A small artificial lake
Taking its name from this legend, Lake Ruataniwha is actually man-made.
Lying on the border of Canterbury and Otago, it's just a 3 km (or two-minute drive) from the township of Twizel.
Many of the townspeople were instrumental in the construction of Ruataniwha in the 1970s and early ‘80s, and take great pride in their short history there.
The 4.5km long lake was created as a consequence of the Meridian Energy-run Waitaki Hydro Scheme, which annually sees a collective 50 per cent of New Zealand’s hydroelectricity stemming from six lakes in the Upper Waitaki region.
Lake Ruataniwha functions as a surge reservoir for the power scheme - during excessive inflows into Lake Ōhau which the Ōhau A power station is unable to pass, Ōhau can overflow into Ruataniwha.
Max's rowing legacy
Most people would rightly associate Ruataniwha with rowing, and in particular, the Maadi Cup – an annual secondary school regatta alternating between Lake Karapiro (odd years), and Ruataniwha (even years).
As impressive as the facilities are today, they were never planned by the Ministry of Works, who were running the hydroelectric project.
Instead, the idea came about while facilities were constructed, as a public service on the instructions of Max Smith, the locally-based project engineer.
Without the MoW’s full knowledge, Max reached agreement with an external partner to fund a regatta control building.
Senior officials at the MoW caught wind of the secret project and – despite support from the community – Mr Smith took an early retirement rather than face potential legal action.
Today the access road running alongside the lake is named Max Smith Drive by the local community in his honour. Mr Smith passed away in 2013.
South Island Rowing course manager Trevor Wilson said the value Ruataniwha provides to the sport is unparalleled.
“It was just massive when it was first initiated in the ‘80s through Max Smith and South Island rowing members.
“Not only that but it was a massive inclusion to the rowing fraternity due to its location. It’s central to both Marlborough and Invercargill, so it’s all encompassing,” he said.
And with the uptake of rowing better in high schools than it’s ever been, participation is at an all-time high.
“We used to have about 800 (rowers in total) there for our biggest regattas but now we get between 1200 and 1400 for provincial regattas – it’s been an amazing development.
“The whole structure has changed too. We used to have eight lanes until about three years ago, when we decided to try two more and volunteers are sometimes out there on the lake anywhere up to 12 hours a day, manning anywhere up to 160 races a day now,” Trevor said.
It's a popular spot
The lake is also hugely popular with boaties, keen swimmers, picnickers, water-skiers and anglers.
Recently a potentially world-record breaking rainbow trout was caught (13kg). High Country Salmon Farm is a popular tourist attraction and is to the south west of the lake.
To the north of the lake lies the Department of Conservation-maintained Ruataniwha Conservation Park. The park is nearly the same size as Lake Pūkaki (around 37,000 ha) and is used by bikers, walkers and trampers, hunters, climbers and anglers.
Not only is it a haven for lovers of the outdoors, but the lake’s edge provides a sublime backdrop for a day in and out of the water with friends, family and a rubbish-free picnic.