From Omanawa Falls in the north to Sutherland Falls in the south, New Zealand has some pretty spectacular waterfalls. Tarawera Falls may not be the tallest or widest or arguably even the most scenic. It is however unique, but to appreciate and understand what makes this waterfall so special you really need to discover what’s above the falls.
Prior to our visit, we’d seen photos of the falls, and while it was on our list of places to visit in the Rotorua area, it wasn’t that high on our list to be perfectly honest. That changed when our guide on a trip to nearby Mount Tarawera mentioned that while it’s a little off the beaten track, we should definitely visit Tarawera Falls and the disappearing river. Now that last bit is what got us really interested.
In terms of being off the beaten track, there are a few things you’re going to want to know before visiting. While only about 25 km from Rotorua as the crow flies, the actual drive on Highway 30 heads east towards Kawerau and then west again into the Tarawera Forest which makes the drive closer to 80 km. The last 20 km of the route is on gravel logging roads which require a permit to drive. Fortunately the permits are cheap, just $5 per car when we visited, and you can get one from the Kawerau Information Centre (Plunket Street, Kawerau 3127) or online. Before visiting, we suggest you contact the information centre to make sure that the forest is in fact open to the public as it’s sometimes closed for logging activities.
Something else worth mentioning, based on our experience on other New Zealand logging roads we’ve driven, is that the condition of the roads can vary significantly based on the time of year and whether or not the forest is being logged at the time. It goes without saying that you really don’t want to treat this as some rally stage in your rental Toyota Corolla or Juicy Campervan because an encounter between you and a logging truck will not end well. But don’t let any of this put you off. On the day we visited, a Sunday in winter, we pretty much had the roads to ourselves and they were in good condition. That said, we were in our trusty VW truck so prepared for just about anything.
Tarawera Outlet Track to Tarawera Falls
From the carpark to the falls themselves is a short 15 – 20 minute walk along a well formed path that follows the crystal clear Tarawera River. If you’re short on time, you can simply walk to the falls and back and then head on to your next destination. But if you’re going to go to the effort of driving all the way out there, you really should consider making a proper outing of it in which case you should definitely walk the Tarawera Outlet to Tarawera Falls Track. This is a 5 km track which follows the Tarawera River from the falls to the DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite at the outlet on Lake Tarawera.
This track will take you anything from 1.5 to 2 hours, or longer if you stop to swim along the way. Bear in mind that this is one way so unless you’ve arranged a pickup at the other end, allow for the same time back. On the day we walked, we started from the falls and walked upstream but in hindsight, we should have started at the outlet because the river tells a far better story that way as you’ll see.
Getting to the Tarawera Outlet Campsite is only a few kilometres further than driving to the falls directly. You’ll still take the same road from Kawerau but approximately 15 km from the Kawerau information centre you’ll take a signposted turning to the left and from there it’s another 12 km.
Tarawera’s Lazy Start
The Tarawera River makes its lazy start at the eastern end of Lake Tarawera, a popular summer holiday destination for boating and fishing. The campsite does have toilets and running water however, since this water comes from the river directly, as pure and clean as it looks, its still advisable to boil before drinking, or simply bring your own.
From the outlet campsite, there’s a wooden bridge over the river and in the clear shallow water below, you may be lucky and spot some trout. In the distance to the south is Wahanga Dome, one of the three main domes of Mount Tarawera.
The track follows the northern bank of the river as it slowly meanders its way downstream through the forest. About 2 km from the bridge, the track emerges from the forest for a short section and if you’re lucky, as we were, you may get to see a few wallabies sunning themselves. Yes, wallabies in New Zealand.
Heading further downstream, the forest becomes thicker and the path more interesting. On the day we were there, we came across this rather large boulder, a stark reminder that just above us were cliffs doing what they do naturally over time, erode. Of course statistically, the chances of being hit by a boulder like this are pretty minimal but this is a thought best left unthought.
Tarawera River Swimming Hole
About an hour from the outlet is a particular highlight of the walk in the form of a clear, inviting swimming hole, complete with rope swing. Inviting as it looked, given that it was winter and we we weren’t feeling that brave/stupid, we didn’t get to swim but we will definitely go back in summer.
Don’t however be tempted to go exploring the river itself much beyond this pool as things become a lot less inviting the further you go.
The Disappearing River
After the upper Tarawera Falls (with the deadly swimming pool), the river does something interesting, it splits, and while a part of it continues to flow downstream as a normal river should, most of it simply disappears into a hole in the ground as you can see below. You may well be tempted to go and have a closer look at that hole, but given the slippery state of the rocks, that wouldn’t necessarily be one of your best ideas since there’d be no coming back from falling in there.
A little further downstream, the track splits and you can head off to the right or continue on the main track. We suggest taking this short detour to the right as it follows the section of the river that’s still above ground as it rushes through a number of channels before also disappearing underground. Shortly after that, if you have a head for heights, look for a path to your right which will take you to a clifftop lookout with views of the Tarawera River valley.
From the lookout, this side track heads back towards the main track which will take you to the foot of the falls. Along the way, listen for the sound of the underground river. At one point you can hear it rushing below your feet towards its inevitable date with gravity, but you won’t see a thing.
Tarawera Falls – The Main Event
Tarawera Falls is in fact two waterfalls in one and what you actually see on the day depends on how much rain there’s been previously, and the level of the lake. There’s a typical ‘over the edge’ type waterfall that drops a respectable 65m but unfortunately wasn’t flowing on the day we visited. However, it’s the re-emergence of the underground river that’s the real spectacle as it erupts out of the cliff face like a dam wall about to break.
To be honest, our photos don’t do this waterfall justice and you really have to be there to get the full experience. While the lower section of the falls is only around 35m high, it’s still pretty spectacular. If you look closely at the photo below you’ll see the outline of a person sitting on a rock at the base of the falls which should give you a sense of scale.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Tarawera Falls which, together with the Tarawera Outlet Track, makes for a great day out. We will definitely be back there in summer to have a swim and a picnic at the swimming hole. Unsurprisingly, this is now high on our list of top things to do when visiting the Rotorua area so when planning your Rotorua itinerary you should definitely make time see Tarawera Falls and its disappearing river.
Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Rotorua region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Rotorua.