Packrafting through New Zealand's watery wilderness in Queenstown

Pump up your spirit and immerse yourself in adventure on turquoise waters and breathtaking rapids.

By Ellie Ross
Published 5 Apr 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:15 BST
The Rees River is an hour's drive north of New Zealand's adventure capital, Queenstown.

The Rees River is an hour's drive north of New Zealand's adventure capital, Queenstown.

Photograph by Getty Images

"Are you ready to meet the girls?" asks our guide, Arno Marten, with a smile. As I prepare myself for what lies ahead, I can't help but stare at the 5-inch knife strapped to his shoulder, its blade glinting in the sun.

In front of us are Darcie, Hilda, Kim and Smoky. Our packrafts. And they mean business.

We're on the banks of the Rees River, an hour's drive north of New Zealand's adventure capital, Queenstown. To reach this remote spot, we've hiked for a day through golden grasslands, wading through knee-high water and scrambling over rocks.

We've camped under the stars, used Arno's knife and a flint to light a fire and eaten pouches of steaming porridge for breakfast.

All the while we've been carrying backpacks containing everything we need for a trip into the wild — including these small, stowable and surprisingly tough rubber boats.

Packrafts originated during the Second World War when inflatable rafts were used at sea by downed pilots. They were later adopted by wilderness travellers, as they were easily transported and opened up places previously cut off by water.

Modern designs enable users to negotiate the type of white water that's usually the domain of specialist kayaks. In spite of its advantages — each weighing just 2kg and rolling up to the size of a pillow when deflated — packrafting is still only just being discovered in New Zealand, and Expedition X is the country's first and only packraft tour operator.

The boats come with a beautifully simple pump system — a large bag with a nozzle on one end. With the nozzle screwed into my boat, I waft the opening to catch a bagful of air, shove the inflated bag under my arm and squeeze it into the boat, and keep doing it until my raft needs just a brief top-up of lung power.

"Adventurers used to be classified as either mountain people or water people," Arno says, as we secure our bags to the boats and zip up our wetsuits. "Now you can be both."

Soon we're floating downstream, our brightly coloured armada following Arno like ducklings chasing after their mother.

Drifting past a family of paradise geese, we trail our hands through water that's as clear as the sky, feeling the sun warm our faces as we recline in squishy seats. It takes half the time and effort to cover the same distance we trekked yesterday. We paddle up to a small gap between two walls of rock and squeeze through, entering a canyon of turquoise water surrounded by high cliffs and twisted beech trees.

"Of the people who've been in this valley, 99.9 per cent of them haven't seen this spot," Arno says over the sound of a waterfall. "You just can't get here without a boat."

Armed with a paddle, I steer Darcie downriver, stopping occasionally to regroup or walk through shallow sections. As the water gains momentum, we do too, bouncing down splashing rapids faster than the adrenaline that's coursing through our veins.

When we finally leave the river to make the final stretch on foot, our progress seems sluggish by comparison. With the boats on our backs again, Arno puts into words what we've all been thinking: "When it comes to adventure, these girls don't mess around."

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