Queenstown's History & Culture


Queenstown is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful regions. It is surrounded by jagged mountains, snow-capped during the winter months. Lake Wakatipu is a focal point to this stunning area. The Maoris inhabited the area before the European and Chinese settlers came during the gold rush in the 1860’s. While the region is still rich in gold today, Queenstown economy is driven by tourism. With excellent ski fields, recreational lakes for water sports, hiking and cycling tracks and a sophisticated wine and food scene it’s not hard to enjoy.

How Lake Wakatipu was formed

Lake Wakatipu was formed about 15,000 years ago by a glacier which gouged out the lake bed. It created a thin ‘S’ shaped lake covering 290 square kilometres with the jagged mountains rising above it.

However, its creation is slightly different in Māori mythology. They believe two lovers, the young warrior Matakauri and Manata, the beautiful daughter of a Māori chief wanted to marry. The Maori chief forbade them. One night the cruel giant Matau stole Manata and hid her away in his mountain lair. Distraught, her father said any warrior brave enough to rescue her could marry her. Matakauri accepted the challenge. He knew that the next time the warm wind blew from the north-west it would put the giant to sleep. 

The wind blew and the giant slept. Matakauri tried to rescue Manata, but she was joined to the giant by a magical rope. In despair, Manata began to weep and her tears melted the rope and she broke free. 

Matakauri set fire to Matau to ensure he would never steal Manata again. As the giant’s body melted it created a massive hole that filled with melted snow, now called Wakatipu. It means ‘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.


The early Maori

A Māori tribe, the Ngāi-Tahu made their home in the South Island for over 800 years ago. They came in search of pounamu or greenstone, a semi-precious stone of cultural importance to the Maori people. They used it for adzes, chisels and weaponry. They established themselves in the region, but their numbers dwindled because of inter-tribe fighting and disease bought by the Europeans.


Early European History

When Alexander Garvie first spotted a jagged mountain range in the distance during a reconnaissance survey of the area in 1857 he named them the Remarkables. The magnificent mountain range is still called that today. However, he didn’t see Lake Wakatipu. 

Several years later John Chubbin, John Morrison and Malcom Macfarlane were the first Europeans to stand on the shores of the lake. As the men gazed in awe at the beauty that surrounded them, Morrison lit his pipe, threw away the match setting 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, the fire 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 found a hidden 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, 10 minutes from Queenstown. Setting off on foot he eventually found the lake that bears his name, though it has been incorrectly recorded in history as Lake Hayes. 


The 1860’s gold rush

Jack Tewa is credited with the discovery of gold he found in the Arrow River in 1862. His discovery changed the Wakatipu district from a pastoral area to a gold-mining settlement. It is one of the world's richest sources of alluvial gold. The residential housing community and golf course at Jack’s Point, 20-minute drive from Queenstown is named after him. 

Queenstown became a roaring gold mining 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 gold mining life.

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.

Queenstown Today

The gold rush put Queenstown on the map, but gradually tourists replaced gold miners. Before commercial ski fields opened in the Queenstown the tourism industry operated in the summer and people came to access the lakes. Then in 1947, the first commercial ski field opened, Coronet Peak, making Queenstown a summer and winter destination. 

Eventually, more commercial ski fields opened and in 1988 the first commercial bungy-jump cemented Queenstown’s reputation as the adventure capital of the world.

Vineyards were gradually planted and Queenstown is now food and wine destination, famous for its Pinot Noir. Today you can enjoy great food wine, skiing, hiking, extreme adventure and more, set in the most spectacular scenery in the world.

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