On a North Island road trip, Helen van Berkel goes in search of some of our most beautiful waterfalls
Bridal Veil Falls, Raglan
A 10-minute drive inland from Raglan, a narrow little stream rolls quietly along through the undergrowth. It makes almost no noise as it travels, brown from stirred up sediment. There's almost no sign of what's to come until it actually happens: a sudden 55m plunge down a basalt cliff to a shallow pool. After some time in the roiling cauldron of the pool, the water continues flowing again, quietly, peacefully, curling over rocks as though nothing happened.
Raglan's Bridal Veil Falls are one of my favourites. Ranking our cascades is an invitation for social media hate but I love that quiet lead-up to the violence of the silent plunge, followed by the confused roar of foaming water at the bottom of the cliff and then the nonchalant calm onwards flow. It's an easy walk to the top of the falls from the Kawhia Rd carpark. Steep steps lead to the bottom, viewing platforms along the way show you the different stages of the cataract.
McLaren Falls, Tauranga
Whereas Raglan is a whispering plume of neatly contained white water, Tauranga's McLaren Falls are a roaring wall of foam and fury. The water flow here is controlled for power generation but it was in full spate the day we pulled in to the adjacent carpark. The wide shallow Mangakarengorengo River quietly approaches the tumbled and broken rocks below a footbridge and becomes a crooked cascade as gravity snatches it and hurls it 5m. We laughed among ourselves at the completely unnecessary warning signs against jumping over the falls – what kind of idiot would even think of doing that?? - and then read the news articles about those who had done exactly that. It's hard to imagine the falls with almost no water but this is a popular swimming hole in summer. And judging from the news reports online, it's probably best to heed those warning signs. The falls are on McLaren Falls Rd, off State Highway 29 in the lower Kaimais.
Billy Goat Falls, Coromandel
The North Island's tallest waterfall can be spotted in the Kauaerenga Valley near Thames. The Billy Goat Falls pour 180m down the hillside in three steps. You can only see parts of the falls though without a fairly rugged tramp. We parked at the start of the Pinnacles Walk, crossed a swing bridge and then hiked for about 5 minutes to see the falls across a thickly forested valley. Although the Billy Goat Falls are an impressive sight, they are not even half the height of Fiordland's Terror Falls, at 750m or the Sutherland Falls, at 580m.
Wairere is possibly New Zealand's most urban waterfall. Only a few minutes' walk from Whakatane's CBD, the falls step down a rocky hillside on their way to the nearby harbour. The falls are deeply sacred to the Ngāti Awa people, who used it as a landmark and as a source of freshwater. It was also used to power a flaxmill in the 1800s, which was later converted to a flour mill and then back again. The mill burned down a century ago. Nowadays, the area is a scenic reserve and a pretty spot for a picnic.
Another urban cascade is found a 10-minute drive from Whangārei's city centre. The Hātea River drops 26m over a basalt cliff and into a still pool below. Steps lead down to the bottom but viewing platforms at the top also give you a good view of the falls. But time your trip for after the rain as the falls can dry up to almost nothing after a long dry.
Rere Falls, Gisborne
Astute readers will notice how often the syllables "Rere" appear in New Zealand waterfall names. This is because the word means to leap or descend in te reo Māori so technically the Rere Falls are the Falls Falls. About 45 minutes from Gisborne, the falls delicately curl 5m over a bulging rock face into a shallow river. At 20m long, the falls are reasonably wide and it is possible to walk behind the sheeting cascade. But a few minutes beyond the falls is the Rere Rockslides, a 60m smooth rock face much beloved by boogie boarders. Even if you don't have a board, a strip of cardboard will do the trick. Turn on to Wharekopae Rd from SH35 and drive for half an hour to see the falls. The slide is 2km further on and both have a carpark.
Maraetotara Falls, Napier
A must-visit on a hot summer's day, the pool at the bottom is deep, clean and exhilaratingly refreshing (read ice cold). Kids line up to jump off rocks on the side of the waterfall, but that looked dangerous to me. The falls drop like a messy braid, falling about 15m from top to base. There's a pretty 10-minute walk from the carpark to the falls.
Dawsons Falls, New Plymouth
Very similar in style to Raglan's Bridal Veil falls, New Plymouth's Dawson Falls were formed by volcanic activity. Two plumes side by side cascade down the flanks of Mt Taranaki, dropping 16m down a cliff 900m up the mountain. The road to the falls is sealed the entire way and the falls are a 10-minute walk through a lichen and moss festooned native forest.
Kitekite Falls, Auckland
Found along a 40-minute well-formed walk from the carpark at Piha Beach, boardwalks and a trodden path take you to the bottom of the falls that plummet 40 or 60 metres depending on where you measure the start point. Climb to the top and you'll see that the river runs down into a series of pools before slipping over the side, forming the most visible of the cascades. The walk up is hard work so a dip in the pools at the top are a welcome opportunity to cool down.