Story: Canoeing and rafting

Page 5. Organisations and issues

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There are many organisations devoted to particular canoe sports, but the New Zealand Canoeing Federation oversees and co-ordinates them all. The other main canoeing body is the New Zealand Recreational Canoeing Association. It has spoken out on a range of issues affecting white-water kayakers in particular.


Kayaking and rafting, especially in white water, are potentially dangerous. Hazards include capsizing and being swept away in strong currents, getting trapped under water by rocks or logs, and colliding with obstacles.

Kayaking and rafting associations teach techniques such as the ‘wet exit’ and ‘eskimo roll’ to escape from an upturned kayak. They also offer rescue training. The New Zealand Recreational Canoeing Association keeps a database of information about accidents, with comments on how they might have been prevented. In addition, rivers in New Zealand are graded by their level of difficulty using an international scale – from Class I (easy) to Class VI (extreme).

Hydroelectric projects

Damming rivers to generate hydroelectricity has deprived canoeists of some scenic runs. For example, a favourite trip was the ‘Rainbow Reach’ between Ātiamuri and Ōrākei Kōrako on the Waikato River. Beautiful and spectacular, it featured steaming banks, coloured silica terraces, geysers and hot pools. In 1960, the Ōhakuri Dam was built, covering most of the geothermal features and all but one rapid.

By the 1970s, demand for hydroelectric power had led to the damming of many major rivers, including the Waikato, Tongariro, Waiau and Waitaki. In the process, rapids and other features were flooded. One of New Zealand’s greatest white-water rivers, the Mōtū, was also destined for hydro development. Canoeists joined with conservationists, Māori groups and other local people to resist this plan, and to lobby for the protection of wild rivers.

In 1977 the New Zealand Canoe Association began a survey of recreational waterways to identify those that needed preservation. Eventually protests led to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Amendment to the Water and Soil Conservation Act 1981. In 1984 the Mōtū River was the first river to be protected by a conservation order.

A welcome release

When rivers are dammed for hydroelectric power production, they usually become less challenging for kayakers, and can even be too shallow for use. But heavy rain often means that water needs to be let out from behind the dam. Such events, known as ‘releases’, are publicised so that experienced kayakers can take advantage of the surge of water.

The Living Rivers Coalition

The battle to save rivers from development continues. By 2006, 13 were protected by conservation orders. But there is relentless pressure for electricity generation, irrigation and flood control. Other threats include pollution from animal waste and fertiliser run-off, and invasive plants such as the alga didymo (Didymosphenia geminata), also known as ‘rock snot’. As well as destroying the habitats of birds and animals, these problems undermine the recreational value of rivers.

In 2004 the Living Rivers Coalition was established to protect New Zealand’s rivers. The New Zealand Recreational Canoeing Association was one of the four coalition partners.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Canoeing and rafting - Organisations and issues', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

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