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Twizel sits at an altitude of 470m (1,542ft) in the lee of the Southern Alps. It has a subalpine climate, with hot, dry summers and cold winters, and the region is crossed by rivers and dotted with lakes, both natural and man-made. Thanks to these unique conditions, it shelters rare animals such as the kakī/black stilt and jewelled gecko, as well as a number of threatened plant species.
Nestled in an inland basin and surrounded by mountain ranges, Twizel is a geologist’s dream come true. The Southern Alps to the west are being thrust ever upwards along the Alpine Fault, while the Ostler Fault has created distinctive features through the local landscape. Meanwhile, glaciers have carved valleys and deposited moraines, and the actions of wind and weather continue to sculpt and define this breathtaking environment.
The Mackenzie Basin, Te Manahuna, was visited for centuries by Waitaha people from the east coast, who travelled up into the high country to hunt moa and weka, and to gather stones for tools and tōtara for building waka (canoes). Following European colonisation of New Zealand, the region was carved up into large-scale sheep farms.
Twizel itself has a short yet rich history that ties in closely with the history of hydroelectricity in Aotearoa New Zealand. Founded in 1968 to house people working on the Upper Waitaki Hydroelectric Scheme, the town grew to the extent that, by 1977, its population had reached 6,000 and the local school boasted the largest roll in New Zealand. Twizel was scheduled to be razed following the completion of the project in 1983, but residents successfully fought to save the town, and today it is a popular tourist destination at the heart of the Mackenzie Country.
The Mackenzie Country gets its name from James Mackenzie, a Scottish shepherd who in 1855 was caught in the inland basin with a stolen flock of sheep. Thanks to his illegal activities, the area’s suitability for pastoral farming was soon realised, leading to the establishment of a number of high country stations.
Today, these farms are iconic local enterprises, farming Merino sheep whose lustrous wool is renowned worldwide. The farmers have also diversified into beef and dairy cattle, and many offer accommodation to visitors to the area.
The innovative idea of farming salmon in the Mackenzie’s hydro canals came about in the early 1990s. Today, Mt Cook Alpine Salmon is the second-largest local employer after Meridian Energy, and along with High Country Salmon farms Chinook salmon in the clean glacial waters flowing along the Tekapo and Ōhau canals.
Image: Nikki Adams
The Waitaki Power Scheme consists of 56km of canals, two dams, and eight power stations between Lake Tekapo and Lake Waitaki that work together to generate energy from water flowing from the Southern Alps out to sea. As part of a ‘make work’ initiative designed by the government as a welfare system, the scheme kicked off with construction of the Waitaki Dam (completed in 1935), and continued with the Benmore Dam (1965) and Aviemore Dam (1968). The HVDC link (better known as the Cook Strait cable) was also constructed around this time and marked the start of a unified power transmission system for the whole of Aotearoa New Zealand. The scheme then moved to Twizel in 1968 and continued until 1985, when the last of three power stations, Ōhau C, was commissioned.
The Waitaki Power Scheme now generates enough electricity to keep the lights on in approximately 832,000 average Aotearoa New Zealand homes and is under the guardianship of Meridian Energy. For the Upper Waitaki Hydro Heritage Trail, a self-guided driving tour of the most important sites on the scheme, click below.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) runs many important conservation projects from its Twizel office. In 1981, the organisation established their Kakī Recovery Programme to intensely manage the kakī/black stilt population, one of the world’s rarest wading birds. As an endemic species found in the braided rivers and wetlands of the Mackenzie Basin, the kakī relies on DOC’s captive breeding centre, also located near Twizel, which plays an important role in their survival.
Another important conservation project in the upper Mackenzie Basin and Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is Te Manahuna Aoraki, a large-scale project focused on restoring the iconic natural landscapes and threatened species of the area. Launched in November 2018, Te Manahuna Aoraki aims to enhance biodiversity across 310,000 hectares of Aotearoa New Zealand’s braided river systems, alpine habitats, and Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. The area is home to many endangered species, including kea, rock wren, scree weta, wrybill, robust grasshopper, banded dotterel, and kakī.
Image: Shellie Evans Photography
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