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Wow Place #251: Kaiate Waterfall, North Island, New Zealand

What would it be like to see magic? I mean, “real” magic. Shapeshifting? Transmutation of matter? An actual flying carpet? I suspect it would be both exciting and disconcerting.

Seeing magic in the modern world is the subject matter of one of my favorite literary genres: “urban fantasy.” I’m not talking about medieval-era fantasies like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. I’m thinking of Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere,” Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians,” or my new favorite urban fantasy novel, “The Book of Doors,” by Gareth Brown: stories where everyday people in today’s universe become aware of a secret “other world” of magic, operating just adjacent to our own. Even Harry Potter could be considered “urban fantasy.”

Although I’ve never actually seen real magic myself, I’ve experienced the feeling of it on occasion while traveling, and nowhere more so than in New Zealand. There’s a reason why Peter Jackson chose NZ for his Hobbit movies (besides the fact that he’s from there, of course).

Specifically, there’s a curious phenomenon I’ve noticed, particularly on the North Island. On the face of it, the topside geography there is rather pastoral and sedate: rolling green hills, manicured fields, pastures, cows, etc. But the second you descend into one of the river gullies, the scenery changes dramatically. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by giant ferns, palm fronds and all manner of tropical trees and shrubbery. It’s like transporting yourself abruptly from Ireland to Hawaii. Standing on the side of the road, above a river valley, conventional farmland all around you, you would never guess that a whole other world exists nearby, just below your feet.

Such is my experience hiking down to Kaiate Falls, Te Rerekawau in Maori, just outside of Tauranga. From the parking lot, it seems like just another forest hike: Pine trees, pine cones, the odd creeping vine…the usual stuff. But as I drop down towards the river, a magical world emerges. Fifteen minutes later, I could easily be in an Indiana Jones movie, searching for a golden idol. Surrounded by tropical fauna, I gaze at a pristine waterfall spotlighted by a shaft of sunlight breaking through the jungle foliage. What a lovely scene! – made even more magical by the sheer unlikeliness of it all. Just fifteen minutes ago I was in the UK – now I’m in Fiji.

Kaiate Falls is the gift that keeps on giving. It features a three-tiered upper series of falls, followed by the attractive plunge of a lower waterfall, about 15m high. Although swimming isn’t recommended here due to non-hygienic water quality, I can imagine whiling away an utterly pleasurable afternoon (or five) here – drinking, picknicking, reading a good urban fantasy novel. Magical!

And who knows, if you’re really quiet, perhaps you’d even spot a Hobbit or two.

(What’s the closest you’ve come to experiencing magic in the world? I propose that there are magical experiences to be had wherever you go, with the right mindset. Even a walk through your neighborhood can be a Harry Potter adventure. Look at the colors of those flowers—yellow petals with blood-red spots. Amazing. Or that house with the 14 dragon sculptures in their garden. Surely Gandalf must live here. Take a walk around your ‘hood this afternoon and experience the magic in the everyday! If you look carefully for it, you’ll absolutely find it. But careful—it can be Hobbit forming.)