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LOTR - Waterfalls in Mordor?

By Johnny Cheng
Many people around the world familiar with the Peter Jackson rendition of the Lord of the Rings movies are well aware that much of the forbidding land of Mordor that was not created by computer was filmed in parts of Tongariro National Park. It's a fitting location considering the volcanic nature of the park and the rugged, rocky terrain that embodies the fiery wasteland appropriate for a land filled with orcs, giant spiders, and demons. But in reality, Tongariro National Park is far more diverse and scenic than its portrayal in the Lord of the Rings movies. Besides conical volcanoes, old lava flows, and jagged rocks, you'll also find colorful pools, hot springs, tussock plains, and even waterfalls! Given the relatively high rainfall that New Zealand gets and the ability of the Tongariro volcanoes to capture much of this moisture as both snow and rain, much of this water drains through gullies, springs, and gorges on their way towards their Central Plateau base. Through some walks in the area, you can witness many of the major waterfalls as well as some smaller nameless ones.

Perhaps the most dramatic waterfalls found in Tongariro National Park are on the south-facing slopes of the still-active Mt Ruapehu. After ascending parts of the Ohakune Mountain Road, you can access both Mangawhero Falls (which made an appearance in the Lord of the Rings movie as the Henneth Annun's Forbidden Pool) as well as the track for Waitonga Falls - the tallest waterfall in the National Park. On the west-facing slopes towards Ruapehu's foothills, you can see both Taranaki Falls and Tawhai Falls. Taranaki Falls, near the junction of the Tongariro Northern Circuit Track and connecting tracks leading back to Whakapapa Village, gushes through a narrow opening of an old lava flow before crashing 20m at its boulder-ringed base. Tawhai Falls occurs where the Whakapapanui Stream makes a 10m plunge into a deep pool. Finally, the world-famous Tongariro Crossing Track holds additional waterfall surprises complementing the colorful, forbidding, yet otherworldly moonscape scenery. Such surprises include Soda Springs, where mineral-laced water percolates out from the porous volcanic rock nourishing the neighboring vegetation. Meanwhile, on the north-facing slopes of the park, the track leaves the moonscape and tussock grasslands and enters a lush rainforest, where a pleasant unnamed waterfall greets trampers before the end of the trail.

Indeed, the waterfalls found in Tongariro National Park reinforce the scenic diversity you're rewarded with upon a visit to New Zealand. With its mix of volcanic moonscapes, tussock plains, rainforests, and waterfalls, it's no wonder why visitors to this part of the country remember it so fondly. And like an actress that can play many different roles movies to attract an audience, New Zealand's Tongariro National Park does the same - both on and off the silver screen.

Johnny T. Cheng is author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls (Story Nature Press).

Find out more about his book at or visit his waterfalls blog at

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