Lake Manapouri’s hydroelectric potential had long been recognized, but nothing was done until the 1950s. Consolidated Zinc Pty of Australia wanted to smelt their Queensland bauxite into aluminium – a power-hungry process – as cheaply as possible, and alighted upon Lake Manapouri. They approached the New Zealand government, who agreed to build a power station on the lake, at taxpayers’ expense, while Rio Tinto’s subsidiary Comalco built a smelter at Tiwai Point, near Bluff, 170km to the southeast.

The scheme entailed blocking the lake’s natural outlet into the Lower Waiau River and chiselling out a vast powerhouse 200m underground beside Lake Manapouri’s West Arm, where the flow would be diverted down a 10km tailrace tunnel to Deep Cove on Doubtful Sound. By the time the fledgling environmental movement had rallied its supporters, the scheme was well under way, but the government underestimated the anger that would be unleashed by its secondary plan to boost water storage and power production by raising the water level in the lake by more than 8m. The threat to the natural beauty of the lake sparked nationwide protests, though the 265,000-signature petition prepared by the “Save Manapouri Campaign” failed to change the government’s mind. It was only after the 1972 elections, when Labour unseated the National Party, that the policy was changed and the lake saved. The full saga is recounted in Neville Peat’s Manapouri Saved.

The Manapouri Underground Power Station took eight years to build. Completed in 1971, it remains one of the most ambitious projects ever carried out in New Zealand. Eighty percent of its output goes straight to the smelter – which consumes around fifteen percent of all the electricity used in the country, and it is widely perceived to be an unnecessary drain on the country’s resources. Because of the unexpectedly high friction in the original tailrace tunnel the power station had always run below 85-percent capacity, and to boost power production a second parallel tailrace tunnel was built in the late 1990s.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

New Zealand features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

How to find the right New Zealand for you

How to find the right New Zealand for you

While it may not loom large on the world map, New Zealand feels incredibly vast and imposing on the ground, especially to those who try to visit the North and S…

23 May 2016 • Eric Grossman insert_drive_file Article
Everything you need to know about backpacking New Zealand

Everything you need to know about backpacking New Zealand

New Zealand’s craggy coastline and beautiful national parks are dotted with wildlife and beg to be explored. The scenery gets more spectacular around every co…

07 Mar 2016 • Rachel Mills insert_drive_file Article
Video: the world's friendliest cities

Video: the world's friendliest cities

Which cities are going to welcome you with open arms? Where will the locals be likely to buy you a beer, and who's going to invite you in for tea when it's cold…

10 Oct 2014 • Rough Guides Editors videocam Video
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month