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, near Whangārei. 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.
Art and music
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 Whangārei 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.