With a relatively high rainfall and broken, mountainous terrain, New Zealand has many waterfalls. They have long been rated as among its most impressive tourist attractions. Many are in a picturesque setting – waterfalls send out spray as they tumble down, encouraging the growth of water-loving plants such as ferns and mosses.
What is a waterfall?
There is some debate about what a waterfall is. One definition is that a true waterfall has free-falling water. Others include water that flows downhill fast over bedrock – a phenomenon that many would define as a cascade.
New Zealand’s highest waterfall
Because of the different definitions, people disagree over what is New Zealand’s highest waterfall. For years it was believed that the Sutherland Falls near the Milford Track held the title, with a total drop of 580 metres.
However, some argue that the highest are the Browne Falls in Doubtful Sound. Their drop of 836 metres would make them the ninth highest in the world. But many say that the Browne Falls are actually a cascade, since they tumble down a mountainside and have almost no water falling free of rock. Even the Sutherland Falls descend in three steps, broken by patches of rock.
There is also no agreement as to the number of New Zealand waterfalls. Well over 1,500 are marked on topographical maps, but – especially in Fiordland – many falls are intermittent, only appearing after heavy rain.
South versus north
There are more falls in the South Island, but a greater number of well-known ones on the tourist routes are in the north.
South Island and North Island waterfalls differ in several ways.
Numerous South Island waterfalls were formed by glaciers as they moved down mountainsides, cutting into the river valleys. This has created high falls with a relatively small volume of water, often drying up in summer. Many are inaccessible and unnamed, and known only to hardy trampers. Of the well-known falls in the South Island, only the multi-tiered Purakaunui Falls are away from the alpine region.
North Island falls were mostly created by volcanic activity or erosion of softer rock. They are often wider and lower than the southern falls. They are more accessible, and richly endowed with Māori tradition. Many have a picturesque bush setting – waterfalls send out spray as they tumble down, encouraging the growth of water-loving plants such as ferns and mosses.