Some of the most thrilling activities around Queenstown take place on or in the water – sometimes a bit of both. You’ll almost certainly get splashed during 360-degree spins when jetboating and punching through big waves whitewater rafting. You’re almost always in the water when river surfing, sledging and canyoning, and only family rafting gives you much chance of a dry run.
There are strong arguments for spending your jetboating dollar on better-value wilderness trips elsewhere – the wilkin River Jet, waiatoto River safaris and trips down the wairaurahiri River spring to mind – but Queenstown does offer the scintillating shotover Jet and the thrilling, scenic and historic skippers Canyon Jet.
Shotover Jet Corner of Camp and shotover sts 0800 746 868, shotoverjet.com. Slick, touristy and pricey but the thrills come thick and fast. Courtesy buses take you out to arthur’s point, 5km north of Queenstown, where super-powerful jetboats thrust downstream along the shotover Canyon. Perilously close shaves with rocks and canyon walls plus several 360-degree turns and periodic dousings guarantee that a twenty-minute trip is enough for most.
Skippers Canyon Jet 0800 226 966, skippers canyonjet.com. A great way to combine exploring the skippers road with jetboating among the ancient gold workings of the upper Shotover River. There are various combos, perhaps the most logical being with a rafting trip down the shotover river, which doesn’t save you much money but helps pack in the thrills.
Queenstown’s adventure stalwart is whitewater rafting, which takes place locally on the Kawerau River and the Shotover River, and infrequently in the remote Landsborough River. Although there appear to be three whitewater rafting companies in town, each with assorted packages and combo deals, all rafts are in fact operated by Queenstown Rafting, 35 shotover st (0800 723 8464, rafting.co.nz).
Kawarau River (Grade II–III; 4hr with around 1hr on the water). With its large volume, this is the more reliable of the two rivers. The 7km “Dog Leg” section negotiates four rapids (exciting but not truly frightening), ending with the potentially nasty Chinese Dog Leg, said to be the longest commercially rafted rapid in New Zealand. Being lake-fed, its flow is relatively steady, though it peaks in spring and drops substantially towards the end of summer.
Shotover River (Grade III–IV; 5hr with almost 2hr on the water). More demanding than the Kawarau, with rapids revelling in names such as The squeeze, The Anvil and The Toilet. They reach their apotheosis in the Mother-in-Law rapid, usually bypassed at low water by diverting through the 170m Oxenbridge Tunne. The 14km rafted section flows straight out of the mountains and its level fluctuates considerably. In October and November, snowmelt ensures good flows and a bumpy ride; by late summer low flows can make it a bit tame for hardened rafters, though it is still scenic and fun for first-timers. In winter the lack of sunlight reaching the depths of the canyon makes it too cold for most people, though you can elect to do a much shorter trip by accessing the rapids by helicopter.
Landsborough River (Grade III; mid-Nov to April Friday departures; 3 days). Fly-in wilderness trip with camping beside the river – it’s more about the whole experience than the whitewater.