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Early Wanaka History

The Lake Wanaka region has a rich and varied history with both Maori and Europeans recognising it as a special place rich in resources and the gateway to the West Coast of the South Island.

Early Otago Maori used local passes to reach the greenstone (pounamu) on the West Coast. There was small Maori settlements (kainga) at Wanaka and Hawea, mostly camping places for the summer fishing and fowling. These kianga were mostly wiped out by a northern Maori war party in 1836.

In 1853 Nathaniel Chalmers, guided by Chief Reko, is believed to have been the first European to see the lakes, returning to the east coast on a rush raft (mokihi) down the Clutha. However, Chief Te Huruhuru at Waimate, drew a sketch map of the lake and its surrounds for Mr Shortland earlier than this. Accurate maps were produced by the early surveyours E. Jollkie, W.S. Young and J. McKerrow by 1861.

In 1857 John Turnbull Thomson traveled via the Lindis Pass to the peak he named Grandview. Thomson also named Mt Aspiring and Mt Pisa. Soon after, came John McLean who took up Morven Hills Station and Robert Wilkin who took up the run at Albert Town. Most Wanaka runs were taken up by the end of 1858.

Early farming in Wanaka

Soon after, the gold rushes in Central Otago brought a huge demand for the timber at the lake and large amounts of sawn lengths from Makarora and Matukituki were floated down the Clutha to Cromwell and Clyde. Then gold was discovered in the Cardrona Valley, and hundreds of miners were ferried across the Clutha at Albert Town. The main Cardrona claims were the Gin and Raspberry, the Pirate and the Homeward Bound. However, the major discoveries on the West Coast saw most move out and by the late 1870’ most of the European, and the Chinese miners who followed them, had gone.

The first survey of the township now known as Wanaka, was completed in 1863. The town at the time was named Pembroke, after a British Colonial Secretary. Until 1867, when Theodore Russell built the first hotel at Lake Wanaka, Albert Town Wanaka the centre of the district. But with the hotel, and the weekly boat tours round the lake associated with it, the future of Pembroke was assured. The other early landholders were Charles and Mabel Barker and Robert McDougall. The town of Pembroke was renamed Wanaka in 1940.

Early Wanaka from the air

For further information, refer to your local library – particularly Irving Roxburgh’s “Wanaka Story” and its sequel, “Wanaka and Surrounding Districts” and to your nearest Department of Conservation.