Featured Activities

The name ‘Wānaka’ is a South Island Kāi Tahu variant of the word ‘wānanga’, referring to ancient schools of learning.

To learn is a gift, one written into our land and our people. Now, we invite you to explore the history and heritage of Wānaka, to discover, learn, and be inspired by the timeless tales of our whenua / land. Haere mai, welcome, to Wānaka.

It’s no secret that Wānaka is breathtakingly beautiful. Surrounded by towering peaks and mountain lakes, those who venture to this tiny pocket of Te Waipounamu / the South Island can’t help but be awed by the sheer beauty and majesty of this place. And yet, these landscapes are so much more than that. Wānaka is a place steeped in history, with a rich whakapapa dating back millions of years.

As the current custodians of this place, we are committed to preserving Wānaka’s rich heritage and sharing its stories. This digital timeline offers a window into Wānaka — a journey through the past. We invite you to discover the people, events, and land movements that make Wānaka what it is today.

Start exploring here: Timeline and history of Wānaka

Glacier located in the Southern Alps of New Zealand

The landscapes that started the story

Millions of years ago, the earth’s restless movements laid the foundation for the seemingly unbreakable landscapes we see today. 

Receding glaciers carved deep valleys during the ice age, leaving behind a rugged terrain marked by schist – the same schist that forms the Southern Alps as we know them, speaking to the early movements of our land. Meanwhile, the gold in our valleys that hugely defined the history of the early European settlers landed there from hot water solutions more than 140 million years ago. 

Braided River from above in Wanaka New Zealand

Early movements 

But the story of Wānaka is more than just geological, it is also steeped in Māori legend and lore. The legendary exploits of the tūpuna / ancestor Rākaihautū tell of how he sculpted the great lakes of Te Waipounamu with his celestial kō / Polynesian digging tool, while the ancient trails that cross the land tell the stories of those who journeyed there long ago. This place has a rich history of welcoming and sustaining people, and forging deep connections to whenua / land and environment.

Kāi Tahu Whānui lived off the land, from the land, with the land and across the land from Ōtākou to the lakes – a relationship that is over 1000 years old. Settlements like Take Kārara and Ōrau speak of the vibrant communities that once thrived upon these shores, while natural trails like the Mata-Au / Clutha River tell tales of the pounamu and mahika kai / natural and cultural resources that were transported along its waters.

Black and white photo of two ships on lake wanaka

New dimensions and European pioneers

With the arrival of European pioneers in the 1850s, Wānaka’s story took on new dimensions. The allure of hidden gold in the Cardrona Valley beckoned explorers and adventurers to these shores, and soon, gold rushes and sheep stations dotted the landscape and transformed sleepy valleys into bustling hubs of activity. From the intrepid explorations of Charles Cameron to the pioneering spirit of Julius von Haast, European settlers left their footprint on the land, forging trails and tales that have stood the test of time.

Family look out over Lake Wanaka New Zealand

Where are we are today

The wairua / spirit is what shapes the experience of being in Wānaka. It connects everyone who visits, whether for a few hours or a lifetime. The past provides valuable insights into the whenua / land around us, and we want to continue to share the stories that make us who we are. Explore the full Timeline and History of Wānaka to learn more.

Thankyou to Paulette Tamati Elliffe (Ōtākou, Kāi Te Pahi, Kāi Te Ruahikihiki, Kāti Hawea, Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha and Ngāti Mutunga), the Upper Clutha Historical Society and Lakes District Gallery and Museum for their significant contribution to this digital timeline and historic overview. Your knowledge and insights were invaluable.