Purakaunui Falls was probably the one waterfall in the Catlins area that received the most attention because it seemed to have fronted postcards and calendars more so than the others in the area that we had seen. The falls itself had "character" as Julie liked to say largely because its three-tiered 15m drop fell in steps that was really friendly for long exposure photos that would better display its texture. Plus, this waterfall was pretty easy to visit once we got to its car park.
Our visit was pretty straightforward. Once we got past the trailhead sign (saying it was a 10-minute walk to get there) onto the well-developed walk, we were in a lush bush setting with a handful of interpretive signs talking about some of the flora that was growing in the area like tawhai ("TAW-fai") and matai among others. Shortly thereafter, we followed along the Purakaunui Stream where we got a look over the top of Purakaunui Falls at an upper overlook before descending down elongated steps leading to a wooden viewing deck with the frontal view of the falls you see in the picture at the top of this page.
With the viewing deck, we didn't necessarily need to have a tripod and could have used the sturdy wooden railings to take the long exposure photos, but I brought my tripod anyways just in case. The view of the falls was partially obstructed by foliage flanking our line-of-sight so it was never really completely open. However, I did notice some scrambling tracks (I doubt the Department of Conservation would approve of this) that led closer to the waterfall shortly before the start of the wooden lookout deck.
I'd imagine those alternate shots of Purakaunui Falls that we saw in the literature were probably a result of photographers bending the wilderness ethics a bit and starting their own tracks to get that "unusual" or "non-cliche" shot. Julie and I had been to this waterfall in December 2004 and December 2009, and in each time, we spent roughly 20 minutes round trip, which made the sign's estimated walk time pretty spot on.
There were several routes to get to Purakaunui Falls, but we'll describe only the routes that we took starting with perhaps the most straightforward one.
From Balclutha (about 81km southwest of Dunedin along SH1), we turned left on High St (about 1km west of the bridge over the Clutha River) and took this street as it soon became the Owaka Hwy. We followed this road, which coincided with the signposted Southern Scenic Route, for about 36km (becoming Papatowai Hwy along the way) until we made a left onto Purakaunui Falls Rd. We then followed this road for roughly 9km to the signposted car park and trailhead.
From Invercargill, follow the directions shown in the Matai Falls page, then continue on the Papatowai Hwy for about 12km before turning right onto Purakaunui Falls Rd.
On our visit in 2004, we actually drove roughly 4.5km east of Matai Falls to the Waikoato Valley Rd (unsealed and a little rough), then took it for 4km to the Purakaunui Falls Rd where we turned left and reached the car park shortly thereafter.
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