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Lake Rotoiti In Nelson
Lakes National Park

Dorothy - 23/1/98

Lake Rotoiti looking from Kerr Bay
Lake Rotoiti looking from Kerr Bay
(Click here for a larger version)
Why do the visitors come?
It is the beauty of the lake, the mountains and the bush which draws most visitors to the area more than a century after Haast first rejoiced in it, although a few still go to seek the gold in the river valleys.

Some come to relax in the peaceful surroundings, some enjoy day walks around the lake or on tracks through the bush up the mountainsides, some use the settlement as a base for longer tramping trips, some go boating and fishing on the lake, and some are there just to 'get away from it all'. In spite of its name meaning 'small waters' the lake offers ample area for yachting, water skiing and other boating activities.

The lake in pre-European times
This lake set amid bush and mountains has drawn people to visit since parties of Maori stopped there on trips from Tasman Bay to Canterbury or the West Coast. They would fish in the rivers and the lake. Midden sites have been found at Kerr Bay and in the Travers Valley at the head of the lake. In Maori mythology the lake was created by the great chief Rakaihaitu digging holes with his ko (digging stick). One great hole became Lake Rotoiti (small waters) and the other Lake Rotoroa (large waters). Later geologists described the lakes as basins scooped out by glaciers.

Settlers search for fertile land
European settlers coming to Nelson were looking for flat land which could quickly be developed into pastoral farms. They had been promised large areas by surveyors who had never visited the country which they were subdividing. This situations sent explorers inland looking for fertile farm land. They were not impressed by the land around the Nelson Lakes, but did discover the fertile plains of the Wairau Valley. They believed that if they followed the Buller River which flows out of Lake Rotoiti they would find good farm land further down the river.

Probably the first European to discover the lake was J. S. Cotterell, a surveyor employed by the New Zealand Company. Towards the end of 1842, travelling with a Maori guide, he explored the pass at Tophouse and the Wairau Valley and the east coast as far as the Clarence River. He discovered the lake at the beginning of 1843 and went up the Travers Valley at the head of the lake and climbed a peak there, probably that named after him, Cotterell Peak. Sadly he was later killed in the Wairau Incident near Blenheim.

In 1845 Charles Heaphy, explorer and artist, was sent from Nelson to explore southwest, and found that the mighty Buller River flowed in a narrow gorge for as far as they could see and there was little land for farming. Then a year later William Fox led a group consisting of Heaphy, Thomas Brunner and a very knowledgeable Maori guide, Kehu, on further exploration of the area and painted scenes around the lake. Then from 1846 to 1848 Kehu and another Maori guide led Brunner on an extensive journey to Lake Rotoiti and down the West Coast to Paringa. The lack of food, the difficult country and the cold weather in the winter of 1847 made this a harrowing journey. It was only Kehu's skills that enabled them to survive and Brunner's reports put to an end the dream of a large fertile plain in the hills behind Nelson.

The first scientist visits the lake
In 1860 Julius von Haast, a German geologist, was sent by the government to study this area. He prepared detailed reports of the rock, fauna and flora of the area, and expressed great delight in the beauty of the area. He also reported that gold was to be found around Rotoiti and Rotoroa.

Gold rush short lived
After reports from a surveyor called Rochfort that gold was seen on the edge of the Buller a gold rush began in 1862. Most of the miners worked in the Matakitaki valley, but were soon attracted to other goldfields in the south. The long term advantage of the gold rush was the track built to speed the journey down the Buller Gorge to Westport.

Land set aside for the public to enjoy
Some of the land now within the park was set aside for public use between 1907 and 1928, but the Nelson Lakes National Park was created in 1956.

Private ownership around the lake
In the 1920s sections offered for sale at Lake Rotoiti attracted only one buyer, but once a road was opened up to cars the popularity of the Lake for visitors began. Boatsheds were built along the lake edge at Kerr Bay and baches were built among the beech trees on the slopes above the bay. The settlement now known as St Arnaud began to grow.

Later the Park management decreed that the boatsheds be removed and the shoreline restored as far as possible to its original state.

What does St Arnaud provide for the visitors?
The Nelson Lakes National Park Headquarters is at St Arnaud and provides information about camping facilities, tramping tracks, huts and weather. This is where trampers should record their names and their tramping plans so that if they don't return on time there is information on which to base a search.

The store sells a good range of food and petrol, has a tea room, and provides postal facilities (now with a mail delivery and clearance six days a week!)

View from the chapel window
View from the chapel window
(Click here for a larger version)
An interdenomination chapel looks out on the lake. Services are held there each Sunday. Canoes are available for hire in Kerr Bay. There is also a water taxis service run by Bill Butters, which will take passengers to the head of the lake and sightseeing as required.


  • Alpine Lodge offers hotel rooms and a restaurant and there is an attached backpackers and cafe. (Phone 0-3-521 1869 Fax 0-3 521 1868)

  • At St Arnaud Homestay Jill and Colin Clarke offer comfortable bed and breakfast accommodation and Colin offers guided tours. He is a local man who has a remarkable background of experience as a naturalist, often working in this area. Read more about him in the next edition of NZine. (Phone/fax 0-3 521 1028)

  • Travers View House offers bed and breakfast.
    (Phone 0-3 521 1042 Fax 0-3 521 1062)

  • St Arnaud Log Chalets offers chalets, a cottage and a very popular backpackers, called the Yellow House. (Phone 0-3 521 1887 Fax 0-3 521 1882)

  • Cosyview Cottages and Farm Guesthouse are at Tophouse, a short distance from St Arnaud. The guesthouse is the historic former Tophouse hotel. (Phone/fax 0-3 521 1848)

  • There are camp grounds at Kerr Bay and West Bay, both with a kitchen, showers, toilets and power and non-power campsites. Bookings for the camp ground are made at the Park Headquarters (Phone 0-3 521 1806 Fax 0-3 521 1896). Rotoiti Lodge provides group accommodation for school trips and for educational conferences in the school holidays.

Do you need to book accommodation?
At the Christmas/New Year period it is essential to book. This year between Christmas and New Year there was not a bed free in any of the above places. There is a steady flow of tourists from October to the end of April. Visitors still come in good numbers in the winter , especially during the ski season, to visit the Rainbow or Mt Robert skifields, so I would recommend that you book accommodation. It would be very disappointing to have to shorten your stay because you could not get a bed.

The weather
When packing for a visit remember that Lake Rotoiti is 609 metres (2000 feet) above sea level, and pack warm clothes and if camping take a warm sleeping bag. Also pack shorts and light clothes for the warm sparkling days that can also often be enjoyed in summer.

The sandflies
As is usual in New Zealand resorts with bush and water, there are sandflies, so take some insect repellent. This problem is worse at Lake Rotoroa which is one reason why there is little development at that lake.

Problems in the National Park
The problems which concern those who care for the park mainly arise from introduced species - wasps, possums, stoats, weasels, and feral cats. One effect of these invaders into the park is reduced bird life.

South Island Robin
South Island Robin
(Click here for a larger version)
source - Joe Levy
My husband has spent holidays at the lake since he was a young child, and describes them as for him "a time in fairyland". Part of the magical quality of the place was the abundant birdlife. He misses the frequent song of the gray warbler, the regular appearance of the friendly robin as they chopped firewood, the fluttering dance of the fantail and the daily sightings of tuis. There is still the song of the bellbird and the other birds are still to be seen and heard, but not in such abundance. The population of kakas, large native parrots, once plentiful in the park, has been greatly reduced.

Revive Rotoiti Project
The staff of the Department of Conservation have begun a Revive Rotoiti programme to cope with these problems. Read about it in a coming article in NZine.

For information on walks and tramps in the vicinity of Lake Rotoiti check out the next article in the series...

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