Story: Transport – overview

Page 2. Before motor transport

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Waka (canoes)

Double-hulled sailing canoes brought Polynesians to New Zealand. The need to travel along narrow streams encouraged the development of single-hulled waka. Most were simple dugouts, made from the large trees abundant in New Zealand. Some were large waka taua, which could be more than 30 metres long, capable of carrying 100 warriors. Usually they were propelled by paddles, or by poles if travelling against the current on fast-flowing rivers. On open water, if there was a tail wind, triangular sails were used. In the Chatham Islands the Moriori travelled long distances in waka made from sticks. These ‘wash-through’ craft floated deep in the water.

Travelling by waka allowed Māori to transport large loads and avoid difficult journeys over steep and forested terrain. The craft were sometimes dragged or carried across obstacles to get to other waterways. They were used long after the arrival of Europeans. For example, in the 1840s and 1850s Waikato Māori transported agricultural produce to Auckland by waka.

Foot travel

Māori also used footpaths, often formed along ridges to limit the danger of ambush. They sometimes wore sandals made from flax to protect their feet from stones. Streams were crossed using felled trees as bridges, and rivers using raupō mōkihi (rafts made from bulrush reeds) or dugout waka left on the bank for the purpose. Some long overland journeys were made to carry pounamu (greenstone) from the West Coast of the South Island across mountains to the east or north.

New Zealand made

In the early 1870s the scow, a flat-bottomed sailing ship with a wide beam capable of resting upright on mud or sand, was developed in north Auckland to operate in its shallow bays and estuaries and over the coral reefs around Pacific islands. Scows carried large quantities of timber, much of it kauri, milled in northern New Zealand.

Sailing ships

The voyages of Abel Tasman in 1642–43 and James Cook in the 1760s and 1770s were made in sailing ships, as were the visits of other European explorers. Demand for timber and flax rope to construct and repair sailing ships was a major reason for European interest in New Zealand. From 1840 the settlements of Wellington, Nelson, New Plymouth, Dunedin and Christchurch were established rapidly because large numbers of settlers could be carried directly from Britain on large sailing vessels. More migrants arrived on sailing ships until late in the century.

Sailing vessels built for the stormy coastal waters of north-west Europe proved useful in New Zealand. Whaleboats with sails and oars (which supplied more power through leverage than paddles) were often used for sea travel, especially in the south. Small sailing vessels were built locally to navigate coastal waters.

Animal transport

Animal-powered transport was rapidly adopted by Māori. For hauling heavy loads on sleds where roads were bad or nonexistent, the bullock was ideal. It was strong, did not require special feeding, and was a by-product of the beef industry. Horses were more expensive to buy and to maintain, but they were faster and more prestigious. Missionaries and other travellers who could not afford horses had to walk. Sometimes people shared a horse, taking turns to alternately ride and walk.

Wheeled vehicles

As taxes funded the development of better roads, bullock- and horse-drawn vehicles became common. Wheeled vehicles, including drays, wagons and carriages, could carry more goods and people. People also pushed wheelbarrows and handcarts, sometimes for considerable distances.

Early bicycles – velocipedes, driven by pedals connected directly to the hub of the front wheel, and penny-farthings, with large front and small rear wheels – gained some popularity from the late 1860s. However, the sturdy safety bicycle with vulcanised rubber tyres was introduced in the mid-1890s, and proved best able to cope with New Zealand’s rough roads. Cheaper to buy and maintain than a horse, it was used for commuting, sport and recreation, and for deliveries of mail and goods in towns. Rural workers also travelled between farms or into town on bicycles.

Transport and settlement

The difficulty of land travel meant that the first settlements were established on the coast. Inland settlements often developed at breaks in transport routes, such as river fords, where people could stay the night before undertaking the crossing. Many such settlements grew to serve both travellers and local people.

Transport, production and consumption

Because transporting goods was so slow and expensive, settlers in remote areas tended to produce durable products, such as wool. It was cheaper to use local materials such as raupō (bulrush) or cob (a mixture of mud and straw) to build rural dwellings. Consumption patterns were also affected; in the mid-19th century spirits were cheaper than beer, which was bulkier to transport.

How to cite this page:

James Watson, 'Transport – overview - Before motor transport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

Story by James Watson, published 11 Mar 2010