South Island Waterfalls

There are huge numbers of waterfalls in the South Island of New Zealand. Even limiting oneself to the good-sized ones, it would take a resident of South Island, which I am not, years to visit them all. This page just lists a very few that I happen to have seen (not all of them exactly good-sized ones...).

The Catlins

The Catlins is an area of low bush-clad hills in the south-east corner of South Island. It has a few reasonably attractive waterfalls of notably modest size. Since I went and looked and took photos of them, I'll put them up.

Purakaunui Falls

Just 20 metres high, the Purakaunui Falls is ten minutes walk from the road down an easy bush track. It is claimed to be one of the most photographed waterfalls in New Zealand. I think this must be a local myth...

Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls

One of these is Matai Falls and the other one isn't. They're within a few yards of each other, down another ten-minute bush track from the road. Unfortunately I can't remember which is which, however after some Googling on the net, this one seems to be Matai Falls, flowing a lot better than it usually does, too, judging by everyone else's photos (there was a lot of rain the previous night). Said to be 10 metres (33 feet) high.

And this is, I think, Horseshoe Falls (since it isn't Matai Falls).


The road to Milford Sound is one of the most scenically dramatic journeys in the country. The mountains, rising straight from the sea, together with the prevailing westerly winds, result in a very high rainfall in the valleys and snowfall on the peaks, and the great volume of snow on the tops means that the snowfields last right over summer. All this, together with the steep mountainsides, makes this a land of waterfalls. Many of them are just un-named streams that pour down the valley sides from the snow-melt.

Any mentions below to contours, or heights on the map refer to the 1:50,000 contour maps published by LINZ (Land Information New Zealand), and available online at NZtopoOnline.

Falls Creek

The Hollyford Valley is a classic U-shaped glacial valley with high mountains on each side. Just after the Milford road enters the valley and winds down the valley side, it crosses Falls Creek, a stream which cascades down the valley side in its own little gorge. This lowest fall is said to be 15m (50 feet) high, though judging by the map, there could be many more back up the gorge.
A little further on, an un-named stream cascades down the cliff face from the melting snow on Mt Christina above.

Even though this is midsummer, and only 1500 feet above sea level, the cold air descending from the snowfields above means that snowdrifts persist in the valley. It's a remarkable local climate; 60 miles due east, on the hot dry plains around Cromwell, fruit is being picked in the orchards.

At the head of the Hollyford Valley, an amphitheatre with waterfalls all round.

The main cliff there is 160m (520 feet) high (from the map).
Beyond the Homer Tunnel, in the Cleddau Valley, a fall cascades down the slopes of Sheerdown Peak.

The map quotes the height of the fall as 203m (666 feet), but this is just the upper section. The contours show the top of the cliff at 620m and the slope easing at 400m (which would be the ledge across the middle of the photo). However the steep slope continues down to 150m, behind the trees, making a total drop, including the steep cascade, of 470m (1540 feet).

Bowen Falls

Bowen Falls is the most dramatic falls I know. The busy landing stage for the tourist boats on Milford Sound is just 300 yards away on the other side of the ridge (just off to the right of the picture), but there is no sign or sound of the falls from the wharf. As the boat sails into the sound, the falls appear without warning and dramatically close, behind the boat.

The falls are 530 feet (162m) high; a photo can't do justice to the impression they make in reality. Those are big trees clustered around the base of the falls, dwarfed by the mountain slopes. It's hard to convey a sense of scale in the photo. You have to be there.
(Height from NZTO).

Stirling Falls

Stirling Falls is a 495-foot (151m) sheer drop, but possibly the most impressive feature is its surroundings...

... there's a wide valley behind, curiously shut off from the 'Sound' by that wall-like ridge, and the cliff on the right of the photo goes up sheer to 3900 feet (1200m).

The 'sounds' (so-called) on the West Coast are in fact true fjords, which is why this area is called (correctly) Fiordland.

Fairy Falls

This is, I think, Fairy Falls, a very elegant waterfall on the southern side of the Sound. From the contours (and if I've identified it correctly), the height appears to be around 100m (330 feet). Tourist boats like to poke their bows close to the cliff, giving any hardy passengers in the bows a thrill and (if the wind gusts suddenly) more of a soaking than they expected.
A little farther along, this small stream starts at around 4000 feet on the slopes of Mitre Peak, and you can trace its route as it cascades all the way down to the sound.

The vertical bare strip of rock on the right hand side is very possibly the scar left by a 'tree avalanche', when some tree clinging to the steep rock face lost its grip and came down in a cascade of vegetation.

And towards the entrance of the fjord, this stream starts in a deep gully high on the slopes of the mountain and ends in a respectable waterfall onto a little beach.

Palisade Falls

Meanwhile, on the northern side of the fjord, this stream starts high on the slopes of the mountain called 'The Elephant'; according to the map, there are a 25m and a 55m (80 and 180-foot) waterfall at its lower end. According to A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls (J T Cheng) this is called Palisade Falls.

The Haast road

Heading north from Milford Sound, Jackson Bay (where the "West Coast" could be said to begin) is just 50 miles up the coast. 25 miles beyond that, by gravel road, is Haast. But in the 50 miles between Milford and Jackson Bay there is - nowhere. Or as close to nowhere as you can get. The coast of Fiordland must be the most deserted part of the country.
To get from Milford to Haast by road, one has to travel inland, south, then east, then north through Queenstown and Wanaka, and finally over the Haast Pass to regain the west coast. The Pass itself is a surprisingly easy road, considering it's crossing the Southern Alps. It is by no means a mountain road. The most dramatic aspect is the sudden change, in just a few miles, from the dried-up bare tussock lands of Central Otago, to the heavy rain-fed bush of the West Coast.

Gates of Haast

Descending the Haast Pass, the Haast River pours down the gorge in a cascade that could probably pass for a waterfall in some regions.

Thunder Creek

Just at the foot of the steep grade down the Haast, Thunder Creek falls into the Haast River, an easy hundred yards walk through bush from the main road. Quite a handsome fall, nicely framed by the milky-blue Haast River flowing in the foreground (it's powdered rock from eroded mountains makes it that colour).
All the tour buses stop there; I should think the footage of film expended on it in a week would eclipse what Purakaunui Falls gets in a month.

I've seen it quoted in several places as 28m (92 feet) high; however, the 1:50000 map gives it as 96m (315 ft) high. Based on its appearance, I'd go with the higher figure.
(Unfortunately, my pics are scanned from film prints so I have no EXIF record of focal length with which to try estimating it).

Arthur's Pass

The next pass north of Haast (for anyone other than serious hikers) is Arthur's Pass, 120 miles to the north; much more of a true mountain pass, and well endowed with waterfalls. Arthurs Pass village is a great place to spend the day on a fine summer's day, the air has that fresh Alpine feel to it.

Brums Creek (Paddock Hill) Waterfall

In the 'Waterfalls seen from a train' category... the return trip of the Tranz Alpine Express from Greymouth to Christchurch, between Moana and Jacksons (and 25 miles before the Pass itself) circles round the modestly named Paddock Hill, a strange, isolated bush-clad mountain of 3700' (1135m) height. Strange in that, in this mountainous region, the hill is entirely surrounded by flat pasture land (and a large lake). The Hill is large enough to have a number of sizeable streams running off it, one of which, Brums Creek, ends in a eyecatching waterfall.

As the train races across the flat valley, more waterfalls and cascades come into view. By my usual calculation, I estimate the lower fall to be 32m (105 feet) high.

Alexander Range

As the train winds up the valley of the Taramakau River, you can look across to the thickly bush-clad slopes of the Alexander Range. It's hard to tell which are waterfalls and which are wet rocks gleaming in the sun.

This is the West Coast, with onshore prevailing winds and mountains rising close to the coast, hence heavy rainfall. Everything is wet, and steep, these are notable waterfalls in their own right, but in these surroundings they don't even rate a name.

Reid Falls

Climbing steeply up the narrow gorge above Otira, towards the pass itself, the Arthurs Pass road passes underneath this waterfall. It looks artificial, but I guess the stream was always there... it may have been a higher fall (or cascade) before the sloping concrete chute was built. (The railway line is deep in tunnel beneath this point).
From a viewpoint beyond the top of the steep grade, you can look back down the gorge itself, and also across the gorge to this waterfall on the slopes of Mt Philistine. That's the Otira River flowing past the foot of the slope - I think. (If I've remembered the locality correctly).

There are many falls like this in the area.

This picture, and the one above, were taken in the early morning, hence the diffuse lighting and the paleness of the sky.

Avalanche Creek falls

And now, in Arthurs Pass village itself... I took the Tranz Alpine from Christchurh to Arthurs Pass, and had a pleasant five hours wandering around Arthurs Pass before catching the return train back. A nice excursion on a fine day.

Avalanche Creek comes down right behind the tourist Information Centre, just across the road from the station, in a series of falls stretching down the mountainside. A short track leads to a viewpoint for the lowest fall. As can be seen, the bright sunlight causes dark shadows in the deep narrow gorges and a headache for photographers.

Backing away from the base of the fall, towards the Bealey River, more of the slope comes into view. This was taken a little later in the day, when the sun was at more of an angle to the slope, which actually helped visibility of the falls in their gorge by reducing the contrast. Even so, I had to tweak this shot strongly to get the falls to show up.

The topmost fall is shown as 80m (262') on the map.

Devils Punchbowl Falls

The valley of Devils Punchbowl Creek cuts deeply into the face of the mountain behind. This is undoubtedly the prize waterfall of the Arthurs Pass area, and I think the best-looking fall in New Zealand. It's a good-sized fall too, I've seen it quoted as 524 feet (160m) or 439 feet (131m). So far as I can judge, scaling off my photos, I think the higher figure is nearer the mark.

This view of it, across the Bealey River, is just an easy level half-mile walk from the station.

To get closer, you can follow Devil's Punchbowl Track, through pleasant woodland, but a stiff climb up wooden steps as it climbs the right-hand hillside, then drops again into the valley to arrive at a viewing platform at the base of the fall.

There are fascinating patterns in the water as it falls. It may look even better later in the day, with the sun on it, or then again, not.

But the best view of all, I think, is from the lower reaches of Scotts Track, up the opposite side of the main valley. It's a moderate climb, actually easier than Devil's Punchbowl Track, and gives great views not only of falls, but also up and down the main valley.
A classic view of a classic waterfall.

Note the little companion fall to the left, which is probably bigger than some falls featured by name on these pages.

And - yet another photo, I can't resist it - the falls, seen in the landscape. Mt Cassidy to left, Mt Aicken to right.

This is what 28mm lenses are for!

Bridal Veil Falls

Just to the north of Devils Punchbowl creek is Bridal Veil Creek, also cutting into the face of the mountain. The map shows two falls on it, the lower of 60m, the upper of 108m. There's a track to it which starts from the same bridge across the Bealey River as Devils Punchbowl track, but I didn't take it, though it is, apparently, an easy walk. Instead, I just saw a long-distance view of the falls from Scotts Track. I think this is the upper falls, the lower falls being hidden in its valley.

The bright sunlight and deep shadows again made photography extremely difficult. This shot required major fiddling with camera exposures at the time and subsequent tweaking with Gimp to render the waterfall readily visible.

Rough Creek waterfalls

Rough Creek, the next stream to the south of Avalanche Creek, comes down to the valley at the southern end of Arthurs Pass village. According to the map, there are four sizeable falls on its upper branches, none of which seem to be visible from the road, but whether the steep foot track shown on the map heading up towards Mount Bealey affords a better view, I don't know.
This one, high up on the northern branch, counts as another 'waterfall seen from the train', in this case when leaving the Pass to return to Christchurch. The map says it's 100m high.

The Bealey River runs across the base of the slope
at the far edge of the grassy flat

Hidden Falls

And this one is not 'seen from the train' but 'heard while waiting for the train'. Neither the waterfall, nor even the stream, is named on the map - 'Hidden Falls' is just my name for it.

While standing on the station platform, you can hear a waterfall (and it isn't Avalanche Creek). Intently searching the slope opposite, across the Bealey River, you can just make out, hiding in the trees, a good-sized waterfall. The upper photo is all you see at first.

Looking intently, you can just make out the falls in the shadows of the trees. Photographing it on a sunny day is almost as difficult as discovering it - the photo was taken with exposure compensation override on maximum. An overcast day would be much better.

By the usual arcane methods, I calculate the height of the visible portion of this fall to be 18m or 59 feet high.

Sawmill Creek

East of Arthurs Pass, across the divide, everything is much drier. There are a few waterfalls, but nothing like the western side of the ranges. The slopes are steep enough, but the volume of water just isn't there.

This is Sawmill Stream, on the north side of the Waimakariri River valley. I don't know these mountains, but it looks to me like an avalanche has been down here recently.


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