The Longest Rivers in New Zealand

With its mountains and its rainfall both on the higher end of the scale, it’s the ideal spot for river formation. But what are the longest rivers in New Zealand? Read on to find out.

Travel and Exploration
20 March 2023

New Zealand’s mountainous terrain and high precipitation make it a prime location for rivers to thrive. In all, about 1.5 percent of the country’s area is water, with around 112,000 miles of rivers running through it. These waterways provide a home for around 40 native fish species.

The question is, what are New Zealand’s longest rivers? And what is the largest river in New Zealand?

Waikato River: The Biggest River in New Zealand

Waikato River (Photo: Gabriel Mello via Getty Images)

Length: 264 miles

The largest river in New Zealand is found on its North Island. Part of the Tongariro River System, Waikato River flows for 264 miles from Mount Ruapehu to the Tasman Sea.

With its source being in the volcanic highlands, the river tends to be laden with ash. Nevertheless, it provides a home for almost 30 fish species, 19 of them native, the rest introduced.

With a total catchment of around 5,290 square miles, the Waikato drains about 12 percent of North Island. The Maori have lived in this area for hundreds of years and gave the river its name, meaning “flowing water”.

Today, New Zealand’s longest river takes the word ‘current’ to another level. In addition to its fast flowing rapids being popular sites for whitewater kayaking, it’s also a potent power source. In fact, no other region in the country produces more electricity than the eight dams and nine hydro-electric stations along its route.

Clutha River/Mata-Au

Clutha River (Photo: Ernest Wong via Getty Images)

Length: 210 miles

Recognised as the second biggest river in New Zealand, the Clutha River/Mata-Au is also the largest river on South Island. Its name is an amalgamation of the European and Maori names, with Clutha originating from the Gaelic for Clyde and Mata-au meaning “surface current”.

Rising at Lake Wanaka, it meanders southeast to the Pacific, with brown and rainbow trout common along its length. Just before it reaches its end, the river splits in two, both its mouths emptying into the ocean at Molyneux Bay. Along the way, the Clutha/Mata-Au drains 8,480 square miles, the country’s largest catchment area and one plentiful in fruit orchards and vineyards.

Popular amongst tourists and locals alike for its beautiful scenery and turquoise waters, the Clutha/Mata-Au is a watersports haven. It also has two hydroelectric power stations and several water treatment plants, making it a source of drinking water for several communities.

Whanganui River

Wanganui (Photo: Oliver Strewe via Getty Images)

Length: 180 miles

The Whanganui River has the honour of being the first river in the world to be granted legal personhood. This was the culmination of over 160 years of Maori efforts to conserve the river, giving the Whanganui the rights and responsibilities of a person in the eyes of the law. Measuring 180 miles from its source at active volcano Mount Tongariro to its mouth at the Tasman Sea, the Whanganui is certainly one of New Zealand’s longest rivers. It’s also its longest navigable one.

Taieri River

Taieri River (Photo: Jill Ferry Photography via Getty Images)

Length: 179 miles

Travelling along the eastern part of the region of Otago in the South Island, the Taieri River is an exceptionally winding waterway. So meandering is its route that, despite being approximately 179 miles long, its end at Taieri Mouth into the Pacific Ocean is just 60 miles from its headland in the Lammerlaw Mountain Range. Its circuitous route is in large part a result of the landscape, specifically it having to negotiate its way around the mountain range of Rock and Pillar.

Rangitīkei River

Rangitīkei River (Photo: Antonio Borisov via Getty Images)

Length: 157 miles

If one recognises Rangitīkei River, it might be from the big screen. A section of this “fellow” amongst the longest rivers in New Zealand played the role of the Anduin River in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.

The Longest Rivers of New Zealand

Canoe on the bank of the Whanganui River (Photo: Josh Hanna via Getty Images)

From a Hollywood connection to a river with rights, the longest rivers of New Zealand are both natural wonders and landmarks with stories to tell.


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