How New Zealand's most photogenic tree became an Insta-star

How a tree, a lake and a social media hashtag put Wanaka on the map for Instagrammers.

A lone tree that grew from a fence post in the South Island of New Zealand has become an unlikely social media sensation.

The straggly crack willow tree on the shores of Lake Wanaka is thought to be at least 80 years old. Not so unusual, you might think. But more recently, this venerable tree has become a social media star. Known as #thatwanakatree it is attracting photographers from around the world, keen for the perfect shot.

A custodian of local history, 85-year-old Wanaka artist and writer Gwenda Rowlands, remembers the fence line from nearly 70 years ago, when she first visited it in a dinghy with her father and brother. “It was 1939, and I remember it growing there – and that’s not yesterday,” she told media. “So it has been growing slowly all that time… it shows anything that is alive has a determination to live.”

Snap to it

These days, dozens of amateur and professional photographers gather on the shores of Lake Wanaka at dawn and dusk to photograph the “most photogenic tree in the world”. The tree even has its own dedicated Facebook page and has been featured in international publications such as The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald. The hashtag #thatwanakatree has been used more than 13,000 times on Instagram.

The tree is the focus of photography tours and people pose naked beside it, have their wedding photographs taken in front of it or meditate beneath it.

In 2015, more than 100 people attended an Instameet in Wanaka to shoot the tree, including internationally known Instagrammers @chrisburkard (Chris Burkard), Young Adventuress (Liz Carlson), @helloemilie (Emilie Ristevski) and @LeBackpacker (Johan Lolos).

Carlson, who was involved in the Instameet, said that the event was a “perfect place, perfect time, perfect storm” that led to an explosion of interest in Wanaka. “It changed the face of tourism here,” she said.

To Gizelle Regan from Lake Wanaka Tourism, the tree’s popularity is thanks to its accessibility to the township of Wanaka, its symmetry, and the extraordinary backdrop of snow-topped mountains and a vast, shimmering lake. Regan calls the tree an “icon” that is quintessentially Wanaka and has helped to bring visitors to the town.

Travel Tips

Wanaka is a resort town near Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island, less than an hour’s drive from Queenstown International Airport. The town is at the southern end of Lake Wanaka, which is popular for boating in summer. There are three ski fields within an easy drive of the town and other Wanaka attractions include hiking in Mt Aspiring National Park, mountain biking and visiting some of the area’s wineries.