8 Adventures on the Waikato River

Waikato River from the Arapuni section just above Jones Landing on the Waikato River Trails. Photo / Eleanor Hughes

425 km long, the Waikato River begins its journey on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu and ends at Port Waikato. Its winding waters, bridges, lakes and eight dams provide a wealth of enjoyable activities, writes Eleanor Hughes.

Hamilton River Cruise

Cruise the river for a 2.5-hour round trip north from Hamilton Gardens or Waikato Museum Pier to the Days Park area. With a fully licensed bar and cafe on board, Waikato River Explorer offers a relaxing journey along the tree-lined river overlooked by tall houses. An entertaining commentary chronicles the area’s history: see the site of the first European landings in the mid-19th century, and absorb information about some of the buildings, parks, and artwork, including the Tōia Mai waka sculpture, that the cruise pass quietly.

Travel up the river to Huka Falls

Departing from Aratiatia Dam in Taupō, the Huka Falls River Cruise propels the calm waters of the river for an 80-minute round trip to Huka Falls. Farmland rises past the native trees that line the banks. Spot trout in the shallows and plenty of birds, ducks – mallards, scaups, paradise – crested shags, black swans and Canada geese. A commentary covers native flora and fauna, as well as dams and waterfalls to the Wairakei geothermal power station – where there is a whiff of sulphur. Pass Huka Prawn Farm and slide under the red and white Waikato River Road bridge that carries State Highway 1 over the river. Get up close to Huka Falls which rumbles from a roughly 15m chasm, belching spray and turning the powdery blue water to foaming white at its base. It is not surprising to learn that Huka means foam.

Huka Falls from the Huka Falls River Cruise.  Photo / Eleanor Hughes
Huka Falls from the Huka Falls River Cruise. Photo / Eleanor Hughes

Bike the Waikato River trails

The 104km Waikato River Trails follow the river almost all the way between the parking lots of Ātiamuri Bridge and Pōkaiwhenua Bridge – both 25km-30km north and south of Tokoroa. With glimpses through native bush, three open reserves, and lookouts from above, there are plenty of water views with only the occasional boat motor interrupting the tranquility. The suspension bridges across the river are fun to navigate and information boards give details of any dams encountered. The busiest and relatively flat section of trail, between Arapuni and the Pōkaiwhenua Bridge parking lot, includes wetlands and the Arapuni Swing Bridge, a Category 2 listed structure, which overlooks the Arapuni Power Station .

View from the Mangakino Suspension Bridge on the Waikato River Trails.  Photo / Eleanor Hughes
View from the Mangakino Suspension Bridge on the Waikato River Trails. Photo / Eleanor Hughes

Cycle the Te Awa River

Not as scenic as the Waikato River Trails but equally tranquil, the 27km, nearly flat Te Awa River Ride takes riders from Ngāruawāhia to Hamilton Gardens, mostly along the river in a rural setting. Hear how Ngāruawāhia got its name, from the flax industry once located on the banks, and from the diverse flora and fauna.

Twilight Kayaking in Cambridge

Kayaking day trips are available, but the evening kayaking run by Riverside Adventures near Cambridge is highly recommended. Float above the submerged power station of Horahora and where a Maori village once stood, then kayak on the Pōkaiwhenua stream and through its narrow gorge. In the descending darkness, the return trip requires little work as the kayaks are carried by the current between the cliffs of the gorges dotted with glowworms. Back on the silent river, the lights of the sporadic houses reflect on the water and on a clear night, a galaxy of stars twinkles above.

Kayaking on the Pōkaiwhenua stream.  Photo / Eleanor Hughes
Kayaking on the Pōkaiwhenua stream. Photo / Eleanor Hughes

Jet Boat on the Waikato River: Four Lanes

Hukafalls Jet operates between Ātiamaru Dam and Huka Falls in Taupō for a much faster trip than the Huka Falls River Cruise. Descend the river at 80 km/h, turn 360 degrees and roll through the choppy white waters at the base of the falls.

Viewpoint of Huka Falls on the Spa Park Boardwalk, Taupō.  Photo / Eleanor Hughes
Viewpoint of Huka Falls on the Spa Park Boardwalk, Taupō. Photo / Eleanor Hughes

Camjet operates from Cambridge and offers an extreme whirling and twisting jet boat tour through three sets of rapids, between the cliffs of Cambridge Gorge and past two waterfalls to the base of the Karapiro Dam/Power Station.

The company’s quieter eco-friendly river cruise, with optional spins, also takes visitors upstream of the dam while learning about the area, the fish and the birds. There are koi, carp, trout, raptors and river birds on this scenic part of the river where the vegetation sometimes tunnels overhead.

Rapids The jet hurtles through the white waters of the Ngā Awa Purūa rapids, north of Huka Falls, near Rotokawa. Traveling through some of the narrowest parts of the Waikato River, soaking up weird and interesting facts about the area as well as geothermal and Maori history. Details of the various filming locations are also shared.

Walk from Spa Thermal Park to Huka Falls

At Spa Park, Taupō, the geothermal waters of Otumuheke Stream form small hot pools on the Waikato shore and are free to bathe in. From there, a fairly flat 3 km gravel path leads along the river to Huka Falls. Glimpsed through open native forest, the fast-flowing river features dramatic shades of blue and green. A footbridge crosses the chasm it digs before becoming Huka Falls. A viewpoint is at the crest of the fall where it descends 11m.

At Spa Park, Taupō, the geothermal waters of Otumuheke Stream form small hot pools on the Waikato riverbank.  Photo / Eleanor Hughes
At Spa Park, Taupō, the geothermal waters of Otumuheke Stream form small hot pools on the Waikato riverbank. Photo / Eleanor Hughes

Admire the Aratiatia Dam

Taupō’s Aratiatia Dam, released several times a day, turns a trickling river into pale blue, the Aratiatia Rapids, thundering through a gorge. The show lasts 15 minutes and can be viewed from the bridge overlooking the dam or from a lookout point a 10-minute walk away. A 7km boardwalk/bike path connects the Aratiatia Rapids to Huka Falls also meanders along the river.

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