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One of the 'must do' activities in Queenstown is to go for a ride on a jetboat.


It isn't as dangerous as it looks, but it definitely is at least as much fun as it promises to be.

 
 
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Jetboating in Queenstown, New Zealand

Experience jet boating where it was originally invented
 

This classic image of jetboating on the Shotover river, just out of Queenstown, shows the high speed excitement in an area of outstanding natural beauty that is the essence of the jetboating experience.

Part of a series on travel to and in New Zealand - click the links in the right hand column for more articles.

 

 

You're probably only spending two or three days in Queenstown, which means you'll have to select which things you do, and which things you don't do during your limited stay.

We highly recommend jet boating as being on your 'must do' list.

Here's what you need to know so as to choose your best jet boating experience while in Queenstown.

What is a Jetboat

Although you might have seen jetboats elsewhere in the world, they were invented in New Zealand in the early 1950s by Bill (subsequently Sir William) Hamilton.

He wanted a way for a boat to move safely through fast flowing shallow rivers in NZ's South Island, such as the ones around the Queenstown area.  Normal propeller driven boats required too much depth of water, and the propeller was always at risk of being damaged if it struck the bottom.

The result was the jetboat, a boat with an inboard motor that sucks water in from intakes on the bottom of the boat, then shoots it out the stern (and at/above the water line) to provide the thrust to get the boat moving.

The boat is steered by adjusting the direction of the jet of water rushing out the back of the boat, and is usually designed to hydroplane.

It can also reverse, using an effect similar to what you see when a passenger jet opens its 'buckets' to create reverse thrust.  Jetboats are very maneuverable but only when under some amount of power - without any power applied, no water is pumping through the jet and so there is no steerage.  This makes steering/piloting a jet boat slightly different to the experience on a normal boat.

At planing speeds the boats can not only go very fast (up to 60 mph) but also are more fuel efficient than propeller powered boats.  These were 'bonuses' for Bill Hamilton, who was primarily seeking the shallow draft.

Oh - and about that shallow draft.  Most jet boats require as little as 3" of water to operate safely.  Well done, Sir William!

Jetboats come in all shapes and sizes these days, all the way from tiny personal waterski type craft to naval frigates.

The jetboats in Queenstown typically have three or four rows of seats, each with four or five people in them, and one or two engines and jets, with up to 380 horsepower per engine.

They go at speeds that would get you a ticket if you drove your car at the same speed on the open road above the river - how often do you come across a boat going faster than cars?

Safety Issues

The jetboat operators like to add a bit of adrenalin and excitement to their rides, and of course the flipside to that involves safety.

Clearly, the faster you go, the shallower the water, and the closer to the banks, the more exciting the experience, but also the less margin for error you have.

However, accidents are very far and few between.  In the period since 1999, there have been two fatalities, which is actually an encouragingly small number when you consider that there are 42 jetboat operators in New Zealand, and in total, 370,000 passengers a year.

The most recent fatality was in 2008, with the one before that in 1999.

In 2012 the NZ government introduced a new licensing system for jetboat drivers - prior to that all they needed to take commercial passengers was at least 50 hours driving experience.  This new scheme seems to add further quality controls and safety checks.

So the chances are very high that you'll be perfectly safe.

Your Jetboating Choices in Queenstown

There are a dazzling array of different jetboat experiences offered to you everywhere you turn in Queenstown.

Basically, there are three things to consider when deciding which is best for you.  Location, duration, and cost.

Location

Just like in real estate, location is a key factor in your jet boating experience.

Simply going fast in a jetboat in the middle of large and deep Lake Wakatipu quickly becomes boring.  Most of the fun with jetboating involves going fast along shallow rivers where you can clearly see the bottom beneath the boat, and through narrow gorges with the cliff/banks rising sharply and very closely alongside.

There's one place that offers this experience better than anywhere else in the Queenstown area, and only one jetboat company that operates there.

This is the Shotover Jet that goes through the Shotover canyons.

There's another location issue to consider as well - where does the jetboat ride depart from, and how do you get there?

Two jetboat operators depart directly from the downtown wharf in Queenstown - K-Jet and Thunder Jet.

The Shotover Jet is only a short drive out of Queenstown, and the company offers transfers to and from their launch point at no extra cost.

The Goldfields Jet is about 40 minutes drive from Queenstown, the Dart River jet is about an hour from Queenstown but offers transfers.

Duration

The Shotover experience is the shortest - about 30 minutes in the jetboat.  The Goldfields jet is 40 minutes, the other three are about an hour in the jetboat.

The Dart River tour is a combination of jet boating and nature walking and is in an incredibly beautiful area of natural forest, the others don't have you leaving the boat at all other than at the end of the experience.

Including travel time from Queenstown, the Dart River tour is by far the longest - it is an all day activity.  The Goldfields jet is next, then the Shotover and the two Queenstown departing jetboats are about similar in duration.

One thing about the Goldfields jet - if you're going to be traveling past it on your way to or from Queenstown, you could include it then and save on the travel time.  The Goldfields attraction it is located alongside is also an interesting place to visit for an hour or so.

Cost - and Possible Discounts/Savings Too

Okay, we'll assume you're savvy enough to be able to check out whatever the current costs are on the various company's websites, and due to the probably changing nature of these costs, we'll not comment other than to point out that they all seem to cost about $100 or more.

Currently Thunder Jet is the cheapest, but last time we were in Queenstown we got a better deal with KJet.  The Shotover Jet is usually more expensive than either of these two, but it offers two interesting extra deals.

The first is that often their first ride of the morning will be less expensive than later rides.  Treat this offer with caution.  Early mornings can be very cold indeed, particularly when you're wet from spray and you've got a 60 mph wind rushing past you!

Their second offer is a second ride for only about $20.  Riding twice is something many people think would be a great idea, because for sure after a short 30 minute experience, you get off the boat wanting more.  But doing exactly the same ride, immediately after the first ride, might shift your impression from 'not quite enough' to 'slightly too much', so think carefully before doing this.

Beyond these comments, it is common to find discount coupons on offer for the various operators.  There are a number of tourist publications that are distributed in Queenstown full of discount coupons for lots of different things, and often you'll find a discount voucher in them for one or more of the jetboat operators.

Now for a really helpful suggestion.  If you are staying somewhere else close to Queenstown before going on to Queenstown - for example, Wanaka - check for discount coupons there, too.

We know that much of the time, some of the operators have discount coupons in Wanaka and possibly other locations, but not actually in Queenstown.

Our Personal Favorite

The Shotover Jet is our personal favorite.  We like them all, but this one is the best.

Note however that we've not done the Dart River jet - it seems to be a milder experience, but richer in other things as well as 'just' a fast exhilarating ride.

The problem for us, and probably the same for you, is that we have too many things we want to do in Queenstown, and whereas the other jetboat experiences take half a day or less, leaving plenty of time for other activities, the Dart River jetboat is a full day tour.

We'll try to find time to squeeze it in next time.

Jetboat Operator Websites

Here are links to the jetboat companies mentioned above.

Dart River

Goldfields Jet

KJet

Shotover Jet

Thunder Jet

For more information

Click the links in the top right of this page for additional helpful information about travel to and in New Zealand.

In particular, please note our other pages about where to stay in Queenstown and what to do in Queenstown (in addition to jetboating, of course!).
 

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 24 Jan 2014, last update 08 Jul 2017

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