The Thrilling Rafting of New Zealand's South Island

The South Island’s towering Southern Alps feed some of New Zealand’s most beautiful and wild waterways - perfect for an unforgettable rafting adventure.

Rafting in the New Zealand South allows you to explore some of the most pristine, isolated environments in the world. High energy rapids, scenic rainforests and underground canyons are dotted throughout, with many of the surrounding landscapes being only accessible by water. Here, the extremes of Mother Nature are clearly visible – the turbulent waterways of the West Coast offer an entirely different rafting experience to the calmer, scenic rivers that branch off to the East. The adventure capital of Queenstown caters to the adrenaline seeker; while Kaikoura’s mighty Clarence River offers one of New Zealand’s longest rafting journeys.

At First Light Travel, we love epic adventures in the New Zealand wilderness, and we know from experience that the South Island offers rafting found nowhere else in the world. Here are our top picks for South Island rafting – all require a reasonable standard of fitness and confidence in the water.

The Rangitata River, Canterbury

This river winds through ‘Real Middle-earth’ country, beginning with a slow flat water start and building up to thrilling white water grade 4 and 5 further on. The most exciting part of the rafting experience is a portion known as ‘The Pinch’, where the full volume of the river squeezes through a narrow gap. Both half day and full day rafting options are available here.

The Clarence River, Canterbury

One of the country’s longest waterways, the Clarence River winds its way through isolated valleys and mountain ranges all the way to the coast. Famed for multi-day wilderness rafting, this river offers the opportunity for true New Zealand adventure – enjoy backcountry camping, explore the side valleys and soak up some of the most isolated and beautiful parts of the country. 

The Rivers of the Wild West Coast

Looking to step out of your comfort zone and experience some unforgettable rafting? Then head to the West Coast. Run grade 4 -5 rapids in a spectacularly wild landscape of rainforests, glaciers, gorges and rivers, this is pure rafting country. We recommend access by helicopter for the ultimate multi day adventure. Full, action-packed days of rafting will challenge your skills and leave you contentedly exhausted, happy in the knowledge that you’re exploring one of the most isolated and spectacular regions of New Zealand.

Shotover River, Queenstown

The adventure capital of the world, rafting in Queenstown showcases the rugged river gorges, towering mountains and Lord of the Rings scenery that the region is famous for. The Shotover River offers an exciting grade 3-5 rafting experience – exhilarating rapids found in the lower canyon have names like ‘Jaws’, ‘After Shock’ and ‘Pinball’. The finale is rafting through the huge, 170-meter Oxenbridge Tunnel.

The Kawarau River, Queenstown

Perfect for first timers or family groups, the Kawarau River offers more relaxed rafting. Surrounded by bright blue water and rugged valleys, it’s a great way to soak up the stunning Queenstown scenery – see if you can pick out the locations that were used in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy along the way. 

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