Valley. It begins beneath the glaciers of Mt Dechen (2630m) in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park and runs south, parallel to the Southern Alps, before emptying into the Tasman Sea at Haast.
The Grade 3-4 rapids in Upper Gates Gorge can be walked around for those not feeling confident. Only the more experienced crews take on Hellfire – a Grade 5 rapid with a ill-tempered reputation.
From the confluence with the Clarke River rafters can expect about an hour of paddling through braids to the exit at SH6 alongside the Haast River. This is one of the country’s most picturesque rivers, but it can also go from a playful flow to a raging torrent in a heartbeat.
Getting there Access the put-in at McKerrow Creek by fixed wing plane or helicopter. Those with pack rafting equipment have successfully walked in over two days, across Brodrick Pass. There is a scattering of huts, but a tent is advised.
Map BY13, BY14