History of the Wakatipu

Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, and Ngāi Tahu Māori were the earliest visitors to the Wakatipu as they made seasonal visits to hunt for moa, kereru (New Zealand pigeon), eels and other  foods.  The meat was carefully preserved in hinu (fat) and stored in pōhā (kelp bags) for the journey home.

Maori would also visit the area to extract pounamu (jade, nephrite, greenstone) which is an extremely hard, durable stone that can be found in the headwaters of Lake Wakatipu. Pounamu was carved into ornaments such as hei tiki (a pendant worn around the neck) and used to make mere (club-like weapons) and toki (adzes).

Nathaniel Chalmers, guided by southern Māori, Reko and Kaikoura, was the first European to visit the area in 1853, glimpsing Lake Wakatipu from a distance. The first Europeans to set foot on the shores of Lake Wakatipu arrived in January 1856. Led by John Chubbin and guided by a map drawn by Reko, they reached the south end of the lake. One of the party lit his pipe, threw away his match and promptly set fire to the entire area forcing the group and their horses to take refuge in the lake.

Donald Hay was the next European to venture into the Wakatipu and he spent many days exploring Lake Wakatipu on a moki (a raft made from tightly bound raupō, flat stalks or rushes). While on this trip he found the lake which now bears his name, originally Hay’s Lake and now known as Lake Hayes.

In early 1860 William Rees and Nicolas Von Tunzelmann were searching for suitable sheep grazing land. From the top of the Crown Range they saw the Wakatipu basin and knew that they had found the land they had been searching for.

Rees was granted the pastoral rights for the area and he imported three thousand sheep from Australia to stock the land. By early 1861, Rees’s life as a run holder in the Wakatipu was underway.

In August 1862, one of Rees’s shearers, Jack Tewa, ventured to the Arrow River and discovered gold lying on the riverbed. Soon afterwards, gold was discovered in the Shotover River and the inevitable gold rush began. The area was declared a goldfield and William Rees was compensated by the government for his land.

The main gold rush was short lived. In the late 1860s miners deserted the area heading to the West Coast gold rushes. The Otago Provincial Government invited Chinese miners to come to the area in an effort to stimulate the local economy. These miners endured considerable hardship and the preserved Chinese Settlement at Arrowtown shows the conditions in which the Chinese lived.

As the gold rush ended, the Wakatipu turned back to farming. Arrowtown and Queenstown became farming service towns and the Wakatipu produced high quality grains used in flour production and brewing.

By the end of World War II the population of the area was in decline. However, by the late 1950s and 1960s, the Wakatipu’s popularity as a summer holiday destination was growing. Skiing was growing as a popular winter activity and with better transport links, tourism in the Wakatipu became a year round industry.

In 1965 Shotover Jet began operating at Arthurs Point, and the Skyline Gondola carried its first passengers up Bob’s peak in 1967. Another iconic Queenstown activity, AJ Hackett’s Kawarau Bridge Bungy, opened in 1988 firmly establishing Queenstown as the premier adventure tourism destination in New Zealand.

With a rapidly growing resident population the Wakatipu Basin now attracts over 3 million visitors every year (2018) and currently extensive roading and infrastructure upgrades are in progress to help support the increasing numbers of people who are drawn to this beautiful area.


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