Story: Canoeing and rafting

Page 3. Rafting and kayaking since the 1980s

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Rafting and kayaking are now popular sports. Rafting is dominated by commercial operators. This is because the larger rafts suitable for New Zealand rivers are expensive and require a crew of at least five people. Kayaking, on the other hand, is usually an individual pursuit.

Rafting revives

Rafts are inflatable boats, propelled with paddles. Rafting had been popular in the late 1940s and the 1950s, and it made a comeback in the early 1970s. New materials and technology meant that rafts could be made at a reasonable price. Soon entrepreneurs began running tourist rafting trips in Queenstown and the central North Island.

After an elderly Australian tourist was killed on the Shotover River in 1980, an association was set up first to monitor safety, and later to set industry standards. This was succeeded by the New Zealand Rafting Association, formed in 1996.

Types of rafting

White-water rafting takes place on wild and scenic rivers such as the Mōtū and Rangitīkei in the North Island, and the Buller, Landsborough, Kawarau and Shotover in the South Island.

Tube rafting, an individual or small team sport using inner tubes lashed to a frame, is usually practised on small mountain streams.

Black-water rafting involves floating through underground cave systems on inflatable tubes. Waitomo and Greymouth are the main locations.

New Zealand teams have competed in the World Rafting Championships since these were first held in 1998. New Zealand hosted the event in 2013. By 2015 the New Zealand women had won the teams event four times, while the men’s best placing was second.

Long-distance paddler

In the 1970s New Zealander Paul Caffyn set records with his amazing sea kayaking feats. In 1977–78 he circumnavigated the South Island, a four-month journey of 2,414 km. In 1978–79 he circumnavigated the North Island (2,735 km) and in 1979 Stewart Island. Since then he has voyaged along the coasts of Great Britain, Australia, Japan, Alaska, New Caledonia, Greenland, Malaysia and Thailand.


The kayak has a covered deck, and paddles that are double bladed rather than single. Like rafting, kayaking enjoyed a boom in the 1970s. Kayak Moulders Ltd was established in Auckland in 1971 to meet the high local demand for kayaks and accessories.

Many rivers that could be travelled only by rubber raft were rediscovered with the advent of the more durable fibreglass kayak. The trend continued when polythene plastic kayaks were introduced in the 1980s.

Now kayaks are made of a range of materials, for different purposes – from long sea kayaks with skegs (rudders), to short streamlined ones adapted for white water, to Olympic racers.

Sea kayaking

Sea kayakers paddle on open water around the coast and on lakes. They enjoy the chance to see different landscapes, to reach remote beaches, and to see birds and sea creatures such as dolphins at close quarters. Commercial operators offer guided sea kayaking for groups, and it is popular with individuals and clubs. Popular spots include the Marlborough Sounds, Abel Tasman National Park, Kaikōura, Fiordland and the Ōkārito Lagoon.

Taming the lion

White-water canoeists and rafters have given vivid names to river rapids, indicating the type of challenge ahead: Rodeo (Rangitīkei River), The Squeeze (Landsborough River), Tsunami (Rangitātā River), Knuckle Grinder (Perth River), and Roaring Lion (Karamea River).

White-water kayaking

Kayakers value the freedom to paddle on a natural, free-flowing river. They regard many rivers with great awe and affection – the rapids and even some of the rocks have been given names. New Zealand’s white-water rivers are among the best in the world, and white-water kayaking is a fast-growing sport. West Coast rivers are especially popular, but there are white-water runs in many parts of New Zealand.

In 2006 there were over 50 canoeing and kayaking clubs throughout the country. There were also some commercial enterprises at places such as the Whanganui River.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Canoeing and rafting - Rafting and kayaking since the 1980s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Sep 2007, updated 18 Jul 2016