Header image courtesy of Holly Booth
The North versus South Island of New Zealand—which is better? Having just returned from a longer-than-expected trip to New Zealand (thank you, COVID-19 travel restrictions), I should now be in prime position to answer this, but it’s almost like asking a parent to choose their favourite child.
Both islands have so much to offer for literally any kind of holiday you might want, be it active, relaxing, beach, mountains, luxury, budget, healthy, or indulgent. So it makes it a little easier to compare the islands based on specific features or activities. Waterfalls are a good feature to start with and chasing them is a fun activity for either the summer or winter months.
While both islands boast an impressive total amount (249 officially recognised falls), I personally think the North Island takes the lead in the ‘cascading waters falling from height’ category. So at the risk of getting TLC stuck in your head for the rest of the day, read on to find out more about some of the more spectacular waterfalls on the North Island of New Zealand.
Let’s start with the North Island’s tallest waterfall. Located in the Kaimai Mamaku Conservation Park, about a two-hour drive from Auckland, these falls are impressive enough to be seen at a distance from the highway. To get the best views, however, you’ll need to get that heart rate up.
A five-kilometre return walking track with steep sections at times makes this one of the more challenging falls to get to on the island but with scenic benches to rest at, several beautiful cascades, and a diverse range of native forests to distract you, you’ll be at the top of the falls before you know it. Allow for three to four hours to complete this trip, depending on your level of fitness (and how many photos stops you make).
If you’re headed back towards Auckland, consider stopping for a night in Matamata where you can head to Hobbiton and put your tired, hairy hobbit feet up with a goblet of ale at the Green Dragon Inn. If you’re driving onwards, Tauranga is a nearby beautiful region to explore on the East coast and you can squeeze in the much smaller McLaren Falls on route if you didn’t get enough of a falls fix at Wairere.
Much more accessible, Owharoa Falls is only a five-minute walk from the side of the main road making it the perfect pitstop after a long drive to stretch the legs, have a quick dip or get your ‘gram on.
Found in the Coromandel region (add it to your list of areas to visit if you haven’t done so already), the Owharoa Falls are nestled in the Karangahake Gorge and are tall enough, wide enough, and photogenic enough to make them definitely worth the stop if you are driving to or from the Coromandel.
The Coromandel Peninsula was once a hotspot for gold mining and evidence of its rich mining past can be found throughout the area. One of the best examples of this can be found only a few kilometres away from the falls at the Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway. The whole walkway totals around seven kilometres but there are lots of different route options to suit all ages and abilities as well as separate trails for cyclists. Don’t forget to bring a torch to explore the old tramway tunnels.
Often referred to as “the winterless north,” the Northland borders the Auckland region and covers everything in the top chunk of the island. Rich in Mauri culture, numerous beaches, and incredible forest parks, the Northland is also a great spot to tick off some more waterfalls.
The Rainbow Falls, or ‘Waianiwaniwa’ (translates to “waters of the rainbow,” funnily enough), can be reached by two ways. If you’re pressed for time or just feeling lazy, head to the main car park where you’ll find the falls just a short 400-metre walk away. If you’re looking to get your steps in though, you can either start at the top of the falls and walk down towards the basin or vice versa—either way takes about an hour.
The basin area of the falls offers further entertainment where the Stone Store, New Zealand’s oldest stone building can be found as well as various other heritage sights and a few attractive cafés for a post-walk caffeine hit. The nearby town of Keri Keri is also worth a trip with numerous cafés and galleries to meander through. If you’re there on a weekend, definitely check out the Packhouse Market held on Saturdays and Sundays. Go early and don’t eat beforehand!
Whangarei (pronounced ‘fang-a-ray’) is the northernmost city in New Zealand and is a great spot to base yourself for a night or two with many activities and tourist attractions located within reasonable driving distance.
It is also home to the Whangarei Falls. Found less than a 10-minute drive away from the city, these could almost be considered ‘urban falls’ but walk a short distance from the carpark and you’ll forget you’re just up the road from a bustling city (bustling for New Zealand standards, that is).
An easy one-kilometre circular loop track provides access to three viewing platforms so you can view the falls from a variety of angles and enjoy the tranquil walk among local flora and fauna in between photoshoots. Winning some bonus points here, these falls pour into a wide plunge pool where you can stop for a dip and then set up a picnic at one of the perfectly placed tables on the shoreline.
If you’re carrying on north from Whangarei, stop for a night or two in Paihia where you can go check out the humble Haruru falls. Or, if you’ve had enough of rivers, there’s plenty more on offer. Soak up some sun on one of the many nearby pristine beaches, swim with dolphins, learn about Mauri history, or sit on the jetty and sample some of New Zealand’s freshest seafood.