Story: Camping

Page 1. Early New Zealand campers

All images & media in this story

First workers’ camps

The bush and the beach, rivers, lakes and mountains are all within a day’s drive for most New Zealanders. Camping – holidaying outdoors in temporary accommodation such as a tent – is an inexpensive and satisfying way to appreciate the country’s natural heritage.

Camping as a recreational activity was uncommon in New Zealand until the 20th century. Before that temporary shelters and outdoor cooking fires were in common use, but generally by people in the course of their work. Hunters, shepherds, surveyors, bushmen and pioneer farmers all needed to make camp in the open air when no better accommodation could be found. Their bushcraft laid the basis for a national culture of physical self-reliance and enjoyment of the outdoors.

Snug as a bug in a rug

The geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter surveyed New Zealand’s mineral resources in 1859, using an early version of the sleeping bag. ‘The woollen blanket representing my bedding I had sewed up in triple folds at the feet and sides into a kind of sack, so that on one side the blanket was double, on the other single – an excellent invention of experienced "bush-men." … In this shape, one large, woollen blanket yields the same amount of comfort, that at other times is obtained from two or three blankets’.1

In the early 1840s colonist Edward Jerningham Wakefield travelled up the Whanganui River with a tent ‘composed of unbleached calico … The necessary poles and the pegs for the bottom were cut at the encampment each night, or carried from the wood in passing when we had to encamp in the open country. When rolled up, the tent was not so bulky as a greatcoat, and yet, when well stretched, it afforded ample shelter from a night's heavy rain to two people.’2

Samuel Butler

The earliest accounts of camping as a recreational activity are from relatively wealthy migrants from Britain. Sleeping under the stars and cooking over a fire was generally unfamiliar and exciting for them, and reinforced the Victorian attitude that simple outdoor activity was more wholesome and moral than urban life.

The young Englishman Samuel Butler (later known as a writer) arrived in Canterbury in 1860 fresh from his studies at Cambridge. Seeking land for a sheep run, he spent a restless night beside a campfire at the foot of the Southern Alps. ‘Probably after another year or two I shall regard camping out as the nuisance it really is … Well, well, that night I thought it very fine, and so in good truth it was.’3

Lady Barker

Another well-born English immigrant, Mary Anne Barker, arrived in Canterbury in 1865 to live on a sheep station near Mt Hutt. She relished accounts from earlier colonists of ‘when they have had to “camp out”, as it is technically called; and [I] have lived in constant hope of meeting with an adventure which would give me a similar experience.’ In April 1867 Lady Barker persuaded her family and neighbours to spend a night on the highest part of her property. A tent was improvised from blankets and tree branches, but not even a large fire could overcome the freezing wind, and several of the campers did not sleep at all. Later, ‘no one seemed to remember or allude to the miseries and aches of that long cold night,’ yet this proved to be Lady Barker’s ‘first and last experience of camping out.’4

Back to nature

During her 1907 camping trip the young Katherine Mansfield kept a diary which was not published in full until 1978, long after her death. It gives a vivid account of her travels from Hawke’s Bay to the Urewera, Lake Rotorua and Lake Taupō, where she recorded that, ‘All is harmonious and peaceful and delicious. We camp in a pine forest – beautiful. We sleep in the tent – the wind is our lullaby … We wake early – and wash and dress – and go down to the bath again … The birds are magical – I feel I cannot leave but pluck honeysuckle.”5

Katherine Mansfield

By 1895 the Colonist newspaper reported that ‘Camping out is well enough known in New Zealand, where it is a genial and favourite method of spending a holiday.’6 However, camping equipment was still scarce and inconvenient (tent poles were often improvised from timber gathered on site) and many parts of the country were barely accessible by road.

In the early summer of 1907, 19-year-old Katherine Mansfield (later an internationally known writer) joined family friends for a six-week camping trip through the central North Island. They travelled in horse-drawn wagons and slept in a large, heavy canvas tent – men on one side, women on the other.

  1. Ferdinand von Hochstetter, New Zealand: its physical geography, geology, and natural history. Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta, 1867, p. 286. Back
  2. Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Adventure in New Zealand, from 1839 to 1844: with some account of the beginning of the British colonization of the islands. Vol. 2. London: John Murray, 1845, p. 92. Back
  3. Samuel Butler, A first year in Canterbury settlement, with other early essays. London: A.C. Fifield, 1914, p. 53. Back
  4. Lady Barker, Station life in New Zealand. London: Macmillan, 1870, p. 125, 136. Back
  5. Katherine Mansfield, Urewera notebook. Oxford, Wellington: Oxford University Press, p. 82–85. Back
  6. Colonist, 10 October 1895, p. 3. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Camping - Early New Zealand campers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 Sep 2013