Around the turn of the 20th century, two developments led to a new appreciation of the landscape: tourism was growing, and nationalism was emerging.
From the late 1870s the Union Steam Ship Company encouraged overseas tourists to visit New Zealand. Guidebooks were written for the new market, presenting New Zealand as a place that lacked Europe’s gilded domes and marble palaces, but offered scenic grandeur.
The ‘wonderland’ of the hot lakes around Rotorua was promoted in the very first tourist guidebook, written in 1878. However, the prime attraction, the Pink and White Terraces, were obliterated in Mt Tarawera’s 1886 eruption.
The southern lakes were a second magnet. In the 1890s the Milford Track, sometimes called ‘the finest walk in the world’, drew tourists south.
The third drawcard was the Southern Alps. Climbers travelled from other countries to conquer the high peaks. One mountaineer, the Australian Freda Du Faur, recalled that she worshipped the peaks’ beauty as soon as she saw them.
Quite a nice place
In the second tourist guide to New Zealand, The New Zealand tourist (1879), Thomas Bracken described New Zealand as ‘a land of stupendous mountains, roaring cataracts, silvery cascades, fantastic volcanic formations, magnificent landscapes, noble forests, and picturesque lakes’. 1
Guidebooks and photographs
Guidebooks started to show New Zealand’s scenic beauty in photographs. Pictorial New Zealand suggested that while the mountains were as grand as the European Alps, ‘for wildness, and pure, grand savagism of nature, – they leave the modernised, civilised, hotel-comforted Swiss Alps far, far behind.’ 2
In the mid-19th century, settlers had disliked New Zealand’s solitude and silence – but these features were now valued. The photographed landscape was mostly unpeopled, except for the hot springs, where beautiful Māori women added an exotic element.
In 1901 the New Zealand government set up a Department of Tourist and Health Resorts and promoted C. N. Baeyertz’s Guide to New Zealand, which praised ‘the most wonderful Scenic paradise in the World – unequalled Fjords, Awe-Inspiring Geysers’. 3 The capital letters emphasised ‘the impotence of mere words’ to extol the New Zealand landscape, which was promoted as a microcosm of the world’s beauty. The fiords were like Norway, the Alps like Switzerland, the lakes like Cumberland, the Whanganui River like the Rhine – all made by ‘nature’s artist’.
In the late 19th century there was an increasing national pride – including pride in the scenery. In 1898 New Zealand became the first country in the world to feature landscape images on its postage stamps. A few writers, especially in the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, told traditional Māori stories which enriched the land with history and human associations.
Felling the bush
New Zealand’s forests were being felled for timber, and to clear land for farming. The earliest European settlers had seen the bush as desolate and bleak – but now there was some nostalgia. In 1898, the politician and writer William Pember Reeves mourned the passing of the forest. Ten years later, Blanche Baughan wrote that as fire and axe destroyed the bush, ‘Tis a silent, skeleton world … Ruin’d forlorn, and blank.’ 4
A few farmers fenced off small patches of bush. There were some government attempts to save the forest, as much to conserve the timber as for aesthetic reasons. A circle around Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) was safeguarded, and Egmont and Tongariro national parks were set up. Yet few people valued the bush. Even Pember Reeves wrote lyrically of the colonist who grew a ‘sweeter English rose’ 5 in his garden.
In 1903, Premier Richard Seddon proudly passed the Scenery Preservation Act, which aimed to protect places with outstanding natural beauty, and signalled official recognition of the importance of New Zealand’s landscape. The popular description of New Zealand as ‘God’s own country’ included the idea that it was the most beautiful country in the world.
At the turn of the century, people also started to see beaches as sites of natural beauty. Going to the beach became a popular activity for urban New Zealanders.