Lake Wanaka: A Place of Beauty and Tranquility

Lake Wanaka is the fourth largest lake in New Zealand, with a surface area of 192 km2. It is located in the Otago region, and sits at an altitude of 300 meters. Its maximum depth is around 300 meters. The town on the shores of the lake is also called Wanaka. The lake is widely appreciated for its scenic beauty.

Lake Wanaka Stats

Lake NameLake Wanaka
CountryNew Zealand
Surface area195.300
Maximum depth305.0
Average depth99.0
Lake typeNatural, dammed
Catchment area2587.20
OutflowsClutha River
IslandsHarwich, Mou Tapu, Mou Waho, Ruby, Stevensons
Shore length189.06
Residence time1463.3
Trophic stateoligotrophic
Average discharge152.982
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Geographic Facts

Lake Wanaka is located on New Zealand’s South Island, and sits in the middle of the Otago Lakes, in a glacial lake basin situated 32 kilometers East of Mount Aspiring and 32 kilometers southwest of Haast Pass. The Wanaka township is located on the southern shores of the lake, 56 kilometers away from Cromwell and 87 kilometers away from Haast Pass. The township is the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. Lake Hāwea is only 15 minutes away to the East, and is en route to the town of Makarora, the last stop before the West Coast Glacier region. Cardrona Valley is located to the South, and it offers an alpine route to Queenstown.

The lake has a maximum length of 43 kilometers, and a maximum width of 10 kilometers. It is surrounded by mountain ranges 1,800 meters in height at its northern end. The southern section spreads in more subdued landscape, and features many bays, the most notable of which are Glendhu Bay and Stevensons Arm.

Lake Wanaka’s most important inflowing rivers are Matukituki and Makarora, while its most important outflow is the Clutha River. The southern section of the lake features many small islands, including Stevensons Island, Ruby Island, and Harwich Island. Some of these islands serve as ecological sanctuaries.

Lake Wanaka as seen from Mou Waho island, which is located in the central section of the lake.

Geology and Formation

Lake Wanaka and its very close neighbor to the East, Lake Hawea, share a very similar glacial history. Their basins were excavated by advances of great glacial systems, that occupied the divide between the head of the Hunter River and Mount Aspiring. The ice in the two basins was actually connected by a pass which is now called the Neck.

In late Pleistocene, ice used to be present in the Wanaka as far down as the Clutha River. A loop of terminal moraine surrounds the southern section of the lake and encloses the Wanaka township. Approximately 10,000 years ago, Lake Wanaka was formed when ice retreated northwards from this loop.

Etymology and History

The name of the lake is derived from Oanaka, which means "place of Anaka". Anaka was the name of a Maori chief.

Nathaniel Chalmers is the first European who reached the shores of the lake, in 1853. However, Māori had known about the existence of Lake Wanaka for a long time. Nathaniel Chalmers walked from Tuturau to Lake Wanaka via the Kawarau River. He then later returned down the Clutha on a raft.

In 1861, several sheep stations were established on the southern shores of the lake. In 1862, the lake was surveyed in a whaleboat. The first name given by the Europeans was actually Lake Pembroke.

Tourism and Recreation

Lake Wanaka is a popular tourist attraction, also helped by the opening of the Haast Pass Road and the improvement of hotel facilities in the Wanaka township. The main activities on the lake include boating, fishing, and swimming. The spectacular landscape around the lake offers plenty of adventure opportunities throughout the entire year, including skiing, jetboating, and more.

Fun Facts

Lake Wanaka is mentioned in Mission Impossible III several times, and is a location visited by the lead couple. It’s also the answer to Tom Cruise’s question on the phone in order to verify his wife’s identity.

The series "The Free Range Cook" and "Simple Pleasures" by the cook and author Annabel Langbein, were filmed at Lake Wanaka.

Conservation and Environment

Lake Wanaka is one of the few lakes on the South Island which has an unmodified shoreline. This is one of the main reasons why the lake is protected by a special act, the Lake Wanaka Preservation Act of 1973. The act created a group called "Guardians of Lake Wanaka", who make sure the lake is protected. The members of the group are appointed by Minister of Conservation.

One of the problems Lake Wanaka faces is the oxygen weed, an invasive aquarium plant native to South Africa. No attempt to remove the plant from the ecosystem has been successful so far.

Lake Wanaka Map