An experience that provides the chance to see some of the more hidden and breathtaking inland portions of both Australia and New Zealand beyond the traditional well-worn tourist routes all intertwined with a dose of added adrenaline, white water rafting is one of the more flexible adventures on which one can embark.
Divided up into a series of “grades” or “classes” that range from a fun, family-friendly activity all the way up to gruelling, veterans-only affairs, rafting involves putting a lot of trust in an inflatable vessel and letting nature carry you down some often striking waterways. It’s an excellent exercise in teamwork, too, as balancing your raft and preventing from capsizing often means relying on your fellow passengers (as well as your veteran guide) to stay afloat.
Both Oz and NZ are home to some world-class white water rafting locations, from the serene and accessible to the remote and challenging; if you’re looking to make a splash, here are 10 of the best rafting destinations in Australia and New Zealand.
10. Kawarau River, New Zealand
Rapids grades: 2 to 3
What it offers: Ideal starting point for first time rafters; relaxed, incredibly scenic NZ rafting experience that brings along action as well
The introduction of our list beings with perhaps the most ideal introductory rafting river of all of them, as New Zealand’s Kawarau River makes for a rafting destination that’s as much focused on absorbing some characteristically gorgeous NZ scenery as it is on the aquatic adventure itself.
There’s a reason that the river and its surrounds were chosen by Peter Jackson to star in the Lord of the Rings movies as the site of the River Anduin – the clear-blue waters, rocky shores and mixture of both deciduous and evergreen foliage on the riverbanks in many ways sums up everything “Kiwi” in a single location. Ease of access to the Kawarau River from popular resort hub Queenstown doesn’t hurt in crafting one of the more family-friendly rafting destinations in Australia and New Zealand, either, as a roughly 30 minute drive that won’t bore the kids is all that’s required in order to reach the departure point.
Rafting on the Kawarau isn’t simply a sit-back-and-relax affair, however, as its majority of Grade 3 rapids are challenging enough for first-timers, and can reach up to grades of 4 in high water conditions. Guides on the river are also adept to catering for a wide variety of skill (and confidence) levels, and are flexible enough with their rafting route that they can alter it to better suit the current group’s ability for an extra dose of challenge where requested.
Ease of access to the Kawarau River from popular resort hub Queenstown doesn’t hurt in crafting one of the more family-friendly rafting destinations in Australia and New Zealand.
The river is varied enough in terms of its offerings to make the roughly 4.5 hour journey never boring, with highlights including passing under the iconic Kawarau Bungy Bridge (if you hear screams in the area, don’t forget to look up), and navigating the country’s longest commercially-rafted rapid the “Dog Leg”, which clocks in at an impressive 400 metres.
Renowned for the clarity of its water, the Kawarau ranks as the ideal first step for those looking to take the rafting plunge in New Zealand, and can be rafted with local company Queenstown Rafting who have been plying their trade on its waters since the mid 1970’s. They’re an award-winning company known for the adaptability of their guides, and are used to catering to rafters of all backgrounds and degrees of nervousness.
If you’ve been pondering taking a rafting trip but ever been a little hesitant to do so, the Kawarau River makes for a pleasant introduction that may soon quickly become an addiction thereafter.
9. Mitta Mitta River, Victoria
Rapids grades: 2 to 4
What it offers: Best rafting in southern mainland Australia; lovely high-country environment; cool-season rafting destination
While Victoria is not typically renowned as a hot spot for white water rafting, the exception lies within the pristine alpine surrounds of the state’s Alpine National Park, which lies around a 4.5 hour drive from capital Melbourne. The Mitta Mitta River is a long, rapids-abundant river that reaches full force during the cooler months of the year, and as a result makes for an ideal extended journey that encompasses a heavy helping of both floral scenery and animal life along the way.
As a snow-fed river, the Mitta Mitta River’s water levels largely depend on the current season’s snowfall, and in peak condition offers rafters the ability to conquer over 60 rapids in total spread out over its substantial 18 kilometre length. August to November provide the most consistent water levels in general, with September and October typically making for prime conditions for a rafting adventure.
The Mitta Mitta is another river that ranks as a good balance between challenge and enjoyment from one end to the other, as it winds its way through one of the country’s most spectacular granite ravines bordered by large grass trees that can live up to 600 years.
As a snow-fed river, the Mitta Mitta River’s water levels largely depend on the current season’s snowfall, and in peak condition offers rafters the ability to conquer over 60 rapids in total.
Throughout the trip, you’ll encounter a bevy of typical Victorian High Country scenery of steep ravines and rocky gorges, with the National Park also home to notable wildlife species including lyrebirds, cockatoos, wallabies and even platypus should you be lucky enough to catch a glimpse.
As with many rafting journeys, a trip down the Mitta Mitta begins with calm patches of water interspersed with the occasional small rapid, before opening up to more intense sections that reach up to Grade 4 and require additional teamwork to navigate. Travelling earlier in the season will typically lead to a greater challenge before things slow to a trickle in November, so those wanting more adrenaline are advised to book earlier on if possible.
Rafting Australia are the guides and offer more personalised and passion-powered rafting tours of the Mitta Mitta in both single and two-day formats, with the extended version upgrading the journey to an extensive 36km adventure that covers an entire weekend.
8. Avon River, Western Australia
Rapids grades: 2 to 3
What it offers: Serene rafting experience through lovely National Park; family-friendly, accessible and viable rafting spot through most of the year (excluding summer)
Western Australia’s answer to the white water rafting scene comes courtesy of the Avon River, a family-friendly rafting waterway within an hour’s drive from capital Perth that lies within the Avon Valley National park – a land of high, rocky outcrops and deep river valleys that makes for a logical rafting destination.
The river itself serves as home to the annual Avon Descent event; a 2-day time trial that encompasses a length 124 kilometres worth of aquatic navigation aboard a variety of water craft. One doesn’t have to be a veteran rafter to appreciate the Avon Valley’s offerings, however, as rafting conditions on the river are relatively tame.
It’s thus a solid introductory river that’s become particularly popular among the experienced during the winter season due to faster-flowing waters, while first-timers and families can take advantage of a visit during spring and soak in some gorgeous floral scenery. The surrounds of the river are continually changing from season to season, making no two rafting adventures here alike.
The river’s banks are fringed with flooded gum trees, and during springtime the added tableau of colourful wildflowers adds yet more life and colour to the landscape.
The river’s banks are fringed with flooded gum trees, and during springtime the added tableau of colourful wildflowers adds yet more life and colour to the landscape. In summertime the water flow slows to a trickle, however, making for a rafting destination that is not quite viable year-round.
While the majority of a rafting tour here is an exercise in peaceful navigation, the trip culminates in the higher-level Bells Rapids – where the Avon and Swan Rivers meet in the northern portion of the Swan Valley – which ramps things up a notch. While it’s not going to be much of a challenge for veteran rafters, it’s an ideal capper to a trip with families without every having that feeling of danger that some more serious rafting journeys entail.
“White Water Kayaking” is also popular here, as the narrower shape of kayaking vessels makes for easier navigation during periods of lower water flow. Those looking to set out on a rafting tour of the Avon River can join local operator Adventure Out who provide trips on the Avon during the cooler months.
These rafting trips can be done in half a day from Perth, and run several times per month between the months of June and September. Given Western Australia’s rather limited options for commercial rafting trips, it’s nice that its one major offering is both within reasonable reach of Perth and able to accommodate beginners, as well.
7. Rangitata Gorge, New Zealand
Rapids grades: 5
What it offers: Great variety of both challenge and scenery; unique gorge rafting environment renowned for vivid colours
Kicking things up a notch in terms of both colour of tableau and challenge of rapid types in New Zealand’s range of rafting adventures, the Rangitata Gorge has a number of unique characteristics that help separate it from its peers. This powerful, fast-running river is graded deceptively high, yet also has a high variance in terms of what to expect from beginning to end.
Starting at the foot of the picturesque Southern Alps in the gorgeous Canterbury region of New Zealand, the Rangitata begins as a braided river before narrowing into the gorge proper, which helps rafters by making for a natural “training transition” from the ease of flat water flowing into more powerful conditions later on.
As a result of this division of difficulties, the Rangitata Gorge can be done in two flavours: one a more laid-back option on the Lower Rangitata for the less adrenaline-inclined, and the other a challenging offering that culminates in a Grade 5 rapid that can even rank up to Grade 6 (a.k.a, “too dangerous to raft) under adverse conditions.
This powerful, fast-running river is graded deceptively high, yet also has a high variance in terms of what to expect from beginning to end.
Those feeling skittish have the ability to opt out of this final slice of adversity, with participants disembarking from the water and ascending a ridge overlooking the rapid to get a sense of what awaits beforehand, however it brings along with it a feeling of accomplishment that’s worth braving the challenge.
The Rangitata’s scenery is another standout factor, with the greyish-white of the gorge walls forming a drastic contrast with water that is often a characteristically-bright shade of blue as a result of glacial flour making its way into the mixture. Add in its location by Mt. Peel on the east coast of the South Island and the overall backdrop of the Southern Alps, and you’ve got another gorgeous spot that served as the base for the set of Edoras in the Two Towers of Lord of the Rings movie fame.
Trips on the Rangitata typically offer a longer time spent on the actual river than many similar rafting trips, with around 2.5 hours’ worth of time on the river’s waters. Rangitata Rafts – a family owned business situated 2 hours to the south of Christchurch – are the only operator who provide rafting tours on the Rangitata Gorge, and aim to make facing one of New Zealand’s most comprehensive rafting challenges accessible to all ability levels.
Rafting season on the Rangitata Gorge runs from September through May, during which the warmer climate and waters makes the possibility of a raft flipping over in alpine waters much more palatable. It’s call capped off with a tasty communal barbecue for an added dose of extra warmth and satisfaction, too.
6. Kaituna River, New Zealand
Rapids grades: 2 to 3
What it offers: Huge waterfall drop the largest of its kind; scenery a nice change of pace to other NZ rafting spots; short journey makes for a convenient and viable half-day activity
Those looking to “take the plunge” on a rafting adventure would be hard pressed to match the ultimate plummet that the greater Rotorua region’s Kaituna River offers those with the intestinal fortitude to face its drop. Home to the world’s highest commercially-rafted waterfall, the Kaituna has long ranked as an exceptionally popular rafting spot both due to this unique feature, as well as its relatively brief (and thus convenient) rafting time.
Situated within a fortunate close proximity to North Island city Rotorua, the Kaituna River is actually fairly forgiving despite its high official difficulty rating, which it owes in large part to its signature, massive waterfall. As a result, a journey along the Kaituna involves long stretches of calm water in between its focused rapid sections.
These portions of downtime allow participants to admire the intermixed flora and exposed geology of the Rotorua region which has a disparate charm all of its own compared to many other rafting spots in New Zealand. Gone are the open, gorge-and-mountain style surrounds which instead are replaced by dense portions of temperate rainforest dotted by the occasional caves used by Maori in the past.
Those looking to “take the plunge” on a rafting adventure would be hard pressed to match the ultimate plummet that the greater Rotorua region’s Kaituna River offers.
The rafting journey on the Kaituna River is relatively short in terms of the on-water portion, clocking in at a brisk 45 minute adventure, yet there’s a remarkable amount of action crammed into such a short stretch of river. This brevity of the experience also helps make it an ideal half-day activity for combining with other regional Rotorua attractions, and is far less physically draining than other rafting trips as a result.
The river runs through a steep and narrow canyon that consists of numerous fun drops, however it’s the ultimate plummet of Tutea Falls which will have you talking about this adventure many moons after it’s over. Measuring a sizeable 7 metres (21 feet), and while capsizing sometimes happens, it’s rafted frequently enough to be a highly safe undertaking.
Rafting on the Kaituna River is a viable prospect throughout the year, as the river ranks as one of New Zealand’s warmest, so any spillage is typically met with cheers rather than screams. Its water is renowned for its clarity, too, so going under provides a high level of visibility while temporarily submerged.
Owing to its popularity, the Kaituna River can be toured with several operators including Kaitaki Adventures, Kaituna Cascades, and River Rats, who all over itineraries that come with an expected dose of eye towards safety while keeping things fun.
5. Barron River, Queensland
Rapids grade: 2 to 3
What it offers: Excellent balance between scenery, accessibility and challenge; lush Tropical Queensland rainforest backdrop
This exceptionally popular river in Tropical North QLD is one of the most frequently-rafted in the Australia / NZ region, with a combination of factors that help make it one of the most accessible rafting rivers available to travellers.
Fed by a hydroelectric power station that makes for high water volumes that aren’t as reliant on rainfall – although in the tropics, a lack of rain is rarely a problem regardless – and rafted under the characteristically warm climate of the greater Cairns region, it’s a truly viable year-round rafting river no matter during which season you choose to visit.
With water that never approaches the dramatically chilly temperatures some other rafting spots can face, and a relatively close proximity to a popular tourist hub in Cairns, rafting the Barron River thus makes for the ideal activity to combine with other regional experiences in a single day. It’s possible to embark on a half-day adventure for whitewater rafting on the Barron without having to commit a full day of travel to enjoy its offerings, scoring bonus points for convenience.
Rafting on the Barron River makes for a solid balance between being beginner-friendly while still fun and challenging enough for rafting veterans as well.
Rafting on the Barron River makes for a solid balance between being beginner-friendly while still fun and challenging enough for rafting veterans as well, with a moderate Grade 3 ranking. The journey follows a route that begins in more gentle fashion, with rafters encountering introductory rapids, before working its way up to the bigger variety and culminating in the “Roostertail” – the biggest rapid the river has to offer.
Add in some lovely tropical scenery – the river is surrounded by steep ravines and rugged, rainforest-draped mountains, as well as low-lying mists after recent rainfall that help it feel a world away – and it’s not hard to see why the Barron River ranks as perhaps the best all-round rafting river on this list.
Those looking to tackle the fun challenge of the Barron River can join locally-owned operator Foaming Fury, who have been taking aspiring visitors on journeys down the Barron since the mid-1980’s, and as a result know the river and its quirks intimately. An excellent rafting experience all within easy reach of an international airport.
4. Wairoa River, New Zealand
Rapids grade: 5
What it offers: Thrilling, high-level North Island rafting experience; great mixture of rapids and drops; easy access and reasonable running time
Located within a region o New Zealand that’s more commonly known for its coastal relaxation, a short drive from the Bay of Plenty’s largest city of Tauranga is all it takes to encounter a high-level rafting experience that’s ideal for veterans.
The Wairoa River is all about the challenge, with the names of some of its rapids giving an idea of the encounters that await; with titles such as the Roller Coaster, Devil’s Elbow and Mother’s Nightmare, among others, it’s a scene set that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence before embarking on a rafting trip. It’s by no means perilous, however, with families who have prior rafting experience often taking the plunge and embracing the river’s challenges under supervision of watchful guides, too.
With a flow that begins in the Kaimai Ranges above Tauranga, the Wairoa River winds its way through the midsts of a rock-and-tree-lined gorge that mixes together high-level rapids with a series of exciting drops that is nothing if not eventful. Its Grade 5 rapids provide a wonderful experience for experience rafters, offering some of the biggest whitewater in New Zealand that makes for a veritable theme park ride throughout.
Its rapids come thick and fast, with around 35 in total packed within a roughly 1.5 to 2 hour total journey, and as a result the ideal way to garner a quick and concentrated dose of adrenaline that’s still within easy access of civilisation. Technical and requiring teamwork and focus to properly navigate, there’s a reason the Wairoa is widely considered one of the most intense rafting experiences New Zealand has to offer.
The Wairoa River is all about the challenge, with the names of some of its rapids giving an idea of the encounters that await.
The Wairoa’s combination of a high level of accessibility and relatively short run time means it’s possible to tackle its narrow, gorge-following route more than once in a single day during its running season between October and May each year, too.
Perhaps the only downside is its lack of overall availability; the river is controlled by a hydroelectric dam, which means it’s only available for a limited period each year, with multiple operators such as River Rats and Wet ‘n’ Wild Rafting scrambling to take advantage of its otherwise excellent rafting conditions.
While it requires degrees of both timing and skill to fully appreciate, the Wairoa River remains one of the greatest raw-thrill rafting experiences that Australia and New Zealand have to offer.
3. Franklin River, Tasmania
Rapids grade: 4+
What it offers: Epic, multi-day rafting journey through untouched wilderness; exploration of one of the most remote parts of Australia
One of the world’s remotest raftable rivers located deep within the depths of the south-west Tasmanian wilderness, the Franklin River is a wild and unmolested jewel in the heart of the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. While it’s not a journey for the uninitiated, rafting trips don’t get much more “epic” thank this; those looking to raft the Franklin River do so as part of extended, multi-day journeys that involve almost as much wilderness exploration and portage as actual rafting itself.
In return for this extended time and monetary investment, aspiring rafters are rewarded with some incredibly pristine scenery that’s remained wholly untouched by man due to landmark conservation efforts that resulted in a World Heritage-protected status for the region.
The environment here is, in many ways, emblematic of the often-prehistoric feeling of Tassie’s nature as a whole; think a mixture of ruggedly scenic gorges, quietly swirling pools and towering examples of ancient Huon pines that often approach the waters of the river itself, and you’ve got an encapsulation of what such a rafting journey along the Franklin entails.
Image credit: Paul Fleming via Tourism Tasmania
As a result of its protected nature, rafting trips here are conducted with minimal environmental impact in mind and have been for decades, leaving the river in remarkably good shape; drinking the water directly from the boat is not only possible, but comes both recommended and refreshing.
The Franklin River’s low visitor numbers are another large reason why – estimates of yearly rafters of the Franklin River hover around the 500 mark – and as a result, the ability to truly get lost in the wilderness and not encounter another human soul outside your own group gives it a magic unique among Aussie / NZ rafting journeys. You’ll certainly encounter some animal friends, however, including a chance at some rarities such as platypus, quolls, and various other native gems.
The environment here is, in many ways, emblematic of the often-prehistoric feeling of Tasmania’s nature as a whole.
As one might expect from such an untamed region, unpredictable elements such as inclement weather and water conditions can sometimes come into play, and a fair amount of portaging is required. While it’s possible for veteran rafters to conquer the river on its own, these unforeseeable circumstances mean travelling with a guide comes highly recommended.
Franklin River rafting adventures can be conducted over both 8 and 10 day itineraries, with camping in an eco-friendly manner of an evening the name of the game. Trips here are offered by family-owned Tasmanian company Franklin River Rafting, who focus on smaller and more intimate rafting expeditions.
Their highly-experienced guides offer benefits in terms of both rafting and cookery, with a focus on making meals as enjoyable as the rest of the journey. Locally-sourced Tasmanian produce keeps well in the cooler Tasmanian climate, with a mixture of veggies and meats ideal for recharging after an adventurous but tiring day navigating the Franklin’s waters.
Franklin River Rafting season runs from October through April in order to capitalise on warmth, with trips departing from Hobart and going via the town of Strahan on the Tassie west coast. While it’s an adventure largely suited for experienced rafters, there are few rafting trips in Australia and New Zealand that scream “bucket list” quite like the Franklin.
2. Rangitaiki River, New Zealand
Rapids grade: 3 to 4
What it offers: Long, varied rafting river with great forest surrounds; opportunity to swim in between rapids; two course types means versatile for both families and veterans
The rivers of New Zealand’s North Island tend to be both deeper and longer than many of their South Island counterparts and are thus conducive to some quality rafting adventures, epitomised in full by the opportunities the Rangitaiki River affords.
Based out of a site located around 45 minutes from Rotorua, rafting journeys here allow those participating to experience a trip down the longest river in the greater Bay of Plenty region, with the Rangitaiki clocking in at a not-insignificant 155 kilometres spanning from northern Hawke’s Bay before emptying in the Bay of Plenty proper.
It’s another river rafting adventure that strikes an idyllic balance between rafting environment and scenery, beginning at the base of a waterfall and continuing on with a waterfall-centric theme throughout, passing by several others along the way. The surroundings of the river include a portion of the eastern zone of the stunning Kaingaroa Forest, with the chance to take in a spectacle of one of the largest native plantation forests teeming with exotic species.
Gliding amongst smoother sections of the river between these massive, looming trees produces a quiet feeling of solitude, as well, which only serves as a counterpoint to make the sections of action feel all the more intense.
As might be expected by its location however, Port Lincoln’s main draw for most travellers lies largely off-shore, with warmer January water temperatures a boon for those looking to take part.
The Rangitaiki River is fairly remote in its geography, requiring a drive through off-the-beaten-path routes from Rotorua to access, and offers options for both grade 2 and 4 rafting tours. The former is ideal for those with children and allowing a more scenic approach, while veterans will want to opt for the latter as the river’s upper portions can be quite challenging and provides sufficient excitement even for the experienced.
Long stretches of river between rapids are far from boring; they offer plenty of opportunity for hopping out of the raft for a dip, too, which helps diversify the experience and adds rather than detracts from the enjoyment. Journeys down the Rangitaiki typically involve around 2 hours of on-water navigation, which strikes a nice balance between length and fatigue, too.
Both River Rats and Wet ‘n’ Wild Rafting offer rafting tours of the Rangitaiki River, and with its balance of suitability for families with excellent scenery, swimming opportunities and multiple levels of rafting fun, scores bonus points for being such a versatile spot for a rafting trip in New Zealand.
1. Tully River, Queensland
Rapids grade: 4
What it offers: Consistently good year-round rafting conditions; World Heritage rainforest environment; good balance of challenge for all ability levels
Perhaps Australia’s premier one-day experience for rafting tours and overall one of the most popular rafting rivers in the country, the Tully River has numerous factors working in its favour that, when combined, provide the complete overall rafting package that one could want on Aussie waters.
Situated roughly a 2 hour drive to the south of Queensland’s “adventure capital” Cairns, the Tully River offers participants the chance at some high-quality rafting amongst ancient and beautiful World Heritage-protected rainforest that features steep-walled gorges of basal rock, and some of the oldest trees in the entire world.
This environment makes for a wild and spectacular backdrop that is everything Australia’s Tropical North is about; waterfalls can be seen tumbling over its surrounding walls after recent rainfall, the thick canopies of tropical forest give a subdued and immerse atmosphere to the adventure, and its high number of individual rapids add the expected challenge and thrills rafting enthusiasts demand.
Many of the previously frigid and dully-hued landscapes of the Snowy Mountains transform to become draped in a layer of colour during the warmer months.
The Tully River consists of mostly Grade 3 with some Grade 4 rapids, and thus is versatile in the kind of rafting itineraries it offers; tours on its waters come in both “regular” and “extreme” flavours, with rafting guides tailoring their route accordingly. It’s also a highly reliable river in terms of water flow, as the Tully region experiences one of the heaviest and highest quantities of rainfall anywhere on mainland Australia.
The river runs between Mounts Mackay and Tyson, and offers rafters around 45 individual rapids of a decent size that come in relatively quick succession, and is available as a clockwork-reliable year-round rafting destination. The combination of the aforementioned rainfall and the region’s hydroelectric dams work in concert for creating consistently high water levels.
Surrounded by a towering gorge in an otherwise untouched part of the tropics, it’s easy to feel dwarfed and overall quite insignificant while making your way through the whitewater, and you’ll have plenty of time in which to do so due to the extended journey that offers up to 5 hours worth of rafting time. Combined with the to-and-from journey out of Cairns, rafting the Tully River requires a full-day investment, yet it’s one that may prove a highlight of many a Tropical North QLD adventure.
Tully River rafting tours are conducted exclusively by regional operator Raging Thunder out of Cairns, who offer a choice of two rafting difficulty levels as well as the chance to enjoy a break for a barbecue lunch on the riverbanks to help break up the experience and to refuel the muscles for further aquatic adventures.
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