The lure of Lake Wanaka, NZ

By Justin Walker 26 October 2012
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Just across The Ditch lies Lake Wanaka, an adventure wonderland.

Protecting valuable assets – whether fragile ecosystems, unique historical settlements, rare fauna and flora – is always a worthy undertaking. Now, think about a protected reserve; one that concentrates on preserving a unique lifestyle.

Would your way of life – or your surroundings – qualify? If it takes you longer than a few minutes to decide, the likely answer is no. Maybe the answer would be easier to reach if you had an example to compare to.

Luckily, that example – the world’s first protected lifestyle reserve, in fact – is nestled in New Zealand’s South Island, in the form of Lake Wanaka, comprising the township of Wanaka, its namesake lake, and the surrounding region (which includes villages such as Lake Hawea, Albert Town, Luggate, Cardrona and Makarora), as well as the spectacular Mt Aspiring National Park.

So what is so unique? It is a combination of adventure literally on your doorstep and the fact people move to Wanaka from higher-paid jobs to, in effect, really live life. Geoff Marks, of Lake Wanaka Tourism, is an example.

“I quit my corporate career to move to Wanaka for the lifestyle. Initially, it was the lure of the lake and mountains that brought me here, but it’s really the people and personalities in Wanaka that make this place special and keep me here… This new job sharing my passion for this incredible place certainly beats the hell out of selling financial software!”

So I guess, whichever option you take – permanent move or long visit – it is about choices. And for the outdoors enthusiast, the Lake Wanaka region is jam-packed full of them.

Trekking Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka is a walker’s heaven on Earth.  Stand yourself down by the lakeside, point your finger, and turn yourself around 360 degrees and the likely chance is you’ll be covering enough walking tracks to keep you more than occupied for a year at least; with choices ranging from epic multi-day adventures, through to relaxed trundles that take between an hour and a full day.

The stand-out day-hike is the Rob Roy Track. This trek (accessed from Raspberry Creek carpark, on Mt Apsiring NP’s south-eastern edge, a 45-minute drive from Wanaka), encompasses all of this awesome park’s attractions – raging, glacial-melt-fed rivers, beech forest, waterfalls, and a sublime view of Rob Roy Glacier itself – a great lunch-spot and a place to also experience NZ’s cheeky alpine parrot – the kea – before making the return trek back to the carpark.

The track itself is steep in places, but its route, running beside the roaring waters of the Rob Roy Stream as it cascades down the hillside, makes you forget any slight hardships.

Raspberry Creek is also the start-point for some other day and overnight hikes. Aspiring Hut is owned by the New Zealand Alpine Club but makes a great lunch spot for an amble up the West Matukituki Valley – primarily along flat ground – while Liverpool Hut (a further four hours up the valley’s southern ridge) and French Ridge Hut (five hours on the opposite valley-side) are great overnight adventures.

The track to French Ridge Hut, in particular, is fairly challenging but the views from the top of French Ridge itself, and back down the valley, are a great reward after all that slog.

Just be aware, though, that weather conditions govern access to both these huts so check at the Wanaka Department of Conservation office before heading out.

High viewpoints aren’t all the domain of these semi-hard tracks, however. About 20 minutes out of Wanaka, the Diamond Lake Track, and then further on from that, the Rocky Mountain Summit Track, are worth the day, with sublime views back across Lake Wanaka to the town itself.

There are myriad other shorter tracks scattered around just out – or on the edge of – town: Roys Peak Track, Mount Iron Walk, Minaret Burn Track, and more.

Lake Wanaka by mountain bike

In recent years, Lake Wanaka has become the must-ride area for mountain bikers, both Kiwi and, increasingly, Australian. With Wanaka just over the hill from Queenstown Airport, it is easy to see why.

It is even easier to see why the plethora of MTB tracks here has led to people migrating to Wanaka at an increasing rate. And, the community is right behind these developments, with new tracks being built all the time (see Australian Geographic Adventure Nov/Dec 2011 for a full report on the Wanaka MTB experience).

And it is not just the weekend warrior rider that is being enticed over to this South Island MTB mecca. Serious riders, such as Mick Ross, deputy editor of Australian Geographic Outdoor’s sister publication Australian Mountain Bike, rave about the riding opportunities here.

For Mick, Sticky Forest is memorable, due to both its trail network and the fact you can ride there from the centre of town in about 15 minutes.

“Sticky Forest is one of those sweet trails that feels just right to ride, and you really get a feeling that the trails were built by good bike riders who know what a flowy and fun trail needs to be built like to ride that way,” Mick says. “You can pump and flow around these trails off the brakes, and often without even pedalling, there is that much flow.”

One of the big riding attractions – that would also suit a two-wheeled family  – is the Millennium Track, which follows the Lake Wanaka’s south-eastern edge (15km one-way). The views around this track are nearly too distracting, something Mick and the AMB crew agree with.

“This could be the prettiest trail in the world, with massive snow-capped peaks running right down to the water’s edge. Fun can be had by any rider on the Millennium track, even someone like Justin Walker,” Mick reckons. [And thanks for the vote of confidence, Mr Ross – JW.]

The lads at Freeride in Wanaka can sort you out for any of these tracks and can also introduce you to the epic Dirt Park, one of the area’s best long downhill runs, with the iconic Cardrona Pub (“Pub comfort to the max,” according to Mick) as the finishing point. No, it doesn’t get any better.

Or does it? Another Freeride heli-bike trip ends up at the historic Luggate Pub. Choices, choices…

Add the Outlet Track, beside the Clutha River, Deans Bank Track (11km of singletrack, built and supported by the Wanaka community) and events such as Motatapu (Glendhu Bay to Arrowtown) and the Contact Epic (around Lake Hawea) and it’s easy to see why Kiwi and Aussie riders alike keep on returning.

Lake Wanaka: island shelter

Lake Wanaka is immense, measuring 42km long and around 10km at its widest point. Small islands dot the lake’s surface – some large, some quite small, but probably none as important as Mou Waho.

Plonked down in roughly the middle of the lake, this island is a nature reserve, kept free of introduced predators, such as rats, stoats, cats and dogs, to protect the flightless, and probably too-friendly-for-its-own-survival, buff weka.

Eco Wanaka Adventures offers a half-day trip to the island, to check out the important conservation work being done to ensure the buff weka’s survival, as well as the island’s other unique – geological – attraction.

A walking track winds its way up to a beautiful viewpoint atop a rocky outcrop at the top of the island, which provides views over the lakes below. Yep, I said “lakes” as in more than one, with a small lake (with even smaller islands) on top of the Mou Waho Island.

The best way to describe the view, quoting Lake Wanaka Tourism, is: an island, in a lake, on an island in a lake (Wanaka), on an island (the South Island) in the ocean. Yep, it is long-winded but a perfect description.

This trip is a brilliant half-day well spent – exploring the immensity of Lake Wanaka, then having the fearless weka come right up to your boots to check out your shoe-laces can be pretty entertaining and it is a great result for this conservation initiative.

Makarora: a gateway to trekking Mt Aspiring National Park

It is easy to get overwhelmed by all that’s on offer, nearly literally, on your doorstep in Wanaka itself, but if you can force yourself into a car for roughly an hour’s drive north you’ll find Lake Wanaka’s northernmost playground – Makarora.

This quaint (very) small village is the gateway to more of Mt Aspiring NP’s bounty of trekking opportunities, such as the 30-minute Blue Pools track, the Blue-Young Link track, and the multi-day Gillespie Pass circuit.

For those with limited time but who still want to experience the higher points of this part of the park, there’s a one-day trek with a slight, let’s say, airborne twist.

The Siberia Valley is surrounded by mountains. To walk in from Makarora, along the Gillespie Pass circuit, takes a few days but if you’re short of time, opt for the Siberia Experience, run by Southern Alps Air.

Jumping in a yellow Cessna and flying over parts of one of the world’s most impressive alpine ranges, is just the start. You land at Siberia Hut, then trek for around three hours along part of the Young-Wilkin Valley Track before meeting a jetboat at the Wilkin River for the return to Makarora.

It’s a blast and packs in plenty of scenery and trekking. However, if you’re still after more, check out the trek up to Brewster Hut for the night. Just off the Haast Highway, north of Makarora, it is a great overnight uphill challenge, with a leisurely drop back down the next day.

Of course, the alpinists among us know Wanaka as the kick-off point for numerous vertical endeavours, whether it’s an attempt on Mt Aspiring, exploring Bonar Glacier, winter ice-climbing at Black Peak, or a day refining your rock skills at Hospital Flat, about 20 minutes out of town.

The opposite end of the water-based scale is the lake itself. Kayaking and stand-up-paddling (SUP) are both popular, with certain crazy locals even taking SUPs right down the Clutha River, from the lake. Canyoning is also popular, with some locations right near Lake Wanaka, and others accessed via helicopter.

Lake Wanaka: Protected Lifestyle Reserve

There’s little doubt Lake Wanaka deserves the moniker of a Protected Lifestyle Reserve. It tells the story of the area in just that sentence, really.

Spending another 10 days there made me relate even more to those who chuck in their jobs and live the adventurous lives they’ve always dreamed about  – every damn day. That sounds like envy and, yep, I confess, without quibble.

So am I tempted myself? My wife and I have actually come close on two occasions to making the move. Back in 2002, on our first visit, and then again just before I landed this dream job as editor of Australian Geographic Adventure.

Really, it wouldn’t be that difficult; after all, in this fully-connected age, there’s no reason an editor of an adventure magazine couldn’t be based in one of the world’s best adventure towns, now, is there? I wonder if my publisher will read this…