Chasing waterfalls on Aotearoa New Zealand’s South Island

At least 1500 waterfalls are marked on maps of Te Waipounamu! 🌊

4 mins
Written by:
Kerri Duncan

It’s impossible to count how many waterfalls inhabit Aotearoa’s Te Waipounamu (New Zealand’s South Island), but at least 1500 are marked on the maps!

Ever-changing landscapes of jagged mountains, glacial valleys and thick rainforests mean many waterfalls come and go with the weather, regularly shifting their shapes and positions.  Then there’s the ongoing debate around what a waterfall technically is; does it require free-falling water to qualify, or is fast-flowing water over bedrock enough?

Māori language has several words to describe waterfalls, which can differ depending on the location and significance to various iwi (tribes). It all adds to the excitement of chasing waterfalls for me and gives new meaning to “going with the flow!” 

Glaciers vs Volcanoes

The waterfalls on Te Ika-a-Māui (North Island) were largely formed by volcanic activity and erosion of soft rock, making their shapes relatively low and wide. Being easily accessible to early inhabitants, many of these northern falls are deeply entwined in Māori tradition. 

Falls on Te Waipounamu are mostly the result of glaciers travelling down mountainsides, cutting into deep river valleys. The alpine region’s falls tend to be higher and less accessible than those in the north, with many of them drying up over summer and remaining unnamed. Since Māori settlement of Te Waipounamu occurred later and was sparser than on Te Ika-a-Māuiand – and the waterfalls were less accessible – records of related southern Māori traditions are often harder to come by.

Photo by Kelsi Millar

The Famous Ones

Despite all the transient waterfalls, there are plenty of consistent, stationary ones to admire on Te Waipounamu. Short, sturdy boardwalks and well-maintained yet wild-feeling trails lead you to many of the more famous attractions. 

Some have adjacent toilet facilities, but rubbish bins are not usually provided. Therefore, anything you bring in must be taken out again. The idea is to leave the area as untouched as possible to enjoy the environment in its natural state!

Pūrākaunui Falls

Though Pūrākaunui is featured on many postcards, stamps and magazines due to its beauty, the Māori legend around the origin of its name is far less pretty. The settlement of Pūrākaunui is located in the southern region of Otago; “rakau” roughly translates to wood, with “pu-rakau-nui” meaning a large pile of wood. Some sources claim the area was named after a bloody massacre sparked by a family feud, resulting in a snow-covered pile of bodies that resembled a gloomy stack of wood. 

Nowadays, a wooden platform has been built at the base of Pūrākaunui Falls for a picture-perfect view of the tiered cascades. Most of the 20-minute walk follows a bubbling creek fringed with ferns, often occupied by flitting fantails. 

It was steadily raining when I visited in May, adding extra oomph to the falls which rarely run dry.

Photo by Oren Rozen

McLean Falls

In the Tautuku River valley in the southern Catlins Coastal Region, McLean Falls is at the end of a spectacular 40-minute in-and-out trail. Along the partially boarded walk, a few smaller waterfalls whet your appetite before you reach the impressive main event. The top portion of the main falls features a 22-metre straight drop, which then pools and cascades beautifully around a bend of stepped shelves and into a deep gorge. 

The falls are reportedly still named for an Invercargill farmer, Alexander McLean, who would bring visitors to the area in the 1900s before an official trail was built. 

Photo by Kelsi Millar

Piopiotahi’s (Milford Sound’s) Many Falls

Being one of the wettest inhabited areas of the world, Piopiotahi receives rainfall 182 days per year on average! This, combined with the steep mountains surrounding the fjord, leads to hundreds of waterfalls appearing after rain in pretty much any direction you look.

Even the drive towards Piopiotahi is surrounded by intermittent falls, with one valley vista aptly named “Hundred Falls.” I didn’t count the exact number I could see from the highway stop, but it was easy to believe the name’s claim.

There are two considered to be the “main” permanent falls within the fjord of Piopiotahi. Hineteawa, otherwise known as Bowen or Lady Bowen Falls, is the tallest at 162m and provides the tiny adjacent township with hydroelectricity and drinking water. 

Wai Manu, or Stirling Falls, is best seen from a boat cruise and is the second tallest at 151m. This is still three times the height of Niagara Falls, but it appears dwarfed by the 1300m high mountain looming behind it! The Māori name means “cloud on the water,” referring to the wispy puff of droplets created as the water hits the fjord from such lofty heights. 

Photo by Timo Volz

Sutherland Falls

Speaking of heights, we can’t have a list of famous falls without including Aotearoa’s tallest – although this claim is still debated due to technicalities. Plummeting 580m, the falls’ namesake, Scottish settler Donald Sutherland, originally claimed the falls were over 1000m tall, which would have made them the tallest in the world. Later surveys proved he had gotten a little overexcited with his exaggeration.    

You must earn the view of Aotearoa’s (possibly) tallest waterfall by hiking the epic Milford Track for four days. It is thought this route from Te Anau to Piopiotahi, known as one of the “finest walks in the world,” was the original path taken by Māori to collect tangiwai pounamu, a prized green stone used for weapons, trade and tools. 

Photo by Samuel Ferrara

Te Tautea o Hinekakai (Devil’s Punchbowl Falls)

A little easier to reach at an hour’s round trip from Arthur’s Pass Village is Te Tautea o Hinekakai. The local iwi named these falls “weaving waters” for the ancestor Hinekakai, who was famous for her weaving skills. The white threads of intertwined falling water resemble the dressed mountain flax, wharariki, which was commonly used for weaving clothes and mats.  

Photo by Michal Klajban

The Lesser-Known Ones

Hidden watery gems are around every corner in Te Waipounamu. Some locals have even taken it upon themselves to maintain tracks to their favourite ones if they’re not officially marked. One beautiful example is the path to Koropuku Falls, which – with the approval of the Department of Conservation – is currently solely maintained by two retired friends, Wayne and Peter.

I was approached by these friendly gentlemen in a country cafe, where they placed an old map on the table my brother and I were seated at, and told us:

“You should visit this one. It’s not on the maps anymore, but it’s beautiful. Trust us, we look after it.”

Intrigued, we arrived to find the men in their seventies unloading buckets full of short punga logs. Upon chatting further, we learned they had laid more than 2000 logs over 15 years to keep the track accessible. They’ve spent so many hours on the trail, they’ve even built a bench dedicated to their patiently waiting partners.

Kaitiakitanga

Their devotion is a lovely example of the passion and joy that can be inspired by enjoying waterfalls, motivating people from all walks of life. The Māori concept of kaitiakitanga encourages appreciation and protection of the natural world, with the view that humans are a fundamental and equal part of nature. Connecting with nature is a practice almost as old as humanity itself, proving beneficial for both people and the environments we’re inspired to protect.  

So, get out there, appreciate nature and go with the flow!

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