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The history of Wānaka ranges from the prehistoric glacial formation of this land, Māori history, post-colonialism and the recent history of the last 50 years.

A look back in time

Geological changes have had a significant influence on the formation of waterways and the land in this region. The present valleys of the area were carved by glaciers, mostly over the last 2 million years. There were various sequences of glacial and warmer periods, with the last glacial maximum occurring around 15,000 years ago. Rock debris (till) carried by these glaciers was deposited when they melted, and this material now dams all of the large southern lakes. This process resulted in a complex mixture of sorted alluvial deposits and mixed glacial materials in the plains in the southern part of the Upper Clutha, most notably south of Hāwea.


The schist rocks which dominate the geology of the Central Otago and Upper Clutha areas were deposited around 130-250 million years ago. The gold which defined much of the early European history of the area was deposited from hot water solutions in similar conditions over the last 140 million years.


Geological changes have also had a significant influence on waterways in the region, much of the present Upper Clutha catchment once flowed south to the Kawarau via the Cardrona and Motatapu valley, before uplift in and near the Crown range cut off this flow path.


The town of Wānaka is situated at the southern end of Lake Wānaka on one of the till dams and surrounded by mountains. To the southwest is the Crown Range and town of Queenstown; to the north the Haast Pass cuts through the Southern Alps near Makarora. Very close to Lake Wānaka is Lake Hāwea, in a parallel glacial valley, which has a recently developed settlement of about 1,500 people.


To the south and north of the town lies more of the Southern Alps and the Matukituki and Makarora River valleys which gives access to the Mount Aspiring National Park, part of Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area. This is a mixture of native bush and alpine landscapes, with some glaciers. The catchment boundaries in this area are defined by large peaks, most notably Mt Aspiring/Tititea (3,033 m).

Wānaka and Hāwea are iconic lakes of cultural and statutory significance to Kāi Tahu. The lakes feature in the Waitaha iwi oral tradition of “Kā Puna Wai Karikari o Rākaihautū” which tells how the great lakes of Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island) were dug by the tūpuna (ancestor) Rākaihautū with his famous kō (Polynesian digging tool). Rākaihautū was the captain of the waka (ocean canoe), Uruao, which brought the Waitaha people to New Zealand on an early discovery expedition. It is Rākaihautū and the Waitaha people who lit the first fires of occupation within Te Wai Pounamu.

Around Lake Wānaka were a number of pā (strongholds), kāika (settlements) and nohoaka (camp sites). The biggest known settlement in the area was a Kāi Tahu pā known as Take Kārara which was located in present day Roys Bay. Other local settlements included Ōrau which was on the banks of the Cardrona River, Toka Karoro towards Beacon Point and Okai Tū situated where the Clutha and Hāwea Rivers meet. A highly significant site for spiritual and traditional reasons was Manuhaea, located below The Neck, the narrow isthmus between lakes Wānaka and Hāwea.


The name “Wānaka” is a South Island variant of the word “wānanga” which refers to ancient schools of learning. In these schools Kāi Tahu tohuka (men of learning) would be taught whakapapa (genealogies) which stretched back to over a hundred generations and karakia (incantations) for innumerable situations. All of this learning they would be required to commit to memory.

Trails (ara tawhito) in the area included: the Clutha/Mata-au, used to transport pounamu and mahika kai (natural and cultural resources) back to the coast; the Waitaki River, Ōmakō/Lindis Pass which connected the Waitaki with lakes Wānaka and Hāwea; the Matāura River, noted for its indigenous fishery; and Haast Pass/Tiori Patea.


The Mātakitaki River provided an alternative route to the treasured pounamu resources of Te Tai Poutini/the West Coast. The Ōrau (Cardrona River) and the Kawarau were also part of this interconnected network of trails. At Whakatipu-wai-Māori (Lake Wakatipu) a network of villages lay along the routes to access pounamu at Te Koroka, located beyond the head of the lake. Countless generations transported it back to coastal settlements in Otago and Southland on waka and mōkihi for fashioning into tools, ornaments and weapons.


Tititea was located on the south side of the Kawarau River, near Ōterotu. Whakatipu-Wai-Māori is an important source of freshwater, the lake being fed by hukawai (melt waters). These are waters
with the highest level of purity and were accorded traditional classifications by Kāi Tahu that recognised this value. These Tapu (sacred) waters sustain many ecosystems important to Kāi Tahu.


All elements of the natural environment possess a mauri, a life force, and all forms of life are related. The mauri of whenua and wai taoka, lands and waterbodies, represent the essence that binds the physical and spiritual elements of all things together, generating and upholding all life. Mauri is therefore a critical element of the spiritual relationship of Kāi Tahu Whānui with the whenua, waterbodies and resources of the region.


Kāi Tahu understand climate change through this paradigm of connectedness and relationship with the environment. The tūpuna (ancestors) had considerable knowledge of whakapapa, the traditional trails, tauraka waka, places for gathering kai and other taoka, and tīkaka for the proper and sustainable utilisation of resources of the area. All of these values remain important to Kāi Tahu today.

A gold prospector called Charles Cameron is believed to be the first European to find the pass. He crossed over in January 1863, burying his powder flask to the west of the pass. Close behind him came Julius von Haast, who named the pass after himself and claimed to be the first European to have travelled through it, however the discovery of Cameron’s flask discredited this claim. It took Julius von Haast and his party over four weeks to complete the journey, after being shown the start of the trail by Maori.

A Maori chieftain named Reko guided the area’s first European visitor, Nathaniel Chalmers, in 1853. Another Maori chief, Te Huruhuru, sketched a simple map of the region at this time, which remains today.

European settlement began in the Upper Clutha River Valley in the 1850s, with the establishment of sheep stations by runholders. The first station was at Albert Town, the only place where settlers could ford the Clutha River. The world’s first sheepdog trials were reportedly held in Wānaka in 1867.

The first gold rush started in 1863 with the discovery of gold in the Lindis River and Cardrona Valley and by 1870 Cardrona was the region’s largest town with a permanent population of 400 people. The population of Wānaka wouldn’t reach 400 until nearly one hundred years later in 1960.

The present site of Wānaka was first surveyed in 1863, and settlement increased in Pembroke (the old name for Wānaka) during the 1870s because of timber milling in the Matukituki and Makarora Valleys and the use of Lake Wānaka for transport.

Wānaka is believed to be named from the word Wānaka which is a South Island form of wānanga, meaning sacred knowledge or a place of learning. Residents changed the named from Pembroke to Wānaka in 1940.

Tourism in the town began in 1867 with the opening of the first hotel, by Theodore Russell and in 1883 the Theodore, a paddle steamer, offered cruises for tourists on the lake.

Mt Aspiring was first climbed by Major Bernard Head in 1909. Mt Aspiring National Park was gazetted in 1964 and then became part of the Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage site in 1990.

The Haast Pass Highway was finally completed in 1965, after 30 years of work, linking the West Coast and Otago but wouldn’t be completely sealed for another 30 years.

Treble Cone Ski Area opened in 1968 and in 1978 the Cardrona Alpine Resort also opened.

Wānaka proved a very popular tourist destination because of its borderline continental climate and easy access to snow and water.