Waiatoto / Bonar Flats to Waiatoto Bridge


most low flows up to high flows


2 -3 days (approx 12 hours of paddling)
Put in: 
Bonar Flats
Take out: 
Waiatoto Road Bridge
Helicopter section 7C
F38, F39
Moderate wilderness trip, superb scenery
Hot tip: 
Relax, take a break

The Waiatoto drains the Volta Glacier system on the western side of Mount Aspiring National Park. The main reason for a Waiatoto trip is to enjoy the unbelieveable wilderness of south Westland with a group of friends and enjoy it with some good food and wine. There is some fun whitewater too! Most trips start at the Bonar Flats. A short gorge between this point and the next flats - Donald Flats - contains some classic class III boulder hopping that adds hydro interest to the scenery. The river is easy and becomes braided in the section down to the Drake River confluence.

The crux of the Waiatoto whitewater comes in the next five or six kilometres to Ferny Flats. Most of the action is at the start of the gorge and is in the class IV range (harder with higher flows), with portaging options if necessary. Once clear of the gorge proper the river widens into long, pleasant class II-III bouldergardens. There may be some boulder chokes in this section if the water level is very low. Be wary of tree hazards especially in the easy water. In 1978 a huge rockslide fell into the source lake and sent a biblical sized wall of water, ice blocks and debris down the river, wiping out a number of huts and forging new channels through mature forest. The tree stumps date back to this event.

Many parties spend the night on the Axius Flats at the Te Naihi River confluence where the fishing is superb. From Axius Flats to the Palmer River confluence there’s very little whitewater of significance except for a short rapid where the river narrows immediately below Casey’s Flat. The scenery is superb and all you need do is float along with the current, contemplate life and keep an eye out for Karearea (NZ Falcon) and whio. The Palmer River confluence is the limit of jet boat travel up the Waiototo. From this point down to the bridge are easy shingle rapids.

To get to the take out: turn off SH6 at Haast and head south to the Waiatoto road bridge.

Graham Charles
NZ Whitewater 4th Edition 2006: 


hugh's picture

Feb 6th 2013: There has been another massive rock and ice fall off Stargazer into the glacial lake at the head of the Waiatoto. Imagine a million tonnes of material falling 2km without 'touching the sides' and the flash folld that would create. This has wiped out the upper river flats including most of Bonar Flats, which has been littered with trees and metres of silt. The whole river down to Casey's Creek has thick silt deposits on both banks. Global warming? Who knows. I advise all parties to camp well above any likely flash flood line, as these events may occur in the future without warning and may be earthquake triggered. There have been regular EQs off Fiordland and in the general area over the past few years. This means limiting camp sites to more elevated ground and perhaps NOT on the island at Ferny Flat. There is also a very large rockfall which has brought down large rocks and killed many trees on the L bank off the ramparts of Fingal's Head around the position of the first rapids at Gloomy Gully. This will feed some big lumps of rock and wood into the river during successive flood events. The house-sized rocks have moved around and there are some new car-sized rocks that have appeared. The major rapids downstream have large quantities of silt in the eddies and a bit of wood here and there. The rapid at Ferny Flat has got harder, with a nasty drop at the end on the R. With any flow (check with the Waiatoto jet boat operator) all the major boulder rapids are now Grade IV. The crux Grade IV (we called it Czech Mate) is much the same but seems to have sharper drops rather than chutes between the boulders and is possibly a bit harder. There is a long kayak portage route for this rapid on river L on the tramping track. The rapids below Axius Flat are pretty much the same, including Casey's Creek/Shark's Tooth rapid. This river at elevated flows requires a reliable roll. No question. For raft parties, good group protection management is essential as wraps can occur in rather inaccessible places in mid stream. There is a lot of silt in the river and it will take time to wash through or become vegetated.

Treat this wilderness environment with an added degree of caution. NZ is "Under Construction" in South Westland.

hugh's picture

1. The Mt Aspiring National Park Management Plan has now been gazetted. This restricts party size to 15 maximum and 5 landings per day. There are two approved landing sites; one at Bonar Flats on the river L, and one at Drake Flat. This access was negotiated on behalf of all river runners, and is precious, as the draft plan had nothing.

2. The river above Bonar Flat has not been run to anyone's knowledge. It is Grade 5 and possibly Grade 6 in places.

3. When the river has glacial melt water in summer it is a bright blue and is navigable. When the upper catchment freezes, expect a clear dark blue and many of the rapids become filters. The only online gauge is to watch the Haast at Roaring Billy and watch the rise and fall. The river in high flow or flood contains impressive hydraulics and becomes harder to scout and portage.

Hugh Canard