Jetboating in Queenstown, New Zealand
Experience jet boating where it was
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
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
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
Jetboats come in all shapes and sizes these days, all the way
from tiny personal waterski type craft to
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?
The jetboat operators like to add a bit of adrenalin and
excitement to their rides, and of course the flipside to that
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 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
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.
Just like in real estate, location is a key factor in your jet
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
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
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.
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!).
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24 Jan 2014, last update
21 Jul 2020