A Captain Cook Guide to Visiting New Zealand: an 18th-Century Itinerary for a Modern-Day Visit

The statue of Cook is situated in Gisborne, where he first landed in New Zealand in 1769
The statue of Cook is situated in Gisborne, where he first landed in New Zealand in 1769 | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Joe Varley

There’s no denying Captain James Cook’s place in history – the adventurer and explorer mapped New Zealand in the mid-18th century. Yet his dealings with the indigenous Māori he ecnountered have made him a controversial figure. Follow in his footsteps on our 21st-century itinerary.

Dubbed ‘Nieuw Zeeland’ in the 1640s, it was more than a century later that a certain Yorkshireman mapped the country and recounted meetings with the native Māori. To this day, we have him to thank for recording its fascinating history, flora, fauna and incredible topography. That man was Captain James Cook.

Born in 1728, Cook was no ordinary explorer. Though he completed his apprenticeship and signed on as a seaman at the age of 22, Cook had a wide range of interests and expertise. In 1755, he volunteered for the Royal Navy and joined the crew of HMS Eagle; one month later, he was promoted to master’s mate.

Stints on other ships followed, and in the late 1750s the more experienced sailor was itching for adventure. Cook achieved his ambitions in 1768 when – as First Lieutenant – he took charge of the Endeavour, which was to kick-start the first of Cook’s famous three voyages. His priority was to head for Tahiti to look for the “great southern continent”. The crew was composed of a mixture of scientists, artists, craftsmen, surgeons, cooks and astronomers (the naturalist Joseph Banks is perhaps the most celebrated).

Aside from being a sea captain, Cook himself was an expert cartographer, astronomer and had knowledge of physiology. (Scurvy was prevalent during his voyages – as it had been since his departure from Plymouth – and Cook’s knowledge was instrumental in combating the disease; he even used sauerkraut to good effect.) It meant he was much more than a sailor; he commanded respect, was highly intelligent and extremely ambitious. By vowing to sail “as far as I think it possible for a man to go”, Cook cemented his place in the history books.

His mapping of New Zealand was legendary; his charts were, in the words of French explorer Julien Crozet, “of an exactitude and of a thoroughness of detail which astonished me beyond all powers of expression, and I doubt much whether the charts of our own French coasts are laid down with greater precision”.

Cook’s main purpose was a scientific one. Initially, his mission was to ascertain whether there was indeed one great southern continent (he later proved there wasn’t), and to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun in Tahiti. It was later, in New Zealand, that he recorded the transit of Mercury.

During his three voyages, Cook and his dedicated crew spent a total of 328 days off the New Zealand coast. His first landing site was in October 1769 at Poverty Bay (modern-day Gisborne) on the east. If Cook was expecting a welcome party, he would be gravely disappointed; the Māori were protective of their land and not accustomed to interactions with foreigners. So, the crew’s first encounter with the Māori was at best controversial.

Indeed, when some of Cook’s crew went ashore along the Turanganui River, there was a scene of ferocious hostility, and the Maori leader Te Maro being shot. Banks observed the Māori and recorded the unfortunate incident. “They brandish their spears, hack the air and shake their darts as if they meant every moment to begin the attack, singing all the time in a wild but not disagreeable manner.” The next day, with a Tahitian priest, Tupaia, as a negotiator in attendance, several more Māori were shot.

Leighton Parsons, head of physical education and health at Ōtorohanga College in North Island’s King Country, is of Māori descent. “Unfortunately, the perception of Cook among the vast majority of Māori people is unfavourable. Our elders told stories of his arrival and shooting the first person he saw, then shooting several more the following day. Though the stories may be mixed depending on the source, what is known is that Cook wanted to get a closer look at a waka [Maori canoe], so he shot everybody in the canoe – who were unarmed fishermen. Cook was undeniably one of the great explorers of the 18th century, but some believe his voyages presaged the destruction of indigenous cultures through colonisation.”

Cook’s exploits are still seen as abhorrent by some Māori, who have labelled him a ”barbarian” and a “mass murderer”. A Cook statue in Gisborne was the victim of vandalism, and in 2019 a boycott of his 250th anniversary commemoration was called, with some Māori saying the date should honour the murdered tūpuna (ancestors) and allow them to tell their story. Cook’s statue has since been moved to the Tairāwhiti Museum in Gisborne. Regarding the defacement, “it was most likely by Māori activists who focused on Cook as a symbol of a shameful colonial past and the omission of Māori voices from the history of New Zealand”, says Parsons.

Today, Cook’s influence can be seen in the nomenclature of New Zealand’s geography, as well as in day-to-day life. Mount Cook/Aoraki (the country’s highest mountain) was named in his honour in the early 1850s. Other landmarks include Cook Strait, Cooks Beach, Cooks Cove, Cooks Creek and the Wellington suburb of Mt Cook. Hotels and schools bear his name to this day, and in the 1940s the second issue of New Zealand’s banknotes portrayed him on all denominations. Whether it’s seen as a celebration, a commemoration or a deplorable act, Cook’s landings and exploration of New Zealand still bear relevance today. Read on for a modern-day itinerary for the intrepid traveller to follow, based on Cook’s first voyage.

Kaiti Beach Road and Poverty Bay, Gisborne

Cook’s first footsteps on New Zealand soil have made this area famous. It was the site of the famous statue of him, now in the museum. Visit between January and April for the best weather. Internal flights from either Auckland or Wellington are the best bet for those not driving.

Cape Turnagain

On North Island’s east coast, Cape Turnagain is between Gisborne and Wellington, about 100km (62mi) south of Hastings. Cook experienced atrocious weather conditions here – and visitors can expect a similar scenario depending on the time of year. Travellers based at Palmerston North or Hastings are a short drive away, or you can hitchhike but do follow the hitcher’s safety code.

Tolaga Bay and Hicks Bay

For a premier Cook destination off the beaten track, head north of Gisborne along Highway 35 towards the Bay of Plenty. Cook anchored at Tolaga Bay in October 1769, then a week later he named Hicks Bay, East Cape and Cape Runaway. Summer is the best time to visit and you can make a day of it by connecting to Highway 2 and staying the night in Tauranga.

Mercury Bay, Coromandel Peninsula

From Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty, head onto Highway 25 to the famous Coromandel. If you’re approaching from the west, driving is also largely stress-free; Aucklanders usually allow three hours for the journey. Ferries from Auckland are also available. Be sure to visit Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove – two famous Coromandel attractions. Mercury Bay and Cooks Beach is a must for anyone following Cook’s itinerary. Head to Cape Colville – the most northern tip of Coromandel and a Cook stop-off.

Hauraki Gulf / Bay of Islands

The Hauraki Gulf (the name derives from the Māori translation of “north winds”) is a 4,000-sqkm (1,544sqmi) coastal feature in the Greater Auckland area. Ferries are numerous, with plenty of islands to discover. Summer and spring times are popular with both locals and tourists. Head up the coast along Highway 1 to another famous paradise – Bay of Islands. Buses from downtown Auckland take about four hours, while a scenic car journey cuts the time by an hour. It was here that Cook crashed on rocks in December 1769, and there are numerous destinations to visit just as Cook did. Visit the town of Russell – the location of the first European settlement. Thankfully, times have changed, as Russell (known previously as Kororāreka) was once described as “the hellhole of the Pacific” due to the unlawful activities by settlers, which were largely whalers and traders. Go for a sail on the 85ft (26m)-long R Tucker Thompson ship to feel like a captain.

Cape Maria van Diemen

Cook reached the Cape on 1 January 1770 and resumed his scientific studies after three weeks of foul weather. The Cape was named by Abel Tasman – the first European to encounter New Zealand, and is the most westerly point in North Island. Due to its remoteness, car is the way to get here. Check weather systems before setting off, as high winds are prevalent.

Across the Cook Strait to Queen Charlotte Sound

Cook’s journey took him along the North Island west coast. Take Highway 3 to New Plymouth and on to Wanganui, before settling in Wellington. The notoriously choppy waters of the Cook Strait can be navigated by Interislander Ferries, which operate daily. Fares are approximately $70NZD (£36) from Wellington (North Island) to Picton (South Island), and the journey takes 3-3.5 hours – if you’re prone to seasickness, try to sail on a calm day. Once in South Island, explore Picton and surrounding Queen Charlotte Sound, named by Cook after King George III’s wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg. Cook favoured Queen Charlotte Sound as an anchorage site, being sheltered and having plenty of food and timber. Around Queen Charlotte Sound, go island-hopping courtesy of E-Ko Tours on Picton’s Wellington Street – departures are 8am and 1.30pm.

East coast of the South Island (Kaikoura – Banks Peninsula)

Either drive along the east coast of South Island, or hop on an InterCity bus from Picton to Christchurch – it takes just over six hours and fares start at around $40NZD (£20.50)). Cook passed Kaikoura Peninsula on 14 February 1770, and it is a famous whale-watching spot. From here, travel on to Banks Peninsula, just to the south of Christchurch, which Cook named after the aforementioned naturalist Joseph Banks. Years later, it was confirmed it was, in fact, not an island.

Stewart Island/Rakiura

On 11 March 1770, Cook sighted Stewart Island, rounding the southern tip of what the Māoris called Rakiura, meaning “glowing skies”. Take a flight from Invercargill Airport, or catch a ferry from Bluff. If time permits, this is a must for birdwatchers, with penguins, albatross and kiwis among the birds to see.

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