The Maori Legend of Lake Wakatipu

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Last week, I read a post over on Finding the Universe about the myth that explains how the volcanoes on New Zealand's North Island were formed.

I love these sorts of stories.

Ship Cove, New Zealand

The Maori people have all sorts of myths and legends for how things in New Zealand came to be. They even have one for the country itself, in which a demi-god named Maui hooked the North Island and fished it up out of the sea.

One of my favorite Maori myths, however, is a lesser-known one: the legend of Lake Wakatipu.

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, New Zealand

Lake Wakatipu is a deep, S-shaped lake on New Zealand's South Island. The popular resort town of Queenstown sits right on its shores, and it's flanked by the aptly-named Remarkables mountain range.

The lake was, in reality, formed by glaciers cutting through the Southern Alps 15,000 years ago.

But I like the Maori legend of the lake much better.

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, New Zealand

At the heart of the legend is Manata, the beautiful daughter of a local Maori chief, who was forbidden to marry Matakauri, the man she loved.

One night, Manata was kidnapped by a fierce giant from the mountains named Matau. The chief was so distraught about his daughter that he promised Manata's hand in marriage to the man from the tribe who could rescue her.

Matakauri snuck into Matau's lair under cover of darkness and rescued Manata, and the two were happily married at last.

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, New Zealand

But Matakauri wanted to be sure that Matau would never threaten his wife or tribe again, so he once again stole away into the mountains. He found Matau asleep, curled up on his giant side. Matakauri set fire to him, burning him where he lay.

The fire burned a deep gouge into the earth and caused the ice and snow on the surrounding mountains to melt — forming Lake Wakatipu. The name translates to “Hollow of the Giant.”

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, New Zealand
Matau's head

Today, the town of Glenorchy sits at Matau’s head, Queenstown on his knee, and Kingston at his feet. The waters of the lake rise and fall up to 5 inches every few minutes, and this is said to be caused by Matau’s still-beating heart, which could not be destroyed.

Science explains away the rise-and-fall of the lake water, attributing it to changes in atmospheric pressure.

But I like the giant myth much better.

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, New Zealand

Do you have any favorite myths or legends from places you've traveled to? Share them in the comments below!


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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44 Comments on “The Maori Legend of Lake Wakatipu

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  1. There is a legend from the bottom end of the Kawarau Gorge which has similar themes. The story of Kaiamio and Rapuwai. Opinions differ, but I believe that both legends are about the same incident.

    […] town sitting at the “knee” of Lake Wakatipu. “Knee” because according to Māori legend, the lake was formed by a sleeping giant. The lake also has a “tide”, with water levels […]

    What an interesting post, now I really want to go!

    Interesting stuff Amanda. When I wake up tomorrow I’m going to go and admire the Hollow of the Giant, maybe go for a swim around his knee if it’s warm enough.

    thats such a great story and the pics are beautiful of NZ

    Great article! I love all of the Pacific Islander stories of how they and their islands came into being! Have you done much traveling around there?

      Thanks, Tiffany! And I, too, love these sorts of stories.

      I’ve traveled all over New Zealand, and have been to Hawaii, but have yet to visit any other Pacific islands!

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