Story: Walking tracks

Page 1. Māori highways

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The first walking tracks in New Zealand were the highways of Māori society. Canoes (waka) brought the first immigrants to New Zealand from Polynesia, and were widely used to transport people and goods around the country. But the rocky rivers and hilly terrain limited the places where canoes could be used. To travel any distance on land, people walked. Tracks criss-crossed the country.

On the track

Māori usually walked in single file, turning the tracks into heavily worn furrows. When they reached cliffs or steep hillsides, they drove in wooden pegs or put up ladders. They crossed rivers on flax mōkihi (rafts).

Māori usually walked during the day, wearing light capes, and sandals made of flax or cabbage-tree leaves. They sometimes carried heavy loads, such as greenstone, in flax kete or kawe (packs). Food was caught or gathered along the way, although travellers sometimes carried dried whitebait or eels.

Talking the walk

Māori had many sayings about walking on a track. One remains true today: ‘Ka uia tonutia e koe ka roa tonu te ara; ka kāore koe e ui ka poto te ara’ (If you keep asking the distance, the path will be long; if you don’t ask, it will be short).


The easiest route was along the beach, ‘te ara one a Hine-tuakirikiri’ – the path of the sand maid. In the north of the North Island, Ninety Mile Beach was used, and the west coast route from Taranaki to Wellington was a major highway, along which the invading warriors of Te Rauparaha walked in the 1820s.

In the South Island both coasts were used. When the explorers Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy came down the West Coast in 1846, they met 25 Māori heading in the other direction.

Inland North Island routes were along ridges or carved through the bush. Near Rotorua, for example, there was a track from Rotomā to the coast at Matatā, and just to the west was the more famous ‘Hongi’s track’. Such tracks were used by Māori going to the coast for kai moana (seafood), and by war parties.

Across the Southern Alps

The South Island interior was criss-crossed with tracks used by parties seeking pounamu (greenstone, or New Zealand jade), which is found only on the western side of the Southern Alps. The trails usually ran up river valleys and over passes.

The most important route was probably the Taramakau–Hurunui trail (later known as Harper Pass). Others were through the Lewis, Browning and Haast passes, and the Mackinnon Pass to Milford Sound. Significant river tracks included those in the Buller Gorge, and along the Waitaki and Clutha rivers.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Walking tracks - Māori highways', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 December 2023)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007, updated 1 Apr 2016