The second largest of the southern glacial lakes, Lake Wakatipu is 48 miles long and up to 3 miles wide, and covers an area of 113 sq. miles. The lake is 1,017 ft above sea level, is 1,239 ft deep, and occupies a single elongated glacial trench having a gently sloping flat floor (probably due to a fill of fine sediments). In contrast to Lake Te Anau, Wakatipu has a more barren appearance because of the lack of forest throughout most of its 1,150 sq. miles of drainage area. It is bordered on all sides by glaciated mountains, the highest of which is Mount Earnslaw near the head of the lake.
Settlements around the lake shore include Queenstown and the villages of Kingston, Glenorchy, and Kinloch. Good roads give access to Queenstown and Kingston, and a new road is now open between Queenstown and Glenorchy. There is a steamer service on the lake by s.s. Earnslaw for the transport of tourists and of goods to and from the several sheep stations around the shores. The most spectacular sightseeing is to be had around Queenstown, on the boat trip to the head of the lake, and on bus trips from either Glenorchy or Kinloch. But the whole area offers a wealth of tourist attractions such as sightseeing, hunting, fishing, and water sports.
Two large rivers, the Dart and Rees, enter the lake at the head. At the foot of the lake is a natural dam of moraine left by the glacier which formerly occupied the lake basin. In the geological past the lake was drained from its foot by a river which flowed out to join the Mataura system. Now it is drained by the Kawarau River (6,160 cusec discharge), a tributary of the Clutha system.
Lake Wakatipu is associated with many Maori legends, especially those accounting for its origin. Some state that it was the burning of a gigantic ogre which made the hollow, later filled with water, but perhaps the most popular ascribes it as due to the labours of the famous chief Te Raikaihaitu, pioneer explorer of the interior of the South Island. He brought with him from his former home in the tropics a long wooden spade (ko), and with this he dug the inland lakes. Legend affirms that Wakatipu was the most difficult to dig because of its great depth, its rocky surroundings, and its high mountains. It took the utmost effort of the spade combined with many invocations (karakia) to excavate the bed of the lake.
Wakatipu is said to be a shortened form of “Wakatipuwaimaori” though its meaning appears to be unknown. It is usually supposed that the proper form should be “Waka-tipua”, the components meaning, respectively, “trough” and “goblin”. The trough is the lake and the goblin (or monster) rests therein and his breathing causes the regular rise and fall of the “waimaori” (fresh water) that fills the trough.
by Bryce Leslie Wood, M.SC., New Zealand Geological Survey, Dunedin.