White water rafting in Rotorua

It was cold, it had rained, and Meagaan and I were happily kicking back, drinking tea in our cosy room at the YHA in Rotorua. The phone rang, and BAM! – we jumped up, grabbed our backpacks and headed out front, wearing big smiles – the white water rafting trip was ON!

Rana from Kaitiaki Adventures picked us up in a shuttle bus, and off we were to an unforgettable rafting experience. At Kaitiaki’s base just outside Rotorua, we were joined by a few other eager adventurers keen on getting soaked that day. We met our guides for the day, Joel and Toni, and were equipped with all the necessary gear: wetsuits, boots, warm fleece jackets to wear under the wetsuit, windbreakers on top, and of course, helmets and life vests. We proceeded to what I call the “wet bus” – a shuttle bus with waterproof seat covers. That kind of gave us the first indication of what was about to come. We’d get wet, and not just a little bit. We’d be soaked!

white water rafting in rotorua with Kaitiaki adventures

It’s a team sport, you know! Carrying the raft down to the Kaituna river.

As soon as we took off to the river in our water proof shuttle, our guide Toni introduced herself and explained everything that was about to happen. The safety briefing had begun. For the nervous first-time rafter, this was the perfect way of getting up to speed with how rafting works, what to do when you fall out, and how to get back into the raft. Everything was made crystal clear, and the call and response tactics made it really quite entertaining! At one point, Toni jokingly asked to put your hand up if you couldn’t swim, and I was expecting everyone to break out in laughter, but we actually had a guy raise his hand. Brave, is what I thought; mad, too… Well, nothing could throw Toni off, and she promptly explained in words and gestures:

Swimming is when you put your arms like that, and then pull them to the side and back, and kick your legs really hard! Or you can go like this – we call it the doggy paddle!

Easy as! On arrival at the Kaituna River, we grabbed our rafts and paddles and carried them down to the water. But before we’d get into them, Toni paid her respects to the river, saying a prayer (“karakia”) in Maori.

White water rafting in Rotorua with Kaitiaki Adventures

Navigating the first rapid. Yup, that’s the start of the trip!

We hopped into our rafts, 8 of us in each, and were taught how and where to sit on the raft, how to do master the two basic ways of paddling – forward, backward, and how to “Get down!” This is something you really want to pay attention for, otherwise you’ll end up in the waterfall instead of on top of it, sitting in your raft! And after a few strokes, off we were, braving the rapids of the Kaituna River! In my mind, I had imagined the first 5-10 minutes to be more like a gentle and calm voyage admiring the scenery… but instead, we navigated our first waterfall just around the first bend. Hearts beating fast, adrenalin pumping, and toes tucked into the loops of the raft, we paddled forward and right up to the waterfall. There’s no lazy sitting about, you have to paddle straight into it. Nobody’s going to do it for you.

White water rafting in Rotorua with Kaitiaki

Navigated the first rapid successfully.

What a rush! It was the best feeling in the world getting through that initial waterfall, and we were hooked, throwing our paddles in the air and having heaps of fun! But soon enough, our biggest challenge came up, the one we had all been dreading since we booked the tour: the 7m high waterfall, the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. Phew. Quite some bragging rights for that one. Toni and Joel stopped the raft just before the big one and navigated it to the side of the beautiful, lush green canyon. Toni repeated what to do in case the raft flipped, or we fell out, which captured our attention completely. Gripped by the safety instructions for our impending waterfall stunt, Joel used the moment to give us one very important reminder:

If you get thrown off the raft, and you see a bright, white light… run away from it!!

And on that note, we laughed (sort of), and paddled forward, as strongly as we could, to be in the best position to slide down that 7m waterfall, and Toni shouted:


White water rafting in Rotorua

Going down the 7m waterfall – the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world!

Sat on the floor of the raft, paddle and outside rope in one hand, handle on the floor in the other, and chin tucked in to my chest, I felt the water filling our raft and splashing all around my face. I did not dare to breathe; I was certain we had flipped. But suddenly the feeling of being in a washing machine stopped, and I saw the light. It was the sun! I was still sitting in my raft, and all was well!

white water rafting in Rotorua

We couldn’t believe our raft didn’t flip going down that waterfall. That’s me jumping up right after – I was so excited!

We were alive! The ambitious person I am, I immediately regretted having gone in the get down position at the speed of light and closed my eyes, chin tucked under. I didn’t witness the waterfall scene with my own eyes. Well, the water might have gotten in the way anyway, but I was so ready for more!

white water rafting in rotorua

Braving the waterfall standing up in the raft

I didn’t have to wait very long either. After giving our friends in the second raft a wave and a good splash, we went on to brave our next rapid standing up in our raft. Oh yes!

I had the pleasure of sitting right next to our lovely guide Toni, whom I had come to trust during this bonding experience, and when she asked me to lift my right arm, I promptly did. Little did I know I had just volunteered to get a bit of an extra shower when she asked me to go to abandon my paddle, go to the front of the raft and kneel down, holding on to the rope. I thought I had gotten the special seat for the scenic tour, but seeing that mischievous grin on Toni’s face I knew I was in for a “special” treat. She swiftly turned the raft, and commanded everyone to paddle forward, steering the raft right back into the rapid we had just come down from. Uh-oh!

white water rafting in rotorua

The scenic seat 🙂

Ah well, what a nice way to say good bye to the Kaituna River! It was over all to quickly, and we made our way to the exit point just around the corner. Drenched but warm and high on adrenalin and fun, we pulled our rafts from the river and carried it up the path to the van. Big round of high fives for a fab crew and guides!

white water rafting in Rotorua

The dream team rafters with Toni on the left and Joel on the right

Some tips for going white water rafting in Rotorua:

  • Bring your swimsuit and towel, everything else is provided.
  • Even if the weather is cool and rainy, you won’t be cold in the water. The wet suits are dry when you put them on, and the fleece jackets keep you really warm!
  • You can’t take pictures on the raft, but there’s a photographer taking care of that – easy peasy.
  • Ideally book ahead, but bear in mind that because Kaitiaki have your safety in mind they may delay your trip depending on water levels – you don’t want that 7m waterfall to get any more intimidating!

Disclosure: I received a free rafting trip as part of my #Blog4NZ prize package. As always, opinions are entirely my own. A BIG thank you to YHA New Zealand and Kaitiaki Adventures for being part of Blog4NZ and for having us – we had such a fantastic time!

Christina Hegele

About the author: Christina Hegele runs Sandal Road, a blog on her favourite destinations. It just so happened that 95% turned out to be about New Zealand. Follow Christina and her blog on Twitter, like her blog on Facebook, and subscribe to her Youtube channel. Alternatively, subscribe to her email newsletter at the top right of this blog.

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  4 comments for “White water rafting in Rotorua

  1. 25 November, 2012 at 21:06

    Wow! That looks pretty hardcore!!! I would have fallen out for sure!

    • Christina
      3 December, 2012 at 21:43

      Apparently the rafts of both groups that did the tour before us that same day flipped. We felt pretty good about ourselves that we’d managed to stay inside the raft. Although a few of us wondered afterwards what it would have been like swimming so close to that waterfall… I can live with the unfulfilled curiosity, to be honest.

  2. 12 December, 2012 at 15:52

    You brave, brave soul. The waterfall drop would’ve been the end of me.

  3. Christina
    16 December, 2012 at 22:57

    Ah, totally worth the wee bit of anxiety beforehand!

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