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Freight and warehousing

by Matthew Wright and Megan Cook

In the early days of European settlement, whaleboats and waka carried goods around New Zealand. Rail transported most freight through much of the 20th century, until deregulation opened up the market to long-distance trucking.

Early Māori freight and storage

Transporting freight

In Māori society before contact with Europeans, freight was transported by waka (canoes) or on foot. Māori used waka tete for coastal travel, and waka tīwai for river and lake travel. Travel by water was so much preferred that, where it was possible, waka were hauled overland between waterways.

Narrow tracks linked settlements to each other and to food supply areas. Kawe (flax backpacks) were used for heavy loads, and kete (baskets) for lighter goods. Very large objects – logs and waka – were transported over skids made slippery with seaweed or water. The most difficult overland journey was that between the east and west coasts of the South Island to obtain greenstone. Basic working of the stone was done before it was brought back, to avoid carrying a piece that could then shatter.

Māori also carried foodstuffs such as dried seaweed and fish, preserved birds, fermented crayfish, fresh fish, and moa.

Storing food

Pātaka – small, raised buildings, some elaborately carved – were used to store food for ceremonial events and winter use. Storage pits, sterilised by fire and sealed against vermin, were also used to hold some foods, such as kūmara.

Shipping: the coastal trade

The shipping years

Shipping – by waka (canoe), whaleboat, sailing boat or steamship – dominated the local and national freight business from first settlement by Europeans until the early 20th century. In the early days New Zealand’s dense bush and mountains, and the existence of paths rather than roads, made it difficult or impossible to move goods over land for more than a short distance. Settlement was sparse and usually on a coast, river or lakeside.

Supply ships to remote whaling stations and settlements in the late 18th century were the earliest freight runs. Within a few decades, a coastal trade was beginning, and by the 1840s it was well established. Where useable harbours, inlets or navigable river mouths were lacking, lighters (barges) carried goods out to waiting ships, or goods were loaded onto waka, whaleboats or scows run up onto a beach.

Māori freight business

Māori were a strong force in the freight business. On sea, rivers and lakes, Māori owned and operated waka, whaleboats and, from the 1830s, schooners and cutters. Generally, Māori preferred European vessels for freight – they were more stable than single-hulled canoes and more manoeuvrable than double-hulled canoes, and needed fewer crew. Waka, though, were the only vessels that could navigate many of New Zealand’s rivers, and they continued to be used to carry freight and passengers until the late 19th century.

Ship seizure

In 1834 Ngāpuhi’s Tītore Tākiri told Britain’s King William IV that he ‘was beginning to think about a ship’ because his waka capsized when carrying potatoes and other goods.1 Tākiri solved his problem the following year, when he seized a large sailing vessel from European trader Henry Southern.

Māori ship-owners carried a considerable amount of freight. They carried their own produce to sell, and moved goods for Pākehā settlers and farmers.

By the 1860s Māori engagement in the freight business had passed its peak. A collapse in the prices paid for produce reduced their income at the time that more expensive iron sailing vessels and steamships were starting to be used. European settlers were also building their own shipping businesses.

Freight from 1850 to 1870

In the mid-19th century, most coastal freight was carried by small-scale operators with one or two ships. Typical cargoes were coal, building material, grain, potatoes, flour and beer – often a mixed collection of ‘small lots’ rather than a large quantity of a single item. After iron was introduced as a shipbuilding material and more efficient engines were developed, larger ships with more cargo capacity resulted in a reduction in freight rates from the 1870s.

Difficult voyages

Not all cargoes were safe or easy to manage during a voyage. Stock, particularly before the introduction of steamships, were vulnerable to delays and bad weather – on some voyages up to half the animals died.

The coastal boom: 1870–1914

Coastal shipping increased more than tenfold between 1870 and 1914. The introduction of refrigerated shipping, increasing use of steamships, and improved port facilities and organisation all contributed to this growth.

From the 1880s larger steamships took over the trade between the major ports. Many minor ports declined or were restricted to feeder services such as the one between Pātea and Wellington. The greater speed and regularity of steamships resulted in timetabled freight services around the country. Better wharves, improved cargo-loading gear, and dredging (which allowed larger ships to be used) became commonplace.

  1. Quoted in Hazel Petrie, Chiefs of industry: Maori tribal enterprise in early colonial New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2006, p. 71. Back

International freight and warehousing

International freight

Since the first cargoes of semi-processed whales and seals, timber and flax were sent to Europe and North America, New Zealand’s international freight travelled by sea.

In the early years of the colony freighting the wool clip from sheep stations to Britain began with bullock wagons or packhorses. If an established port was available, the wool was loaded directly onto a sailing vessel. Where no port was accessible, wool was carried to the coast and loaded into lighters (barges) or small boats and taken out to sailing vessels. The sometimes difficult journey was well rewarded financially.

Within 10 years of the first refrigerated shipment in 1882, the value of exports increased from £6.2 million to £9.4 million per year. The refrigerated ships, like other freight carriers before and after, struck the problem of backloading. A backload was the cargo a freight carrier found to take on the return leg of their journey, allowing them to earn money on both trips – but there was a lack of suitable backloads to New Zealand.

The bad oil

When oil was first imported in the late 19th century, it was shipped in tins. Rough handling, incorrect stacking, or being tossed about in bad weather could cause the tins to leak. Oil caused several ship fires, some disastrous.

International freight charges were a contentious issue – New Zealand producers believed they were overcharged by the British-owned shipping lines. A formal complaint from the New Zealand government prompted a British inquiry, which reported in 1921 that this was not the case. The lack of reliable backloads was found to be a major cost issue.


Warehousing emerged alongside the freight industry. The economy was relatively localised – roads were poor and there were many ports, each servicing its own small hinterland. Ports needed storage space for the wool, coal, wood and other local products flowing outwards and the imported goods coming in.

When towns were first established, storage was often no more than the local storekeeper’s back room. Later, when more substantial warehouses were built, they clustered near the wharves and then railway stations.

Bond stores – where imported goods were held under customs’ control until duties were paid – were early arrivals on the warehouse scene. The first bonded warehouse was American consul James Clendon’s store at Kororāreka (present-day Russell) in 1840, used while a customhouse was built nearby. Critical to Customs’ revenue gathering, bond stores were quickly built in New Zealand’s settlements.

Wool brokers provided pastoralists with warehouse facilities in export ports. Some, including T. K. Newton in Napier and Charles Kettle in Otago, became wealthy in their own right as a result.

Road and rail to the early 20th century

Local distribution: foot, horse and bullock

Once off ship, freight was moved by horse or bullock – but roads were often bad or non-existent. The bullock wagon was the heavy hauler of the colonial era. Everything from logs to wool – and even buildings – was transported along rough colonial roads in this way. Horses carried packs or pulled carts. For over a hundred years they brought wool and hides from isolated farms.

Tricky trip


In the first few decades of the 19th century, Māori porters carried goods, often along coastal tracks. Many early settlers did the same. Samuel Oates transported his goods by wheelbarrow from Wellington to Greytown across the Remutaka Range in the 1850s. It wasn’t easy going – in some places he had to carry both his load and the wheelbarrow – but he made it.


The early land freight industry was localised, reflecting the scattered nature of 19th-century settlement. Individual manufacturers usually had their own transport – in 1867, for instance, the 51 breweries operating across the colony operated 87 drays (two-wheeled carts) between them. A town’s trade vehicles delivered coal, milk, groceries, meat, beer and spirits, and moved furniture and machinery. All used horses.

Tying sea and land freight together was a developing network of freight forwarders, who distributed goods from the port and later the railhead through towns and into the surrounding countryside.

Goods to be carried any distance from town needed to be sturdy and relatively light. Corrugated iron was used for building (rather than slate or bricks), and spirits were preferred to beer.

Their weight in gold


Gold rushes drove road development in Otago and on the West Coast during the 1860s, but initial freight capacity fell short and prices soared. In the mid-1860s, Cobb & Co transport operators charged John and William Walker £1 – over $100 in 2018 dollars – to get their packs from Dunedin to Dunstan.


Road freight takes off

The first petrol-driven trucks arrived in New Zealand in the early 1900s, sharing the road-freight business with steam lorries until the 1920s. By the end of the First World War, mass-produced petrol vehicles using large, high-pressure tyres were available, and motor-lorry registrations grew faster than those for any other kind of vehicle. There was an almost complete transition to the new vehicles – by the late 1920s it was rare to see horse-drawn vehicles other than milk carts in towns.

In 1929 there were nearly 1,400 people employed by the road freight industry, using 893 vehicles for freight alone and another 115 for combined passenger and freight services across New Zealand. Almost 60,000 tonnes of freight were carried over a distance of 1.23 million kilometres. There were over 30,000 trucks registered, however, suggesting that many people and businesses were carrying goods on their own or others’ behalf without being a ‘freight business’.

Rail and coastal shipping

Railways carried freight in a limited and piecemeal way until the 1870s, when the Vogel government laid almost 2,000 kilometres of track. Another burst of construction at the start of the 20th century saw the North Island main trunk line completed.

Building railways provided work for coastal shipping, which brought in the construction materials. Once completed, railways often led to the demise of smaller ports. This was reinforced in some areas by the Railways Department engaging in a fierce price war, undercutting shipping freight rates.


New patterns of warehousing were prompted by the development of refrigeration and railways in the 1880s. Warehouses sprang up around railway stations. In many towns warehousing developed in areas where land was cheap and transport was easy to and from rail and wharves.

Freezers and cool stores were built to hold meat, fish, dairy products and fruit until they were distributed locally or internationally. Meat processing plants and freezers were sometimes next to the port. In Napier, the South British company built their works right by the harbour. At Petone, a wharf was built specifically for the Gear Meat works.

Regulation and expansion: 1930s–1980s

Regulating the freight industry

Rail was the most significant mover of land-based freight in mid-20th-century New Zealand. Its position was guaranteed by the government, which regulated freight from the 1930s to the mid-1980s. The booming road transport sector was curtailed, shipping was controlled, and the government-owned rail system was protected from competition.

In 1930 rail carried just under 8 million tonnes of freight. Rail’s freight load fell during the 1930s economic depression, but reached 10.5 million tonnes in 1955, and 12 million tonnes in 1965. The Railways Department also expanded into sea freight with the first roll-on, roll-off ferry between Wellington and Picton in 1962, connecting the main trunk lines of the North and South islands.

Road freight

The government limited the distance trucks could carry goods, initially to 30 miles (50 kilometres) in 1936, extended in 1961 to 40 miles (67 kilometres), and then in 1977 to 94 miles (150 kilometres). Carriers were licensed to carry specific types of freight, within particular areas.

Regulation encouraged an informal road freight industry. Private lorry owners, particularly farmers, were not tightly regulated. When the economy boomed after the Second World War, the share of freight ton-miles (a measure of the distance a ton of freight is carried) carried by privately registered trucks rose from 17% in 1948 to 31% in 1958. Licensed carriers’ share remained at 16%.

Trucks were well established in short-haul work by the 1970s. In 1973–74, for instance, trucks made more than 256,000 journeys through the Lyttelton road tunnel and 339,000 trips over the Auckland Harbour Bridge. There were 70,264 heavy trucks in New Zealand in 1974, running an average distance of 28,000 kilometres each per year, and generating on average 42 cents per kilometre for the owners.

Timber wars

Cut-throat competition among North Island timber carriers in the mid-20th century kept profit margins small – in some cases, the rates were uneconomic. Informal agreements to keep rates up were ignored. To lift their job rate, drivers would sometimes pick up and deliver loads assigned to another carrier.

Trucking culture

With the growth of the heavy trucking industry in the 1960s, trucking developed a subculture of its own, a close community whose members shared interests and socialised largely with each other. Articulated trucks – truck-and-trailer combinations – contrasted sharply with the van-bodied vehicles of a generation earlier.


Shipping was also regulated. Cargo handling was organised by a government-appointed body, and harbour boards’ spending on equipment was monitored by a government authority. For many years an informal accord between Australian and New Zealand maritime unions required crews on coastal and trans-Tasman ships to be from New Zealand, or New Zealand and Australia.

Many coastal ships were requisitioned during the Second World War for the war effort in the Pacific, supplying New Zealand and Allied forces. A post-war period of prosperity, supported by the booming coal trade, ended when demand for coal dropped away and the Railways Department introduced its roll-on, roll-off ferry between the North and South islands in 1962.

From 1962 the goods carried by coastal shipping were increasingly low-value and high-volume, such as salt, coal and logs. Cement and oil were transported by specially designed bulk-carriers. Vessel numbers dropped from 93 in 1965 to 19 in 1976; total tonnage more than halved.

Air freight

Goods began to be air-freighted in the 1930s. Although the amount carried increased rapidly, air freight would remain a very small proportion of total freight. Goods carried were low-volume and high-value, often luxury items or seasonal specialities. Cut flowers and cherries flew, rather than potatoes and rice; racehorses rather than sheep or cattle.


A dramatic increase in warehouse space took place during the mid-20th century. Warehouses began to appear around airports, and port warehousing facilities were expanded. In some cases, new industries drove the expansion.

Existing industries also expanded. Large manufacturers often had a two-tier warehouse system. Wattie’s, a large food manufacturer, had both factory and area warehouses. Bulk orders were filled from the factory warehouses in Gisborne and Hastings, while individual retailers’ orders were filled from area warehouses in Auckland, Hamilton and Palmerston North.


The end of regulation

The 1980s and 1990s saw significant change in New Zealand’s freight networks. Most importantly, between 1983 and 1986 the government removed the limits on long-distance trucking. The licensing system, which had controlled which goods could be carried and where, also ended.

Road transport

For trucking firms, deregulation opened the door to local expansion and entry into the Australian market. Long-distance heavy road freight flourished. Trucks had carried 49.7% of land freight in 1972; by 1993 this had risen to 81%.

Companies such as Peter Baker Transport, founded in 1972, were transformed into national operators with wide-ranging interests – in this case with 27 branches, including transport, courier and bulk freight divisions, shifting over 13 million items annually. Other companies expanded internationally.

Freight brokering

Following removal of restrictions on road transport, freight brokering businesses developed. Freight brokers arranged the carriage of goods across regions and modes of transport on behalf of consigners. A result of freight broking was a decrease in rates, and sometimes minimal margins for carriers.

Driver fatigue

With the growing use of trucks for long-distance freight, driver fatigue and increased accident risk became an issue. Legally, drivers were not permitted to drive for longer than 11 hours, but a study carried out by the Road Safety Trust in 2000 found that this maximum driving time was exceeded by one-third of all freight drivers, and a substantial number of additional hours were spent on non-driving work. Drivers of logging or refrigerated trucks, or on long-distance routes, were particularly likely to suffer fatigue.

Waiting for the train

In the early 1980s food manufacturer Wattie’s wanted to use road transport rather than rail to get their canned goods to markets in the Auckland region. Goods sent by rail from Hawke’s Bay could take up to nine days to arrive, and only half got there within the desired two-day period. When the Transport Licensing Authority and the minister of transport refused an application to use road freight, Wattie’s and transport company Freightways went to court and won.

Rail freight after deregulation

Road transport increased its share of freight at the expense of rail. In 1980, 12 million tonnes of freight were carried by rail. This dropped to 9 million tonnes in 1987, and did not reach 12 million tonnes again until 1998.


Ports became commercial businesses and controls on cargo handling were removed in 1989. The government removed cabotage (the restricting of coastal shipping to New Zealand vessels) in 1994. Two years later the Maritime Union of Australia abandoned the informal accord with New Zealand’s Seafarers Union that had kept non-Australasian crews off the Tasman routes since 1931. From 1995, international ships travelling along the New Zealand coast in the course of longer voyages were able to provide a freight service.

Staff numbers fell dramatically after deregulation. Cargo-handling gangs were half the size they had been, and work continued round the clock. Crew numbers dropped by 20–40%. Ship turnaround time was almost halved and freight costs decreased.

In this new environment, companies competed for freight. In the North Island, it was Ports of Auckland (running ports at Auckland and Onehunga) versus Tauranga Metroport Auckland (run by Port of Tauranga); in the South Island, it was Lyttelton Port of Christchurch versus Port Otago (running ports at Dunedin and Port Chalmers).


Warehousing changed with shifting transport patterns. Now they could use road freight, some businesses closed down warehouses that had served local areas. Many suppliers of warehousing also began to offer administrative services and inventory control.

Transport operators, particularly in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, provided warehousing for their manufacturing, importing, exporting and retail customers. In the 1990s some manufacturers and producers began using independent logistics companies, which handle warehousing and supply, including organising freight.

The 2000s

Road transport moved most freight within New Zealand in the 2000s. The cost of freight in New Zealand was relatively high, largely due to the scattered settlement and length of the country. Shipping maintained its overwhelming dominance of international freight movement.

National freight flows

The Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions, in which New Zealand’s population and industry are concentrated, were the source or destination of over half of all road and rail freight. Canterbury, the largest region by area, was the only other region to be the source or destination of more than 10% of freight.

In the pipeline


Pipelines carrying petroleum, gas and ironsand are a small but important part of New Zealand’s freight system. A third of the output from the Marsden Point oil refinery was carried by pipeline to Auckland. Almost all of New Zealand’s natural gas is distributed by pipeline around the North Island. Ironsand is carried to the Glenbrook steel mill and, from Taharoa, out to waiting ships to be transported overseas.


International freight flows

Like national freight, international freight movements were concentrated in the north of the North Island. Tauranga was the main export port in terms of both tonnage (26%) and value (25%) in the year to June 2007.

Whangārei was the main import port in terms of weight (28.5%); much of this was oil. The value of imports unloaded at Auckland’s port was highest – 50% of the total. Virtually all cargo imported by air arrived in Auckland.


Pollution generated by freight transport includes noise, exhaust emissions including particulates, and heavy-metal and petrol pollution of harbours and stormwater systems.

In the 2000s the issue of climate change focused attention on the use of fossil fuels and production of greenhouse gases. Heavy road freight vehicles were responsible for approximately 30% of New Zealand’s total transport energy use. A typical truck used 30,000 litres of fuel a year, and travelled 500,000 kilometres.

By 2020 the amount of freight carried in New Zealand is expected to be almost double that carried in 2005. Higher weight limits for road transport, expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of freight, were successfully trialled in 2008. The use of coastal shipping to relieve pressure on road freight was also investigated.

Freight on the internet

Internet-based freight brokerage became available in 2000 with the introduction of online logistics systems. Freight companies and shippers were able to get a ‘real-time’ view of freight movements and available space.


Warehousing follows population, so much of New Zealand’s warehousing was in the Auckland region. The pattern of storage and warehousing was increasingly complex, involving trans-shipping depots, warehouses, and one-to-one and many-to-one flows.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Matthew Wright and Megan Cook , 'Freight and warehousing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Matthew Wright and Megan Cook , published 11 March 2010