McLean Falls

McLean Falls in Catlins Conservation Park on New Zealand's South Island—are waterfalls a metaphor for life?
McLean Falls in Catlins Conservation Park on New Zealand's South Island—are waterfalls a metaphor for life?

What is it about waterfalls? Rushing over cliffs. Free-falling. Misting the air. A ceaseless torrent of everlasting hurry that ends, quietly, in placid tranquillity in a pool, a river, a fjord. Every waterfall as uniquely different as the person taking in its power and beauty.

Many of us plan hikes, honeymoons—even entire vacations around waterfalls. McLean Falls isn’t in that category. If Niagara is a Crown Jewel, McLean is an emerald chip.

“Nice if you’ve come down the East Coast, but less impressive if you’ve just come from Fjordland,” according to our guidebook author Scott Cook and after seeing Fjordland’s waterfalls cascade 300 metres down the mountainside, we agree. But still, it’s intensely green, saturated with colour, a touch of brilliance.

Located on the South Island of New Zealand just three kilometres off the Southern Scenic Route, McLean Falls cascades twenty-two metres. McLean is the most dramatic waterfall in Catlins Conservation Park.

A gravelled walk follows the Tautuku River to the lower cascades where a sign points the way to the top. Through a rainforest jungle of ferns and twisted trees such as rimu, kamahi, fuchsia, olearia and podocarp, you criss-cross boardwalks and foot bridges. In just two kilometres you’re at a railing with a frontal view of the waterfall surrounded on both sides by forest-green rocks cushioned with moss.

I wondered if McLean Falls was named for the wealthy Scottish family from the Isle of Moll who came to New Zealand and amassed an even bigger fortune. It was not. The falls were named after Doug McLean, a farmer who allowed people to traverse his land to visit them. You get a sense of Doug from the name he gave to a Tautuku tributary he bathed in—”Duckaday.” Although the falls are in a park, community-minded locals still bush-whack the trail and mend the bridges.

When our nephew KJ lived in Dunedin, McLean Falls was a day trip. “They’re a Sleeping Beauty, a lesser-known attraction in the southern interior,” he says, “the staircase to the upper falls is like a sidetrack.”

Nearby Purakaunui Falls is perhaps the most famous waterfall in the Catlins, accessed by an easy ten-minute bush walk. Its three-tiered wedding-cake cascade is a photographer’s bliss. Again we agree with Scott Cook’s comparison of the two,  Purakaunui is “nothing as impressive as McLean’s track.”

Waterfalls stimulate all our senses. We see a curtain of crystalline water lacing the air. Hear the perpetual soliloquy of water in motion. (The French composer Olivier Messiaen used to go on treks in tropical rainforests and note down the musical form of streams and waterfalls.) Smell the fresh clean air, its abundance of negative ions increasing our levels of serotonin and enhancing respiration. Feel a renewal of spirit. Taste droplets of spray carried by the wind.

Are waterfalls a metaphor for life? You find your edge, take a wild plunge, get blown off-course by strong winds, sharp rocks or uprooted branches. Maybe land in a pool of contentment. Or a pond of stale water. Or carry on down the mountain carving a new path. Or get swept into the ocean…

We had a pleasant surprise at McLean Falls—an abundance of birdsong. Maybe the local farmers are keeping those nasty possums under control.

Magellan and I are planning a trip to Iceland with destinations that include Selfoss, Gullfoss, Goddafoss, Haifoss, Dettifoss, Kirkjufellsfoss, Svartifoss, Skogafoss… See a pattern? In Iceland as in Norway, the word for waterfall is ‘Foss’, a Latin derivative relating to “light.” McLean Falls added a little light to our day; the sheer number, size and magnificence of Iceland’s waterfalls has the potential to set us on fire.


Cook, Scott. NZ Frenzy New Zealand South Island. Bend, Oregon: Maverick Publications, 2010.

World of Waterfalls is a comprehensive compilation of everything you ever wanted to know about many, many of the world’s waterfalls.


6 Responses

  1. Very pretty, “ Mother Nature” showing her tranquility in motion.
    Another example of why “Water” is so important to life.

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