‘Don’t leave town until you’ve seen the country’ exhibition

New Zealanders have the reputation of being great overseas travellers. However they are also very proud of their own country and have explored its farthest corners, despite the often difficult terrain. Now open on Level 2 of the Central Library is the latest exhibition from Heritage Collections, exploring the ways in which New Zealanders travelled and holidayed in the past century.

The exhibition features original photographs, diaries, maps, posters and oral histories from our collections. The title recalls the slogan of a Tourism department campaign from the 1980s: ‘Don’t leave town until you’ve seen the country’. The advertisement encouraged New Zealanders to explore their own back yard before heading off overseas on their OE. You can watch it online at Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision.
Ref: Hermitage Hospitality. 1950s. Ephemera Collection. 

From travel to tourism

In the 19th century and earlier travel within New Zealand was most frequently for economic or strategic reasons. But with the advent of better public transport, especially the railways, more people were able to travel for leisure.

Better working conditions also allowed for holidays and domestic tourism expanded. The world’s first Government Tourism department was founded here in 1901.

In the post-war years, the growth in private car ownership opened up the country. This was the period of the classic New Zealand holiday - camping or staying in a bach at the beach, going home to the marae or tramping the hills and staying in huts.

Ref: Ian Mason. Waihi Beach. From: New Zealand Herald 
Glass Plate Collection. 1951. Photo ref: 1370-653-12.


In the late 19th and early 20th century railways were the best way for New Zealanders to see their country. Ferries and steamers could access parts of the coast, but railways provided the first reliable overland means of transport.

Ref: New Zealand railway tours. N.Z General Survey office, 1889. NZ Map 6573.

The 1920s and 1930s are considered the golden age of New Zealand’s railways. The Railways Studio was set up in 1920 and developed the iconic posters and brochures we associate with the era. The New Zealand Railways Magazine was published between 1926 and 1940 and promoted domestic tourism through its stories, articles and advertisements. The entire run is available online from the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre.

Ref: New Zealand Railways Magazine. Wellington: Railways Department, 1936.

Day excursions

Before private car ownership became common, most people’s experience of travelling was a special day outing with a church or work group. Here members of the Onehunga Congregational Church are waiting on the Onehunga wharf to go to Whatipu, at the head of the Manukau Harbour. 

Ref: Albert Haig Jones. Waiting on wharf at Onehunga. 1910s. Photo ref: 743-9346.

Company picnics allowed staff to socialise and enjoy a treat paid for by the boss. This photograph album records a picnic provided by the Auckland department store John Courts on 18th February 1922. The staff enjoyed a day at Cowes Bay on Waiheke Island.

Ref: Album showing staff of John Courts on a picnic 
at Waiheke Island. 1922. Photographs Collection. 822-Album-133.

Visiting the gulf islands has always been popular. This photograph shows Aucklanders travelling by ferry to Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf to enjoy a day out in 1964.

Ref: Auckland City Council. People arriving off the ferries … 
on the wharf at Motuihe Island. 1964. Photo ref: 580-9789.

Beaches, camping and caravans

From the 1920s private motor vehicles and improved roads allowed town-dwellers to holiday in places that could not be reached by train. People made the most of a holiday with families congregating at informal campsites, usually public land by a beach, in tents for their summer break.

Ref: Paul Champion. Open-Topped Berkeley at Matauri Bay. 1960s. Photo ref: 1055-136.

This montage from the 1936 Auckland Weekly News features a group camping at Goose Bay, Kaikoura. Classic beach activities also can be seen in this summertime newspaper issue: sunbathing, children playing in the shallow water and people swimming in the surf.

The Auckland Weekly News. 8 January 1936. 
Auckland: Wilson and Horton. Photo ref: AWNS-19360108-47-1.

In the early 1930s, caravan rentals became popular in New Zealand. The development of caravans that could be towed by cars made it possible for free-wheeling holidaymakers to move from place to place.

W.B. Beattie. South Island camping. From: New Zealand 
Herald Glass Plate Collection. 1947. Photo ref: 1370-469-01.

Motor camps could also be found in most centres. In 1925 Tui Glen Motor picnic and camping park in Henderson was New Zealand’s first registered camping ground, developed by Mr Claude Brookes, an Auckland engineer. The West Auckland Research Centre holds oral history recordings about Tui Glen: here Murray Becroft recollects the Tui Glen canoes.  There are also oral history recordings of Claude Brookes - visit any Research Centre to listen to these.

Ref: Isabel Hooker, Canoe landing at Tui Glen. From: J.T. Diamond Collection,
West Auckland Research Centre, JTD-14K-03233

Domestic air travel

In 1937 the New Zealand, Australian and British governments established the company, Tasman Empire Airways Ltd (TEAL), to provide the trans-Tasman link. From 1947 the national airline was NAC (National Airways Corporation), later merging with TEAL to become Air New Zealand. By the late 1940s people could fly to most New Zealand centres.

As flying became more common, the aviation scene grew increasingly diverse. Private firms, individuals and aero clubs introduced fixed-wing aircraft and versatile helicopters.

As the state employed fewer and larger aircraft, there was more opportunity for private companies to enter the provincial routes, using smaller aircraft. Flying had rapidly progressed from novel to normal.

Ref: Henry Edwards. Everyone flies these days! 
From: NAC Airline Review. 1960s. Ephemera Collection. 

Mount Cook Airlines was established in 1920 by Rodolph Lysaght Wigley, who in 1906 had driven the first motor car to The Hermitage. It was Rodolph’s son Sir Henry who solved the problem of landing in the glaciers by attaching retractable skis to the planes. The Ski Plane operation opened up new possibilities for non-hikers (often just in their street shoes), to experience being at the top of a glacier and back in time for lunch.

Eric Young. Mount Cook Airline plane on the Tasman Glacier. 1970s. Photo ref: 1021-1683.

‘A Shower of Spray and We’re Away’ was the catch phrase of Captain Fred Ladd’s amphibious air service Tourist Air Travel. The base at Mechanics Bay in downtown Auckland covered operations to the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours, the Hauraki Gulf, and Northland.

Ron Clark. Fred Ladd’s Tourist Air Travel plane on the 
beach at Paihia. 1960s. Photo ref: 1207-1412.

The extrovert character of Captain Ladd saw him become a household name in the 1950s and 1960s. On his last day with the company he illegally flew his Widgeon amphibian craft under the Auckland Harbour Bridge (for which he was discharged without conviction).

Fred Ladd towing a Tourist Air Travel Widgeon along Quay Street, Auckland
From: New Zealand Herald Glass Plate Collection. 1960. Photo ref: 1370-7-16-2.

Sea Bee Air began operation in 1976, taking over where the services of Tourist Air Travel and Mount Cook Airlines amphibian flights had operated before. By 1982 the Waiheke Island service alone was carrying some 22,000 people per annum. The introduction of a regular, dependable fast ferry service to Waiheke in 1988 had an immediate impact on Sea Bee Air. Their last scheduled service was flown in 1989.

Pictorial Publications Limited. Sea Bee Air, Paihia. 1970s. Photo ref: 589-54.

This is just a taster of what you can see and hear in this diverse and engaging exhibition. We’ll be publishing more blogs on the exhibition themes over the next few weeks, and of course - don’t leave town before you’ve seen the exhibition itself.

Author: Renee Orr and the exhibition curatorial team