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by Carl Walrond

New Zealand’s rugged terrain, many rivers and dense forest made it difficult to build roads. People in isolated areas longed for roads to be built, to improve access to markets and bring prosperity – but for many years the roads were poor, and vehicles struggled with mud, dust and rough surfaces.

Early roads

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.

    • J. M. Sherrard, Kaikoura: a history of the district. Kaikōura: Kaikoura County Council, 1966, p. 241. Back
    • 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

Why roads were built

Hopes and mixed success

Roads were viewed as an economic and social cure-all. Early newspapers and correspondence from isolated areas were full of hopes that roads would be built and prosperity would follow once an area was opened up.

But this did not always happen – or not immediately. After a road was built over Arthur’s Pass in 1866–67, linking Christchurch with the West Coast, only 80 to 90 people crossed the pass each week. Washouts were common, and maintenance costs were high. Gold did not flow over the pass – it was shipped directly to Melbourne. West Coast settlements dealt mainly with Melbourne from the late 1860s, as shipping costs were a fifth of the cost of dray delivery from Christchurch. The Press commented that the only thing the road levelled was the provincial treasury. Yet in the road’s first year 40,000 sheep and 25,000 cattle were driven over it to feed the gold miners.

Economic catalysts

However, on the whole, roads were crucial to the development of towns, farming, and other industries. Many of the roads built by public works in the 1870s proved their worth in the 1890s when the boom caused by refrigerated shipping led to more intensive farming, such as dairying. Farmers needed good access to dairy factories, railheads and ports. Roads were catalysts for economic development. Some proved their worth later – especially when tourism became a major industry in the 1980s. For example the Haast Pass road, completed in 1965, allowed tourists to do a loop trip of the South Island.

Gold builds roads

Gold built roads in Otago. In the 1860s bullock teams pulled supplies and equipment on wagons over rough trails from Dunedin to Central Otago. The rough paths that the diggers walked were not good enough to transport heavy equipment once gold dredging and sluicing began in the 1870s. State Highway 8 from Dunedin to Central Otago via Lawrence, and the ‘Pigroot’ from Palmerston via Dunback, both follow old gold trails.

Railways build roads

The government’s focus on building railways in the 1870s soaked up funds that might otherwise have been available for improving roads. Yet rail also stimulated land development and consequently roads. Roads were built to access railway stations. Railways made it easier to transport produce, so farming became more intensive – leading to smaller farms, which led to more road building.

Building roads

Choosing routes

Surveyors laid out early roads around hills, to minimise earth moving. Surveyors needed slashers and axes to chop branches that obstructed their line of sight. They used a long coil of wire (a chain), a theodolite (a device on a tripod for measuring angles) and a staff (a long wooden stick with measurements on it, which the surveyor sighted with the theodolite). They laid out new routes and marked them on maps for road builders to follow. Early roadmen sometimes ignored the surveyor’s map, routing roads to allow the sun to dry their surface. Later engineers and surveyors often re-routed roads more directly, through shady gullies or the shadows of hills.


In the late 1800s the road builder’s first tool was an axe for felling trees, kept razor-sharp with a stone. The second tool was the cross-cut saw, which required two workers to pull it back and forth. Grubbers and picks then cleared the way for shovel and wheelbarrow. From the 1890s gelignite was used to blow up large stumps or rock faces. Single-furrow ploughs, and later double-furrow ploughs and horse-drawn graders, helped to form the road’s surface.

Stony metal

Stones from a riverbed or gravel pit vary in size, and large stones were broken into smaller pieces using hammers. They were then passed over metal screens so those of the same size fell through. These were spread on the roads and called ‘metal’. Unsealed roads are also called dirt or gravel roads.

Road metal

Gangs of men loaded carts with gravel and stones from riverbeds. Sledgehammers and smaller sprawling hammers shattered rocks into metal (small stones of consistent size). It was bone-jarring work. Metal was carted and dumped onto roads, using large round shovels called banjos. Surfacing roads with shattered rock was also known as macadam, after Scottish roading engineer John McAdam who developed the process in the early 1800s.

Road foundations

Road gangs used whatever was available for foundations. In places trees and branches were cut and layered on the road, forming a good base, especially on clay or mud. This was called fascine work. Loads of sand and metal were dumped on top – the branches stopped it all sinking into the clay.

Ideal routes for roads were over flat areas, but they were often swampy. Deep trenches had to be cut for drainage, and the fill from the trenches built up the road surface higher. In some cases the whole causeway slowly sank, and it had to be continually built up.


By the late 19th century construction was partly mechanised, with the arrival of steam road rollers which gave a much smoother surface. The first roads had been designed primarily for moving stock on the hoof and for light vehicles. As traction engines arrived, rural roads had to be upgraded. Bridges had to be strengthened or rebuilt and roads designed to carry heavier vehicles without breaking up. By the First World War concrete bridges were replacing wooden bridges. Trucks were used increasingly to move stock to freezing works, so even if roads did not receive a great deal of traffic they still had to be well maintained.

Sealing roads

Roading was not just a country problem. City streets were dusty in summer and muddy in winter. At first wooden blocks were used to pave some busy streets in Auckland and Wellington. The process of sealing roads with tar was available by 1900. City streets were the first to be sealed. Dunedin had a machine which tarred streets by 1908. Sealing was very expensive and it was beyond the reach of most local authorities.

Concrete was also trialled as a street surface in the early 1900s, but it proved more expensive than asphalt or tar. By 1929 there were only about 3,000 kilometres of sealed road in the country – less than 3% of the country’s road network. Sealing New Zealand’s road network continued at a gradual pace until the 1950s and 1960s, when it accelerated.

Traffic on the roads

Difficult roads

Mud was a huge problem, and wet weather turned many roads into bogs. Drivers had to approach bad patches with great care, trying to stay in the centre. If a cart wheel went on the soft edge the vehicle could tip over. Draught horses such as Clydesdales with their large hooves were favoured. Sometimes horses got stuck and had to be pulled out with ropes.

When cars arrived they also struggled. Many motorists carried chains, which were fitted over tyres in muddy conditions. They didn’t always work, and drivers sometimes had to ask the local farmer to pull them out of a bog with his draught horses. Many rivers and streams were unbridged, and vehicles were often held up by floods. Block and tackle (ropes and pulleys) were used to winch cars across fords in the 1920s and 1930s.

Vehicles and roads

Cart wheels’ narrow iron rims cut into unmetalled roads. Each cart’s wheels dug deeper, and when it rained water ran down the ruts. Poorly maintained roads soon had ridges and deep ruts. If one wheel got caught in a rut and the other on a ridge, a cart could tip or the strain could break axles. Early roads were often narrow, so oncoming traffic was a problem. Roads had laybys where one vehicle could pull over. Arguments were frequent over who should back down (not so easy with horses).

Road surfaces varied mainly due to the underlying geology. In flat places such as the Canterbury Plains road building was relatively easy – but this was unusual in New Zealand. The North Island, with its clay soils, hill country and deep river valleys, was especially difficult. Road cuttings destabilised slopes and led to slips. The pumice country around Taupō and Rotorua was dusty in summer and clay muck in winter. Roads developed washboard corrugations which shook the motorist, and the abrasive silica dust damaged exposed engines’ parts.

Fair-weather roads

Once roads were built they had to be maintained. Keeping them covered in metal was expensive enough, and most regions lacked funds to seal roads. In many isolated areas road building languished. For example in 1900 the coach road from Auckland to Taranaki was not yet completed – and it only became an all-weather route in the 1920s. In 1921 half of the country’s roads were still just rough tracks. Unsealed roads, even those that were metalled, could turn to mud. At Christmas 1926, 12 cars got bogged down in the Hamilton–Rotorua road – some for a number of days.

Keep the gelly warm

Gelignite explosive was used by roadmen to blow up boulders and to form cuttings. It had to be kept at a constant temperature, and South Otago roadman George Bates recalls working with it in the 1930s: ‘In the winter when the gelignite was frozen, we carried it inside our shirts, it was very dangerous when frozen and could blow up on touch.’1

The roadmen

Roadmen were a familiar site on rural roads. They walked or cycled to where they worked. Most worked alone with wheelbarrow and shovel on the stretches of road they had been allocated to maintain. Roadmen dug out culverts (drains taking water under the road) and water tables (the ditches alongside). They often camped in tents or huts. From the late 1890s roadmen used gelignite to blow up large boulders and areas that they couldn’t dig. In many places roadmen had no lorries until the 1930s.

The road user’s experience

At first, people complained because there were no roads. When roads came, users complained about their state – muddy and unmetalled, with no bridges. As car use increased in the early 20th century roads got better, but many were still winding and narrow – children got carsick, and cars overheated on the steep hill climbs or skidded on metal. Breakdowns and punctures were common.

As roads improved, new debates arose around the economic costs and benefits of road building (especially where motorways cut through existing suburbs). Road safety increasingly became an issue in the 1970s. Many roads have been realigned to eliminate accident black spots. Congestion also became a problem on Auckland roads. In the early 2000s there was considerable debate over whether public funds should be used to construct roads, rather than on developing public transport.

  1. Quoted in Evelyn M. McLay, Stepping out: a history of Clutha County, 1876–1976. Balclutha: Clutha County Council, 1977, p. 329. Back

Funding road construction

Road boards

In the 1840s and early 1850s there was little road construction. Where streets or roads were formed the work was typically done by local residents. In the late 1850s and early 1860s some early road boards formed. These were early local authorities that could collect money to pay for road building and maintenance. They did not last long and struggled to collect money. From 1854 until 1876 the construction and maintenance of civilian roads was mainly the responsibility of provincial governments. They built and maintained main roads, and set up road boards to develop and maintain local and district roads. Provincial governments tried to legislate and survey roads into existence – but they sometimes could not afford to build them, and many roads existed only on paper.

Money was spent in the province where it was raised. In some cases this led to roads not linking up well to those in other provinces – but this was not much of an issue when most roads were used for short trips. It was evident that centralised planning was needed. This happened in 1876 when the provinces were abolished.

Convex roads

Most early road planning and building was carried out by local authorities, leading to variations in road surfaces. The most distinctive roads were those of Taranaki, which had steeply arched cambers. This helped to shed rainfall – especially if they were sealed by asphalt.

From 1876 until 1922, road boards (and later county councils, which took over their role) did most road building and maintenance. Central government assisted by subsidising road building, providing grants to councils, or building roads and then handing ownership and maintenance responsibilities to local councils.

In 1882 the Road Boards Act divided the country into road districts, each governed by a road board. Initially there were 319 boards; this reduced to 209 in 1907 and 59 in 1922, as the county councils took over road boards.


The Counties Act 1876 allowed local councils to put up toll gates and levy charges. There were already toll gates in operation – in 1868 there were 13 in Otago. In the 1850s there were toll houses on the Great South Road in Auckland, which helped to pay for the metalling (surfacing the road with gravel or crushed rocks). Toll gates were unpopular with many. In 1890 citizens at Kaiwharawhara, Wellington, burned toll gates and threw them over the Hutt Road into the harbour.

Taranaki authorities were most enthusiastic in adopting toll roads, and by 1906 they had seven gates. In the early 20th century the area had some of the North Island’s best roads, due in large part to the tolls. By 1935 two-thirds of Taranaki’s main roads were sealed.

Toll gates disappeared in 1922 when the Main Highways Act was passed. They were used only occasionally, for instance on the Auckland Harbour Bridge from 1959 to 1984, in the Lyttelton road tunnel from 1964 to 1978, and on the Tauranga Harbour Bridge from 1988 to 2001. In the early 2000s toll roads were back. The Northern Gateway Toll Road, part of State Highway 1 that bypasses Ōrewa, opened in 2009. It cost $2 for cars and $4 for trucks. Tolls were calculated electronically and there were no booths.

Thank the Japanese

Very little of the West Coast side of the Arthur’s Pass road had been sealed before the Second World War – when a sudden upswing in sealing occurred. The government was worried that the Japanese might attack to gain control of West Coast coal. An army report stated, ‘New Zealand forces had difficulty using this pass, so it was obvious that if the Japanese came they would be too scared to drive over the pass in its present condition.’1

Central government

The Public Works Department, created in 1870, was responsible for building and maintaining main roads until 1889, when control of road works passed to the Survey Department. Then in 1901 it moved to the newly formed Department of Roads, which was amalgamated with the Public Works Department in 1909.

The government focused on main roads linking settlements. Yet public works of the 1870s favoured rail development at the expense of roads, and the economic depression of the 1890s saw tight control of government spending.

Road board rates

Road boards could not raise much money as most of the population had very little. Initially the only people who could afford road boards rates were the few large landowners. Councillors were reluctant to raise rates as this would have been political suicide. In poorer, less populated areas such as Northland and the East Coast, roads were especially bad. The sub-tropical ‘winterless north’ was also dubbed the ‘roadless north’.

By 1920 motor vehicles were rapidly replacing horse-drawn vehicles. New roading standards were needed, especially for main arterial roads. Until then most road trips had been local. But traffic was increasingly going from one area to another, and building through roads was beyond the resources of local authorities. National funding and coordination was necessary.

  1. Quoted in Ivan D. Taylor, The road to the West Coast: a history of the road over Arthur’s Pass. Palmerston North: Heritage Press, 2005, p. 96. Back

Centralised road funding

Main Highways Act

The Main Highways Act, passed in 1922, came into effect in 1924. The Act created the Main Highways Board to control some 10,000 kilometres of main roads which were declared main highways. Initially the board shared construction costs of main highways 50–50 with local authorities, and subsidised maintenance and repairs by a third. Later it determined the rates of its contributions and those of local authorities at its own discretion.

The central government’s contribution was funded by taxes on petrol, tyres, car registrations, heavy traffic fees and mileage tax (today’s road user charges). Local authorities funded their contribution from rates and driver licence fees, which they collected at that time. In 1936 main highways became known as state highways, and were fully funded by the government.

Road building and upgrading

In the 1930s economic depression, the government used the unemployed to build roads. One major project started in 1933 was the Milford Road, to Milford Sound in Fiordland.

After the Second World War New Zealand roads were in a poor state. Construction had stopped and maintenance was deferred so that by the early 1950s the state of the roads was considered to be harming the economy. At the same time road surfaces were coming under greater pressure from bigger, heavier vehicles and more traffic. Amendments to the Public Works Act in 1947 and 1948 allowed certain highways to be declared motorways, restricted to motor traffic. The first stretch of motorway opened in 1950 in Wellington, running for 5 kilometres from Takapu Road to Johnsonville.

Another major focus of the early 1950s was to seal more roads. In 1954 the road from Wellington to Auckland was sealed in its entirety.

No cows allowed


In 1950 Wellington’s Evening Post explained to its readers what the new motorway was for: ‘It is a motorway for motors. Pedestrian may not enter it, nor cyclists; nor will wandering stock, nor the farmer’s milking herd, taking a short cut to the dairy, be tolerated.’1


National Roads Board

In 1954 the Main Highways Board was replaced by the National Roads Board (NRB), which had wider powers than the former body. It also acted as a central authority to advise and assist local authorities on their roads. The minister of works was the chairman of the NRB, and local authorities and road users were also represented. State highways were managed by the NRB, while the remaining public roads were managed by local councils. In 1959 a Roading Division was established in the Ministry of Works. The 1960s was the era of motorway construction, and this work absorbed an increasing share of state highways funding. The Roading Division was essentially the engineering and construction arm of the NRB and it carried out most of this work.

Organisational reform

The Ministry of Works and Development (formerly the Public Works Department 1870–1948 and Ministry of Works 1948–74) was abolished in 1988. It had carried out and overseen most main road construction in New Zealand for decades. Commercial activities were transferred to a government-owned company, the Works and Development Corporation. Road construction was contracted out through a competitive process. Further reforms saw road funding transferred initially into the Ministry of Transport and then into an independent Crown agency, Transit New Zealand, created in 1989.

In 1996 a separate funding body, Transfund New Zealand, was established to distribute funds to Transit New Zealand and local authorities. In 2004 Land Transport New Zealand was created through the merger of Transfund and the Land Transport Safety Authority. In 2008 Land Transport New Zealand joined with Transit to become the NZ Transport Agency.

Revenues were paid into a dedicated National Land Transport Fund. Revenue came from road user charges, motor vehicle registration and licence fees, and fuel excise duties.

Road builders’ dreams


In the 2000s road builders were still adamant that a road linking the Milford Road down the Hollyford Valley to Haast, a road from Glenorchy to the Milford Road and another linking Golden Bay with Karamea would bring economic benefits. The rugged terrain and opposition to building roads in national parks meant that the proposals were likely to remain nothing more.


The road network

In the early 2000s local and regional councils were responsible for managing, maintaining and developing local roads, while Transit New Zealand managed state highways. In August 2005 the state highway network consisted of 10,894.4 kilometres (5,972.5 kilometres in the North Island and 4,921.9 kilometres in the South Island) of major roads and motorways. State highways linked to 80,000 kilometres of local roads. Most motorists would not notice the difference when they drove from one to the other. The state highway network was worth $12.5 billion and carried 48% of all New Zealand's traffic. It included 170 kilometres of motorway.

State Highway 1 is the main road in New Zealand. It stretches the length of the North and South islands, from Cape Rēinga to Bluff.

    • Evening Post, 21 December 1950, p. 6. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Roads', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 September 2021)

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