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Canoeing and rafting

by  Nancy Swarbrick

As you meander downstream, the only sounds are the call of a tūī and the splash of the paddle. ... Canoeing can be an idyllic way to explore the wilderness at your own pace. At the other extreme is the wild ride on a raft, drenched in spray and hurtling towards the rapids.

Early canoeing

Canoes, kayaks (covered canoes) and rafts are all simple boats propelled by paddles. They are an ideal way to explore New Zealand’s scenic waterways. The sheltered coastal waters, inland lakes and rivers offer a range of experiences, from placid drifting to thrilling white-water runs.

Māori canoes and rafts

In the past, Māori used open canoes (waka) made of hollowed-out logs, and rafts (mōkihi) made of flax, wood and other materials, mainly for transport and fishing.

Early European explorers, missionaries and settlers explored parts of New Zealand in mōkihi and waka that were usually crewed by Māori. But there was always time for play. The sport of racing waka appealed to both Māori and Pākēha. A regatta organised by Whanganui settlers on 27 February 1843 featured waka races in which Māori and Europeans competed. Waka are still raced in regattas.

On the Whanganui River

Recreational canoeing by European settlers began on the Whanganui River in the 1840s, first with waka and then with canoes of European design. Canoeists ventured upriver from Whanganui to Taumarunui, camping at Māori villages on the way.

After John T. Stewart surveyed the Whanganui River in a waka in 1885, some channels were cleared and deepened, allowing large vessels to pass. These improvements further encouraged canoeists. Trips downriver from Taumarunui, first in square-built rowboats and later in open Canadian canoes, started in 1889. They became more frequent from 1892 when the Whanganui River Trust published a guide to the river, with the rapids named and numbered.

The joys of canoeing

In the early 1840s Edward Jerningham Wakefield was a passenger in a waka paddled by a Māori crew. He described the idyllic journey up the Whanganui River: ‘Reclining on a platform covered with soft mats just forward of my steersman, under the shade of a broad-brimmed Panama hat, now smoking, now sketching … and then seizing a paddle or a pole and raising a canoe-song to encourage my crew, as some old acquaintance came up alongside and challenged me for a race, I entered heartily into the spirit of our expedition.’ 1

Around Cook Strait

The first New Zealand canoe club – Wellington’s Tainui Canoe Club – was an offshoot of the Star Regatta Club. Formed in 1870, it was affiliated to the Royal Canoe Club in England in 1882. Members went on regular canoeing holidays in the Marlborough Sounds and took part in the Picton regatta.

Europeans first canoed across Cook Strait’s wild waters, between the North and South islands, in the 1890s. Two Hokitika canoeists, George and James Parkes, crossed from north to south on 23 February 1890 and continued down the coast to Dunedin. In 1895 W. and G. FitzGerald crossed both ways, and in 1896 the first solo crossing was made by H. V. Shearman. Their craft were based on English Rob Roy canoes. Over four metres long, these were built of planks and decked over except for a small central cockpit. They could be rigged with masts and sails for sea voyages, and were still popular in the 1920s.

  1. Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Adventure in New Zealand, edited by Joan Stevens. Auckland: Viking, 1975, p. 175. › Back

Canoe clubs and competitions, 1920s–1960s

More canoe clubs

Another canoe club was formed on the North Shore of Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour in 1926, and around 1930 the Rover Canoe Club, based in Hamilton, began exploring the reaches of the Waikato River. Rob Roy and Canadian canoes were used alongside home-built craft, including ‘tin cans’ made of corrugated iron.

These clubs went into recess after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, but many more were set up from the late 1940s. In 1950 the New Zealand Canoe Association (forerunner of the New Zealand Recreational Canoeing Association) was founded.

Wartime influences

During the Second World War, the armed forces used folding frame kayaks made of plywood and covered with rubber fabric. After the war, folding canoes, both imported and home-made, became popular. The Foldcraft Company was the first local manufacturer, from 1962.

Surplus air force inflatable rubber dinghies proved versatile after the war. They floated over rocks and logs and were used to survey rivers unsuitable for canoes, such as the Clutha (1948) and the Buller (1952). They were also used to explore the treacherous Mōtū River in the Bay of Plenty. Although the Mōtū had been tackled in wooden boats in 1920 and 1935, it was truly conquered by rubber rafts in the 1950s. The sport of rafting had arrived, but faded temporarily as the dinghies wore out in the later 1950s.

Running the rapids

A pioneer raftsman recalls running a Mōkau River rapid in 1951: ‘Three bedraggled volunteers crouched quivering in the stern. The photographic vultures hovered eagerly over their prey. “They’re off!” The boat tipped stern foremost over the first rock fall. She swept towards the fall. “Turn her round!” But there was no chance now, the crew were too busy hanging on. Still stern first, she entered the foaming race, took the turn at the bottom, dropped over the narrow fall, boat and crew disappeared in the mass of foam, to pop up and relax in the mirror-like pool below.’ 1


Some of the post-war canoeing clubs focused on exploring rivers, but others were interested in competition. The first national championships were held in 1955. Flat river racing took place on the Whanganui River at Aramoho, and there were slalom events in the Manawatū Gorge. Competition influenced canoe design, as people realised that the performance of home-designed craft was too variable. Local canoe builders began to copy the designs of veneer and fibreglass racing canoes that had been imported.

In 1965 the first canoe race down the Whanganui River from Taumarunui was held. Involving 224 rapids and overnight camping, it was compared to Britain’s famous Devizes to Westminster distance race. Contests between New Zealand and Australia began the following year.

    • ‘Frolics on the Mokau’, White Water: Canoeing in New Zealand 1, no. 3 (1954–1955): 3–4. › Back

Rafting and kayaking since the 1980s

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.

Competitive kayaking

Olympic success

After excellent results at the Australian championships in 1972, New Zealanders Bernard Fletcher and Tom Dooney, along with Don Cooper, were nominated for the 1972 Munich Olympic team. While they did not win medals, they were highly placed. They returned to New Zealand to report, coach, and advise on future selection, leading to improved standards.

New Zealand canoeists had outstanding success in international competition during the 1980s. The 1984 Olympics in particular were a triumph, with New Zealanders Ian Ferguson, Alan Thompson, Paul MacDonald and Grant Bramwell winning gold medals for a four-man, a double and two singles canoe events.

In 2012 Lisa Carrington won the Olympic 200-metre singles in London. Four years later at the Rio games Carrington defended her Olympic title and also won a bronze medal in the 500-metre sprint. By 2017 Carrington had also won five consecutive world 200-metre singles titles, and a total of 11 world championship medals.

Canoe racing

Canoe racing is now the most diverse of the competitive sports:

  • Flat-water racing is an Olympic sport over distances of 200, 500 and 1,000 metres.
  • Marathon racing, contested at world cup and championship level, takes place over at least 15 kilometres for women and 20 kilometres for men.
  • Ocean ski racing has evolved from surf ski racing, a surf lifesaving sport. The competitors paddle purpose-built ocean skis – a 7-metre sit-on craft.
  • Slalom racing, another Olympic sport, takes place on artificial white-water courses. Luuka Jones won a silver medal in the women's K-1 event at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and Mike Dawson won bronze in the extreme K-1 slalom at the 2017 world championships.

Canoe Racing New Zealand and White Water Slalom New Zealand are the governing bodies of these sports.

Canoe polo

In canoe polo, two teams of five compete to score the most goals by getting a ball into a goal above the water. It is sometimes called ‘basketball on water’. The New Zealand Canoe Polo Association promotes the sport.

Freestyle kayaking

A relatively new sport, freestyle kayaking takes place in white water and involves a range of acrobatic moves with names like ‘flying’, ‘air loop’ and ‘flip turn’. Events are organised by the New Zealand Freestyle Kayak Association.

Canoes to the rescue

For many years swimmers have been rescued by surf lifesavers using canoes, as they are light and easy to handle. Some of New Zealand’s famous Olympic kayakers – for instance Paul MacDonald and Ian Ferguson – have also been champion surf lifesavers.

Waka ama

Waka ama are traditional Polynesian outrigger canoes. Waka ama racing is controlled by the New Zealand Māori Polynesian Canoe Sporting Federation/Ngā Kaihoe o Aotearoa. Clubs and school teams from around the country take part in events.

Dragon boating

Dragon boating has its roots in Asia but has become popular around the world. Long, open canoes are paddled by a crew of 20, using single-bladed paddles. Dragon boat festivals are an annual spectacle in Wellington and Auckland.

Organisations and issues

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Canoeing and rafting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 September 2007, updated 18 July 2016