Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.
The cows gave me a funny look as they heard the click of my camera’s shutter. They briefly stopped their chewing to size up if I was anything worth being concerned about. Apparently undeterred by my presence, heads descended one by one back into the grass to grab another bite. None of them seemed to realize what was worth looking at wasn’t below but behind them.
Wairere Falls, less than 20 minutes’ drive from Hobbiton, is the tallest waterfall in New Zealand. It becomes visible well before your arrival, where you’ll be greeted by a small parking lot and that herd of cows.
I arrived in the afternoon, intent on making a hike up despite there being just a few hours until sunset. July is the dead of winter in New Zealand, and while it’s not particularly cold, the sun disappears shortly after 5PM, despite not rising until after 7AM. Though there’s just one main path, there are a variety of stops along the way; roughly 45 minutes walk was said to place you at the bottom of the falls, while a hike to the top could take three hours or more each way. I had no designs on scaling the falls entirely; merely making it to the bottom would be more than enough. And with that more humble goal in mind, I set off.
The trek began easily enough, with a well-worn path through a tremendous forest. A woman and her dog went for a climb, as well, along with a few larger groups and families. I kept up an aggressive pace for fifteen minutes or so before the trail became increasingly thin and muddy. Wearing only running shoes not at all suited for the steep terrain ahead, I became more cautious with my steps.
Soon, the trail began to disappear, instead replaced by flattened brush and steeply ascending stones that suggested a direction but with far less authority than the paths below. I watched my steps to limit slipping, especially on the steeper and muddier slopes, and soon welcomed a fairly absurd flight of stairs, built solidly but essentially just resting on a few large boulders at the bottom and top, as if waiting to be carried away for use elsewhere.
Not long after the stairs, I spotted a freshly constructed bridge. Here, I thought, must be the observation point! So much for 45 minutes; I’d made it this far in well less than that mark. A giant boulder partly obstructing the path was the last challenge before reaching the bridge.
When I made it to my destination, I discovered little more than a stream. A woman taking pictures there with her husband must have seen my look of accomplishment turn to confusion and then disappointment as she stifled a laugh.
I carried on. Light came and went based more on the density of the canopy above than the angle of the sun, though I knew only an hour and change of daylight remained. Another set of preposterous stairs; another risky ascent over boulders; another freshly-constructed bridge. Still no falls.
The trail was becoming wearisome and I was running out of time. I was more ill-equipped for this adventure with each step, my shoes becoming more and more mud-caked and unreliable in traction. A pair of teenage boys – German, perhaps – zoomed by, as if from nowhere, moving at a speed I couldn’t comprehend. Wearing tall boots and hiking gear, they leaped without thought down sets of stones I took in a dozen careful steps, laughing along the way.
Ahead, I saw another bridge that appeared as if it might be a lookout point. This, I decided, would be my final destination. I had no idea if it would be the bottom of the falls or not; I could hear rushing water, but then again, the same had been true down below.
A rickety gangplank required some balancing to pass on the way to one more flight of stairs up to this bridge. Once there, I was happy to see at least a clear rush of water over stone, certainly more rapids than falls, but a fine consolation prize. I doubt that this was considered the low lookout point, and I have no idea how much farther up the path it would have come. The incline became much more treacherous from that point, and I knew my shoes simply weren’t up for it.
I took a quick picture, happy to have made it this far, if not quite all the way, and began my descent. Again, the teenage boys appeared from nowhere. One jumped onto a six-foot boulder in the middle of the river, climbed to its top and then slid down in a motion that led only to a victorious whoop from him but would have resulted in my swift death. He splashed through the river back and forth in his tall boots, very at home in his surroundings.
Down I went, along with the sun. I made it back to the base about 15 minutes before sunset. Realizing each minute further on would have been doubled on the way back, I was glad I turned around when I did instead of trudging on. The cows looked up once more but didn’t stop chewing. I thought about petting one, then thought about the customs agent I’d need to speak with a couple days later if I did. With another look at the falls from outside their pasture, I began my drive back to Auckland.