Story: The voyage out

From the Scottish port of Greenock to Dunedin in New Zealand’s South Island is close to 20,000 kilometres – as far as you could travel to start a new life. By sailing ship, the journey took months. Voyagers endured boredom, terror and misery, and with only the vast, unpredictable ocean to look at. Many of those who stepped on board owned few possessions, but they had what it took: plenty of courage and hope.

Story by John Wilson
Main image: Watercolour depicting passengers on the Royal Dane

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Sailing ships

If you were seeking a better life in New Zealand in the 19th century, you had to take a long and often dangerous voyage by sailing ship. Not surprisingly, many people preferred to emigrate to the United States or Canada.

The journey to New Zealand could take up to 120 days. Often, the travellers never saw land. Wealthier people travelled in cabin class, where there was more space and better food than for those in steerage under the deck. The steerage passengers were poorer, squashed together in miserable conditions. Their food was dreary: usually potatoes, oats, dry biscuits and salted meat. There was not much water, and no fresh fruit or vegetables. Many suffered terrible seasickness, and infectious diseases spread rapidly.


On steamships, which began bringing people in the 1870s, the journey was faster. Soon electric lighting and steam heat made all the difference. Most ships continued to come round the Cape of Good Hope, until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.

Air travel

A few migrants began arriving by plane soon after the Second World War.

In the 1950s, the flight from Europe usually took several days, with many stopovers. From the 1960s jet airliners reduced the time to about 24 hours. Cheap, quick air travel made things much easier. Because people could fly back occasionally to see their families, the move did not seem so final. Some flew out first to look around before making a decision to emigrate.

But for most immigrants, New Zealand remains about as far away as they can get from their homelands.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'The voyage out', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 February 2005