Alex O'Brien

Domestic Travel

The story behind that Wanaka Tree

The story behind that Wanaka Tree

Say #thatwanakatree to a photographer and listen for the sigh and laugh.

Wanaka's willow with wet feet is perhaps New Zealand's most photographed tree.

About five years ago, Wanaka photographers and writers began pumping images of it to social media sites as bit of a joke.

Two years ago, Lake Wanaka Tourism put the tree on its photo trail and last year a Wanaka Instameet that beamed tree images to millions of people.

More often than not, the tree appears on Google in splendid isolation. But now that is the joke.

Every day, tree-botherers click away in a gentle curve in Roys Bay opposite the showgrounds. Some days the tree faces a hundred-strong firing squad.

Former Central Otago photographer Tony Bridge says friends gave him "bollocks" for his tree article in this month's issue of F11 magazine because he had resisted joining the "heavily-armed columns of photographers".

When he found a tree "light, tender and diaphanous", his cynicism melted and his ego shredded.

Just what it is about that tree?

"I don't know, to be honest," Bridge said by phone from Hokianga on Friday.

"To be honest, I think it's got to be ego. The "I can do better than everyone else". Everyone takes a photo and shares it," he said.

wanaka tree (3)

The tree appals and fascinates in equal measure but on the whole, Wanaka folk have been good-natured about something that is possibly better click-bait than Richie McCaw.

But when Wanaka-based US travel blogger Liz Carlson wrote about camera-wielding crowds this month, followers criticised her use of a social media tag considered offensive to visitors from Asia.

Carlson has apologised and taken down the offending post but has declined to discuss it with The Wanaka Mirror.

Bridge describes the clamour was "a form of appropriation . . . a photo as consumerist pastime".

"It's not just Asians. It is all sorts of tourists. It is photo tourism, blogging, the raising of the selfie stick. I find it quite hilarious. And of course, cell phones and smart phones are so good, as good as a camera. I think the key thing is Facebook and social media have changed things.  . . . Once we took pictures for our own purposes and perhaps for an exhibition. We printed them and maybe put them in an album. But now everyone shares it on Facebook," Bridge said.

Christchurch photographer Dennis Radermacher took a tree photo on a misty June day that won the 2014 New Zealand Geographic photograph of the year.

"I think everyone with a camera has a photo of that," Radermacher laughed, when contacted on Friday.

Radermacher also had an epiphany at the tree when confronted by fog rather than a hoped-for sunrise.

"I was quite disappointed when I was there because it was not what I had in mind."

He was not the only person there.

"There were four or five. It wasn't too bad. You have to be really really lucky to get that, these days . . . My problem with the tree is we [landscape photographers] suffer from the loner in the wood syndrome. Any more than two people is a crowd," he said.

Why does he like the tree?

wanaka tree

"It's the curvature [of the branches]. And it's really easy to reach. You just walk over from Wanaka. And because it is in Wanaka. But I do know there are a few more trees like it, at Glenorchy, that are similar subjects. And it seems isolated, just exactly where you need to be . . .If it was standing in a lake on the top of a mountain and you had to walk eight hours uphill to get to it, I could guarantee it wouldn't be that popular," Radermacher said.

​The photograph was the boost in confidence Radermacher needed to become a full time professional photographer and set up his Lightforge website and From Zero to Hero workshops last year.

"I sold one or two prints. It didn't do much financially for me. But if I am known for anything, I am known for that photo. I run landscape photography courses and I use it as a model," Radermacher said.

Wanaka ​Camera Club president Heather Macleod has photographed the tree just twice, the last time about two years ago.

While some members felt the tree was "almost a joke", others had pushed it on websites and social media.

"Let's face it. It is such a pretty photogenic tree. It has got an appealing curve to it. But I have heard of wedding parties with the brides sitting in it and breaking branches, which is not appreciated," she said.

wanaka tree (1)

The tree started life as a fence post at least 77 years ago.

Wanaka artist and writer Gwenda Rowlands, 85, is a keeper of local history and remembers the fence line from 1939, when she first visited it in a little dinghy her father built for her and her older brother.

She has watched it evolve from a "hacked off branch from nearby willows" to a symbol of determination.

"It was 1939 I remember it growing there and that is not yesterday. So it has been growing slowly all that time . . . It was just big enough to lift the wire up with a bit of tension on it. I can remember a gap where the tree is now, on the beach, and the sheep could just wander off into the town shopping if they wanted."

Rowlands agrees the tree "seems to be getting a bit of an overload" but has not let that overwhelm her enjoyment of the site's natural history.

Just last week she enjoyed observing a young Asian couple posing for wedding photographs with the tree.

"They looked as if their marriage was going to work, that they would be happy ever after, and that is what you want for them."

Rowlands suggests Otago artist Brian Halliday (1936-1974) made one of the earliest images of the tree while it was still a post.

​A copy of Halliday's painting graces the cover of Wanaka and Surrounding Districts: A Sequel to Wanaka Story, by Irvine Roxburgh (1990).

Rowlands likes to think the tree could the very last, very tiny strainer shown in Halliday's painting but accepts the artwork is representative.

So what does she make of the famous tree?

"It shows anything that is alive has a determination to live," she said.

Have you ever viewed the famous Wanaka Tree? Tell us about it in the comments.

Written by Marjorie Cook. First appeared on

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