13 Beginner-Friendly Rivers for Whitewater Paddling


Disclaimer: The information in this blog was correct as of the 1st of May 2024, if you have found that anything has changed and this blog needs updating, please let us know!

New Zealand has long been an internationally recognised destination for whitewater, but the river sections that seem to get the most attention tend to lie in the Grade 4-5 realm. Beyond the handful of classic Grade 2-3 around Murchison, the multi-day Clarence trip, and the Hurunui, I’ve heard the frustrations of many novice/intermediate kayakers about a seeming lack of easy whitewater around the South Island. 

Many lesser-known river sections provide quality Grade 2-3 whitewater that is forgotten in the mainstream hype media and sometimes even the guidebooks! Here are some of my favourite somewhat off-the-beaten-path beginner/easier intermediate kayaking runs (all of which are road-accessed), which I hope will inspire you to get out and explore new rivers, improve your paddling skills, and have fun!

An important note. Rivers in New Zealand can drastically fluctuate in flow, sometimes only over a few minutes to hours! The flow ranges listed provide a guide for the best beginner-intermediate flows, with higher flows generally increasing the difficulty of the run. As a rule of thumb, novice kayakers should stick to rivers that are blue to green in colour (i.e. not brown, murky, and likely flooding!). If in doubt, ask someone more experienced or better yet, bring them along for the paddle!

Canterbury Area

Rangitata River - Lower Section - Grade 2+

Flow Range: Any (not flooding)

Good first-time run? No

Put in: -43.765020, 171.234040

Take out: -43.913432, 171.270738

The lower Rangitata is a good beginner-intermediate run, with the Peel Forest Outdoor Centre using it regularly for school camps and kayak instruction courses. There are nice expansive views of the Southern Alps and plenty of options for put-ins and take-outs, depending on time. The river is fairly wide, braided, gravelbed, and the rapids are mostly fun bouncy wave trains. 

Image Credit: Emily McGimpsey

 Maruia River - Grade 2+

Flow Range: Any (not flooding)

Good first-time run? No

Put in: -42.136104, 172.221773

Take out: -41.976594, 172.204250

The Maruia would make an excellent first overnighter trip. There is lovely scenery, and all of the rapids are Grade 2-2+ and can be portaged easily. While you can paddle the 25 km section in a day, camping on one of the river terraces in the beech forest makes for a great night away. Most easy rapids are gravel beds with the harder boulder garden rapids formed by slips and rockfall. There is one Grade 3 rapid at Stags Head Stream that can be easily portaged and scouted on either side. 

Image Credit: Cody Rowell

Image Credit: Julie Bosquet

Image Credit: Nicola Buisman


Dunedin Area

Waipori River - Lower Section - Grade 2

Flow Range: 16+ cumecs (at least 1.6 on the Berwick gauge)

Good first-time run? Yes

Put in: -45.926621, 170.029188

Take out: -45.928860, 170.053118

The Waipori is a wee gem just outside Dunedin, nestled in a lovely bit of native forest. While the upper section is Grade 4 and only releases a few times per year, the lower section flows often during the winter months in addition to the scheduled releases since it is downstream of the hydro scheme. The section begins at an old slalom site, where there are some great eddy lines. Further downstream, there are small surf waves and good places to practise ferry gliding and eddy turns. The section’s main rapid, “The Cascade,” is a fun, bouncy wavetrain. Watch out for low-hanging willows. The Friends of the Waipori River organisation hosts the annual Waip Out event each May, which includes races on the Grade 4 and Grade 2 sections and a party back in Dunedin. Check their Facebook page for updates on releases and events.

Image credit: Dan Sutherland


Taieri River - Tiroiti to Hyde - Grade 2-3

Flow range: 20-40 cumecs on the Tiroiti Guage https://envdata.orc.govt.nz/AQWebPortal/Data/DataSet/Interval/Latest

Good first-time run? No

Put in: -45.257271, 170.271617

Take out: -45.317699, 170.263146

This section of the Taieri River flows through a volcanic gorge as the river makes its U-Turn around the Rock and Pillar range. We happened upon this section while paddling the river from source to sea, not expecting to find any whitewater, but surprisingly discovered an awesome Grade 2-3 run! From Tiroiti, the river has a few gravel bar rapids before picking up as the river makes a sharp right-hand turn (at which point some of the flow is diverted through a mining-era tunnel!). There are a few rapids here, where you could walk back up to do multiple laps. There is an excellent surf wave at the Hyde Bridge (take-out) at ~25 cumecs. 

Image credit: Max Rayner


Queenstown Area

Shotover River - Upper and Middle Sections - Grade 2-3

Flow Range: 10-30 cumecs (Peats Hut gauge)

Good first-time run? No

Put in: -44.807508, 168.737140 (upper run)

Take out: -44.846732, 168.683233 (upper run & put in for the middle) -44.890624, 168.676391 (middle run)

The upper Shotover is one of NZ’s best beginner-intermediate river trips at low to moderate summer flows. The trip into Skippers Canyon is long and requires a capable 4WD vehicle, but there is magnificent camping, scenery, and history down in the gorge, making it an excellent weekend or long weekend excursion. The upper section features lots of waves formed by shelf-like rocks and is slightly more continuous than the middle section. The middle section contains a few bigger rapids when the river is more constricted but has a bit more flat water overall. Both sections feature deep, steep schist walls, which provide a dramatic contrast to the bright turquoise water, and there are gold mining relics scattered at various points up and down the river bank. If you’re heading into either section, you need to notify Skippers Canyon Jet before you go. This can be done by phoning ahead (03 442 9434 or 0800 226 966)


Image credit: Dave Cassidy

Image Credit: Mitch Barber


Shotover River - Canyon Section - Grade 2

Flow Range: < 30 cumecs

Good first-time run? Yes

Put in: -44.987035, 168.670785

Take out: -44.991491, 168.725879

This is a fantastic backyard run for Queenstown locals and visitors alike. For many years, the jet boat company operating in the canyon had exclusive access to this section, making recreational access very difficult. A few years ago, a group of local kayakers successfully negotiated access for Wednesday and Friday evenings after 5 pm, turning it into a popular after-work float for people on all types of river craft. The section starts in a narrow walled-in gorge with a few rapids and a great play wave spot at some flows. The river opens up after the gorge and can get a bit shallow at lower flows. The second gorge contains most of the rapids and is a good spot to practice skills. Make an evening of it and bring along a barbeque to the take-out. 

Image credit: Cam Kerr


Kawarau River - Kawarau Falls - Grade 2

Flow range: Any

Good first-time run? Yes

Put in and take out: -45.027896, 168.734284

This is an under-utilised, super convenient “park and play” river feature to work on paddling fundamentals like eddy turns, ferry gliding, and surfing. It is essentially one rapid with multiple channels at the outlet of Lake Wakatipu. Put in below the bridge and attain up to the features from there. Caution: don’t paddle through the control gates under the old bridge as there are some dangerous weirs. 


Haast Area 

Jackson River - Grade 2-3

Flow range: Higher than base flows - medium (not brown) 

Good first-time run? No

Put in: -44.116004, 168.589068

Take out: -44.055875, 168.711832 (upstream of confluence) -44.046350, 168.723097 (below Arawhata bridge)

The Jackson contains fairly continuous Grade 2 rapids the whole way down and is nestled into a lush podocarp forest. There are also a few good spots to stop and play too. It probably needs to be raining (or just after rain) for flows you can paddle in, but if it’s completely brown, then expect a continuous Grade 3 ride. Watch out for wood hazards. Take out either before the confluence with the Arawhata or if you’re up for a big volume experience, take out just after the Arawhata bridge on river left. There is an excellent eddyline under the Arawhata bridge on the river right. 


Milford Sound Area

Hollyford River - Gunn’s Camp Section - Grade 2

Flow range: Any (not flooding)

Good first-time run? No

Put in: -44.759807, 168.139095

Take out: -44.706515, 168.123803

This is a super scenic and roadside section of the Hollyford wedged between all the harder stuff! The river is pretty flat with a few gravel bed rapids mixed in between for some spice. This section is mostly memorable for the spectacular views of The Darrans and the Main Divide, the lush native bush, and crystal clear water. Make sure to scout your take-out as you need to exit before the Grade 4 Moraine Creek rapid!

Image credit: Adam Penkala


Cleddau River - Downstream of Tutoko Bridge - Grade 3 

Flow range: Low-medium (not flooding, not bone dry)

Good first-time run? No

Put in: -44.677467, 167.962193

Take out: -44.676762, 167.922483

The Cleddau is generally a Grade 4+ flood run during big rainfall but when it’s not absolutely bucketing down, the lower river provides an easy intermediate float with great views of high peaks and waterfalls. Putting in below the Tutoko bridge, the last part of the Tutoko River has some boulders to negotiate before the river joins the Cleddau. From here, the river is wide and rocky. There are a few bouldery rapids, surf waves, and great eddy lines. Take in the spectacular scenery as the valley opens up into Milford Sound. Keep an eye out for Whio (blue ducks). 


Image Credit: University of Canterbury Canoe Club


Hokitika Area

Arnold River - Grade 2

Flow range: Any

Good first-time run? Yes

Put in: -42.524029, 171.408166

Take out: -42.481522, 171.376138

The Arnold (or Arn-BEEZY) is the local stomping and training ground for up-and-coming Tai Poutini Polytech students. The river is almost always flowing and provides top-notch eddy lines to get the hang of ferry gliding, eddying in/out, and doing whoopies. You can spend hours playing on the relatively short run. If you really want to upskill your paddling on a reliable faff-free section of river, this is the place to do it. 

Image Credit: Mitch Barber


Arahura River - Milltown Gorge - Grade 2+

Flow range: Low - medium (not flooding)

Good first-time run? No

Put in: -42.831348, 171.238557

Take out: -42.734087, 171.115499

The Milltown Gorge is a great easy section on the coast with a half dozen Grade 2+/3 rapids in the gorge, depending on the flow. Some shallow braided rapids provide a good warm-up before the gorge. Once in the gorge itself, there are several good eddies and play spots along the way created by big boulders and bedrock banks. Once the gorge opens up, there are a lot of bouldery rapids to keep the excitement high.   


Mikonui River - Grade 2-3

Flow range: Any (not flooding)

Good first-time run? Yes

Put in: -43.000710, 170.857945

Take out: -42.908706, 170.768858

This is a scenic wilderness run providing a taste of West Coast kayaking with views of the Southern Alps, rain forests, and waterfalls around. The section is Grade II with one Grade III rapid and all rapids can be portaged if needed. The shuttle is quite long and on a dirt road. The river is best paddled after rain since the catchment is quite small so it drops quickly.

Image Credit: Nicola Buisman

Written by Team Further Faster Paddler and all-round seeker of adventures Ellorine Carl!

If you liked this blog, how about trying one from Team Further Faster athlete Holly: Packrafting the Hollyford: Take II

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