Story: Waterfalls

‘The escaping stream hurls headlong down past the grey crags … to be received … amid the spray-glittering forest, into a magic pool’. So wrote Victorian essayist Blanche Baughan on seeing the 580-metre Sutherland Falls, in Fiordland. The grandeur of cascading water continues to astonish the thousands who visit New Zealand’s many waterfalls.

Full story by Jock Phillips
Main image: Te Rēinga Falls

The Short Story

A quick, easy summary
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When you’re hot and tired on a bush walk, it’s magical to come across a waterfall, with its sparkling spray and refreshing sound.

What is a waterfall?

Some definitions say the water must be free falling. Others include water that flows over rocks – sometimes called a cascade.

How do they form?

Waterfalls are formed by several forces, including:

  • Water eroding rock. A stream flowing over layers of rock slowly cuts away softer rock. This creates a drop down over the hard rock to soft rock below. Example: the Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri.
  • Glaciers. These carve steep sides in a river valley. Nearby streams tumble over the edges into the valley. Example: the Sutherland Falls near the Milford Track.
  • Volcanoes. Erupting lava can form a cliff that water surges over. Example: the Bridal Veil Falls near Raglan.
  • Earthquakes. An active fault near a river can suddenly move, making a gap that the river drops over. Example: the Wairere Falls in the Kaimai Range.

Waterfalls in New Zealand

There are hundreds of waterfalls in New Zealand, often set in native bush. Many walks lead to a waterfall, and at some you can go swimming, canoeing or abseiling. Some people climb frozen waterfalls, holding onto icicles.

Many falls are in the South Island, and were formed by glaciers. They often have a very high drop. Some dry up in summer.

North Island falls are lower and mostly caused by volcanoes. Māori have their own stories about how they formed. In one, a princess, Hinerau, was trapped by an earthquake near Lake Waikaremoana. She began to cry and her tears cascading over the rocks formed a waterfall there.

What are New Zealand’s highest falls?

The Browne Falls in Doubtful Sound have an 836-metre fall. But they flow over rocks rather than falling in mid-air. So some people say the free-falling Sutherland Falls are the highest, at 580 metres.

Some popular waterfalls

  • The most visited waterfall is the Huka Falls near Lake Taupō. The roaring water drops 11 metres, at 220,000 litres per second.
  • The 55-metre Bridal Veil Falls have a pool at the base, and there are two viewing platforms.
  • At Ōkere’s 7-metre Tutea Falls you can go rafting.
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How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips. 'Waterfalls', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9-Nov-12
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/waterfalls