Kōrero: Roads

Whārangi 1. Early roads

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Evolution of roads

A road is essentially a cleared way through the landscape. Wider than a path or track, which is used by pedestrians and animals, a road is mainly used by wheeled vehicles for transporting goods and passengers.

In the 19th century carts were pulled by horses or bullocks. From the late 1800s vehicles powered by engines arrived. Many early New Zealand roads were known as bridle trails (named after the head-gear of a horse’s harness) – they were too rough for wheeled vehicles but suitable for horses. Bridle paths were widened and graded to become dray roads, suitable for a horse and dray cart, then they were metalled (surfaced with crushed stones). If a route got enough traffic it was upgraded. In this way, over time, paths became roads. Finally, heavily used roads were sealed with asphalt.

Māori paths

Before Europeans arrived, Māori had no wheeled vehicles or horses, so they had no roads in the sense that we understand them today. They preferred to travel by waka (canoe) and mōkihi (raft) on lakes and rivers, or by waka at sea. Where they could not travel by water they had walking paths and routes. These were obvious easy ways through the landscape, and many modern roads follow these paths (in the South Island, State Highway 1 largely follows a Māori coastal trail).

Māori also travelled on beaches, as did early European arrivals. Beach travel depended on tides, and the wheels of horse-drawn coaches could sink in soft sand. As late as 1871 the Kaikoura Herald carried notices about the tides for those travelling north or south by the coastal route.

Lucky to be alive


In the 19th century the rough state of roads led to many accidents. In 1893 on the coastal road south of Kaikōura ‘a young girl broke a leg and narrowly escaped death when another horse knocked her pony off the track above Kahutara Bluff. The pony was impaled upon a tree and she rolled 200 feet down a rock face until stopped by a large boulder.’1


The first roads

In the 1840s, goods and people were transported between towns by coastal shipping. The first roads were short: they linked ports to fledgling towns, or were rough streets in early settlements. New Zealand’s rainy climate often turned soil or clay roads into mud. In the 1840s Auckland’s Queen Street was an impassable bog, and a trip to nearby Karangahape Road was described as an adventure. Dunedin was a ‘muddy little village’.2 In Canterbury the first settlers had to walk over the bridle path from the port of Lyttelton to Christchurch.

Work began on a road from Wellington to Paekākāriki in May 1846, and it was finished in 1849. Māori workers were paid 2 shillings per day (around $8 in 2009 terms) for a 10-hour day with a one-hour lunch break. Wellington had been settled by Pākehā in 1840, but it was not until February 1854 that 162 Scottish labourers arrived to build the road from Wellington city to Petone. They cut spoil from the hills and reclaimed land from the sea, and by the end of the year a rough trail linked the two settlements. The 1855 Wairarapa earthquake uplifted the shore, exposing parts of the road that had not previously been passable at high tide. A track through the Hutt Valley and over the Remutaka Range to the Wairarapa was finished in 1854, but it was still very rough. In 1859 it took a bullock wagon a week to get from Wellington to Greytown (a one-and-a-half hour drive in the 2000s).

Military roads

Some of the best early roads in the North Island were built by the military. In 1843 work began on the Great South Road from Auckland, which was mainly built by British soldiers to counter the threat to the Auckland settlement from the Waikato tribes. Workers had to be ready to swap their shovel for a rifle, as they were vulnerable to attack from the thick forest and hills bordering the route. By 1855 the road had reached Drury on the banks of the Waikato River, and a bridle track cut onwards through bush into the Waikato.

During the 1860s New Zealand wars and their aftermath, more roads were constructed in the North Island, as the government wanted to be able to move troops around rapidly. Māori resisted in many places, but the government played tribes off against each other and kept them occupied by offering contracts to work on the roads. When government soldiers were not fighting they were put to work building roads. For example, conflict with resistance leader and prophet Te Kooti led to the construction of the Napier–Taupō road in the 1870s, mainly by soldiers and Māori. Conditions were harsh – the terrain was rough, food was often short, there was little shelter and wages were low.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. J. M. Sherrard, Kaikoura: a history of the district. Kaikōura: Kaikoura County Council, 1966, p. 241. Back
  2. Quoted in Rosslyn J. Noonan, By design: a brief history of the Public Works Department, Ministry of Works, 1870–1970. Wellington: Govt. Printer, 1975, p. 1. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Carl Walrond, 'Roads - Early roads', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/roads/page-1 (accessed 1 October 2023)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010, updated 1 Mar 2016