White Water Rafting the Tongariro River, Taupo New Zealand

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“White water rafting in New Zealand….Are you kidding me?…It will be freezing!”

That was my initial reaction when Caz told me the itinerary for the Great Crusade tour of New Zealand.

I know what it’s like to go white water rafting, and I know how incredibly wet you can get. I did it on the Nile in Uganda, Africa. That’s right, Africa, where it’s incredibly hot and the water is warm.

I hate being cold, and I especially hate being wet and cold. And the first thing I thought of about white water rafting in New Zealand was, “Where is the originating source of water coming from?”

…and my answer, well, snow capped mountains of course.

But, after learning that the rafting was going to take place on the North Island of New Zealand, where it’s somewhat warmer, and that the rapids were a grade 3, which meant we probably wouldn’t flip the raft, I was ready for action.

They Call him Mad Dog

The beginning of our fun was that we were allocated to a guide named “Mad Dog”.

Now Mad Dog was a colorful character who loved the wilderness and showing people a good time. He had one of those loud, repetitive laughs that you couldn’t help laughing back at.

This is Mad Dog standing tall at the back…

He had been down the Tongariro River more times than he could remember, and I was warming to the trip more and more by the minute.

Under the guidance of Mad Dog we began our  journey dressed in our spray jackets, fleece tops, wetsuit and helmets ready to take on the Tongariro River.

Photo - White Water Rafting New Zealand

It wasn’t long into our adventure when the first bit of action took place. We were navigating one of the more aggressive rapids when Mike, or Princess, as Mad Dog called him, bounced out of the raft and banged against the rock wall we had become friends with.

Luckily for Mike we were against the rock wall otherwise he was definitely going for a swim. The raft kept moving downstream and Mike exited from the front, hit and spun off the wall, and re-entered the raft at the back.

It was also a team effort to keep Mike from ending up in the drink, and my reflex action was to grab him by his life jacket, as instructed by Mad Dog on our safety briefing, and reef him back into the raft.

Where’s Mad Dog?

Whilst all this was going on, and unbeknownst to us, we had lost Mad Dog overboard and he was floating downstream.

It took me a few seconds to realize who it was. That can’t be our guide, surely not I thought to myself. But sure enough, it was Mad Dog and we all clicked into rescue mode to bring him back on board.

Reaching out with paddles for Mad Dog to grab, we safely dragged our soaking wet guide back into the raft, who found it all quite amusing with that loud laugh of his.

It wasn’t until the end of the day that we learned that all the guides had a little competition running. The rule for them was that they aren’t allowed to hang on to any of the safety ropes in the raft, and the guide who falls out the least is the winner.

We safely navigated the rest of the river without losing anyone overboard again.

The River

The Tongariro River is one of New Zealand’s most famous rivers and one of the world’s best trout rivers. It really was a special wilderness experience.

In between conquering each rapid we witnessed ancient beech forests, rainbow trout swimming upstream, breathtaking gorges, limestone and volcanic cliffs, and water so clean and fresh you could drink it!

The Rafting

In a two hour period we navigated over 60 roller coaster rapids with Mad Dog at the helm.

This river is known as the perfect river for your first rafting experience, and after beginning my rafting career on the Grade 5 infested mighty Nile River in Uganda,  I highly recommend the Tongariro River as a good starting  point.

The experience was diverse – from a peaceful drifting trip in between rapids, to the white water fun of navigating around rocks and boulders.

Not only is this river suitable to people of all rafting abilities, but you’ll also see plenty of spectacular unspoilt wilderness which leaves you longing for more.

Will you get wet?

Absolutely. But after two hours spent on the Tongariro River, I realized that the icy waters were a small sacrifice for one amazingly scenic and fun filled ride.

And waiting for you back at base is a nice hot shower and a bowl of freshly made hot soup to warm your insides whilst you exchange stories of thrills and spills from the wilderness adventure just had.

When you come to New Zealand, and you visit the North Island, head to Lake Taupo and take on the Tongariro River.

The Facts:

Getting There:

Qantas Airlines flies several times a day from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland. From Auckland it’s approximately a three and a half hour drive to Lake Taupo.

Where to Stay:

We stayed at the Lake Taupo Top 10 Holiday Resort which was the perfect base for enjoying Taupo’s recreational activities. You can read what other travelers have to say about them at TripAdvisor

The Rafting Company:

The River’s most experienced rafting operator is Tongariro River Rafting which is a 100% Kiwi company. They provided all the clothing and equipment, all you need is a sense of adventure. Again, you can see more reviews and tips at TripAdvisor

Top 5 White Water Rafting Safety Tips from WorldNomads.com

Don’t go alone –  If you are not an experienced operator or rafter, you are taking a massive risk by going into anything higher than a grade 2 rapid. White Water rafters can and do end up in the drink, and without any kind of expert to help, you’ll be on your own.

Safety in numbers and power in knowledge – Try and get the biggest group you can get together as possible. If you take a fall, you’ll have a greater team of people that can paddle against a powerful stream to come and help you. Also, know where you are going, what the grade is, where the danger points are and mentally prepare for what you are up against.

Acclimatization – Especially important in the colder regions, make sure you take a bit of a dunk in the water to get yourself wet before you take off. It might be a little chilly to face, but it will get your body used to the cold temperatures.

If you get dunked in the stream and aren’t acclimatized, you’ll be faced with the shock of scrambling back to the raft, plus your body will suffer a temperature power slam – which can lead to hyperventilation and hypothermia. Remember, many streams decrease in temperature the further you go down.

Feet first, baby – If you do take a tumble and find yourself outside your raft – and you are having trouble getting back to it – the most important thing to do is to keep calm, raise your feet up, and ride the stream. This will help you avoid snaring against any rocks, which are your worst enemy if you wind up in the water.

Life Jacket And Helmet – This should go without saying, but it really, really needs to be said. Your head is a precious melon. Rocks are very hard. Streams are fast, powerful and chaotic. These three elements combined can produce disastrous results.

You need to protect yourself to the best of your ability and these two items are ESSENTIAL. Also, a wetsuit will help in colder waters.

QUESTION…Have you been rafting before? Share your experience in the comments section below…

My trip to New Zealand was courtesy of Qantas and the Great Crusade tour, however all opinions are my own.

23 thoughts on “White Water Rafting the Tongariro River, Taupo New Zealand”

  1. Monica (@TotalTravelBug)

    You know it can only go one way when your guide is called ‘Mad Dog’!

    I went white water rafting in Oz and the guide kept pointing out spots where people had drowned. Nice touch!

  2. Hey Gerard,

    I love colorful characters like Mad Dog, they ad to the moment. If you like his beard, you should have heard his laugh 🙂

    Glad I’m providing some excitement for your upcoming trip.

  3. I love white water Rafting. I’ve had some awesome guides, but never anybody who looked like Mad Dog! First time I did it was in Ecuador years back, we had a nice easy run, but we wanted to do a more challenging one the next day, and that’s what we got! Damn it’s scary when you fall out of the boat in the middle of a rapid, Best adrenalin rush ever, and been hooked ever since 😉

  4. Hey Jarmo,

    I know what you mean about falling out in the middle of a rapid. That happened to us on a grade 5 in Africa and you just have to curl up in a ball and wait for the water to spit you back out.

    Safe travels 🙂

  5. This sounds so intense – I can’t believe Mike flew out of the raft and catapulted off a rock wall to land back inside! What a smooth move. 🙂

  6. Great write-up Craig,
    This was such a great day out on the Tongariro and my first experience of white water.
    Floating through the prison was quite an experience!

  7. Hello Craig,

    That looks like so much fun – so funny that Mad Dog fell in the water! Glad you had the best time, it sure looked like a lota of fun. Amazing how Mike flipped over and ended up in the back!

    Such great photos.


  8. Whitewater rafting is so much fun! Mad Dog sounds like a trip for sure. All these great outdoor adventure activities in NZ are making me so jealous!

  9. I remembered the times when I was at the Cagayan de Oro, Philippines and we experienced water rafting at the long river they have. Good to hear your post because I loved adventures and I want to try also water rafting at Tongariro River, Taupo New Zealand. Great share!

  10. That looks extreme!!
    We just went rafting for the first time here in Banos, Ecuador and we had so much fun! It was class 3 and 4 rapids, but yours look waaaay more intense than ours. Neither Ant or I fell off-so we feel like we managed well!

    1. G’day Elise,

      Well when you visit NZ come check out these grade three’s in Taupo. And after that if you want extreme then NZ also has some grade 5’s you should step up to and take on.

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