Everything there is to know about That Wanaka Tree, or #thatwanakatree

That Wanaka Tree, or , or New Zealand’s “Wanaka Willow’, or “the lone tree of Lake Wanaka”, is one of those things you never would have heard of if it weren’t for social media (sort of like Justin Bieber, except he was YouTube and the tree made it big on Instagram).

But now everyone has heard of it, or at least seen the photo.

The history of the famous tree on Lake Wanaka

The Wanaka willow tree started off more than 80 years ago as a fencepost. A fencepost made from the branch of one of the nearby willows, to be precise, which wasn’t quite dead, and took root on the edge of the lake.

Somehow, in the cold water of Roys Bay, but has carried on, if not exactly thriving, growing slowly to this day.

This was an impressive feat of resilience, but not a famous one, that is until photographer Dennis Radermacher took an image of the tree on a misty June day, and won the 2014 New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year award for best landscape photograph. 

The image ran in The Guardian, Lake Wanaka Tourism saw an opportunity and installed in on their Scenic Photo Points trail, Google Maps added it (the hashtag marks the spot), Facebook went bonkers, and, among others, the little tree has been covered by global media outlets like CNN, Condé Nast Traveler, CBS News, and Atlas Obscura.

Today, a cursory search for the hashtag on Instagram serves up 65,997 posts.

There pictures on Instagram include a lot with a “lonely tree” vibe, plus a smattering of wedding photographs, photos of people taking the walk to the tree before they get to the tree, countless tourists standing awkwardly in front of the tree, people climbing onto the branches (then being reprimanded in the comments – please don’t climb the tree!), plus dogs, babies, bikes, ducks and one picture with a Batman cameo.

Is the Wanaka Tree in New Zealand worth visiting?

As the tree’s fame grew, locals collectively scratched their heads at the sight of hoards of visitors, each with a camera or phone in hand, were crowding a previously-empty section of the Lake Wanaka shore and jostling to take photos of what previously was an unremarkable shrub.

So just what is it about that damn tree? For one thing, it’s possibly the location. The way it sits in the lake makes it look like it’s in the middle of nowhere; the tree appears to be rising magically out of the water like something supernatural. It’s also backed by a dream vista, for photographers, of the uninterrupted Southern Alps.

At the same time, it’s actually just a few metres from shore, so it’s super easy to photograph.

That Wanaka Tree also has compelling curves. The lone tree has crookedly-curved branches are both somber and beautiful. They hang in a way that somehow have become a symbol of determination in the face of life’s travails. The tree looks old, yet it seems to persist with some sort of hope.

Or maybe we’ve looked at too many Instagram posts featuring images of the tree overlaid with inspirational quotes.

Is it crowded at the famous Wanaka Tree?

It can be busy, especially if there’s an epic sunset or sunrise in the forecast. But the cool thing about the tree is that is has something to show in any weather.

Dennis Radermacher’s New Zealand Geographic photograph was taken on a misty day with no alps in sight – he has said he was initially disappointed with the conditions. Some of the best images of the tree were taken in bad weather.

Did That Wanaka Tree get chopped down?

Nah, the Wanaka Tree did not get chopped down, although if you visited the 1964:mountain culture / aotearoa website on April 1, 2020, you may have been tricked, briefly, into believing it had been.

It did lose a couple of lower branches to an act of vandalism in 2020. Locals were pretty devastated, although some thought it might make the tree less photographable, and therefore maybe left in peace. The chopping was, again, covered by media from around the world.

Whether this has forever ruined the aesthetics of the Wanaka Tree is up for debate, but from a resilience perspective, we can confirm there are new green shoots sprouting from the truncated limb.

Where on New Zealand’s South Island is That Wanaka tree?

The lonely willow, which grows just offshore at the southern tip of Lake Wanaka, is walking distance from downtown Wanaka. From the Wanaka township, walk left (if you’re facing the lake) along the foreshore for about 15 minutes. Look for the cameras, phones and selfie sticks.

Wanaka, on New Zealand’s South Island, is the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. It’s about an hour’s drive from the vacation hotspot of Queenstown.

What’s the nearest airport to That Wanaka Tree?

The nearest airport is the Queenstown Airport. You can fly directly to Queenstown from Australia. From other countries, you’ll need to transit through Auckland.

Is New Zealand’s That Wanaka Tree the most famous tree ever?

Maybe. It’s certainly the most famous tree in New Zealand, and one of the most photographed trees in the world.

Other contenders include the cedar on the flag of Lebanon, the cherry tree that George Washington supposedly cut down, the 500-year old Tree of Life in Bahrain, the ex-tree on Auckland’s One Tree Hill (which was appropriated for a U2 song), and the Bodhi Tree (“tree of awakening”) on the river Niranjana in Bodhgaya, India. Prince Siddhartha sat under it for an extended spell of meditation, and emerged as the original Buddha.

Famous or not, the Wanaka Tree hasn’t been responsible for anything that historic. Yet.