I'd like to think I'm a bit of a waterfall connoisseur. You only have to look at how many of my photos include waterfalls to know they're one of my favourite landscape photography subjects in NZ. That's why I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I hadn't ever visited Tarawera Falls until recently especially as it is certainly doable as a day trip from home.
I found myself with a rare Saturday to spare in December - originally I'd planned to drive up to Auckland to visit the gannet colony and while that is definitely still on the bucket list, on this particular day I actually fancied more of an all day adventure. So I headed off with my photography buddy Andrew into the wop wops (that's what we New Zealanders like to call the back country) to find this place. I'd had several people tell me that Tarawera Falls was by far the most impressive waterfall they'd ever seen and I must admit I was a bit skeptical - it's a big call when NZ has so many lovely waterfalls and especially when I've seen so many. But I went along with an open mind and was absolutely blown away by the whole experience and I loved this place so much I went back again for a another visit 3 weeks later!
The first thing that I surprised me was how enjoyable and quiet the drive to the falls was through the forestry roads - we hardly saw another car and the framing of the pine trees added a lovely atmosphere to the drive. You need a permit to go to Tarawera Falls so you'll need to stop in at the Kawerau information centre and pay the $5 to get the permit to access the forestry roads leading to the falls and the campground at the Outlet. It's important as it helps them know how many people are in the area so don't go cutting corners! Also the gates are only open during daylight hours so you will need to check with the information centre when to be out by if you are just visiting the falls as a day trip.
The colour of the water downstream of Tarawera Falls reminds me so much of The Blue Spring - it's so crystal clear and a vivid aqua colour that it's hard to believe it's real. There's a beautiful spot along the river where there is a rock out in the river and you can actually perch halfway up a tree branch to get a shot of the river flowing by - I love the shot I got with the bubbles floating downstream past the rock.
Tarawera Falls is quite unique! The source of the falls is the flow of water from Lake Tarawera - it is channelled along a series of underground rivers, appearing and disappearing several times and tumbling over a few smaller waterfalls on its journey down to the main Falls. It's quite eerie and unnerving to stand in a spot and watch the water just disappear out of sight beneath you - it takes a bit of getting used to! I actually really enjoyed the upper area of the Falls - there's two rather nice waterfalls to shoot and if you don't mind the short sharp slog uphill to reach this area then you should definitely allow some time in your visit to explore here.
The forest here is beautiful. It still can't beat the Whirinaki Forest - that's still my favourite by far BUT it is still a great example of beautiful NZ native forest. The best way to experience the forest is to make sure that you do the upper walk to the underground rivers and waterfalls as you'll get to wander in amongst the forest for a good hour on this round trip.
Mind the spray! You won't find a more impressive flow of water as Tarawera Falls pours out of several fissures in the cliffs some 65 metres up, but with that comes the challenge of trying to take a good shot without getting your camera completely covered in spray. Can I just say it's a little bit inevitable though so you just have to be prepared for it (take along an umbrella and a buddy to hold it) and some microfiber cloths and be willing to clean your filters and lenses afterwards! It's really exhilarating standing at the base of the falls feeling the spray hit you and well worth it even if you find it challenging to get a good shot. There's also a nice spot up beside the tree on the main track where you can shoot through some lovely ferns to the falls for another composition.
A trip to Tarawera Falls makes a lovely day trip from Rotorua, Tauranga or even the Waikato and you can definitely lose yourself here exploring in the forest for a good few hours to make a whole day of it. I loved how far from civilisation it felt, a real back country experience and the fact you can explore both upstream and downstream of the main waterfall makes for a great variety of scenery in a relatively small area. It's a true NZ landscape photography gem and a spot that utterly captivated me!
Tarawera Falls is approx 1.5 hours drive from Rotorua. Take SH 30 to Kawerau (pick up your access permit at the information centre $5 per car) and then continue onto the Falls (another 30 minutes).
Check out my other NZ waterfall posts for more inspiration:
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