Carved out of the last ice age 15,000 years ago, Lake Wakatipu was formed by a huge glacier that pushed through the land from the north-west. Though the lake is a relatively thin ‘S’ shape, the jagged mountains that surround it run straight into its depths, forming a deep canyon that is 399 metres at its deepest point. The second largest lake in the Southern Lakes District, Lake Wakatipu covers 290 square km, is 84km long and 5km wide at its widest point.
That’s the scientific explanation. Māori, however, have several legends about the lake. One of the most popular - and most romantic - story tells of two star-crossed lovers: the young warrior Matakauri and Manata, the beautiful daughter of a Māori chief who forbade them to marry. One night, the cruel giant Matau stole Manata and hid her away in his mountain lair.
Completely distraught, her father declared that the warrior who was brave enough to rescue her could marry her. Matakauri accepted this challenge, because he knew that the next time the warm wind blew from the north-west it would put the giant to sleep.
Soon enough the wind blew, and as the sleeping giant lay curled on his side, Matakauri tried to rescue Manata. But a magical rope, made from a two-headed dog, tied Manata to the giant and Matakauri could not cut through it. In despair, Manata began to weep, but when her tears fell on the rope it melted and she was able to break free.
As the couple escaped, Matakauri set fire to Matau to ensure he would never steal Manata again. The giant’s body melted, creating a massive hole that filled with melted ice and snow. The large ‘S’ shaped lake left in his place is now called Wakatipu, which translates as the ‘hollow of the sleeping giant’.
People say Matua’s heart still beats in the lake, creating the mysterious, rhythmic 12cm rise and fall of its waters.
Local Māori tribe Ngāi Tahu made their home in Te Waipounamu (the South Island) over 800 years ago. Seasonal hunting prospects and the prized greenstone pounamu drew them to the head of Lake Wakatipu, as the stones could be found in plentiful supply around the Routeburn and Dart Valleys. Pounamu was valued not only because it was strong and durable, but also because it was extremely beautiful. The stone could be carved into toki (adzes), chisels, mere (short clubs) and personal ornaments such as hei tiki (necklaces) and ear adornments.
Māori also harvested the leaves of tikumu (mountain daisy) for cloaks and the highly-valued fragrant oil from taramea (wild Spaniard), found on the mountainous snowlines. This was taken to coastal villages where it was traded for goods. Travelling seasonally between mahinga kai (customary food gathering) sites, Māori feasted on the region’s seafood, eels, birds and plants, leaving rock art and planting ti (cabbage trees) to guide future generations.
Early European History
When Alexander Garvie first spotted a stunning, jagged mountain range in the distance during a reconnaissance survey of the district in 1857, he named them the Remarkables. But the first European to set eyes on Whakatipu wai Maori (Lake Wakatipu) was Nathaniel Chalmers in 1853. With the payment of a three-legged pot, he was guided by the celebrated Maori chief Reko up the Nevis Valley where, at the summit and en route to Wanaka and Hawea, Chalmers spied the lake. Sadly, Chalmers suffered severe food poisoning and, close to death, was taken back down the Mataura River in a mokihikihi (flax leaf) raft where he recovered, but never saw the lake again.
Reko returned three years later, this time in the company of John Chubbin, John Morrison and Malcom Macfarlane, who were the first European men to finally stand on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Unfortunately, as the men gazed in awe at the beauty that surrounded them, Morrison lit his pipe, threw away the match and unwittingly set alight the area now known as Kingston.
The inferno burned for three hours, but the men and their horses survived by standing neck-deep in the lake until the blaze finally died down. Ironically, this act of destruction created an access way to the district that would later bring many more people and animals.
One of these was the Scots-born West Australian pioneer Donald Hay, who famously found a hidden mokihikihi raft and, with a blanket as a sail, set off to explore Lake Wakatipu. Battling winter storms and freezing water, he landed on the shores of what is now called Frankton. Setting off on foot he eventually found the lake that bears his name, though it has been incorrectly recorded in history as Lake Hayes. Intending to stake his claim, he returned to Dunedin only to discover it had already been allocated to a man who had never even set foot in the area. Disgusted, he returned to West Australia and never set eyes on either lake again.
Soon enough, more people began arriving in the district to farm, but the first to settle in the Wakatipu Basin were William Rees, an Englishman, and Nicholas Von Tunzelmann, also from England via Estonia, Germany, Switzerland and Canada.
Rees would record the men’s struggle to access the area from the Cardrona area in the north a few weeks later in the Otago Witness – “Speargrass, often more than three feet high, and masses of matagouri constantly impeded us, especially in the gullies. Our trousers from the thighs downwards were filled with blood and it was with the greatest difficulty that our poor horses and pack mule could be urged to move forward.”
However, their painful journey was rewarded by what Rees described as one of the most beautiful sights they had seen in the colony. As the men wove their way into the Wakatipu Basin, the Shotover River was given a name in memory of Shotover Park, the English residence of Rees’ business partner. Rees eventually settled where Queenstown now sits, while Von Tunzelmann settled in nearby Fernhill.
The Heroic Story of Jack Tewa
Jack Tewa is credited with the discovery of the first strike of gold, which he found in 1862 by the Arrow River. His discovery would change the Wakatipu district from a pastoral area to a gold-mining settlement and one of the world's richest sources of alluvial gold. Tewa’s story is not complete without the telling of a truly heroic act that earned his place in Queenstown’s history on the wintery night of 9 August 1862. Tewa was working on Rees’ farm as a farmhand when James Mitchell, a former officer in the 42nd Highland Regiment, was taken on as a cadet. Within a few days, one of Rees’ neighbours, William Rogers, came to visit Rees at his station. When he was ready to return home, 12 miles south of the lake, it was agreed that Tewa and Mitchell would accompany him in a small boat.
Disaster struck and the boat capsized by a cove opposite the Devil’s Staircase. Tewa, who was a strong swimmer and could have easily saved himself, stayed by the boat in the freezing waters helping Mitchell, who couldn’t swim, to stay afloat. Rogers, quite confident about his swimming ability, struck out for shore. But the distance was too great for him, and he turned around to join the others who were desperately trying to cling to the upturned boat.
For two hours, Tewa continued to rescue the men as they slipped back into the water, but eventually, as Tewa helped Mitchell once more, Rogers slipped into the water never to rise again. Losing hope, Tewa quickly thought to ask Mitchell for his knife. Diving under the boat, he cut away the halyards of the mast and was able to tip the boat upright.
Managing to paddle to the shore, he then carried an unconscious Mitchell to high ground before wrapping him in wet blankets and ferns and setting off to seek help from Von Tunzelmann. The story goes that when the rescue party returned, they witnessed an incredible sight.
A collie dog, which had been lost from a boat as a pup a year earlier, had crept out of the scrub where Tewa left Mitchell. The dog lay down on Mitchell’s chest and kept him warm all night until the rescuers arrived, when he ran away into the scrub once more.
Tewa’s heroic act was acknowledged by the Wakatipu community with a dray and team of bullocks, while Mitchell gave him an inscribed silver hunting watch. He was also presented with a medal from the Humane Society of Britain. Today, the settlement at Jack’s Point, a 20-minute drive south from Queenstown, is named after this key historical character.
The 1860s Gold Rush
Unknowingly, Rees and Von Tunzelmann had settled in the heart of what was to become Otago’s biggest goldfield. It was Rees’ farmhands who found the first gold in the area. The initial discovery was made by Jack Tewa in 1862 by the Arrow River, where an ‘X’ still marks this spot today.
However, Rees implored him to keep it a secret, as he knew once word got out a gold rush frenzy would begin. Besides, he had a shearing season to finish before his farmhands got wind of a more lucrative way to earn a living. Unfortunately for Rees, it didn’t take long before the secret was finally revealed.
Within a few months of Tewa’s discovery by the Arrow River in 1862, two more of Rees’ farmhands had also struck gold. A few hours after taking a Sunday stroll from The Camp - now Camp Street - to a spot where the Shotover and Kawarau rivers meet, Thomas Arthur and Harry Redfern were in possession of 9 ounces of gold. Within two months the pair had earned themselves four thousand pounds at the claim they had christened Arthur’s Point.
Meanwhile at Maori Point in Skippers Canyon, two young men, Raniera Erihana and Hakaria Maeroa, were frantically running alongside the river trying to rescue their dog, which had been swept downstream. This incident led to the discovery of gold gleaming in a crevice, and by nightfall the pair had gathered 25 pounds of the precious metal.
Realising that his privacy at the lakefront was at an end, Rees pulled down his woolshed and replaced it with the Queen’s Arms hotel to service the hundreds, and later thousands, of miners, traders, packers and wagons that poured into The Camp.
Eventually this hotel would be renamed Hotel Eichardt, after the ex-Prussian Guard who bought it from Rees in 1869. Eichardt then rebuilt the establishment in 1871, using brick and stone, and the same hotel still serves visitors today.
Queenstown became a roaring goldmining town, and the district’s population boomed despite the huge toll of mining on human life. Flooded rivers, cave-ins, bone-breaking physical labour, violent fights and the occasional murder were just some of the perils of goldmining life.
However, happier stories from these early days include one about an old German, known as Charlie the Baker, who got tired of catering for an unwanted guest with a tremendous appetite. When his visitor complimented Charlie on his lovely stew one night, Charlie informed him it was all due to the lovely rat he had caught that morning. He never bothered Charlie again.
Many rogues and vagabonds were attracted to town and one of the more notorious of these was a man named Bully Hayes. Much has been documented about his adventures as a blackbirder, especially in Louis Becke’s romantic stories of the South Seas, but Bully’s feet were firmly ensconced on land when he purchased a hotel in Arrowtown in 1863.
Much to her family’s horror, he wooed one of his competitor’s daughter into wedlock. In retaliation, her father offered the local barbers a sum of money if any of them dared to cut Bully’s hair short, as it was rumoured his long hair hid a missing ear. A barber managed to reveal this truth one day when Bully popped in for a shave, and incensed, Bully threatened to hurt anyone who mentioned the missing appendage.
Within a year Bully had bought a ship and moved north with his wife, their baby, his brother-in-law and a nurse. Very soon afterwards, though, all but Bully were drowned in a mysterious boating accident. Bully eventually drowned too when many years later an argument with a Dutch sailor saw him knocked him on the head with an iron tiller and tipped overboard.
In its heyday, the Central Otago gold rush saw remote boom towns pop up all over the district, most notably at Skippers and Macetown, but as the gold dwindled so did the people, leaving ghost towns in their wake.
These ghost towns include many Chinese settlements, although one has since been restored by the river in Arrowtown. Chinese miners played a big part in Arrowtown’s history after 1869, when they were invited to fill the vacancy created by the European miners who had left for the West Coast gold rush in 1864.
Predominantly from the Guangzhou area, the men left behind the over-populated and poverty-stricken towns and cities hoping to find their fortune in New Zealand. The stories of local characters such as storeowners Ah Wak, Wong Yow, Su Sing and Ah Lum are still remembered today.
In later gold rush years, the old Maori route that linked the south to Lake Wakatipu would become known as the Insolvent Track, because it was the route back to Southland used by people who could not pay their way by boat and rail.
The gold rush had gained Queenstown plenty of international attention, and gradually tourists began replacing goldminers.
Before the advent of commercial skiing, Queenstown’s fledgling tourism industry mainly operated in summer when people could more easily access the lake town. Activities on offer included fishing, hunting, hiking, sailing and, of course, sightseeing. Shops and activities were mainly concentrated around Queenstown’s lake front because most people arrived by boat.
Queenstown's famous "Lady of the Lake" began operating in 1912, when it set off on its maiden voyage from Kingston. Originally designed to carry sheep, cattle, and passengers to high country stations around the lake, the Earnslaw now runs tourist cruises to the Walter Peak high country station.
By the time Coronet Peak opened as the South Island’s first commercial ski field in 1947, the town had become both a winter and summer destination.
Jet boats began zipping down the local rivers in the 1950s, and in 1967 the first gondola travelled up Bob’s Peak. Vineyards were gradually planted, cultivating Queenstown’s future as a premium wine and food destination.
More commercial ski resorts opened, and in 1988 the first commercial bungy jump cemented Queenstown’s reputation for adventure. In the 1990s, when international flights began to arrive, Queenstown was well on its way to being an all-season destination.