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Rocks of Ages

Hochstetter’s first Nelson diary, 27 July to 5 September 1859 by Mike Johnston & Sascha Nolden
Hochstetter’s Nelson diary, 6 September to 2 October 1859 by Mike Johnston, Sascha Nolden & Leonore Hoke
Published by the Geoscience Society of New Zealand (www.gsnz.org.nz), $35 for two volumes
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

HochDiaries cover-001Since it was first settled by Europeans in 1841 the Nelson region has been known for the presence of minerals and coal. In early years development of the mineral resources was handicapped by the small population and lack of expertise. When the Austrian geologist, Ferdinand Hochstetter was visiting New Zealand in 1859, the Nelson Provincial Government invited him to visit Nelson and prepare a scientific report on how the minerals might be developed. Hochstetter and his compatriot Julius Haast spent just over two months in the Nelson region between late July and early October 1859, and provided the first account of the geology and minerals made by a professional scientist.

Hochstetter is fondly remembered by geologists as the father of New Zealand geology. His perceptive observations during exploring trips in 1859, in both in the North and South Islands, laid the foundation for our knowledge the distinctive geology of this county. In recent years researchers Mike Johnston and Sascha Nolden have added considerably to our knowledge of Hochstetter’s work in New Zealand, especially using German sources which had not previously been translated. These two volumes provide an annotated and illustrated translation of the part of Hochstetter’s diaries that cover his exploration of the Nelson region.


Unfortunately Hochstetter’s papers were dispersed after his death, and the diaries have only recently been located by Sascha Nolden. The notebook covering the later part of Hochstetter’s visit to Nelson was found in Vienna in 2008, and the earlier notebook was identified in Basle after the first volume had been published – hence the reason why two separate volumes have been published.

Hochstetter’s diaries give a fascinating insight into the way he worked in the field. He was a painstaking observer, and recorded not only the geology but the people he met as well as the weather and the vegetation. The local settlers were keen to ensure that he visited all the known mineral and coal occurrences, so the diaries give a valuable record of what could be seen in 1859.

One of the main objects of Hochstetter’s work was to examine the copper mineralisation on Dun Mountain because there was controversy about whether there was enough ore to be worked economically. Hochstetter and Haast set off up the recently constructed Dun Mountain railway accompanied by several leading citizens of Nelson. The unusual geology in this area has been much debated over the years, but discussions always comes back to the observations that Hochstetter made on this trip. Having climbed to the summit of Dun Mountain, he recognised that it was made of a unique olivine-rich rock to which he gave the name Dunite, and the name has persisted in the international geological literature to the present day. He was unimpressed with the copper deposits, and blunt in his evaluation. “I consider the Dun Mountain Company to be a failure. … The circumstances are not what they are made out to be in the Dun Mountain mining prospectus”.

In the short time available Hochstetter covered much of the northern part of Nelson province, and many of the gaps were later filled in by Haast. We now know that this is an area of considerable geological complexity. It is amazing that Hochstetter managed to recognise many of the main rock units, collect fossils to determine their age, and produce a geological sketch map. He was already familiar with the geology of the Auckland region, and was able to recognise the similarity between rocks and fossils he had seen in both places.

Production of these two volumes is a work of considerable scholarship, involving the translation of the diaries from German into English as well as annotating the text with explanatory footnotes about what is now known of the geology, people and scientific background. Mike Johnston and Sascha Nolden have previously worked together on projects involving Hochstetter and Haast, most notably their 2012 book, “Hochstetter  and Haast in New Zealand 1858-1860”, and these two volumes are further fruit of this very productive collaboration. New Zealand historians will hope that this will be followed up by similar transcriptions of the diaries covering the entire eight months that Hochstetter was in New Zealand.