Lake Wakatipu: the Resting Place of the Giant Matau

Lake Wakatipu is the longest lake in New Zealand with a length of 80 kilometers, and the third largest in the country, with a surface area of 291 km2.

Lake Wakatipu Stats

Lake NameLake Wakatipu
CountryNew Zealand
Surface area290.880
Maximum depth380.0
Average depth130.0
Lake typeGlacial
Catchment area3061.80
InflowsDart River, Rees River
OutflowsKawarau River
IslandsPig Island, Pigeon Island, Tree Island & Hidden Island.
Shore length207.69
SettlementsKingston, Queenstown, Glenorchy
Residence time2544.6
Average discharge172.048

Lake Wakatipu Accommodation

Geography and Hydrology

The inland lake of Wakatipu is located in the South Island of New Zealand, in the south-western part of the Otago Region, close to the boundary with Southland. The lake can be found in a valley which has been deepened by glaciation and has been closed in by a moraine. It is located at an altitude of 310 meters and has a maximum depth of 380 meters.

The lake area is surrounded by mountains, and is known for its scenic beauty. Lake Wakatipu is bordered by The Remarkables mountain range on the southeast. The tallest peak next to the lake is Mount Earnslaw, with an altitude of 2,819 meters. Queenstown can be found at the northern edge, whilst the Kingston, Glenorchy and Kinloch can also be found around the lake.

The main tributaries of Wakatipu are the Dart, Caples, Rees, Kawaran, Greenstone, Von, Lochy and Routeburn rivers. The lake’s only outlet is the Kawaran River, which drains it from the Frankton Arm, located 8 kilometers east of Queenstown. Until nearly 18,000 years ago the lake was drained by a different river, the Mataura, which has since been blocked by a glacial moraine.

The lake boasts an unusually large seiche, rising and falling every 26.7 minutes, causing the water to heighten and plummet 200 mm in Queenstown Bay. Scientists suggest that this change in elevation is due to the fluctuating atmospheric pressure.


The lake’s name is believed to originate from a Maori word, “whakatipu wai-maori”, but its origins and meaning are still being disputed. Some sources say that wakatipu means “growing canoe” and also proclaim that the letter “h” is elided because of the southern Maori dialect. “Waka” can also mean “hollow” in different dialects.

The Maori people first inhabited the area around Lake Wakatipu in search of food and greenstone. The Northern area around the lake is one of the six main greenstone resources of New Zealand.

Nathaniel Chalmers was the first to visit the area in September 1853, guided by Reko, the Maori chief. The first European settlers were William Gilbert Rees and Nichols von Tunzelmann.

Legend and History

According to the Maori legend, Lake Wakatipu is the final resting place of the giant Matau, who was burnt to death in his sleep after kidnapping one of the chief’s daughters. The incident left a massive hole in the ground, and the flames melted the ice from the surrounding mountains, which ended up forming the lake. Legend has it that the lake’s shape is that of the giant in a fetus position, with his head at Glenorchy in the North, its feet at Kingston in the South, and his needs at Queenstown. The Maori even explained the unusual seiches which can be observed at the lake, proclaiming they are caused by Matau’s heartbeat, who is slumbering at the bottom of the lake.

Tourism and Fishing

The lake offers habitat for the longfin eel. A specimen caught back in 1886 is still the largest known of its species. The brown trout, the rainbow trout and the salmon are also abundant in the lake. These and other smaller fish support larger predators. Black-billed gulls, mallards and the New Zealand scaup also govern the area.

Because of the rugged terrain, the lack of bays and inlets, trolling is the most popular fishing method at Lake Wakatipu. Fishing for trout is most rewarding at the mouths of the Greenstone and Lochy rivers. During the summer, the lake is an excellent place for swimming. Other preferred activities are paragliding, bungee jumping, bird-watching and skiing in the winter.

Numerous wineries can be found in the Gibbston Valley nearby, which is part of the Central Otago Wine Region. Wine varieties include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. The TSS Earnslaw, known as “The Lady of the Lake” is a boat offering scenic tours to tourists and has been in operation since 1912.

In Popular Culture

Because of Wakatipu’s geographical similarities to Loch Ness, many directors choose the area as a filming location. The lake served as a backdrop for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and also was one of the many filming locations for the 2007 adventure film entitled The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. Wakatipu also appeared as the eponymous lake in the mystery TV series “Top of the Lake” by BBC, which aired in 2013.

Lake Wakatipu Map

Lake Wakatipu Reviews

5.0/5SuperbBased on 2 reviews
5.0 stars

Ed Shestak – 2023-06-27 18:41:14

Queenstown was one 4-day stop on our April 2017 New Zealand vacation. All of New Zealand is beautiful. Lake Wakatipu came up on my Windows lock screen today, so I clicked the name to see what info Bing gave. It said the seiche is a standing wave caused by the lightening bolt shape of the lake. Presumably the 26.7 minute period is a function of the length of the two legs on either side of the center zig-zag, and the wave is excited by any prevailing winds. I hadn't heard of the seiche before our trip, otherwise I would have issued my family a nerd alert and we would have made a point to photograph the water level on the waterfront at two minute intervals for 45 minutes or so.

Gregory – 2016-08-07 08:10:46

Went for a harbour cruise on the Million dollar cruise boat.Amazing views all around the Queenstown harbour,most impressive adventure I was on here.Guided and narrated by Captain Wayne,who was an encyclopedia of knowledge.Definitely an unmissable experience.