Is New Zealand’s South or North island Better for Adventures?

Nevis Catapult

For travellers with an intrepid spirit, few destinations can rival New Zealand. But does the North or South Island hold the right adventure for you?

The best adrenaline-spiking thrills

North Island

Waitomo Caves

Awesome in the true sense of the word, the Mangapu Cave system on a private farm near Waitomo has been dubbed the Lost World. Book a caving experience with Waitomo Adventures and abseil 100 metres down a vertical shaft swirling with mist and thick with subtropical plants that look as if they’ve been growing for thousands of years. After the 20-minute descent, explore the underground vaults containing roaring streams, stalactites, stalagmites, glow-worms that light up the inner passages and, on the fullday tour, ancient whalebones. To exit, you either climb up a 30-metre free-hanging solid ladder in a black cavern or swim, jump and clamber along an underground stream. Mission: Impossible star Tom Cruise liked it so much, he did it four times.

South Island

Of course, the world’s first human catapult was invented in Queenstown. Launched in 2018 by A.J. Hackett Bungy New Zealand co-founder and managing director Henry van Asch, one of the fathers of the commercial bungee jump, the Nevis Catapult (pictured top) flings its nervous passengers 150 metres across a remote ravine, which can be accessed only by a special 4WD bus. Reaching speeds of almost 100km/h in 1.5 seconds and with up to 3gs of force, it’s been described as “bungee jumping on steroids”. It’s all over in less than four minutes but chances are you’ll want to do it again.

Top whitewater rafting spots

North Island

Kaituna River in the Bay of Plenty region is one of the most popular whitewater runs in New Zealand (a country that knows its white water), largely because it has the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall. Join Kaituna Cascades for a 50-minute trip along the bush-fringed river, bumping your way through 11 rapids and plunging down three waterfalls. Tutea Falls, a raging seven-metre drop, has earnt the river its Grade 5 status. While you can’t expect to stay dry (or even in the raft), you can be sure of an exhilarating ride.

South Island

Skippers canyon rafting

Driving to Skippers Canyon along a heart-stoppingly narrow road blasted out of the mountainside during the gold rush more than a century ago is a fitting start to an extraordinary whitewater rafting experience with Go Orange. Just outside adventure capital Queenstown, this section of the Shotover, once known as “the richest river in the world”, is particularly tumultuous (Grade 3 to 5) so it’s not for nervous Nellies. The thunderous rapids deliver a short, sharp shock before you’re thrust into the darkness of the 170-metre-long Oxenbridge Tunnel chiselled out of solid rock.

SEE ALSO: Where to Go in Australia and New Zealand This Ski Season

Incredible hiking trails

North Island

The little-known threeday Tora Coastal Walk in southern Wairarapa enables only 14 walkers a day to meander through hill-country farms, river valleys and native bush and along untamed coastline. Expect to see grazing sheep, seal colonies and native birds such as wood pigeons, bellbirds, tuis and fantails. On the second night, sleep in the strikingly designed Stony Bay Lodge, which has a vaulted ceiling, stone fireplace and expansive views of the Pacific. Best of all, you get to know the local farmers who are your hosts and learn about their way of life in this remote corner of New Zealand. It's open between October and April.

South Island

The 73.5-kilometre Queen Charlotte Track in the strikingly beautiful Marlborough Sounds is a good substitute for its famed counterpart in nearby Abel Tasman National Park. The start of the three- to five-day trek is accessible only by boat, after which you walk through subtropical rainforest, past bays and beaches, while getting a dose of history. (The area was Captain James Cook’s base for seven years and where he first encountered South Island Māori.) The hike is relatively easy (not steep) but water taxis can collect the weary. Stay in lodges with freshly made beds along the way. 

The best cycling trails

North Island

Few visitors to easygoing Wellington would take the 20-minute drive to Makara, a sparsely populated rural area on the western coast buffeted by winds from the Tasman Sea. But it’s where you’ll find Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park’s 40 kilometres of trails through retired farmland and bushcovered hills. Developed by wellknown mountain-biking brothers Jonathan, Paul and Simon Kennett, the tracks vary from steep, technical sections to more forgiving stretches, with one crossing a dramatic 72-metre-long suspension bridge. The views across Cook Strait to the South Island are nothing short of spectacular.

South Island

Starting at New Zealand’s highest peak, the 3754- metre Aoraki/Mount Cook, the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail wends its way to the town of Oamaru via sweeping tussock land, glacial valleys and pristine farmland. Stretching for more than 300 kilometres, it’s the country’s longest cycle trail but it’s possible to cover one of the nine sections and still see plenty of the snow-capped mountains and vivid blue glacial lakes for which the South Island is renowned. It’s part of the Nga Haerenga, The New Zealand Cycle Trail network, and is an easy-to-intermediate ride with only 24 kilometres on open highways.

The most memorable helicopter flights

Helicopter flight over New Zealand

North Island

If mountain biking isn’t enough to get your adrenaline pumping, try heli-biking with HeliBike Rotorua. You’ll have access to tracks that would be almost impossible to reach without a helicopter. From the chopper base outside Rotorua, you’re taken on a 15- to 20-minute flight into the heart of the primordial Whirinaki forest, where you join the Moerangi Mountain Bike Track and ride for 35 kilometres on a challenging single trail through verdant bush. Pause long enough to admire some of New Zealand’s tallest trees, including towering beeches and massive tree ferns, and complete the experience with an overnight stay in one of the Department of Conservation’s back-country huts, which have wood-burning fireplaces.

South Island

Four major ski fields are within an hour’s drive of Queenstown and Wanaka – no wonder so many skiers and snowboarders make the annual pilgrimage here. Jump on board a helicopter, though, and you can carve fresh tracks in incredible remote terrain after taking in dramatic views of snow-sheathed peaks and lapis-blue lakes. Based in Queenstown and Wanaka, Harris Mountains Heli-Ski offers access to more than 400 runs across 11 mountainous areas, including the Buchanan, Harris and Aoraki/Mount Cook ranges.

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This piece was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.

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