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Story: Engineering

Building the viaduct over Ōtira gorge

New Zealand is a rugged country. Engineering played an important role in designing and building roads and railways in colonial times. Engineers have come up with some world-leading innovations, such as the 535-kilometre high-voltage electricity cable between the South and North islands, part of which lies in stormy Cook Strait.

Story by Matthew Wright
Main image: Building the viaduct over Ōtira gorge

Story Summary

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Settlers engineered and built New Zealand towns, roads and railways from scratch. Early engineers were often sawmillers, farmers or blacksmiths. Much of the country is rugged, and some roads and bridges were daring structures – the coach route built through the Ōtira gorge in the 1860s clung to sheer rock walls in places.

Roads and bridges

Some impressive bridges were designed for roads built in difficult country. The Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge in Central Otago was built in 1880 and still sits high over its steep banks.

Auckland city has its large multi-lane harbour bridge.

Railways

The first major rail engineering feat was a tunnel drilled through volcanic rock between Lyttelton and Christchurch in the 1860s, to connect Canterbury to its port.

The main trunk railway line between Wellington and Auckland runs through some very hilly country with many engineering challenges. The Raurimu spiral, finished in 1898, cleverly took the track up 122 metres higher by winding round and through a hill.

Hydroelectricity

In 1950 engineers began a project to take electricity from South Island dams across Cook Strait to the North Island. The 535-kilometre high-voltage cable was the longest in the world.

New Zealand lies in an earthquake zone and engineers who design dams have to make sure they will not give way in an earthquake.

Sometimes engineers do not find the right solutions to problems in the landscape. The dam at Arapuni power station on the Waikato River showed cracks soon after it was built and had to be drained. The dam was strengthened but continued to have problems.

Harbours

Ports were developed around the country to provide safe shelter for ships. They were important because at first there were few roads and people travelled by water. They were also used for exporting New Zealand produce.

Chemical engineering

Agricultural and forestry industries employ chemical engineers. New Zealand’s large dairy industry employs engineers as managers as well as designers.

The Taranaki region has employed many engineers. Natural gas is pumped to a plant to make methanol. Some large engineering schemes have had to be shelved – the Motunui plant was designed to make petrol but ended up being used to make methanol. It was mothballed in 2004.

Innovative design

Some engineers have excelled in design. New Zealand engineering has been world-leading in yacht building, and in computer engineering for appliances and vehicles.

How to cite this page:

Matthew Wright, 'Engineering', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/engineering (accessed 18 October 2017)

Story by Matthew Wright, published 11 Mar 2010