Christian Gottlieb Ferdinand Hochstetter is said to have been born on 30 April 1829 in Esslingen, kingdom of Württemberg, the son of Christian Ferdinand Hochstetter, a professor and parson, who had published works on botany and geology, and his second wife, Sophie Orth.
Hochstetter's family had produced clerics, jurists, state officials and naturalists since the mid seventeenth century. His background gave him every opportunity for a life of achievement in the relative stability that followed the Napoleonic wars. After taking the state examinations at the Esslingen Lyceum, Ferdinand transferred to the theological seminary at Maulbronn, and entered Tübingen University in 1847, with the aim of studying for the Lutheran ministry. His father's scientific hobbies had inspired his dominant interests, however, and the church authorities allowed him to live in the town so that he could attend courses in natural science, especially geology. He completed his theological studies in 1851, graduated doctor of philosophy in 1852 (with a thesis in mineralogy), and gained a state scholarship to travel in Europe. In Vienna in 1853 he was recruited to the Austrian geological survey. He worked in the Bohemian forest and at Carlsbad, becoming chief geologist for Bohemia, and in 1856 was admitted as a lecturer at the university of Vienna.
In 1857 Hochstetter was appointed geologist to the scientific expedition of the Austrian naval frigate Novara. The expedition planned to circumnavigate the globe, displaying the Austrian flag, and carried eight scientists and assistants to undertake research. The Novara set out from Trieste on 30 April 1857, traversed the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro and then to Cape Town, and sailed via Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and the Orient to Sydney, New South Wales. In Cape Town George Grey had encouraged the Novara's commodore, Bernhard von Wüllerstorf-Urbair, to visit Auckland, New Zealand, to allow scientific examination of the North Island volcanic regions.
The Novara arrived in Auckland on 22 December 1858, and Hochstetter soon met Julius Haast, another German, who had just arrived in New Zealand. Haast was to accompany Hochstetter on all his New Zealand journeys. The provincial government of Auckland asked Hochstetter to examine the Drury coalfield, and, impressed by his report, persuaded him to remain, to make extended geological surveys in Auckland and Nelson provinces, when the Novara sailed for home on 8 January 1859. 'Alone among the Antipodes', he wrote in his diary.
Hochstetter was accompanied on his North Island journey by Captain George Drummond Hay; Julius Haast; two settlers recruited in Auckland, A. C. F. Koch, artist-draughtsman, and Bruno Hamel, photographer; and twelve Māori porters. The expedition travelled on foot and by canoe up the Waikato and Waipā rivers, back to the coast, down from Raglan to Aotea and Kāwhia harbours, then eastwards, south of Mt Pirongia, to Te Kōpua mission on the Waipā. While Hamel travelled to Rotorua with heavy equipment, for a future rendezvous, the main party went south up the Waipā and its tributary, Mangatu Stream, and by Māori tracks over the watershed to the Mōkau Valley at Piopio. From Wairere Falls the route led up the Mokauiti Stream, to cross the divide and descend to the Ōhura Valley and eventually to the Ōngarue Valley. The central volcanoes were viewed from a nearby hill. The party then made its way via Mangakahu, Taringamotu and upper Pungapunga valleys to Waituhi Saddle, and then by the Kuratau Valley to the Reverend T. S. Grace's mission at Pūkawa, on the south-western shore of Lake Taupō. After several days' stay at Pūkawa and a visit to Iwikau Te Heuheu Tūkino III, the party followed the eastern shore of the lake to its outlet, then travelled north to Ōrākei Kōrako, the Tarawera mission of the Reverend Seymour Spencer, and Rotomahana, returning to the Spencers' house on 30 April 1859, before proceeding to Rotorua. The homeward route led via Maketū and Tauranga, where they met the Reverend C. S. Völkner, to the Waikato at Āniwaniwa (near Karāpiro), and then via Kirikiriroa (Hamilton) to Ngāruawāhia, where the ailing King, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, received them. The party arrived back in Auckland on 24 May. Finally Haast and Hochstetter, by now fast friends, visited the Coromandel goldfields, and Great Barrier and Kawau islands.
Hochstetter and Haast then travelled by ship to Nelson, calling briefly at New Plymouth. They examined the Dun Mountain copper prospects, the Jenkins Hill coal deposits, Lake Rotoiti and Cape Farewell. Colonists contributed fossils for examination, and Julius Haast and Christopher Maling excavated moa bones from the Aorere Valley. The trophies were brought to Nelson in triumph, on bullocks decked with flowers.
Hochstetter returned to Trieste in January 1860 via Victoria, Mauritius and the Red Sea. Working up the collections and data obtained by the Novara expedition took a major part of his time during the next decade. He wrote the geological reports himself, and organised the distribution of rock specimens and fossils for report by eminent specialists. In 1863 he published Neu-Seeland, the first substantial work about New Zealand to appear in the German language, containing vivid descriptions of his New Zealand travels, geological observations, and encounters with Māori and Pākehā individuals and communities. An English translation appeared in 1867. Between 1859 and 1875 he also published 21 papers on New Zealand.
Probably in April 1861, in Vienna, Hochstetter married Georgiana Bengough, daughter of John Egbert Bengough, an Englishman who was director of the Vienna city gasworks. They had four sons and four daughters.
Hochstetter was undoubtedly the outstanding member of the Novara expedition. He received many honours from the scientific community of Europe, and a knighthood from Württemberg in 1860. The same year he was appointed professor of mineralogy and geology at the Vienna Polytechnic Institute, where he introduced new teaching practices, built up teaching collections, and led popular fieldwork expeditions. He was one of the founders of engineering geology in Europe. His promotion of a geology prepared to answer technical questions arose from his work for the governments of Turkey and Russia as a consultant to advise on the best routes for railways and the geological problems to be overcome in their construction. To augment his meagre salary he wrote textbooks. In 1872 Hochstetter was tutor in natural science to Crown Prince Rudolf, an unusual appointment by the Catholic emperor in view of Hochstetter's Lutheran background. He served as president of the Geographical Society of Vienna from 1866 to 1882, and contributed to world exhibitions in Paris and Vienna, insisting and ensuring that New Zealand was well represented. He was a member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and in 1876 was appointed the first intendant of the Imperial Natural History Museum. In 1881 he resigned from teaching duties. He became interested in archaeology and prehistory, and in 1884 was granted a hereditary knighthood by the Austrian emperor. He died on 18 July 1884 at Oberdöbling, near Vienna.
Hochstetter was the first to describe and interpret many features of New Zealand geology. He established a tradition of systematic geological mapping. He depicted the graben-like structure of the volcanic Taupō Zone, which he named, and related the distribution of hot springs to faults. He left the best description of Rotomahana and its terraces as they were before the Tarawera eruption. He recognised Taupō as a major source of pumice and attributed lake basins to collapse of parts of the volcanic plateau. He compared Tongariro with Vesuvius, described Auckland's volcanoes, and in Nelson the Maitai slate and limestone beds and the huge serpentine mass between Tophouse and French Pass, including the olivine rock of Dun Mountain, for which his name dunite is now universally accepted. His collections formed the basis for further advances, in particular his Triassic fossils from Nelson, and Jurassic ammonites and belemnites from Kāwhia and the Waikato Heads. Although he never returned, Hochstetter remained all his life an enthusiast for New Zealand. He maintained a correspondence with Haast and other New Zealand friends, and recruited Andreas Reischek as taxidermist for Haast's Canterbury Museum. His contributions to New Zealand are commemorated by several place names, and by the names of many New Zealand organisms.