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Wānaka (Māori)
Wānaka east, with mountains in the background.
Wānaka east, with mountains in the background.
Wānaka is located in New Zealand
Location of Wānaka within New Zealand
Coordinates: 44°42′S 169°09′E / 44.700°S 169.150°E / -44.700; 169.150Coordinates: 44°42′S 169°09′E / 44.700°S 169.150°E / -44.700; 169.150
CountryNew Zealand
Territorial authorityQueenstown Lakes District
 • Total28.61 km2 (11.05 sq mi)
290 m (950 ft)
 (June 2020)[1]
 • Total11,550
 • Density400/km2 (1,000/sq mi)
Time zoneUTC+12 (NZST)
 • Summer (DST)UTC+13 (NZDT)
Area code03
Local iwiNgāi Tahu

Wānaka /ˈwɒnəkə/ (Māori: Wānaka) is a popular ski and summer resort town in the Otago region of the South Island of New Zealand. At the southern end of Lake Wānaka, it is at the start of the Clutha River / Mata-Au and is the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park.

Wānaka is primarily a resort town with both summer and winter seasons. Its economy is based on the many outdoor opportunities this offers.

Historically, Māori visited the Wānaka area to hunt and fish in summer, or on their way to seek pounamu (greenstone) on the West Coast. Ngāi Tahu abandoned their seasonal camps after a raid by a North Island war party in 1836.

The current town was founded as Pembroke during the gold rush of the 19th century, and renamed to Wanaka in 1940.[2] Along with the rest of the Queenstown-Lakes District, Wānaka is growing rapidly, with the population increasing by 50% between 2005 and 2015.


"Wānaka" is the South Island dialect pronunciation of wānanga, which means sacred knowledge or a place of learning.[3] The New Zealand Gazetteer cites the meaning as "the lore of the tohunga or priest".[4]

While the name could also be a variation of Ō-Anake or Ō-Anaka, a proper name,[3] Ngāi Tahu's atlas Ka Huru Manu dismisses this variation as a simple spelling mistake.[5]

A Kāti Māmoe settlement at the site of modern Wānaka was Para karehu[6] or Parakārehu.[7] Take Kārara was a Kai Tahu kāinga nohoanga (settlement) at the southern end of Lake Wānaka, including Ruby Island.[7]

The town was named "Wanaka" when it was first surveyed in 1863, but renamed "Pembroke" within a month of the surveyor returning his books to Dunedin. Pembroke was the family name of the Hon Sydney Herbert,[8] a UK Cabinet Minister and member of the Canterbury Association.

The town's name reverted to "Wanaka" on 1 September 1940, to reduce confusion between the names of the town and the lake.[8] The official name of the lake was updated from "Lake Wanaka" to "Lake Wānaka" in 2019,[4] and the town to "Wānaka" in 2021.[9]


A Kāti Māmoe settlement at the site of modern Wānaka was named Para karehu.[6]

The area was invaded by the Ngāi Tahu in the early 18th century.[6] Ngai Tahu visited annually, seeking greenstone in the mountains above the Haast River and hunting eels and birds over summer, then returning to the east coast by descending the Mata-Au in reed boats called mōkihi.[10][11] Their settlement Take Kārara included a and a kāinga mahinga kai (food-gathering site) where pora ("Māori turnip"), mahetau, tuna (eels), and weka were gathered.[7]

Ngāi Tahu use of the land was ended by attacks by North Island tribes. In 1836, the Ngāti Tama chief Te Puoho led a 100-person war party, armed with muskets, down the West Coast and over the Haast Pass: they fell on the Ngāi Tahu encampment between Lake Wānaka and Lake Hāwea, capturing 10 people and killing and eating two children.[12] Some of the Ngāi Tahu fled down the Waitaki river to the coast; Te Puoho took his captives over the Crown Range to Lake Wakatipu and thence to Southland where he was killed and his war party destroyed by the southern Ngāi Tahu leader Tuhawaiki.[13]

The first European to visit the area was Nathaniel Chalmers, who was guided inland by Chiefs Reko and Kaikoura in 1853.[14] Reko and Kaikoura showed Chalmers the rock bridge "Whatatorere" at Roaring Meg, which was the only place that the Kawarau River could be jumped over,[15] and returned him down the Clutha in a mōkihi reed boat.

European settlement began in the Upper Clutha River Valley in the 1850s, with the establishment of sheep stations by runholders. The first station was at Albert Town, the only place where settlers could ford the Clutha River. The present site of Wānaka was first surveyed in 1863.[2] Settlement increased in Pembroke during the 1870s because of timber milling in the Matukituki Valley that used Lake Wānaka for transport.

Mass tourism began in 1867 when Theodore Russell opened the first hotel, and with the world's first sheepdog trials.[16]

Wānaka proved a very popular tourist destination because of its borderline continental climate and easy access to snow and water.[17]


Wānaka cafe strip on a quiet clear spring day

The town of Wānaka is situated at the southern end of Lake Wānaka, surrounded by mountains. To the southwest is the Crown Range and town of Queenstown (120 kilometres (75 mi)); to the north the Haast Pass cuts through the Southern Alps near Makarora. To the northeast are the towns of Omarama and Twizel. Very close to Lake Wānaka is Lake Hāwea, in a parallel glacial valley, which has a recently developed settlement of about 1,500 people. To the south of the town lies more of the Southern Alps. The Glendhu Bay motorpark is close to the town, leading into the Matukituki River valley which gives access to the Mount Aspiring National Park.

The centre of the town lies on flat land beside Roy's Bay. Parts of the town have expanded into the hills surrounding the centre and around Roy's Bay in both directions. The lakeside area of the town is prone to occasional flooding in spring when heavy rain and snowmelt can cause the lake to rise quickly, as in November 1999.[18][19]


Despite New Zealand's mostly oceanic climate, Wānaka is one of the few areas in the country to enjoy a semi-continental climate, with four distinct seasons. The weather is fairly dry, with spring (September–December) being the wettest season. Annual rainfall is 682 mm which is half the national average. Wānaka's summers are warm, with temperatures reaching the high 20s and an average summer maximum of 24 °C (75 °F). Wānaka's highest-ever temperature of 35.2 °C (95.4 °F) was recorded in January 2018.[20]

Winter can be extreme by New Zealand standards with temperature mostly in the single digits during the day time followed by cold and frosty nights and frequent snowfalls.

Climate data for Wanaka
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 23.9
Average low °C (°F) 10.8
Average precipitation mm (inches) 56.9
Mean monthly sunshine hours 231.5 201.7 182.6 164.0 135.5 120.5 126.6 155.8 172.5 193.8 202.2 212.1 2,098.8
Source: http://www.lakewanaka.co.nz/content/library/Weather_data.pdf


Wānaka is home to 11,550 people as of June 2020.[1] It is the country's 43rd-largest urban area and the fifth-largest urban area in Otago behind Dunedin, Queenstown, Mosgiel and Oamaru.

Historical population
YearPop.±% p.a.
1996 2,600—    
2001 3,450+5.82%
2006 5,280+8.88%
2013 6,820+3.72%
2018 8,900+5.47%
Source: [21]

The Wānaka urban area had a usual resident population of 9,555 at the 2018 New Zealand census, an increase of 3,081 people (47.6%) since the 2013 census, and an increase of 4,515 people (89.6%) since the 2006 census. There were 4,713 males and 4,842 females, giving a sex ratio of 0.97 males per female. Of the total population, 1,659 people (17.4%) were aged up to 15 years, 1,611 (16.9%) were 15 to 29, 4,596 (48.1%) were 30 to 64, and 1,686 (17.6%) were 65 or older.[22]

In terms of ethnicity, 92.6% were European/Pākehā, 5.1% were Māori, 0.5% were Pacific peoples, 4.5% were Asian, and 2.5% were other ethnicities (totals add to more than 100% since people could identify with multiple ethnicities).

52.4% of the town's population had some form of post school qualification, 12.5% above the national average. The unemployment rate was exceptionally low in Wānaka, at 3.2%, compared to 7.1% for New Zealand.[23] Over half (54.1%) of families in Wānaka were couples with no dependent children; couples with dependent children made up 36.9 percent of families, and single parents with dependent children made up 8.8 percent.[24]

Individual statistical areas in Wānaka (2018 census)[25]
SA2 name Population Dwellings Median age Median income
Albert Town 2,031 930 37.3 years $41,700
Wanaka Central 1,263 855 46.3 years $33,900
Wanaka North 2,412 1,263 35.2 years $40,700
Wanaka Waterfront 2,121 1,530 42.4 years $38,000
Wanaka West 1,725 1,230 45.8 years $40,900

Wānaka wine sub-region[edit]

The area around Wānaka is a formal sub-region of the Central Otago wine region with several top wineries and vineyards. As with other parts of the wine region, the main grape variety in the area is pinot noir.


View of Wānaka from Mt Roy.

With its lake and mountain views, Wānaka has become a popular tourist resort, considered less commercialised than Queenstown.[26]

Wānaka boasts a growing number of restaurants, cafes and a diverse nightlife. Other attractions in the town include Puzzling World and the Paradiso Cinema. Puzzling World contains a maze, optical illusions and a leaning clocktower.[27] The Paradiso is a classic old cinema, with seating consisting of old couches and an in-theatre Morris Minor.[28] There are several wineries in the area. Just out of town next to the Wānaka Airport is the National Transport and Toy Museum.

In winter, Wānaka is an excellent place to see the Southern Lights.[29]

A number of mountains surrounding Wānaka can be climbed, including Roys Peak, Mount Iron, Mount Grand and the Pisa Range, all of which provide views of the surrounding area.

That Wanaka Tree - a willow growing just inside the lake - is a tourist attraction in its own right, featuring on many tourists' Instagram feeds.[30] The tree had its lower branches cut by vandals in 2020.[31]


Aerial panorama of the town
  • The biennial Warbirds over Wanaka airshow has become a major attraction for national and international guests.
  • Wanakafest[32]
  • NZ Freeski Open
  • The biennial New Zealand music Rippon Festival[33]
  • Challenge Wanaka Triathlon Festival[34]
  • The Festival of Colour[35] and Aspiring Conversations are two festivals organised by the Southern Lakes Arts Festival Trust. The Festival of Colour is a biennial multi disciplinary arts festival featuring theatre, music, dance and visual arts. Aspiring Conversations is an ideas festival. Both are timed for April in alternate years.
  • Rhythm and Alps[36]

Film locations[edit]

The Wānaka region has been the setting for many international films, including The Lord of the Rings,[37] The Hobbit,[38] the Legend of S,[39] and A Wrinkle in Time.[40]


A tree in a lake surrounded by mountains
That Wānaka Tree in summer

Wānaka is host to outdoor recreation and tourism activities with hiking, mountain biking, mountaineering, rock climbing, fishing, paragliding, kayaking, rafting, jetboating, and environmental activities. Wānaka has a sunny climate and serves as an access point to the highest New Zealand mountain outside of the Mount Cook region: Mount Aspiring/Tititea.

Mount Aspiring National Park is popular for mountaineering and hiking. Tourists enjoy day trips into the park and many tourists go hiking in the park for up to a week at a time. Parts of the Matukituki Valley on the road to the park are popular for rock climbing, and for day walks.

Lake Wānaka itself is popular for waterskiing, wakeboarding and sailing. This along with the local rivers provide many opportunities for fishing. There is a dedicated mountain biking area made by volunteers in a local pine forest.[41] Adjacent to the bike park is an 18-hole disc golf course. All the local ski resorts are open for mountain biking and hiking in the summer.

That Wanaka Tree close to winter


Tramping to the summit of Treble Cone

Wānaka has the broadest range of snow activity choices of any town in New Zealand. These include Treble Cone, Cardrona Alpine Resort and Snow Farm, some of New Zealand's premier commercial ski fields. Wānaka is the main accommodation provider for these resorts and so is very busy in high season (July–September).

Winter in Wānaka is also the home to a variety of winter sporting events including everything from the annual free Winter Games to The Merino Muster.

Treble Cone has good lift-accessed terrain and for this reason has become popular amongst visitors, 'ConeHeads'.[42] It also catches some of the better snow in the area, with its location and orientation getting more snow from NW storms.

Cardrona is more attractive to families and beginners, though an attempt has been made at the park riding population in competition with SnowPark.[43] Snowpark is a dedicated 100% artificial terrain park for advanced riders. Snow Farm is New Zealand's only commercial cross-country ski field.

Cardrona also hosts one of the few Olympic sized halfpipes in the world and has been used for practice for Olympic competition.[44]


Nationally, Wānaka is part of the Waitaki electorate, represented by the New Zealand National Party's Jacqui Dean since 2005.[45]

Wānaka's local governments are the Queenstown-Lakes District Council[46] and the Otago Regional Council.[47]


Wānaka has four schools.

  • Holy Family School is a state-integrated Catholic full primary (Year 1–8) school, and has 202 students as of March 2021.[48] The school was established in 2006.
  • Mount Aspiring College is a state Year 7–13 secondary school, and has 1151 students as of March 2021.[48] The school was established in 1986 following the split of Wanaka Area School.
  • Wanaka Primary School is a state contributing primary (Year 1–6) school and has 537 students as of March 2021.[48] The school was established in 1986 following the split of Wanaka Area School and relocated to its current site in October 2010.
  • Te Kura O Take Kārara is a state contributing primary school, and has 80 students as of March 2020.[49] The schools was established in 2020, providing capacity for more primary school aged children as Wānaka's population grows.[50]


Wānaka is served by the Wanaka Airport as well as by roads over the Crown Range, through the Haast Pass to the West Coast, to Mount Cook Village via the Lindis Pass to the north, and south through Cromwell by State Highway 6. There are daily bus services to Christchurch, Dunedin, Queenstown, Invercargill and Greymouth.

During the early 20th century an unsuccessful proposal was made for the Otago Central Railway, then terminated at Cromwell, to be extended to Wānaka and onward to Lake Hāwea.[51] The main reason for NZR's reluctance was having to cross the Clutha River twice. A more direct route to Hāwea was planned but dropped due to cost.

Notable Buildings[edit]

Saint Columba's Anglican Church[edit]

St Columba's Anglican Church (July 2021)

Saint Columba's was built in 1902 and completed in 1911. It is a category 2 historic place.[52]

Chalmers' cottage[edit]

Chalmers' Cottage

Chalmers' cottage is a grade 2 listed building. It was built in the 1870s for Archibald Chalmers, who was a butcher based in Wānaka.[53]

Wānaka War Memorial[edit]

The Wānaka War Memorial overlooks the town and the lake. (July 2021)

Dinosaur slide[edit]

Dinosaur slide,  Wānaka (July 2021)

The dinosaur slide was built by the Wānaka Jaycees in 1976. It is a well known fixture at the lakefront dinosaur park playground in Wānaka. It was covered in graffit in 2017 but subsequently repainted.[54][55][56][57][58]


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External links[edit]