New Zealand – The Waterfall

The day after arriving on the Waimakariri River, we drove up the valley on Highway 73. After twelve kilometers, the highway crosses the river and heads up a side valley to Arthur’s Pass. To our right we passed the mouth of another long steep-sided valley that itself divided, with a sharp peak between the forks. The lower slopes were forested, with rock and snow above. Truly remarkable country.

To the left and right, long, steep slopes rose high above us, clothed in thick mountain beech forest. Beyond, wherever  we were able to look up a short side canyon, we could see snow and rock of the heights beyond.

The road climbs steadily up the valley, past the train station and visitor center. Here the railroad, which has been following the river, enters an 8.55-kilometer tunnel to burrow under the pass itself. The project took 14 years, from 1908 to 1923 through difficult rock. When tunneling crews from both ends met,  they were off by only 28 mm vertically and 19 mm horizontally! .

Below the pass, we pulled into a parking area within view of the Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall, plunging vertically 131 meters (430 feet) from a hidden basin. Crossing the river and the waterfall’s stream on metal bridges, we began the 80 or 100 meter climb (roughly 300 feet) up the wide, smooth but steep trail through thick beech forest. Large ferns and other plants grew beneath the trees. The Department of Conservation has constructed sturdy stairs up most of the grade, speeding our ascent and protecting the track from erosion.

Many people say they feel small when faced with a grand mountain view or stand beside a redwood tree. Usually, however, I feel the same size I have always been–the mountains or the tree themselves are wonderfully huge. However, immersed in the deep forest on this steep slope with trees arcing over us, I indeed felt small. We remembered Tolkein’s The Hobbit and his Lord of the Rings trilogy. His central characters are hobbits, humanlike but smaller. They encounter deep forests and high mountains outside of their day-to-day experience. The three of us on the trail agreed that we felt like hobbits.

Finally we emerged from the forest in a deep gorge close below the waterfall, on a sturdy viewing platform. Four hundred feet above, we could see the large stream, already foaming, emerge from a narrow cleft and hurtle downward, spreading. Then it hit a broad ledge and leapt into the sunlight, a brilliant white sheet in front of the vertical wall, breaking into streamers and comets as it descended. Refreshing spray blew  over us. The roar was deafening.

We stood in awe, feeling the power of the plunging water.

I had a vision of a character from Tolkein’s stories spending a day here, absorbing the power of wild nature into his being–empowered then to go and do.


About David McCoard

After earning my MS in geology I've done various things including managing the ski touring program at a small lodge in the Sierra. In 2010 I retired from Contra Costa College in California. I've always been fascinated by the mountains and nature and have spent countless days hiking, backpacking, climbing and skiing in the Sierra. The spiritual insights I've learned there have set the course for my life. Now I have time to share them and strike up a conversation.
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