19 November 2019
It rains a lot here. I reckon I might have mentioned that once or twice already, and the fact that this is quite probably the wettest spring New Zealand has known in a couple of decades is little consolation.
But things have got better in recent days. On the west coast it rained pretty much all the time for days on end, whereas here in the Catlins we at least get periods of cheerful sunshine mixed in with torrential downpours, spiteful hailstorms and banshee winds. And the good news is that, of course, all the water has to go somewhere. They say this place is waterfall heaven.
Having parked up, the loop track to McLean Falls is meant to take us about 30 minutes, but our excessive activity of the last few weeks is starting to take its toll. We’re both carrying minor injuries, and hobbling along rather than striding out is the best we can manage.
But it’s worth the effort: at 22 metres high this is the tallest waterfall in the Catlins. We hear the tumultuous crashing long before we catch sight of it, white water tumbling heroically over the main drop, then cascading over a series of smaller terraces.
Worshippers in ancient Japan, followers of Shintoism, revered creations of nature which exhibited a particular beauty and power – such as waterfalls. Standing here today, mesmerised by the majesty of MacLean Falls, I think I can understand something of their viewpoint: this place is magical, spiritual even.
Before long, however, we’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Driving to the next waterfall on our list we find the way blocked by a monstrous, ill-disciplined regiment of sheep moving en masse towards us along the gravel road. During our first five weeks in New Zealand we’ve seen fewer sheep than we’d anticipated. And now we know why: they’re all here, on this remote back road in the Catlins, standing between us and Purakaunui Falls.
I stop, kill the engine and wait for matters to unfold. The road is wide, so there’s plenty of room for the flock to pass safely. But they’re plainly spooked and having none of it. The guy driving them doesn’t help matters much, leaping from his quad bike, yelling and thrashing the road surface vigorously. With what? A crook? A branch torn from a nearby tree? A whip, maybe? I can’t quite see what Mr Whippy’s using – there are several hundred sheep in the way – but he’s causing a commotion, making one hell of a noise. And all to no good purpose.
The sheep are panicking, eyes bulging, milling around frantically. They don’t have the courage – or the wit – to move past my stationary Toyota Camry. Eventually a rebel group decides on full retreat, and makes a run for it past Mr Whippy and back up the road they’ve recently walked down.
Old Man Whippy’s incensed, and sends his demented sheepdog off in pursuit. It catches up with the deserters and cajoles them back into the flock. Another gang of malcontents makes a new break for freedom. Once again the dog hurtles off in pursuit and ushers its quarry back into the fold. And still, not one single sheep will venture past my static motor.
Matters continue in this vein for some ten minutes. Mr Whippy’s close to apoplectic now, and I’m beginning to feel sorry for him. He’s trying his best, but clearly having one of those day’s that shepherds must dread. If I don’t take control of the situation he’ll most probably have a heart attack.
I fire up the engine, and edge forward slowly through the mass of crazed sheep, nudging them gently aside. At last one of them slips past me and into the promised land, a stretch of wide, totally empty and whip-free road behind the car. Where one sheep leads the others soon follow, joyously living up to their reputation.
At last the road ahead is clear, apart from Mr Whippy. He’s trying to regain his dignity, pretending everything went according to plan. As I drive past him I wind the window down and smile sweetly.
“G’day mate,” I say to him, waving cheerfully.
What a prat, I think to myself, seething silently.
“Like a wedding cake,” is how our guidebook describes the 20m high Purakaunui Falls. “Three tiers of splendour,” it goes on to explain, evidently clocking the fact that very few of us have a wedding cake fashioned from white water and mucky grey rocks. This all sounds a bit desperate to me, but when we get there we can see the waterfall is quite special.
The website waterfalls.co.nz says Purakaunui Falls is the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand. How do they know that? Are there armies of men with clipboards stationed at each of the 258 waterfalls on their list, interrogating visitors as they leave, demanding that all selfies be declared and counted?
Or is there a secret sliver of code in Instagram and Facebook, code that logs all photos of New Zealand waterfalls on to a mysterious Excel spreadsheet at waterfalls.co.nz head office?
Or maybe it’s just fake news, which seems to be all the rage these days? Whatever, Purakaunui Falls is pleasing to the eye and deafening to the ear, and definitely worth a visit despite our close encounters of the sheepish kind. However there’s no time to dilly-dally as we still have one more waterfall to visit today.
In fact, on our final trek of the day we get two waterfalls for the price of one. Horseshoe Falls and Matai Falls are located on the Matai Stream in the Catlins Forest Park, within a few hundred metres of each other. Both are given three stars by waterfalls.co.nz, one fewer than Purakauni Falls. By way of contrast Mclean Falls, which we visited first today, rates a massive five stars. So, in other words, we’ve got this all wrong, saving the worst until last.
“Worst?” That’s way too harsh. In a land blessed by so many waterfalls there are inevitably winners and losers, and in the waterfalls.co.nz beauty pageant Horseshoe Falls and Matai Falls are – relatively speaking – losers.
And yet, if we had these waterfalls back in the UK folk would go wild about them, poets would pen verses in their honour and photographers would snap away at them madly in the hope of getting their work published in the annual Countryfile Calendar. Here, however, they are merely ‘also-rans.’
Which just goes to show that here, in New Zealand, we are indeed in waterfall heaven