Jackie’s Journey: Waipori Falls

One of the hardest things about this lifestyle can be finding a place which is completely and utterly yours, even for just a short while. Often you arrive at a secluded spot, only to have someone trundle in behind you a few minutes later.

Lake Mahinerangi provided a nice, if unexpected detour
And many times, we’ve driven for hours without seeing another vehicle and reached our destination to find the world and his wife have already beaten us to it. How they manage it, we can never fathom! But for one glorious day recently, we managed to achieve it.

We couldn’t have picked a better day as we passed through Tapanui and the Blue Mountains in West Otago. As you may imagine, this spectacular hill country road had us going up and down like a yo-yo in one of the most beautiful traverses over rural countryside you could hope to see.

I was so busy being impressed, I almost forgot my fear of heights, and before long we had arrived at the delightful town of Lawrence, tucked into the hills of the Clutha Region.

As a rule, one simply does not go through Lawrence without stopping, but today we were on a mission to reach Waipori Falls. Also known as the Crystal Falls, this mystical place is hidden away off the beaten track, and as we were to discover, the journey there is also out of this world.

The ‘Forgotten world highway’ of the south

Wind turbines, open fields and gravel road for miles

Having turned off at Lawrence, we found ourselves quite literally on the road to goodness knew where. When travelling to Waipori from Dunedin there is plenty of information, but from elsewhere?

With the exception of a couple of topographical maps online, there is nothing to give an intrepid traveller the merest hint of what lies ahead. It is best described however, as the Forgotten World Highway of the South.

While the route from A to B is just 35km long, it is a journey which cannot be rushed. Besides, you won’t want to. Despite being gravel throughout, it is very easy to drive on. Along we pootled for ages, the only souls on the road, until we came upon the stunning spectacle that is Loch Loudon, right at the side of the road.

You could have heard a pin drop as we strolled, sat, and stood for ages, admiring the view and the birdlife. Sadly, try as we might, we’ve also been unable to find any information other than its geographical location, but what Loudon lacks in detail it more than makes up for in serene splendour.

Jackie at Loch Loudon

Such a peaceful spot was hard to leave, but the lure of the Crystal Falls eventually drew us away. On and on we drove, at an athletic snail’s pace, up, down, and around, through wide open countryside dotted with rabbit burrows and hopeful hawks.

At last, the road abruptly narrowed and we found ourselves descending towards Waipori. Vehicles longer than nine metres cannot proceed past this point and it was soon easy to see why people refer to Waipori as ‘the Hidden Village’.

The narrow road completely bypasses the 33 houses and you get the feeling of it being a sacred place, where outsiders shouldn’t intrude. We were happy to leave it that way, and continued crawling slowly down the hill until we arrived at the Waipori Falls carpark. To our delight, once again we were the only vehicle there!

Into the unknown and overgrown

Plenty of parking at the entrance to the track

Reaching the falls themselves entails a 10-minute walk along a track. Your feet and clothes will no doubt get wet from all the overgrown ferns and bushes, but it’s all part of the fun.

The track leads you to a ‘lookout’; however be aware, there’s no view of the falls from here at all! Fortunately there was information about this online and we were already prepared.

If you want to see the 25-metre multi-step waterfall in all its glory, you need to be a bit – make that a lot – more adventurous. Gareth clambered down and hopped nimbly from rock to rock, while I slid, grasped at branches and even had a tantrum when I thought I couldn’t get to the other side, but mercifully I made it.

Spiderwebs glistened, dappled sunlight shone through the trees and there was waterfall after rushing waterfall, drowning out the noise of the abundant tui and bellbirds.

Gareth climbed halfway up the main waterfall for an even better view, but I knew my limits! You do need a certain level of fitness and mobility to get down to the falls; we would describe it as medium-hard ability.


A stunning stop in the middle of nowhere

If you can only go as far as the lookout, we would honestly say don’t bother, as it’s a heck of a long drive not to be able to see anything! But if you can manage the climb, do. The journey there is just as good as the destination, whichever direction you approach it from.

We lost track of how long we stayed there, but we were the only ones throughout and revelled in the peace and solitude. Upon returning to the carpark, the plan was to continue on to Dunedin via Waipori Gorge and Lake Waihola.

What we didn’t know was the Otago Rally was on and the road was closed for the rest of the day. Disappointing as it was, there was nothing for it but to double back the way we had come, along the gravel road, until we could turn off at Lake Mahinerangi.

To our amusement, we also found we had somehow accidentally become part of the rally and Gareth had a great time as we chugged along in our little campervan, amid the roar of engines and past the pit stops, until we finally emerged at Milton, and back in civilisation.

In this way of life there are precious few places where you are truly alone, but that day we found some. And Gareth is still adamant he came fifth in the Otago Rally.

What to do at Waipori

To get to Waipori Falls from the Dunedin end, head towards Berwick, past Dunedin International Airport. From there, turn down Waipori Falls Road and follow it through the Gorge. There are also many enjoyable things to see and do at the Waipori River, Lake and Gorge, however. Such as:

  • taking a break at some of the many riverside picnic spots in the Waipori Falls Scenic Reserve
  • swimming at some of the many water holes
  • kayaking
  • walking or cycling the 7km Government Track, a rough 19th-century dray path above the Waipori River Gorge. Look for the start of the track off Waipori Falls Road.
  • fishing in the Waipori River or at Lake Mahinerangi
  • or, simply relax and enjoy the native bush and birdlife. Whatever you do, just check to make sure the road is open first!
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