Lake Ōhau provides beauty and mystery aplenty

Miles away from civilisation, hidden amongst snow-capped mountains, is a lonely old lodge on the edge of a deep blue lake – where screams travel only as far as the wind blows them.

Tended by skeleton staff in the winter, the inn harbours an apparition. Guests often report sights of the ghostly former caretaker who maintains the premises after dark; with a penchant for a night at the bar and a glass of fine wine.

Press your ear to the front door – you might think you hear a whisper – ‘redrum’. But this is not the scene of Stephen King’s novel The Shining – it’s the Ōhau Lodge, perched on the western edge of the magnificent Lake Ōhau.

Lake Ōhau Lodge foundations 1951

Frank was a former maintenance man when the lodge first opened in the 50s and is said to still roam the accommodation wings and the bar today, even though he passed away long ago. Fortunately for patrons, he is said to be totally harmless and only appears from time to time.

The original owners of the lodge, the Mount Cook Company, bought accommodation huts from the Ministry of Works after they were surplus to requirement. Their original use was housing workers, employed on the Pūkaki hydroelectric dam in the early 50s.

And although hearing ‘redrum’ is an exaggeration, the rest is true of the Ōhau Lodge. It’s 45km to the nearest township – Twizel – where husband and wife Mike and Louise Neilson have been at the helm since the late 1980s.

Mike, originally from Oamaru, has fond memories of staying at the lodge, and learning the slopes of the ski field as a child – a tradition he picked up again later with his own kids.

“When we had a young family, we came skiing and stayed at the lodge – we could see that the business was obviously struggling.

“We stayed here whenever we came (to Lake Ōhau) and loved it – so a group of us decided to buy in."

“We have a resident ghost as it were, but not as far as we know has he had anything to do with the age of the buildings – and I’m not a believer in the paranormal.

“His name is Frank. He used to work here, with our predecessors (Mount Cook Company) and he was known to drink a lot of wine at the end of the bar here.

“As a guest I knew him – he used to look after all the maintenance side of things, the boiler and all that. He’s been known to be about, he’s friendly, he’s certainly no danger,” Mike said.
Lake Ōhau – a striking sight in the Upper Waitaki landscape – the whitest white ski-fields contrasting sapphire blue water.

Off the beaten track

Surrounding the lake are mountains on all sides – making for a stunning wedding venue. The area is most well-known however, for the Ōhau snow fields on the western shore of the lake, as is its service town Lake Ōhau Alpine Village.

“Most of our traffic definitely used to come in the winter but it’s pretty even these days, with the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail. I was an active participant of the working group for the cycle trail, trying to make sure it worked as we had a vested interest,” said Mike.

The lake is on the route of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, which runs alongside the lake to the aforementioned lodge, before climbing the Tarnbrae Track and down the Quailburn Road.

Lake Ōhau could just be the perfect escape this summer, with innumerable walking, hiking, camping and biking tracks to be explored further up the valley and around the lodge.

The region is also a fishing hotspot, with brown and rainbow trout aplenty, and there are a number of landlocked small salmon in the upper reaches.

Upper Waitaki water zone committee chairman, Simon Cameron, said visitors enjoying the lake’s recreational values should be aware of the potential impact they could leave on the area if they’re not mindful.

“There is a real potential for E.coli contamination, that is a 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 (the lakes are) still in great condition,” he said.

It seems an easy fix, he said, but not everyone does it – and that can leave a lasting impact on the environment.

“It’s really simple, take things along to the lake that won’t create rubbish – things like non-plastic food wrapping.”

“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,” he said.

Why is it important?

The lake, located in Te Manahuna (the Mackenzie Basin), is fed by the Ōtaao (Dobson River) and Te Awa Aruhe (Hopkins River).

Flowing into Ōhau from the north is the Te Awa Aruhe (Hopkins River), which is joined by the Ōtaao (Dobson River) in Dobson Valley, further north. Te Awa Aruhe flows from Kā Tiritiri-o-te-moana/Southern Alps.

According to Māori lore, Ōhau was one of the lakes that was hand-dug by the Canterbury/Waitaha explorer Rākaihautū. He used his kō (digging stick) to dig lakes Ōhau, Pūkaki and Takapō (Tekapo).

Much like the lore surrounding Pūkaki and Takapō, the history of Ōhau is well-documented. Arriving by waka in Nelson, Rākaihautū led a group of explorers down the middle of Te Waipounamu (the South Island), digging the freshwater lakes we know today.

Ōhau is renowned for the north-west wind that blows over the lake; and was part of the Kāi Tahu seasonal food gathering patterns. The lake was a well-established kāinga mahinga kai/gathering place for tuna/eels and weka, preserved ahead of the winter months.

Te Rūnanga o Moeraki kaumatua, David Higgins, said Ōhau was one of the “many ancestral lakes” that connects Māori to the land and mountains.

It was also one of the many resource-gathering sites, he said. “(Lakes in the Waitaki region are) all significant sites for our people when gathering things like fish, weka, other bird species and then travelling back to their pā.”

During the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Ngāi Tahu land claims in 1879, Ngāi Tahu elders recorded the Hopkins as a place of mahinga kai where weka and kākāpō were gathered.

Road to Lake Ōhau

Protecting its environment

Ōhau is part of the Waitaki Hydroelectric Scheme run by Meridian Energy, which controls the flow and output of six lakes in the region, in turn creating electricity. The lake’s outflow is the Ōhau River, which itself feeds into the Scheme.

In 2019, the Upper Waitaki water zone committee approved $73,000 over three years, of funding for pest weed control in the Dobson and lower Hopkins Valleys, both of which feed directly into Lake Ōhau.

  • The committee adopted the three-year project, citing the need to protect braided rivers, wetlands and dryland ecosystems in the unique area.
  • A weed survey was carried out in February, which recommended immediate action be taken against 10 invasive species.
  • Most pressing for control are crack willow and Russel lupin. Crack willow, in particular, colonises wetlands and braided rivers, changing the hydrology and dominating existing native vegetation in wetlands.

Department of Conservation (DoC), Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), and the Glen Lyon Station have also committed to supporting the project.

Environment Canterbury biodiversity officer Jenna Hughes-Games said it was great to get the project off the ground.

“The collaboration we’ve had with the landowners, as well as input from other organisations, is what has made this significant project possible.

“This funding will, over three years, help to protect threatened landscapes, ecosystems and key native species in both the Dobson and lower Hopkins Valleys,” she said.

For up to date information on the quality of water in Lake Ōhau throughout the summer months, head to the Land Information Water Aotearoa (LAWA) website

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 in the past two days.

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.

Upper Waitaki water zone committee Chairman, Simon Cameron, said that with the potential for E. coli contamination over summer, it’s important for tourists, locals and everyone in between to be in the right “mindset”.

“There are other groups sharing the same concerns as us – the Environment Canterbury Navigational Safety Team is one. That’s all around being boat safe and being vigilant around alcohol mixing with boats, as well as the rubbish aspect. All things to think about,” he said.

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.