Why river rafting in Taupo is a must-try for thrill seekers

Could Taupo be New Zealand’s next big destination for thrill-seekers? With this wild, adrenaline-fuelled ride on the Tongariro River, it certainly looks like that.

Whitewater rafting is one of Taupo's most exciting extreme sports.
  • Belinda Luksic
  • August 2019

The Leg Breaker is in our sights, a turbulent swirl of whitewater rapids punctuated by sharp, jagged rocks. It looks nasty and it is, says Ben, our instructor. It didn’t get its name for nothing.

As a first-time rafter, this is not exactly encouraging, and my adrenal gland is getting ready to give up and go home. After all, we’re a 45-minute drive from Taupo – itself, a mere dot 275 kilometres south of Auckland in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island – and a broken leg wasn’t at the top of the list when I signed on for this 2.5-hour whitewater rafting trip down a section of the Tongariro River.

The fast-flowing Tongariro River runs for hundreds of kilometres
The fast-flowing Tongariro River is hundreds of kilometres long.

The river twists its way 604 kilometres from the Central Plateau of the North Island before entering the 616 square-kilometres of Lake Taupo – a crater lake locals say is the size of Singapore – near the township of Turangi. Bounded by epic mountains, forests, rivers and World Heritage-listed parks, Taupo is nothing short of spectacular.

I needn’t have worried though. Despite the nerves that have accompanied us pretty much from the get-go, this is our third set of rapids and any early trepidation – and there was plenty of that – has given way to excitement and (hopefully not misplaced) confidence.

So when Ben gives a shout to “forward”, our small crew of eight teens and adults moves like a well-oiled machine, leaning out and paddling deep and fast through the thrashing, heaving waters for several hectic, exhilarating minutes.

Back in calm waters, there are hoots of laughter and a jubilant high-five banging of raised paddles. We’re all sporting the same look of elation and grinning from ear to ear.

Teamwork is what makes whitewater rafting fun and rewarding
Teamwork is what makes whitewater rafting fun and rewarding.

Tongariro River is better known for its gin-clear waters and world-class trout fishing than whitewater rafting, but the 13-kilometre course we are travelling along takes in some of the more inaccessible parts of the river, including a 60-metre-high gorge studded with native beech forest and plush cascading ferns.

The river is classified as grade three, which is an intermediate whitewater rafting level marked by fast currents and irregular waves, rocky ledges and tight passages. It might not have the death-defying drops or potential for capsizing as a grade four or five course, but as Ben laughingly says, “You’ll still have your work cut out for you.” After weeks of rain and flooding, the river is swollen and that means we face stronger currents and greater difficulty in navigating the rapids.

The air was chilly when we met bright and early at 9am at Tongariro River Rafting “base camp”, a small shed in the fishing hamlet of Turangi. Here we kitted out in a polar fleece top, thick neoprene wetsuit and booties, a rain jacket, life jacket and bright red helmet. It won’t win us any awards in the fashion stakes, that’s for sure, but it will keep us warm and buoyant in the event of an unlikely tumble into the river. Fed by cool streams and tributaries that run down from the surrounding snow-capped mountain ranges, the waters of the Tongariro River are notoriously cold, even in summer.

The cold waters of the river originate from the peak of Mount Ruapehu
The cold waters of the river originate from the peak of Mount Ruapehu.

Down on the river, a 20-minute drive from base camp, Ben delivers a safety briefing plus a run-through of rafting and paddle commands, calmly outlining various dos and don’ts with a humour and charm that makes me feel at ease. All we have to do is follow his direction and work as a team. The better we do that, he says, the less chance there is for injury or accident.

And then we’re off, hurtling along more than 60 roller-coaster rapids of varying intensity, peppered with large, perilously sharp volcanic rocks, the legacy of centuries of eruptions from nearby active volcano, Mount Ruapehu.

We’ve paddled hard through the tight corners and swirling waters of The Cheese Grater and sat tight, paddles flush with the inflatable raft, as the river bounced us over something called – a little innocuously and somewhat erroneously – The Number Four.

Then there is MacGyver’s Mistake (named after one guide’s bad judgment call), the Double Barrel, The Big Slip and a tricky rapid called The Bastard. Close Shave gets its name from an outing when all but one unlucky raft made it through unscathed. Concussion Corner is as alarming as it sounds; at times, our raft is bounced about like a pinball – and Ben warns us to keep our arms inside the raft as we slam into a wall of rocks and tailspin out like a dodgem car.

Brace yourself when approaching the notorious Concussion Corner
Brace yourself when approaching the notorious Concussion Corner.

As we approach rock ledges, where the water runs fastest, the river becomes a seething swirl of bath salt greens, glacial whites and blues. There is barely enough time to register the icy beauty before we’re off again, paddling hard and fast through the roiling eddies.

Between rapids, we rest our paddles and drink in the ever-changing scenery as our yellow raft bobs gently downstream. From time to time, I catch the silvery glint of rainbow trout or the mottled sheen of its brown counterpart milling below on the bottom of the riverbed.

Twice we catch sight of the elusive blue duck, a rare and endangered bird endemic to New Zealand, and one of only four species in the world that lives exclusively in fast-flowing rivers. The Blue Duck Project, a conservation effort set up by local Tongariro River Rafting owner Garth Oakden, has helped increase the numbers of these special animals that glide along on the water, impervious to the pace of the river or the rapids.

Clouds move slowly across the tourmaline sky and, now and again, I hear the reassuring chorus of native birds singing to one another from high up in the treetops. Eventually, the river widens and I can hear the hum of traffic in the distance and see Turangi’s green fields and farming land. Ben tethers our raft where the river is placid and passes around cake and warming cups of hot cocoa. Some of our group brave the chilly waters, sliding in off the edge of the raft. They splash about before climbing back onboard, happy and dripping wet.

Finishing off with a swim in the numbingly cold waters is optional
Finishing off with a swim in the numbingly cold waters is optional.

At the end of our trip, the river opens up and we land in what looks like an eight-lane water highway framed by dense green forest. I see anglers fishing off small boats in the distance and others, at solitary points along the river bank, thigh-high in waders and casting their fly line back and forth like a whip.

There is still a soak at the local hot springs to come, followed by hot showers and a bite to eat at base camp. But right now, in the happy hug of camaraderie, drifting between the rush of rapids and lush green stillness, I’m content to sit and let the river carry us along.

NEED TO KNOW

Tongariro River Rafting operates grade three whitewater rafting adventures for adults and teens (from AUD $129 to AUD $145), with a free shuttle service pick-up from Taupo. You can also enquire about kid-friendly grade two rafting expeditions.