The legend of Lake Ruataniwha

Many people know Lake Ruataniwha roughly translates to ‘two monsters’ in English, but did you know the name actually refers to the hills and mountains surrounding the lake?

How Ruataniwha came to be

In Ngāi Tahu lore, Te Ruataniwha was a person who came to be the prominent cone-shaped mountain near the outlet of Lake Ōhau.

He was a Ngāi Tahu ancestor on the Ārai-te-uru waka, which was carrying many important people at the time it capsized near Shag Point on the Otago coastline, near Moeraki.

The passengers swam ashore and explored the land, however they needed to be back at the waka before daylight.

Those who did not make it – including Te Ruataniwha – transformed into many of the geographical features of the region.

Later on, Māori prophet Te Maiharoa and his followers were evicted from Ōmārama where they were staging a protest against the Crown (who were asserting their ownership of the South Island high country).

Te Maiharoa and 12 of his followers climbed Te Ruataniwha.

Once there, Te Maiharoa had a vision to settle with his followers at the mouth of the Waitaki River, where there is still a Māori reserve today.

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.

Importance to rūnanga

Aside from the lore and mystery surrounding the capsizing of the infamous waka near Moeraki, the short history of Ruataniwha is steeped in significance to local iwi and rūnanga.

Te Rūnanga o Moeraki kaumatua David Higgins said alpine-fed lakes running into Ruataniwha in the Upper Waitaki catchment have immense meaning to iwi all over Canterbury and North Otago.

“(They are) the many ancestral lakes that connect us to our land and our maunga/mountains. (They are) resource-gathering sites.

“They would have used raupō (bulrush) rafts for the most efficient travel back down the waterways again. And campsites or resting spots would have been dotted down the lakesides,” he said.

Not only did Māori of yesteryear travel effectively, but they were highly astute to the impacts their travel and mahinga kai (gathering/cultivation) would have had on the natural environment.

“They would all have taken different trails to and from the lakes so as not to stress the natural resources along the way,” David said.

Flowing into Ruataniwha from the west is the Ōhau River, which prior to the creation of Lake Benmore in the 1960s, flowed directly into the Waitaki River. It was a traditional travelling route through the Mackenzie country. In particular, the river provided access to Lake Ōhau, which was an important kāinga mahinga kai (food-gathering site).

Foods found in Lake Ōhau were the likes of weka, tuna (eels), and pora (Māori turnip).

Not only did the lake have historical meaning to Māori, but it clearly still retains that mana today.

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.

Lake Ruataniwha is a great place for a waste-free picnic.

What effect does all this activity have on the water?

The Land Air Water Aotearoa (LAWA) website tests the swimability of popular water recreation sites around Canterbury and the rest of the country, on a weekly basis, posting those sample snapshots on the website.

Ruataniwha is generally suitable for swimming, although in early January 2020 a health alert was issued due to a high level of E.coli at the campsite swimming area. The health warning has since been lifted and bacteria levels are safe. Environment Canterbury is investigating the source of this contamination and continue to monitor the water for suitability for swimming.

LakeSPI (Lake Submerged Plant Indicators) is a method of characterising the ecological condition of lakes based on the composition of native and invasive plants growing in them.

A higher LakeSPI percentage result is associated with better ecological health. Ruataniwha scored 43 per cent, with 45 per cent native plants, and 54 per cent invasive plants.

This secured the lake a score of ‘moderate’. Measurements were taken at the Lake Ruataniwha Camping Ground site, which is monitored during the summer months.

Upper Waitaki Zone Water Committee chairman Simon Cameron said it is all of our jobs to continue looking after Ruataniwha the way it has been in the past.

“There is a real potential for E.coli contamination, that is a big concern for us over the summer. It’s mostly Kiwis having holidays out there so we’re trying to get people into that mindset of looking after themselves and taking rubbish-free picnics to and from the lakes.

“We’re trying to be proactive about this rather than reactive after the fact. It’s a long summer and hopefully when February or March rolls around they’re (the lakes are) still in great condition,” Simon said.

The lakes hold a special place in Simon’s heart, and he’s sure the feeling is mutual around the Mackenzie country and further beyond.

“All of the community thinks the lakes are pretty special, we’ve grown up knowing they’re swimmable and fishable and looking after those areas knowing we have to look after them. Everyone, locals, holidaymakers all have to band together to look after them.”

Surrounding Ruataniwha is a region of rugged mountains, tussock lands, beech forest and rivers, including the Dobson, Hopkins, Huxley, Temple and Maitland valleys amidst the Ben Ohau Range.

Can I swim here?

When you’re heading to the local lake this summer, don’t forget to look out for water quality information signs. These will tell you if there’s a health alert in place or whether to avoid swimming if it’s been raining.

It’s important to avoid swimming for 48 hours after there has been rainfall. This is because rain can wash bacteria from roads and paddocks into the waterway.

Environment Canterbury regularly monitors water quality at 100 popular swimming spots around Canterbury. The results are updated weekly, and are available through Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA), New Zealand's most comprehensive source of water data.

Enjoy our lakes this summer. If you’re visiting one of the beautiful waterways, we’re counting on you to dispose of rubbish correctly and use the toilet facilities provided.