The Incredible History of Mt Tarawera, Rotorua

Part of New Zealand’s volcanic line of fire, Mount Tarawera is well known in New Zealand because of the fateful events of June 1886.

Part of New Zealand’s volcanic line of fire, Mount Tarawera is well known in New Zealand because of the fateful events of 1886 and the mystery that has surrounded the area ever since.

Mount Tarawera and its surrounds were home to many Maori villages and the home of New Zealand's most famous tourist attraction the ‘Pink and White Terraces’. The Terraces were formed by geothermally heated water running downhill depositing silica as it cooled.

The White Terraces were made of pure white silica with pools of pure blue opaque water. The Pink Terrace was a 15 minute canoe journey from the White Terrace. Here you could bathe in pools of geothermally heated clear water. The extraordinary beauty of the Terraces was found nowhere else on earth, and the Pink and White Terraces were referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The first sign that something was amiss in the area was the alarming number of deaths of Maori in a short period of time. A mysterious illness had overcome the Te Wairoa tribe, resulting in 20 of the 120 population passing away from a spreading contagion. Europeans said it was typhoid or a respiratory illness but Maori saw it as a sign that something was not right. Their belief was affirmed when a local chief fell ill and died.

On the morning of May 31st 1886 tourists to the area went with their guide to board their canoe. Here they were greeted by an unusual site – the water had disappeared, the creek was dry and the boats were stuck in mud. As they stood on the shore line they heard the water returning with a ‘crying and moaning’ sound.

On the same day a boat full of tourists returning from the Terraces heard a peculiar cry from an old Maori woman aboard the canoe. The tourists turned to the direction the woman was staring and saw what appeared to be a war canoe approaching their boat, only to disappear in the mist half a mile from them. Nobody around the lake owned such a war canoe, and nothing like it had been seen on the lake for many years. Tribal elders at Te Wairoa claimed that the phantom canoe was a waka wairua (spirit canoe) and was a portent of doom.

Eleven days later on a cold starlit night the earth began to shake. A series of more than 30 increasingly strong earthquakes were felt in the Rotorua area and an unusual sheet lightning display was observed from the direction of Tarawera. At around 2:00 am a larger earthquake was felt and followed by the sound of an explosion. By 2:30 am Mount Tarawera's three peaks had erupted. People in Rotorua said they saw an immense column of fire miles in height and they heard a deafening roar. The sound of the eruption was heard all over the North Island. At around 3.30 am, the largest phase of the eruption commenced, sending rocks and lava far into the air.

The next morning search parties set out to find survivors. Here they discovered many villages had been completely buried with few or no survivors. In all it is estimated that 120 people died that fateful day. Sadly the magnificent Terraces were also gone, only to be discovered 125 years later under Lake Rotomahana.

Today you can visit the buried village of Te Wairoa and hear more about the stories of the people who lived in the area at the time. Check out Rotorua Superpasses Tarawera Legacy Package that includes a visit to the Rotorua Museum and Whakarewarewa, where the survivors of the eruption went to and where many of their descendants live today.

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