Real Life

Southern lakes spirit

Wanaka residents like their town’s growth, Mike White discovers – they just don’t want to compete for the 24-hour party town crown.

On Lake Wanaka’s foreshore, they posed for the photographer. She clutched a posy of roses, he adjusted the train of her wedding gown. They’d come all the way from China to be photographed against a backdrop of plate-glass lake and the peaks around Mt Aspiring.
On a grassy verge above the beach, Marty Welch captured the same landscape with paint. Usually a portrait artist, Welch felt he couldn’t ignore his surrounds on such a brilliant day, so had brought his easel, oils and thermos to the lakeside.
When he first came here three years ago, clouds obscured the mountains and it wasn’t until he returned with his wife, to encourage her to shift to Wanaka, that the view that attracts thousands of tourists each year was revealed.
Wanaka’s natural beauty and extensive outdoor recreation opportunities attract many.
Arriving from Auckland, Welch says their family was immediately made to feel welcome. “People say hi in the street – you don’t get that in Auckland, it’s just too large. We love it. Where would you rather be?”
Welch is typical of those swelling Wanaka’s numbers, attracted by the natural beauty and outdoor lifestyle it offers. With summer and winter tourist seasons, Wanaka is part of one of the country’s fastest-growing regions (the town’s population rose 28 per cent between the 2006 and 2013 censuses, and now sits at 6471).
Grant Parker is another who has traded Auckland for the southern lakes district. Parker was once a top real estate salesman on Auckland’s North Shore, but 18 months ago gave that away to manage Harcourts’ Wanaka office. In doing so he gave up a much larger income, but wanted the lifestyle Wanaka offered.
“In Auckland, I might have to drive an hour to go mountain biking. Here, I can ride out of my garage and within minutes I’m on a lake track or forest track, and the skifields are 30-odd minutes away.
“But what I’ve been blown away with is the incredible community. They want to get things done, make life better. They’re a group of positive people. You can live in Christchurch or Auckland and get better money or maybe have a better house. But this town’s full of people who have come here because they want to be here.”
And they continue to come, Parker says, so much so that there’s a real shortage of houses, with three large developments on the town’s fringes set to proceed. Last year, Harcourts ran a seminar on building your own house and more than 100 people showed up. “There’s a massive growth curve that we’re going to see over the next three to five years. I think it’s going to grow exponentially.”
But while residents love their active lifestyle, night time here isn’t as hectic as in neighbouring Queenstown.
But it will never be another Queenstown, Parker insists, because the locals have a totally different mindset. Last year, as an April Fool’s prank, a popular waterfront cafe announced they’d sold their site to McDonald’s for a drive-thru. “And you should’ve heard the community uproar that morning!”
Richard Hemingway, whose company sells businesses in Wanaka and throughout New Zealand, says Wanaka has the same natural attributes as Queenstown, “without the need to party 24 hours a day”.
Many people run businesses from Wanaka, or even spend four days a week working in Auckland, but still make their home in Wanaka. The proximity of Queenstown’s airport, with good domestic and international connections, makes doing business from the town very easy.
“It’s a growth town,” Hemingway says, “and there’s a feeling of buoyancy and optimism. In my travels around the South Island, you do pass through a few towns where the same premises have been vacant on the last three times you’ve passed through, and we don’t have that here.”
So much so that new commercial areas are being built outside the town centre.
In December last year, Tony Wong and wife Margo shifted from Wellington to establish a dental practice in a new health centre. Almost immediately they were run off their feet and turning patients away. Their only problem was finding a house or even somewhere to rent in a very tight market, but now that’s sorted they can be at work in five minutes and go home for lunch.
Wanaka dentist Tony Wong and his wife, Margo.
They’ve got an acre of land, have biking and skiing at their doorstep, and feel surrounded by active, healthy people. “For the first few months, Margo and I would get up and we were just pinching ourselves a little bit,” says Tony. “People have been really friendly and wonderful and we’ve been welcomed with open arms. It’s a wonderful town.”
Words and photos by: Mike White