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New Zealand Rivers

New Zealand Rivers


Huka Falls on the Waikato River, New Zealand.
Huka Falls on the Waikato River, North Island, New Zealand.

New Zealand is blessed with hundreds and hundreds of rivers, with well over 20 of them 100 km or more in length. They help make the country both an agricultural powerhouse and an adventurer's and nature lover's paradise. The rivers are usually known by their Maori names.

With many high mountains (taking up about one-third of New Zealand's land area), fairly high rainfall (among the top 50 rainiest countries in the world), and even glaciers, it is no surprise the country has an abundance of waterways.

Often deep and fast-flowing, especially in the hill county of the North Island, many of New Zealand's rivers are favourites with kayakers and white water rafters. In flatter regions, such as the east coast of the South Island, rivers are wide and shallow, with crystal clear water and safe for swimming.

The light blue colour of some of New Zealand's rivers comes from particles eroded from glaciers, and which reflect the sun.

No less than six of New Zealand's ten longest rivers are clustered at the very south of the South Island, on the east side of the Otago and Southland regions.

Waikato River - the Longest in New Zealand

The longest river in New Zealand is the 425 km Waikato in the North Island. It means "flowing water" in Maori, and gives its name to the region south of Auckland, centred on Hamilton, through which it flows. 

The river originates in glaciers on Mount Ruapehu then flows into Lake Taupo then north through Whakamaru, Cambridge and Hamilton before reaching the sea on the west coast. The stretch from Mount Ruapehu to Lake Taupo has been called the Tongariro River since 1945.

The Waikato River was very important for the Maori as a transportation route. In fact, the 19th century scientist, Ferdinand Hochstetter, described its role as ‘the Mississippi of the Maori’.

One of the most famous features of the Waikato River is the Huka Falls (pictured at top), near the town of Taupo. Moreover, much of the Taupo stretch of the river is famous for whitewater kayaking.

Interestingly, the Waikato River was the first body of water for New Zealand's fledgling navy, the Waikato Flotilla. This comprised eight boats that plied the river in the service of government troops during the Maori Wars of the 1860s.

The waters of the Waikato power New Zealand, with eight dams on the river, and nine hydroelectric stations. Altogether they supply more than 10% of the country's electricity needs.

The biggest threat to the health of the Waikato River is phosphate run-off from the fertiliser used on farms, and farm animal feces. The river's flow is so great that pollutants are not noticeable to the naked eye or nose; all the same, at least one species of native fish, the grayling, has gone extinct because of them.

Clutha River / Mata-Au

The Clutha River in English, the Mata Au ("swift current") in Maori, is the longest river in the South Island. And, indeed, the current is one of the swiftest of any New Zealand river—and, apparently, one of the top ten swiftest in the world!

This beautiful, long, mostly wide, river drains Lake Wanaka, which is New Zealand's fourth largest lake. The Clutha offers tourists some spectacular views and experiences, and is distinctive for the turquoise water of its upper reaches.

The Tupeka Mouth Punt is a quaint old-style river ferry on the Mata-Au in Waitahuna, Otago. It is said to be the only river ferry of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, and has room even for a couple of vehicles. 

The Mighty Clutha River Trail is a trail alongside the river that is a work in progress. Already completed sections offer walking, biking, and even wheelchairing, experiences in various different riverside environments.  It is being developed by the Clutha Mata-Au River Parkway project.

Whanganui River (North Island)

The Whanganui River, with its mouth on the west coast of the North Island, in the town of the same name, is said to be the New Zealand river offering the longest navigable stretch of water. 

The Whanganui River is by far New Zealand's most prominent, in that it has been at the centre of disputes between Maori and the Crown (i.e., the New Zealand government) regarding ownership of it, ever since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840.

The dispute was settled only in 2017, when the river was granted legal personhood: the first such river in the world.

The upper reaches of the river has a Bridge to Nowhere, a white elephant of a concrete arch bridge, built in 1936, with no connecting roads, now encroached upon by nature, and reachable only by tourist jet boat.

Taieri River (South Island)

The Taieri River is just north-east of the slightly longer Clutha River, which also goes through the province of Otago. Although New Zealand's fourth longest river, at 288 km, only the 20 km from the mouth of the Taieri River are navigable.

The Taieri is well-known for its good brown trout fishing, the fishing season for most of the river being 1st October to 30th April.

Like the Whanganui River in the North Island, the Taieri River is circuitous, meandering through farmland. In fact, the mouth of the river is closer to the source than the farthest reach is. 

30 km or so north-east of Taieri Mouth (the town at the mouth of the river) is the city of Dunedin.

The Taieri Gorge Railway is a scenic railway (currently suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic) that takes tourists through the dramatically scenic Taieri Gorge , carved out over millennia by the river.

Rivers in New Zealand.
Rivers in New Zealand

Rangitīkei River (North Island)

The Rangitikei River is in the North Island, and is a little south of the Whanganui River. At 241 km long, it is the fifth-longest river in New Zealand.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the river for most people is the white mudstone cliffs that line the river and, by default, the stretch of State Highway 1 that follows the Rangitikei.

Tarata Fishaway Lodge is a venerable retreat on the upper reaches of the Rangitikei. Downstream, the Vinegar Hill camping site nestled in a bend in the river has since the 1970s been a fixture of the gay and lesbian leisure-time scene over Christmas/New Year.

Mataura River (South Island)

The Mataura River is New Zealand's sixth longest, at 240 km, and flows through the Southland region.

In February 2020, the Mataura flooded towns along the river, including those of Mataura and Gore, causing widespread damage. The disaster drew attention to the problem of garbage landfills situated near waterways, as many such sites were flooded, spilling much of the waste across the flooded landscape.

The weird fish that is the lamprey (with a sucker for a mouth) inhabits parts of the Mataura River, and is still able to be fished there today. 

Waiau River (South Island) 

The Waiau River (217 km long, and New Zealand's seventh longest) is also in Southland. It begins in Lake Te Anau, the biggest lake by surface area in the country and the second biggest in the South Island.

Lake Te Anau is one of New Zealand's most untouched and beautiful lakes, as is the second lake the river flows through, Lake Manapouri, just 8 km south-west of Lake Te Anau.

Lake Manapouri was the focus of a long-running, and successful ecological battle that started in the 1970s. Much of the New Zealand public protested plans to raise the lake's water level so as to supply hydroelectricity for an aluminium smelter. This writer was only a child at the time, but clearly recalls the passions the issue aroused. Lake Manapouri does have a hydroelectric station, though, which is New Zealand's biggest.

Lake Anau and the upper reaches of the Waiau River are a sanctuary for the takahe, a critically endangered native species of flightless bird, once thought to have gone extinct.

Tuatapere Scenic Reserve & Domain is on the Waiau River, at the town of Tautapere. It offers walks through ancient podocarp and beech forests, and an opportunity to encounter a massive, approximately 1,000-year-old totara tree. (The totara is one of New Zealand's native forest canopy species.)

Waiau Toa / Clarence River (South Island) 

The Waiau Toa / Clarence River (209 km) is up in the Marlborough and Canterbury regions of the South Island.

The Waiau Toa / Clarence has its source in the small, picturesque and very remote highland lake, Lake Tennyson.

The river has many sprawling braided sections that are habitats for the pohowera, a native New Zealand plover, and the black-fronted tern, or tarapiroe. There are also stretches of deeply carved gorge.

Kawarau River rapids, Queenstown.
Kawarau River rapids, Queenstown.

Waitaki River (South Island) 

The Waitaki River (209 km) starts in the artificial lake that is Lake Benmore, in the Canterbury region of the South Island, and meets the sea on the South Island's west coast, in the Otago region. Traditionally the river formed the boundary between the Canterbury and Otago regions.

Just downstream of Lake Benmore is another artificial lake, Lake Aviemore, then Lake Waitaki, also manmade. All three lakes were created by damming for hydroelectricity. Altogether, there are eight hydroelectric plants on the Waitaki River.

The Waitaki River is well-known for its good trout and salmon fishing.

The Waitaki River is unusual in the extent of its braiding. A proposed hydropower project, Project Aqua, was scrapped in the middle of the noughties that would have diverted about three-quarters of the river and thus destroy its braidedness.

Unusually heavy rainfall in late 2019 and early 2020 caused strong currents and significant erosion in the lower reaches of the river, placing a financial burden on local communities for repair work.

Ōreti River (South Island)

The Oreti River (203 km) is the last of the Otago and Southland rivers to make it into the top longest ten.

The Ōreti is one of the habitats of the endangered tarāpuka, or black-billed gull. In its upper reaches, it flows through tussock land, and through farms in its lower reaches.

The Ōreti, too, is popular with trout and salmon fisherpersons, who must obtain a fishing license from Fish and Game New Zealand.

The river made it into the news last year when an abandoned 19th-century steam locomotive was salvaged from it.

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