Lake Te Anau: The Gateway to Fiordland

Lake Te Anau is the second largest lake in New Zealand after Lake Taupo by surface area, and is the largest lake on the South Island. Because of its proximity to 3 of the 9 Great Walks of the country, it is nicknamed the Walking Capital of the World.

Lake Te Anau Stats

Lake NameLake Te Anau
CountryNew Zealand
Surface area332.560
Maximum depth417.0
Average depth168.8
Lake typeNatural freshwater lake
Catchment area3090.80
InflowsEglinton River, Clinton River, Worsley River, Glaisnock River, Wapiti River, Doon River, McKenzie Burn, Upukerora River
OutflowsWaiau River
Shore length327.29
SettlementsTe Anau
Residence time2854.4
Average discharge227.640
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Geography and Hydrology

The lake lies in the southwestern corner of the South Island in New Zealand, covering an area of 344 km2, located at an altitude of 210 meters, boasting a maximum depth of 417 meters. It’s the largest lake in Australasia by freshwater volume.

On the lake’s western flank 3 large fiords form arms on Te Anau, the North Fiord, the Middle Fiord and the South Fiord. These 3 are the only existing inland fiord of New Zealand, since the other 14 are all out on the coast. Numerous small islands and islets can be found at the entrance to Middle Fiord, which forks partway into the Northwestern and Southwestern arms.

Its main tributary is the Eglinton River, which flows in from the East, opposite the entrance to the North Fiord. Upukerora Rier, Clinton River, Glaisnock River and Worsley River are some of the lake’s other important tributaries. Its main outflow is the Waiau River, which flows southward for several kilometers and pours into Lake Manapouri.

The lake is bordered on the East by a poorly forested, partly developed farmland, which is straight, dry and covered with grass. The lake’s western border consists of heavily forested mountains of fiordland, which are rugged and covered in shrubs and bushes. The land between the two main settlements of the lakeshore is mainly made up of rolling hills, whilst it is mountainous in the other areas, especially on the western shore, where the Kepler and Murchison Mountains rise 1400 meters above the surface of the lake.

Most of the lake is located within Fiordland National Park and Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site.

Etymology and Local History

The exact English translation of the Maori name for the lake, “Te Anau” is a highly disputed subject. Many experts suggest that it’s named after the granddaughter of the Waitaha tribe’s chief, Hekeia, whose name is now used for a mountain of the Longwood Range. In 1948 the Te Ana-au caves were rediscovered, and new interpretations of the full name have risen, meaning “cave of swirling water” in Maori language.

The lake has long been occupied by the Maori people. The first recorded visit by Europeans was on the 26th of January in 1856, when C.J. Nairn and W.J. Stephen made their way to Lake Te Anau. The lake was surveyed in 1863 by James McKerrow.

Flora and Fauna

Plenty of species of wildlife and vegetation can be found in the lake waters, including numerous fern species, such as the crown fern, known as Blechnum discolor. Brown trout, rainbow trout and landlocked salmon are some of the best fish catches the lake has to offer. Trouts can be found all year round, whilst salmon are most abundant between the 1st of June and 31st of March each year. Spinning, trolling, harling and flyfishing are some of the best methods to catch fish.

The narrov vally between Middle Fiord and South Fiord is home to the Takake, also known as the notorins, a species of bird thought to be extinct until a small colony was discovered in November 1948. Numerous other bird species can be found around the lake (such as the Kaka, Tui, Kea and the Parakeet), and there is even a Te Anau Bird Sanctuary on the lakeshore, in the Murchison Mountains. The western shore of the lake is home to the Te Ana-au Caves, which are thought to be 15,000 years old and are lit by thousands of tiny bioluminescent insects called glowworms.

Tourism and Leisure

The town of Te Anau lies on the southeastern corner of the lake, close to the mouth of the Waiau River. Beside the town the only human habitation close to Lake Te Anau is Te Anau Downs, a farming settlement in the proximity of the mouth of the Eglinton River.

Te Anau town is the best base from where one can visit the lake, the surroundings and the infamous Milford Sound, and it is the main visitor base for Fiordland National Park. It is the town which connects Queenstown to Milford Sound in just a 2-hour drive. Te Anau is home to many restaurants, lodges, hotels, campgrounds, so there are plenty of accommodation sites to choose from. The town also offers 7-day/week shopping opportunities, where you can find high quality apparel, gifts and souvenirs. There are a full range of services available, including ATMs, 2 major banks, service stations, rental cars and medical centers.

Three main tracks start at the lake: the Roukburn Track, Milford Track at the lake’s northern tip and Kepler Track at the lake’s southern end. The Te Anau Wildlife Park can also be found at a 10-minute walk from the Department of Conservation Visitor Center on the lakefront.

There are plenty of activities you can pursue at Lake Te Anau. During the summer months the weather is usually hot, so water skiing, fishing, swimming and kayaking are some of the preferred activities. During the crisp and clear winter days, you can participate in boat cruises, kayaking, coach tours or even hunting tours.

Lake Te Anau Map