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Stag Creek waterfall, Waitaha Valley, Westland

Stagger into paradise

As the thunder of a thousand white hooves hammered the rocks below this impressive 60m waterfall, we stripped off our clothes and plunged into the deep glacial green pool below.

Upstream, the iconic six-bunk Ivory Lake Hut is only 30-minutes’ climb away, requiring some nerve to negotiate the ledges on an exposed route to the cirque lake and remnant glacier.

Back in 1892, explorer Charlie Douglas said of the Waitaha Valley: ‘For grand scenery and difficulty getting to see it, this river very nearly holds first place in Westland.’

The only word I can think of for this postcard-perfect scene is ‘breathtaking’. I was certainly out of breath by the time we arrived at these falls on Stag Creek, a feeder of the Waitaha.

To reach these headwaters, one must follow an uncompromising route through three claustrophobic gorges: the Morgan, Waitaha, and Windhover. Between these sections of heinous scrub-bashing, the river can be followed by leaping over boulders the size of busses. Alternative access from the Mikonui or Whitcombe valleys includes exposed ridge traverses and tricky navigation, especially in thick mist.

Downstream from these falls, a family of whio glided in water that sparkled in the sunlight while kea nested on a rocky buttress. Burrowing through hidden passages in the tussock, weka searched for scraps. We counted ourselves lucky to be there.

The Morgan Gorge had been under threat from a now-scrapped hydropower development, but threats remain – a local helicopter company is offering scenic tours up the valley, to view Ivory Lake, which will cause noise pollution.

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2-3 days
Kiwi Flat, Moonbeam, Top Waitaha Ivory Lake Huts.
Up Waitaha Valley, south of Ross