We recently decided to begin running international expeditions. Thus, we want to share with you some of our and our friend’s foreign packraft and bikeraft travels and best places to packraft recommendations. Chris Brinlee Jr. is an adventure traveler who writes about and photographs his trips around the world. Luckily for us, he had some free time before leaving on a motorcycle trip to Vietnam to pen this post, along with “Transcending the Arc of Time: Packrafting La Venta River.” We hope these stories inspire you! And there’s still room on our Expedition Course #2 on La Venta if you actually want to go there!

Going with the flow ⼮ best places to packraft in new zealand

Story & photos by Chris Brinlee Jr.

According to the plan…

In January 2018, I moved to the south island of New Zealand, Wanaka in particular, with a ski bag and a duffel full of climbing gear. Planning to spend the entire year cutting my teeth in the Southern Alps, it would be a sort of miniature Himalayan training grounds. I’d anticipated spending the southern autumn and winter training for alpinism. There, I would do some ice and mixed climbing and skiing. And when spring rolled around, I’d start tackling technical lines in the alpine. It was a good plan, in theory. Reality though, proved quite different.

Most everything went according to plan throughout the winter. I trained with a coach six days a week, building my base. And I got hella strong. After two intense seasons of top-roping ice in Colorado, I was ready for the sharp-end. The Remarkables outside of nearby Queenstown proved to be a, well… remarkable arena for winter climbing. I led a handful of stellar lines in exciting conditions, which I still regard quite memorably.

Maybe not…

Spring came around. Well, September did, anyway. But for all intents and purposes, it was still winter in the Southern Alps. All the way through November. Storm after storm pummeled the range for days at a time, rarely leaving windows of calm long enough for the snowpack to reach stability.

During the few short windows of opportunity that did present themselves, I’d venture high into the hills. After overcoming thousands of feet of climbing through rainforest while carrying a technical rack and skis on my back, I would discover my primary objective was out of condition.

Best places to packraft in new Zealand, Matukituki River, by ChrisBrinleeJr-17JUN18-2

Trading the ice tools for a packraft

Finally I said, “Fuck it.” and traded my ice tools for a paddle and skis for a packraft. After months of getting shut down in the mountains, the shift in gears was exactly what I needed. It was high-time to go with the flow. Time to explore some of the best places to packraft in New Zealand.

Never having packrafted before moving to New Zealand, I started with less committing endeavors. I would hike in for a day along braided rivers, camping or staying the night in a strategically-positioned hut. And then I’d paddle the mellow waterways that I’d scouted on the walk in. This proved to be a great introduction. Eventually I progressed into some more committing, multi-day itineraries. We’ll get into some of my favorites. But first, what makes packrafting in New Zealand’s south island so special?

The Geology of the Southern Alps

The Southern Alps, which run the length of New Zealand’s South Island, are a result of the collision of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. That tectonic activity created a Lord of the Rings-like landscape of tall, steep, rugged, glaciated mountains bisected by deep glacial valleys and canyons. Complete with glacial lagoons connected to glacial lakes by fast-flowing rivers which become braided as they reach more mellow, but no-less-scenic topography.

Not only does this topographical contrast create one of the most stunning places on earth. But it lends itself quite well to packrafting–even for beginners. Essentially, when descending from a high point on foot, you’re almost always alongside a creek or a river. And you can continue descending on foot until the water is mellow enough to paddle.

This strategy makes many itineraries possible in the Class II-III range, which usually lead to Class I braided rivers. Thus, the paddling difficulty can be moderated simply by walking downriver. Choose your own adventure.

Without further adieu, here are a few of my favorite itineraries. These are all in the Otago region near Mount Aspiring National Park, between Wanaka and Queenstown.

Lower Matukituki

20 miles of packrafting
Lower Matukituki, Class I

If you’re new to packrafting, this is a great place to get a feel for setup and paddling thanks to its simple logistics. The Lower Matukituki River begins near the border to Mount Aspiring National Park just 30 miles outside of Wanaka. And it meanders through the Aspiring Valley for 18 mellow miles until the river’s terminus in Wanaka Lake.

Most of the route is alongside the main road into the park (but never too close to be annoying). This makes for easy put-in and take-out before and after the trip. If you don’t have access to a second car and are unable to get a shuttle back to the start, it would be easy enough to cache a bike at the end (or anywhere you’d like to pull out) for a multi-sport day.

More advanced paddlers can begin their journey further up river, by hiking out from the final carpark towards the Aspiring Hut. More braided river will be encountered through the flats. But there are also really fun sections of Class III and IV rapids, none of which are ever too far from the trail.

Best places to packraft in new Zealand, Matukituki River, by Chris Brinlee Jr -17JUN18-2
Matukituki River
Best places to packraft in new Zealand, Matukituki River, by ChrisBrinleeJr-17JUN18-2
Matukituki River

Wilkin River

22 Miles of Hiking from Blue Pools (Or 18 w/direct approach)
10.5 Miles of Packrafting
Siberia Stream, Class I+, III

This itinerary can be approached a couple of different ways. For a less-committing, two-day, one night trip, would-be paddlers can hike alongside the Wilkin River and stay at the Kerin Forks Hut. And then backtrack out by way-of-river on the second day–paddling the braided Wilkin through the dramatic canyons that it carves through.

Lower Wilkin River, Class I+

For more time in the mountains, hiking (or “tramping” as the Kiwis call it) the Gillespie Pass Circuit offers some additional options. Packrafters can spend a big day hiking from the Blue Pools to Young Hut (14-or-so miles). Then they’ll cross Gillespie Pass. Finally paddling Siberia Stream–mostly Class I+ with a short section of Class III–to the Siberia Hut.

From Siberia Hut, it’s necessary to hike through the canyon down to the Kerin Forks Hut. This makes another great encampment before paddling the Wilkin back to the road

Best places to packraft in new Zealand, Wilkin River, by ChrisBrinleeJr-17JUN18-2
Wilkin River
Best places to packraft in new Zealand, Wilkin River, by ChrisBrinleeJr-17JUN18-2
Wilkin River
Best places to packraft in new Zealand, Wilkin River, by ChrisBrinleeJr-17JUN18-2
Wilkin River.
Best places to packraft in new Zealand, Wilkin River, by ChrisBrinleeJr-17JUN18-2
Wilkin River

Dart River

20 Miles (or 5 Miles) of Hiking
30 Miles (or less) of Packrafting
Upper Dart, Class III

The Dart River, located near Glenorchy and Queenstown, was my first–and also my last packrafting trip in New Zealand. For the first itinerary, we hiked about five miles from the Sylvan Campsite, past Sylvan Lake. We then camped near the Rockburn junction. This allowed us to check out an incredible gorge from our rafts, before paddling the braided Dart to its terminus at Lake Wakatipu, 15 miles downstream.

That route makes for a fun, low-commitment trip with a high paddling-to-hiking ratio. Those looking for a bit more adventure might consider an alternate, longer, and logistically more complicated route, but one that was my favorite mission in New Zealand.

Lower Dart, Class I

This itinerary originates in Mount Aspiring National Park outside of Wanaka. It traipses across a significant divide of the Southern Alps. And it then traces the Dart River from its point of origination at the Dart Glacier, all the way to its aforementioned terminus.

It’ll take about three days for ambitious paddlers to complete, or perhaps up to five for those desiring to travel at a more leisurely pace. Either way it’s spectacular. From the start, cross Cascade Saddle (which makes a great place to camp,) and descend on foot to the Dart Glacier, picking up the path along the river of the same name. Follow that path to the Dart Hut. A bit further down the track, the valley opens up; and the river becomes paddleable–Class III wave trains.

After Cattle Flats and the rock bivouac, you’ll have to hike until it opens up again. But eventually you’ll find yourself in a dammed up lake. The paddle across is slow, but beautiful. And after you make it through, the river picks back up, leading into the section designed at the beginning.

This route is absolutely incredible, quiet, and varied. It offers lots of opportunities for amazing hiking and paddling. And it has variations depending on your skill and risk tolerance. Interestingly, you can stay in huts, camp, or even bivy in a cave along the way, making for a truly unique experience.

For all this and more, New Zealand is a packrafting dream destination, definitely one of the best places to packraft in the world. Diving into the discipline provided me with the perfect respite from frustrating alpine climbing during my year-long stint living in the Southern Alps. You’ll love it, too.

Best places to packraft in new Zealand, Dart River, by Chris Brinlee Jr -17JUN18-2
Dart River
Best places to packraft in new Zealand, Dart River, by Chris Brinlee Jr -17JUN18-2
Dart River
Chris Brinlee, photo by Priiya Mareedu

Contrast is created when light meets shadow: When the highs are Himalayan, the lows reach canyon depths. It is between these disparities where the human spirit grows. Where meaning is derived. Purpose is inspired. Where transcendence occurs. That’s life as Chiaroscuro. Chris Brinlee, Jr. is living the master class. Follow his writing on Substack and his mountain missions on Instagram.