Here is a list of six of the country’s top waterfalls, writes Hanna Hussein
SPRING may be the best time to explore some of New Zealand’s best-kept secrets, a symphony of waterfalls. But, in a country where water is a major feature of climate and landscape, it’s hard to luck out on a good waterfall viewing.
Surrounded by an estimated 15,000 to 18,000km of coastline, and with 180,000km of rivers and 775 lakes, water is a major feature of its landscapes.
New Zealand’s many rivers, lakes and streams are the source of more than 1,500 waterfalls across the country. While some are powerful surging torrents, others are delightful cascades, creating swimming holes for a refreshing dip or the setting for a thrilling outdoor adventure.
Warmer temperatures, melting snow and rain showers during spring mean waterfalls are at their most impressive, especially in the higher altitudes of the South Island. For travellers keen to dip their toes in, head to the North Island where the warm spring weather creates great falls and swimming holes to enjoy.
TWIN FALLS, WANAKA
It is one of New Zealand’s newest adventure activities. For anyone looking to go beyond pure admiration, the Wildwire Via Ferrata system on Wanaka’s Twin Falls is the surprisingly accessible introduction to a waterfall climb.
Twin Falls is a spectacular double waterfall that flows dramatically for almost 500 metres via a series of pools and free hanging waterfall sections. The falls are located on private land, near Treble Cone Ski Field and Mt Aspiring National Park, and in an area that is known for rock climbing and spectacular scenery.
The climb, which begins amidst the sheep on a grassy farm paddock, includes hidden pools beneath towering falls, canyons, picnic swimming spots and breathtaking views to the surrounding mountains and lakes. It finishes with a walk back down the hill.
Wanaka is an alpine resort in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, an hour by road from Queenstown. The Wildwire Via Ferrata is suitable for beginners and families. If you can climb a ladder, you can manage the beginner system of ladder rungs and three-wire bridges.
Tours range from three hours (beginner) to five hours (intermediate), with plans in place for a full-day experience that will become the highest waterfall via ferrata in the world when the final stage is completed.
New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction and most famous waterfall, Huka Falls in the central of North Island is known for its incredible speed and power. The falls are fed by New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato, which travels 425km north from Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake. The river, usually more than 100m across, picks up speed and force as it’s squeezed through a 20m-wide ravine and out over an 11m drop.
More than 220,000 litres of water per second is funnelled through the narrow gorge to shoot out eight metres over the edge of the waterfall before pounding into the blue green waters of the river below.
The Huka Falls are named for the Maori word for “foam” and you’ll understand why when you see it. Watch out, too, for the swirling bubbles of Champagne Bay.
On the North Island’s volcanic Central Plateau, Lake Taupo and the Huka Falls are four hours by road south of Auckland or an hour from Rotorua. For an up-close experience, the Hukafalls Jet takes travellers by jet boat up the Waikato River to the base of the waterfall.
Located next to SH1 near Wairakei, Hukafalls Jet is open year-round during daylight hours. For a more sedate experience, the Huka Falls River Cruise is a leisurely trip along the river that gets close enough to the falls for some spectacular photo opportunities.
RERE FALSS, GISBORNE
Rere Falls on the Wharekope River near Gisborne, in the eastern North Island, is surrounded by lovely farmland and one of the best spots on the list for a fresh water swim.
The best way to visit is by bike via the Motu Trails, one of New Zealand’s Great Rides. Rolling hills and sealed roads make the Rere Falls Trail a comfortable ride for those who want to experience the treasures of one of New Zealand’s most remote regions.
Meandering along quiet country roads, the trail takes riders alongside lush hill country farms through to the wineries and maize fields of the fertile Poverty Bay flats. As Gisborne is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand, a swim is the best way to cool off after tackling the Rere Falls Trail.
Sliding down the famous Rere Rockslide is a must-do for visitors. Constant running water has smoothed the rocks creating a 60m natural water slide, finishing in a fresh water swimming hole.
EARNSLAW BURN FALLS
Earnslaw Burn Falls are a magnificent example of alpine beauty as the multiple glacier-fed chutes cascade a massive rock face into the valley below. Arrive by helicopter for a spectacular introduction to this wilderness location.
Located a short distance west of Queenstown near Glenorchy at the tip of Lake Wakatipu, these falls were featured in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, giving movie buffs a chance to retrace the steps of Bilbo, Thorin and Gandalf.
Spring and early summer is a perfect time to visit as the rising temperature melts the glacier, swelling the falls with cool clear meltwater.
Heliworks takes travellers to one of New Zealand's most spectacular areas, with scenic helicopters flights out of Queenstown. The flight passes by the brilliant blue-white glacier and lands among the tussock grass on the valleyfloor 1,000m below. For a special romantic experience, they’ll leave you alone with a picnic for a few hours.
PURAKAUNUI FALLS, THE CATLINS
The magnificent Purakaunui Falls are situated amongst lush podocarp and beech forest within the water wonderland of The Catlins, on the South Island’s magnificent southeastern coast.
Like a giant wedding cake cascading 20m over three huge tiers of terraced rock, these falls are amongst the most photographed in New Zealand. The breadth of the falls is just as impressive as the height making the tumbling water a real highlight of any visit to The Catlins.
Whilst enjoying the song of the tui and bellbird along the way, the Purakaunui Falls can be found a short 10-minute walk through the surrounding temperate rainforest.
Situated along the rugged Southern Scenic Route between Invercargill and Dunedin, The Catlins is the place to feel the wind and the salt spray on your face as you gaze out to sea with nothing but ocean between you and Antarctica. Hectors dolphins leap from the sea and seals lounge on the beaches. Yellow-eyed penguins appear from the ocean in the evening as the orange sun sets behind rainforested hills.
Rudyard Kipling once described Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world and the waterfalls that spring from the surrounding cliffs may have had something to do with that.
Stirling Falls and the Lady Bowen Falls are the only two permanent cascades in the fiord (yes, this sound is actually a fiord); however, when it rains, the area’s true beauty is revealed. Waterfalls pour down into the water below and the Milford Sound boats get so close you can feel the spray on your face.
Imagine almost perpendicular rainforested mountainsides rising more than a kilometre directly from the waterline into the sky, and you’ll begin to get a picture of this stunning example of the majesty of Mother Nature.
Real Journeys and Southern Discoveries offer a range of ways to experience New Zealand’s most majestic landscape, including scenic cruises, heli-tours and kayak tours. Tours leave from the nearby town of Te Anau, located just across the mountain pass from Milford Sound.
For the more intrepid, Sutherland Falls (at 580m) is New Zealand’s tallest waterfall but to reach it by foot you’ll have to hike the multi-day Milford Track — and a 90-minute detour to the base of the falls.