Adventure Travel in New Zealand
Published on: October 4th, 2018
Last modified: July 28th, 2023
New Zealand is well known for its extreme sports, several of which were invented in the country.
Rotorua and Taupo are the adventure capitals of the North Island, while Queenstown in the South Island attracts adrenaline junkies from all over the world.
Whether you want to put yourself to the test physically or mentally, here’s our advice on the best adventure travel in New Zealand.
The jet boat was developed in the 1950s by New Zealand farmer William Hamilton. Originally made to navigate the shallow Canterbury rivers, the jet boat has since taken on a new meaning. Enterprising New Zealanders have turned jet boating into one of most lucrative activities for adventure travel in New Zealand.
A jet boat ride in New Zealand will power you through narrow river gorges alongside sheer rock faces. One of our favourites is the Huka Jet that gets you up close to impressive Huka Falls. Another is Shotover Jet, dubbed the world’s most exciting jet boat ride. The Dart River Wilderness Jet is a must for Lord of the Rings fans, as it journeys through filming locations in Glenorchy. For a more leisurely exploration of the hidden streams, this last option can be combined with inflatable ‘Funyaks.’ As the name suggests, ‘funyaks’ provide the ultimate fun kayaking experience.
A couple of young kiwis – AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch – set up New Zealand’s first commercial bungy jumping operation in the 1980s. A jump from the historic Kawarau Bridge near Queenstown put bungy jumping firmly on the map. Since then, numerous other operators have established themselves up and down the country. Now, you can jump from bridges, climbs, rail viaducts, cliff edges and even stadium roofs.
Kawarau Bridge is New Zealand’s original bungy jump; at 43 metres high, jumpers can even dip their heads into the river on their descent. Shotover Canyon Swing involves launching yourself from a 109 metre high platform into a 200 metre swing. The most thrilling part of this jump is a 60 metre free fall down a rocky cliff face. Aptly named Nevis Bungy is the tallest jump in New Zealand, standing at 134 metres tall with an 8.5 second free fall.
Ice climbing is split into two main categories – alpine climbing and waterfall climbing. Alpine climbing involves climbing high into the mountains year round. With liquid water rare at these elevations, alpine climbing usually involves climbing through snow. Waterfall climbing is usually done through ice, with cold nights and warmer days combining to form ice at lower elevations.
Although it may sound daunting, waterfall climbing can be enjoyed by beginners and experienced climbers alike. Similar to top roping at an indoor climbing wall, beginners will be guided with a top rope through the waterfall ice. In New Zealand, waterfall climbing is limited to the June to August period, as it’s the coldest time of the year. During this time, visitors can unearth some of New Zealand’s stunning water ice routes.
A more accessible way to enjoy adventure travel in New Zealand is mountain biking. A seemingly endless network of forest trails, abandoned railways and farm tracks make New Zealand the perfect place to get on your bike. In some places, cyclists will be rewarded with off-the-bike activities such as wine tasting and wildlife watching. The majority of New Zealand’s mountain biking trails are single-track and purpose-built by mountain biking enthusiasts. Others follow historic mining tracks built deep into the mountains during the gold rush in the 1860s and 70s. New Zealand’s mountain biking hotspots include Rotorua, Lake Taupo, Nelson, Wanaka and Queenstown.
With so many fast flowing rivers in New Zealand, it’s no surprise that rafting is a popular activity. While grade one rivers offer relatively tranquil waters, rafting in grade five rivers is considered an extreme sport and offers one of the most thrilling activities for adventure travel in New Zealand. On the North Island, rafting rivers are mostly found in Lake Taupo, Bay of Plenty and the Hawke’s Bay. Lauke Taupo’s ethereal Tongariro River is home to three sections of white water, ranging from grade two to grade four. On the South Island, rafting is best enjoyed around Queenstown, Christchurch and on the wild West Coast.
A guide to adventure travel in New Zealand wouldn’t be complete without a mention of skydiving. There are several areas in New Zealand where you’re able to jump out of a plane, each with differing but equally beautiful views. In Lake Wanaka or Queenstown, you’ll fly over the vast Central Otago high country, snow-capped mountains and jewel-like lakes. At the other end of the country, a Bay of Plenty skydive will take you over gleaming waters and volcanic landscapes.
Heliskiing is the ultimate no compromise activity for adventure travel in New Zealand. For adventurers who seek pure adrenaline, this is the perfect activity. During the winter months, heliskiing is at its best in Queenstown, Wanaka and Mount Cook. A day heli-skiing or heli-boarding is the best place to get the adrenaline pumping, with the vibrant apres ski nightlife adding to an unforgettable experience.