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The New Zealand bush

by  Jock Phillips

What is 'the bush'? In New Zealand, it is the native forest, which once covered most of the land. Dense and dark, it was alive with birds, insects and lizards, but sometimes impenetrable to humans. Much was burnt and cleared. Today, we value the surviving stands for their beauty, and as a habitat for unique species. Read about the adventures and encounters of some who have spent time in the bush.

What is the bush?

The bush: dense native forest

In New Zealand the primary meaning of ‘bush’, or ‘native bush’ is the indigenous forest.

Before humans arrived around 1250–1300 AD, 80% of the land was covered with trees. Early Māori cleared the forest in some areas, but when Pākehā arrived in the 19th century, some 50% of the country was still native forest.

The forest was evergreen and lush, and consisted of two main types: conifer–broadleaf dominating the North Island, and beech in much of the South Island. Under the tallest trees were layers of young trees, tree ferns and shrubs, and lower still were ferns and sedges. Vines and epiphytes thrived, and mosses and liverworts carpeted the ground. The result was a dense tangle – particularly before the introduction of browsing animals such as deer and possums in the 19th century.

The bush was very hard to travel through, and Europeans compared it to tropical vegetation. As early as 1841 people were using the term ‘bush’ as a synonym for jungle. This became the dominant meaning of the word in New Zealand. In 1896 the mountaineer A. P. Harper noted: ‘In New Zealand the forest is always spoken of as “bush” as opposed to lower growth of vegetation, which is called “scrub”.’ 1

Other meanings

The New Zealand usage of ‘bush’ probably comes from the word ‘bosch’, used by Dutch settlers in South Africa, where it meant uncultivated country. The word was then taken to Australia, where such areas were often parklike, with scattered eucalyptus and scrub (low-growing or stunted vegetation). So in Australia, ‘the bush’ is the outback, rather than dense forest.

Don’t blame the bush

‘Bush sickness’ is a Kiwi term for a wasting disease that affected grazing stock on the open pumice lands of the North Island – not in the dense bush. It is thought to be caused by cobalt deficiency in the soil there. The original meaning may derive from the fact that the sickness first appeared in clearings in the bush.

On occasion the word was used in this sense in New Zealand too, meaning any area awaiting European settlement. The dictionary of New Zealand English records a quotation from 1875: ‘The Bush in colonial parlance means everywhere out of the towns, the bleak plains of Canterbury and the dreary uplands of Otago destitute of all vegetation save coarse tussock grass … are called the bush, as well as the impenetrable forests of lofty trees’. 2

Bush words

The dictionary of New Zealand English (1999) has no less than 15 pages of information about the word ‘bush’.

Many related words were soon coined, such as:

  • bush-bash – to make one’s way through the forest, rather than on a track
  • bush shirt – a woollen shirt or Swanndri, often worn by forest workers.
  • bush cane – the native vine also known as supplejack.

Other words carry the secondary meaning of bush as anywhere ‘uncivilised’ or beyond the towns:

  • bush carpenter – a rough-and-ready builder
  • bush philosopher – a backblocks person who is free with opinions
  • bush telegraph – informal network by which news is passed on
  • to go bush – escape from usual haunts.
  1. Arthur P. Harper, Pioneer work in the Alps of New Zealand. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1896, p. 32. › Back
  2. Quoted in H. W. Orsman, The dictionary of New Zealand English. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 108. › Back

Attitudes to the bush

Māori and the bush

Māori had an equivalent word for the bush or forest: ‘te ngahere’. As migrants from Pacific Islands, they were initially a coastal people. In time they developed a detailed knowledge of the foods, medicines and other resources to be found in the bush.

While they never lived within the forest, they learnt to travel through it and they evolved a rich mythology about the trees. The bush was the home of Māori gods and spirits such as patupaiarehe, who were fairy-like creatures.

A bushman's trick

As a young geologist in the 1930s, Harold Wellman found it impossible to make a fire in the rain. An experienced bushman showed him how to prune strips off the nearest telegraph pole (made of white pine), and he soon had the billy boiling.

European perceptions

When Europeans first arrived in New Zealand, they found the sunless and impenetrable character of the bush rather frightening. Because it was evergreen, they often described it as dark, monotonous and lacking the seasonal variety of European trees. They found it silent and damp, with few obvious sources of food. There was a constant fear of getting lost.

Europeans also regarded the bush as a haunt of Māori. In the early 19th-century, explorers looking for Māori often noted that they ‘took to the bush’. During the New Zealand wars with Māori, the bush was seen as the preserve of Māori guerrilla fighters. Wiping out the bush and converting it to farmland was part of the process of eradicating Māori opposition. Only the occasional farmer fenced in a small symbolic piece of forest, to show what the land was originally like.

Like settlers in other societies, colonial New Zealanders saw their role as bringing civilisation to a wilderness, and associated the bush with rough behaviour. In his 1886 handbook for emigrants, Arthur Clayden warned: ‘If you do “go into the bush”, meaning really going in for country life, be on your guard against the common danger of relapsing into barbarism’. 1

A new respect

The later 19th century saw the rise of a romantic view of nature, and of wild, untamed environments. In New Zealand this led to a new respect for the bush. Recreational walks such as the Milford Track and international tourism encouraged a more positive view of the forests as unique and beautiful.

During the first half of the 20th century, tramping (hiking) became a leisure activity, and a network of tracks and huts was built through forested areas. From the 1950s, gardeners began to appreciate the native plants. The ‘bush walk’ became a common recreation, and images of lush vegetation near lakes or on hillsides were promoted to tourists as ‘beautiful New Zealand’.

Because it was wild and ‘uncivilised’, the bush was now seen as a welcome escape from urbanised routines and polite conventions. Some people began to value the crude language, rough humour and mateship of the bush as distinctively New Zealand qualities. In 1960 Barry Crump’s story of the male world of deer cullers, A good keen man, became a best-seller.

People still feared the forest as a dark place where it was easy to get lost. But for Pākehā, as for Māori, it had gained a place of importance in New Zealand identity.

  1. Arthur Clayden, Popular handbook to New Zealand, its resources and industries. London: Wyman and Sons, 1886, p. 225. › Back

Lost and found

The New Zealand bush is often dense and difficult to travel through. So when we asked people around the country to send us bush yarns, several wrote about finding a way through the forest. Here is a selection.

Interesting encounters

When we asked people around the country to send us in bush yarns, several wrote about strange meetings in the bush. Here is a selection.

Beautiful views

When we invited people around New Zealand to send in their bush yarns, a number described the wonderful vistas they saw – once they’d done the hard work of climbing up through the bush. Here are a couple.

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'The New Zealand bush', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 September 2021)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007