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.
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.
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.
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.
Running water always erodes rock, but some rocks are more resistant than others. So a waterfall occurs when geological forces have produced either a sudden change in rock types or a steepening of a gradient where a stream is flowing. With a break in elevation, a stream or river becomes a waterfall.
New Zealand’s waterfalls have been formed by five different forces.
Fiordland’s glacial valleys and high rainfall create many long falls. The author of the World Waterfall Database notes: ‘It must be wonderful to live in a region where you can overlook a waterfall that’s nearly 2000' [feet] tall’. 1
A glacier carves its way down a valley, making it much deeper than previously. Left behind are smaller (hanging) river valleys that empty their water down the steep sides of the glacial valley in spectacular falls or cascades. These falls tend to be high, and are often quite thin. Especially common in Fiordland and Westland, they include the Sutherland Falls, draining out of Lake Quill on the Milford Track, and the Bowen Falls at Milford Sound.
Where there are layers of soft and hard rock, the softer rock is eroded by water, leaving the hard rock exposed and creating a fall. In New Zealand, harder layers of sandstone or limestone often exist close to softer mudstone, and the erosion of the mudstone creates the falls – for instance the Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri. Often a deep plunge pool develops as the soft rock beneath the fall is also cut away. Sometimes a rock shelter forms behind the fall.
When small tributaries reach the steep banks of a channel carved by a larger river, they will fall over the edge. A good example is the falls that drop down mudstone banks into the Whanganui River.
Sometimes volcanic activity creates a cliff where waterfalls form. A number of the falls on Mt Ruapehu and Mt Taranaki are of this nature – for example the Taranaki Falls are at the edge of an old lava flow. The Waipunga Falls further east flow over ignimbrite rock deposited in the 232 CE Taupō eruption. Both the Wairua Falls in Northland and the Bridal Veil Falls near Raglan drop over old basalt lava flows.
Underground thermal activity can also cause waterfalls. The Huka Falls drop over a band of silica deposited by thermal activity, while near Rotorua the Kākahi Falls have a temperature of 40° Celsius.
The Bay of Plenty’s Tarawera Falls are unique in New Zealand in emerging from a solid rock face. The river rises in Lake Tarawera and then disappears into cooled lava tubes underground before emerging from the rock wall. The fall has been likened to a tap with the faucet knocked off.
Where an active fault produces a severe movement or upthrust of rock, any river flowing along an old channel will suddenly drop. The Wairere Falls, on the west face of the Kaimai Range, pour over the Okauia fault and are the highest falls in the North Island. The valley bottom is sinking at a rate of 2 millimetres per year.
North Island falls are rich in Māori tradition, and there are many stories about their origins. The lower part of the Āniwaniwa Falls, near Lake Waikaremoana, is called Te Tangi-o-Hinerau. This refers to the story of Hinerau, a beautiful Tūhoe woman, who was trapped by a violent earthquake. In her grief she began to cry (tangi), and her tears falling over the rocks of a nearby chasm formed the waterfall.
Māori often believed that taniwha (water monsters) lived beneath or behind waterfalls. The Ngāti Hine Hika people of inland Gisborne say that their ancestor, Hinekōrako, lives beneath Te Rēinga Falls and watches over the interests of the tribe. She is said to have saved some canoes that were rushing towards the falls during a raging torrent.
The Ōkere Falls between Lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti are another well-known home of taniwha.
The thermally heated Kākahi Falls near Rotorua were once used by warriors to wash their wounds after battle. The full name of the falls is ‘Te mimi o te Kākahi’ – ‘the urine of Kākahi’. This refers to the fact that urine was used as a disinfectant for cuts and wounds.
Some waterfalls were important to Māori identity, such as the Wairere Falls in the centre of Whakatāne. They were said to be a landmark given to Toroa, captain of the Mataatua canoe, to mark his destination.
Te Rere a Kāpuni Falls on Mt Taranaki, known to Europeans as Victoria Falls, were a noted source of inspiration to Māori tohunga (priests). T. W. Rātana, founder of the Rātana Church, visited them frequently to meditate and renew his inspiration.
From the beginning of European settlement, waterfalls were known mainly as places of beauty. But a few were used to power flax mills or, as with Whakatāne’s Wairere Falls, flour mills.
At the end of the 19th century the potential for hydroelectricity was apparent. Because waterfalls already had a natural drop, power could be harnessed simply by diverting the flow, without the need for building a dam.
In 1901 New Zealand’s fourth power station was opened at Ōkere Falls, to provide electricity to the tourist centre of Rotorua. Three years later the government systematically investigated waterfalls, mostly in the North Island, for possible hydroelectric schemes. In the end, few were used, apart from the striking Omiru Falls on the Wairua River. In 2006 a dozen falls remained on a list of potential hydroelectric schemes drawn up for the Electricity Commission.
Since tourism began in the late 1800s, waterfalls have been an important aspect of ‘beautiful New Zealand’. They remain among the most highly ranked attractions both for domestic and international travellers.
The spectacular Huka Falls, on the Waikato River near Taupō, are said to be the country’s most visited natural attraction. The normally wide river narrows to 15 metres at a volcanic ledge, where it surges at around 220,000 litres of water per second. It then drops in a series of falls, the final stage an 11-metre fall.
Many falls have viewing platforms – the Bridal Veil Falls near Raglan have two. At the base of these 55-metre falls is a pool surrounded by sandstone steps that form an amphitheatre.
The Haruru Falls near Waitangi are floodlit at night to highlight their horseshoe shape.
Climbing up a waterfall is a challenge for humans, and for most fish, a fall would be an impassable obstacle. But some New Zealand freshwater species such as eels have been known to clamber up from one rock ledge to the next.
Many bush walks have been planned to end at a waterfall. The base of a fall often forms a deep swimming hole, and the fall itself provides a cool outdoor shower.
Rere Falls, west of Gisborne, offer a 60-metre waterslide. The Tutea Falls at Ōkere have a 7-metre drop, and are said to be the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall. The trip over the Huka Falls in a canoe (first accomplished in 1981) is legendary, but highly dangerous. At Hunua Falls in the Auckland region, abseiling has become a commercial venture.
The South Island’s very high falls offer the dangerous challenge of going up them, rather than down. In 1890 a young surveyor, William Quill, climbed up beside the Sutherland Falls at Milford Sound. A more recent sport is to climb frozen falls, using icicles for handholds.
New Zealand’s waterfalls – many of them spectacular cascades set in lush greenery – have a romantic appeal. Phrases such as ‘enchanting glade’ or ‘beautiful bush-fringed pool’ dot the guidebooks.
Some falls have religious connotations, perhaps because of the concept of holy water. A waterfall on the Te Kūiti–New Plymouth road is said to have healing qualities, and was named the Madonna Falls, after the mother of Christ. A local religious group named the site Te Whāea o te Rere (Our Lady of the Waterfall).
Naming a waterfall calls for poetic description – often the same in different countries. There are no less than seven Bridal Veil falls in New Zealand, and another nine listed in the World Waterfall Database. Near Arthur’s Pass is a fall called Devils Punchbowl, a name shared with one near Niagara in Canada.
On James Cook’s second voyage to New Zealand in 1773, the artist William Hodges painted a Māori standing before a waterfall in Dusky Bay – an image portraying the country’s wild beauty. In 1890 the Dutch painter Petrus van der Velden arrived and the following year, in 1891, painted ‘A waterfall in the Otira Gorge’. It was intended to express the presence of God in the natural world.
Perhaps similar ideas led Colin McCahon to paint a series of waterfall paintings in paintings in 1964–65. McCahon acknowledged his debt to Hodges, and the works evoke a line of light against a dark, brooding background. He wrote that ‘waterfalls fell and raged and became as still silent falls of light for a long time. I look back with joy on taking a brush of white paint and curving through the darkness with a line of white.’ 1
In the 1980s Bill Culbert used cascading fluorescent tubing to suggest falling white water.
The composer Gareth Farr wrote ‘Taheke’ in 2005, for flute and harp, depicting three waterfalls – the Huka Falls, a fall in the Marlborough Sounds and the Whāngārei Falls.
Waterfalls have such a hold on the imagination that this is unlikely to be the last artwork inspired by the country’s abundant waterfalls.