Last Updated on June 19, 2023

New Zealand is renowned for its stunning landscapes, from majestic mountains to pristine coastlines. While the country is not typically associated with deserts, it is home to several arid regions that boast their own unique charm.

These arid landscapes may not fit the traditional definition of a desert, yet they showcase a distinct beauty and provide a captivating contrast to the country’s lush greenery.

Deserts of New Zealand

Rangipo Desert

Rangipo Desert
Rangipo Desert

The Rangipo Desert (Te Onetapu) is a volcanic desert located in the central North Island of New Zealand. It is located on the southern flanks of Mount Ruapehu, one of the three active volcanoes in the central North Island.

The desert is made up of a variety of volcanic materials, including ash, pumice, and lava. It is one of the driest locations in the country, located in the Taupo Volcanic Zone, which is a region of active volcanism in the central North Island of New Zealand.

The soil in the Rangipo Desert is very poor, and it is difficult for plants to grow. However, there are a few hardy plants that have adapted to the harsh conditions, including tussock grass, shrubs, and herbs.


The Rangipo Desert was formed over millions of years by volcanic activity. The area was once covered by a large lake, but it eventually dried up, leaving behind a vast expanse of sand and rock.

The first people to live in the Rangipo Desert were the Maori, who arrived in New Zealand around 1,000 years ago. The Maori used the desert for hunting and gathering, and they also built several pa (fortified villages) in the area.

Waitaki Desert

Waitaki Desert

One of the most arid locations in New Zealand is the Central Otago region, which is located in the South Island.

This region receives an average of only 300 millimeters of rainfall per year, and it is home to the Waitaki Desert, the largest desert in New Zealand. The Waitaki Desert is a stark and windswept landscape, with little vegetation to speak of.

The Waitaki Desert may lack the classic desert features like sand dunes and cacti, its magnificent vistas of rugged hills and wide-open plains more than compensate.

As you wander through this windy landscape, you’ll encounter vast stretches of seemingly barren land, sparsely adorned with plants. The absence of abundant vegetation adds to the desert-like ambiance.

Here, the resilient tussock grass stands tall, reaching heights of up to three meters. Its golden hue gleams in the sunlight, casting long shadows on the parched ground.

The Central Otago Touring Route

The Central Otago Touring Route is a 341-kilometer scenic drive that takes in some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand.

The route starts in Dunedin and winds its way through the heart of Central Otago, taking in towns like Alexandra, Cromwell, Arrowtown, and Queenstown.

Along the way, you’ll see stunning mountains, crystal-clear lakes, and rolling vineyards. There are also plenty of opportunities to go hiking, biking, and wine tasting.

Sand Dunes in New Zealand

While New Zealand may not have any true desert, it is home to some magnificent sand dunes that offer a taste of the desert experience.

The most remarkable of these are the Te Paki Sand Dunes, located near Cape Reinga in the Far North, and the Ahipara Sand Dunes, situated near the coastal town of Ahipara in the Northland region.

Te Paki Sand Dunes

Tourists Sandboarding at Giant Sand Dunes of Te Paki
Te Paki Sand Dunes

The Te Paki Sand Dunes, located near Cape Reinga in the Far North of New Zealand, are a remarkable natural attraction and popular tourist

destination in the country. These massive sand dunes, reaching heights of up to 150 meters, provide a thrilling playground for adventure enthusiasts and a stunning backdrop for nature lovers.

The dunes are situated in close proximity to Cape Reinga, where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet in a breathtaking display of swirling currents. This unique geographical location adds to the allure of Te Paki Sand Dunes, making them a must-visit destination for travelers exploring the Far North.

Te Paki Sand Dunes are famous for their sandboarding opportunities. Visitors can slide down the steep slopes of the dunes on specially designed boards, experiencing an exhilarating rush of adrenaline. It’s an activity suitable for all ages and skill levels, offering endless fun and unforgettable memories.

Beyond sandboarding, the dunes provide a mesmerizing landscape for photography enthusiasts and nature admirers. The shifting patterns of sand, the interplay of light and shadow, and the panoramic vistas of the surrounding coastal scenery create a truly awe-inspiring setting.

Ahipara Sand Dunes

Sand Surfing at Ahipara Sand Dunes, Northland, New Zealand
Ahipara Sand Dunes

Located near the coastal town of Ahipara in the Northland region, the Ahipara Sand Dunes offer another captivating experience in New Zealand.

These dunes stretch along the stunning Ninety Mile Beach, providing a unique blend of coastal beauty and natural wonders.

Ahipara Sand Dunes are renowned for their impressive size and diverse terrain. From expansive, rolling sand hills to intricate patterns sculpted by wind and tides, the dunes showcase the dynamic forces of nature in action.

The constant interplay between the land and the sea shapes these ever-changing dune formations, creating a captivating landscape.

Visitors to Ahipara Sand Dunes can indulge in various activities suited to their interests. Sandboarding down the slopes is a popular choice, allowing thrill-seekers to glide through the soft sand and experience the rush of adrenaline.

Alternatively, adventurous souls can explore the dunes on quad bikes, venturing deeper into the captivating coastal environment.

For those seeking a more tranquil experience, Ahipara Sand Dunes offer picturesque walking trails where visitors can soak in the serenity of the surroundings.

The tranquil beauty, uninterrupted stretches of sand, and the soothing sound of crashing waves create a sense of tranquility that is perfect for relaxation and contemplation.

New Zealand Desert FAQs

Are there deserts in New Zealand?

No, New Zealand does not have true deserts like those found in arid regions around the world. However, there are certain areas in New Zealand that exhibit desert-like characteristics due to their relatively dry conditions.

The Rangipo Desert, in the central North Island, and the Waitaki Desert, located in the arid Central Otago region of the South Island, are prime examples.

Additionally, the Dunedin Botanic Gardens Desert in the Otago region offers a desert-like experience within a botanical setting.

What is the driest place in New Zealand?

The town of Ranfurly, located in Central Otago, holds the distinction of being the driest place in New Zealand.

With an average annual rainfall of around 540mm, Ranfurly experiences significantly less precipitation compared to other regions of the country.

This dryness contributes to the formation of a landscape reminiscent of desert environments, with sparse vegetation and rugged terrain.

The arid-like conditions of Ranfurly make it an intriguing destination for those seeking a different experience within the diverse natural wonders of New Zealand.

Are there any sand dunes in New Zealand?

Yes, New Zealand is home to captivating coastal sand dunes.

Te Paki Sand Dunes in the Far North, near Cape Reinga, offer a thrilling experience with their impressive height and panoramic views.

Ahipara Sand Dunes on Ninety Mile Beach are also worth exploring.

These sand dunes, reaching over 100 meters in height, showcase the dynamic coastal landscape of New Zealand and offer adventurous activities such as sandboarding.

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