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January 2011 Issue
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A short history of maps

Maps have moved from lines in the sand to paper and now the digital age
From drawings in sand to downloadable digital copies, mapping in New Zealand has come a long way

Will paper maps go the way of the dinosaur now that all that information is downloadable onto a GPS device and even smartphones? Not for those who have learnt that navigation is about safety.

It’s an amazing legacy, the navigational skills of migratory Maori arriving in Aotearoa. Those skills were survival techniques that over generations were translated to terrestrial route finding. Before Abel Tasman’s arrival, Maori had named landscape features to enable them to form either oral narrative maps or mind-maps. When European explorers asked Maori to translate these to paper, the result was a rendering where the actual scale of the land was secondary to recording ‘important’ features. Only 18 rare examples still exist of these manuscript maps, held in institutions and library collections. They show the landscape was exaggerated or diminished dependent on factors like safe havens, food sources or tribal positions rather than a virtual reproduction. Preceding paper, or later for convenience, Maori might draw maps on the ground as recorded by John Chubbin, one of the first pakeha to see Lake Wakatipu. He described a Ngai Tahu chief detailing a route: ‘[H]e drew a map of the course of the Mataura for me. He drew it in sand with a stick, the streams being represented by hollows and the mountains by little mounds of sand.’

As the number of Europeans arriving in New Zealand increased, so too did the need for maps. The coast, initially most important, had been mainly charted, starting with Captain Cook, but a complete survey was made by the boats Acheron and Pandora between 1848 to 1855. Gold discoveries in 1852 on the Coromandel Peninsula precipitated a geological mapping of the whole country by the New Zealand Geological Survey in 1865. Ongoing military action, land confiscation, property allotment, road and rail building and so on required increased mapping of the land. By the 1880s much of the country had been surveyed by the method of triangulation.  

When you’re tramping, above the bushline, you may come across a ‘trig’ (trigonometrical) point. The beacon is one corner of a triangle that can be viewed from two other corners, often kilometers away. Starting at a known base line and ‘fixing’ multiple triangles together with accurate measurement of their angles, means that the area of land can be accurately measured and points, peaks, rivers, roads and so on may be correctly recorded. Often the trig structure has been removed, in cartography terms ‘unbeaconed’, but the peak still retains the name ‘trig’.

Numerous surveyors covered the country. One, Laurence Cussen, between 1883-86, surveyed the King Country from Kihikihi to Mt Ruapehu. By August 1884, during the course of his survey, 43 trig stations were erected, covering two million acres. The Department of Surveys began issuing topographical maps drawn in the imperial scale of one inch on the map representing one mile on the ground. They remained the standard ‘topo’ maps until 1939. 

In 1891 Cussen climbed Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu and made the first survey of the peaks. That same year, the Alpine Club was formed with one of its objectives to “acquire orographical and topographical information regarding the New Zealand mountains”. Orography is the study of the formation and relief of mountains whereas topography is the study and description of the surface shape and features of the land.

In those busy years at the end of the 19th century the nucleus of the first National Park, Tongariro, was gifted by Maori to the nation. In subsequent years, 13 more national parks totaling over three million hectares and 19 forest parks were formed. Trampers, climbers, and skiers all wanted maps of those parks so they could safely use them.

A 1925 report noted very little contoured topo mapping had been done. Much of the mapping had been ‘cadastral’, which detailed land ownership rather than the physical information. In 1939, the new NZMS 1 map series commenced publication, reaching completion in 1976. These maps dated quickly, lacking correction where for example a new hut was built, or one was burnt down. 

Soon after that series completion, the new NZMS 260 series followed as a requirement of the change to metrics. The new scale used was one metre to 50,000 metres on the ground (1:50,000). A complete redrawing of the previous series maps, its publication was overseen by various incarnations of government departments, initially Lands and Survey and finally Land Information New Zealand. The first sheet published was T12 Thames in 1977 and the final sheet issued in 1997 covered part of Fiordland. 

But cartographers never sleep. Recently the Topo50 series replaced the 260 series. Using the same scale, the sheets are portrait rather than landscape format, and the grid coordinates changed to suit the use of a different base line system, the geodetic datum, to originate the maps from. The previous 297 sheets were replaced by 451, therefore you may need more sheets to cover a track or route. The good news is that the maps are downloadable ( or the mapping information is available from digital software sellers enabling you to select any particular area at a scale of your choice and even personalise it with notes before printing it out.

DOC also publishes 22 ParkMaps. Scaled at 1:100,000, they cover national parks and other conservation lands. They also have the bonus of a bit of pit-day reading on the back.

Always take one. A paper map doesn’t need batteries!

– Ross Millar