1800 - 1850
Most of New Zealand's early colonial settlements were built on the coast because at that time transport by sea was the easiest way.
Early 1800's transport by sea and land
European settlers, like Maori, relied on sea and river transport to link their isolated communities. Coastal voyages aboard small steamships, schooners, ketches and waka (canoes) were slow, uncomfortable and often dangerous. In 1854, when the colony's first Parliament met in Auckland, it took Canterbury MPs 12 days to get there by steamer, while Otago MPs endured a two-month voyage under sail. Some MPs made the return trip via Sydney because it was quicker.
Things weren't much better on land. Before the railway network was developed in the late 19th century, overland travel was often extremely difficult, especially in the heavily forested, swampy or mountainous interior of both islands. Travellers faced arduous treks on foot or horseback, or jolting journeys in carts and stagecoaches. Rough bush tracks were often impassable in wet weather. There were few bridges and crossing swift-flowing rivers was often hazardous. Drowning was the leading cause of accidental death.
Recognising rail's potential
Colonial New Zealanders hoped the steam railway, the wonder of the industrial age, would solve their communication problems, open up new districts to settlement and promote economic development. Many settlers were familiar with early railways in Britain, which by 1840 boasted more than 2,800km of track. By the mid 1850s railways were operating in many other countries, including Australia.
Building New Zealand's railways
Building railways was a complex and expensive undertaking. Although land in New Zealand was relatively cheap compared to Britain, the young colony lacked the resources of capital and labour available in Europe or North America. There were other practical and political obstacles: rugged mountain ranges, dense forests, broad rivers, provincial rivalries and (in the North Island) resolute Maori landowners. But by the early 1860s ambitious provincial governments and private developers had begun to lay New Zealand's first railway tracks and fire up its first steam locomotives.