Impact of car ownership
New Zealand car ownership grew in the 1920s, and roads were extended and improved. Families now had a wider choice of picnic times and venues, easily transporting food and gear. Religious disapproval of Sunday picnics had largely vanished, so the Sunday drive flourished.
Petrol rationing and shortages during the Second World War meant less private motoring for leisure. Train and ferry excursion trips continued in the early war years, but from May 1942 Sunday train excursions were curtailed for the duration of the war. Despite the transport difficulties, picnics remained popular as an inexpensive leisure activity.
The abolition of Saturday shopping in 1945 made the two-day weekend a reality for most New Zealanders, while car ownership expanded. The limited availability of weekend entertainment led to the heyday of the family drive and picnic. Perhaps as a result, large-scale community picnics became less common.
Coe’s Ford, Selwyn River, was described in a 1927 newspaper: ‘Scores of cars are parked every Sunday on the shingle of the riverbed, or along the roadside leading to the ford on either side of the river …There is no traffic bridge over the stream and when the water is at normal height motor cars … plough through a mountain of spray which splashes windscreen, body and hood.’1
In the 1960s entertainment options proliferated, while in the 1970s, petrol prices increased, discouraging the weekend drive. In the 2000s picnics no longer had the central role in New Zealand recreational culture they once held, but they remained a widespread summer leisure activity. The community picnic has also survived in a number of forms, including ‘teddy bears’ picnics’ (children’s events that are held around the country) and picnic baskets at outdoor summer music events.
The picnic spot
In colonial times, a community picnic might simply be held in a farmer’s paddock, with enough room for sports and children’s games. In towns a local park served the same purpose. The banks of rivers, lakesides, bush clearings and the more accessible foothills of mountain ranges were ideal for those wishing to enjoy natural beauty. Some areas were purchased by local councils and set aside as picnic reserves.
From at least the 1860s, the beach was a favourite place for picnicking, walking and beachcombing. However, ocean swimming was not generally regarded as a respectable pastime until about the 1890s.
Popular picnic areas felt the impact of the motorised picnic-goer. In 1929 the Auckland Star reported on the damaging results to beauty spots. ‘Here, as in England, tins, bottles, paper and waste food are permitted to be thrown recklessly about the sands, shores and woodlands of the countryside.’2
City dwellers had popular coastal and rural getaway spots. Wellingtonians, for example, made for beaches such as Days Bay or the rural lands of the Hutt Valley.
Cars allowed access to lakes, rivers and beaches near to roads. From the mid-1920s councils and the Automobile Association began creating highway picnic sites. The ideal roadside picnic site was one that combined ‘grass, shade, water, privacy and a safe spot for a fire’.3 Some picnic sites were set up with tables, seating, fireplaces and toilets. In the later 20th century some of the more popular sites were equipped with gas cooking facilities.