The volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera in New Zealand on June 10,1886 was one of New Zealand’s greatest natural disasters. The eruption lasted for six hours and caused unparalleled destruction. Located 24 kilometers southeast of Rotorua in the North Island, many Maori villages were located near by. It was also near a natural wonder called the Pink and White Terraces. These were on the shores of Lake Rotomahana and were considered to be the eighth wonder of the world. The Maori name for this natural formation was Otukapuarangi, fountain of the clouded sky, and Te Tarata, the tattooed rock. The terraces were formed as water containing silica flowed down from the geysers at the top of the hillside. The silica solidified into terraces and the water cooled and flowed into waterfalls and gathered in pools below. The White Terrace was the larger formation covering 3 hectares and descending 30 meters. The Pink Terrace below was the larger tourist attraction. The water there was lukewarm and attracted many bathers.
Eleven days before the eruption in 1886, a boat of tourists returning from the Pink and White Terraces saw what appeared to be a war canoe approach. The mysterious boat disappeared into the mists about a half mile from the boat. The witnesses of this phenomenon included a clergyman, who was a local Maori man from the Te Arawa iwi, and renown guide Sophia Hinerangi. The clergyman recognized the canoe as a burial waka. When the chief died, he was tied in an upright position on a canoe and launched into the water. This was considered an omen of doom by the Maori elders. Other signs pointed to an upcoming disaster as there was increase in hot spring activity and surges in the lake level.
Even with this omen, many people stayed in the village at the foot of the mountain. In the early hours of June 10, 1886, people in Te Wairoa were awakened to earthquakes and lightning. There was a large earthquake followed by massive explosions. A fountain of molten rock spewed into the air and there were columns of smoke and ash up to 10 kilometers high. The sound of the explosions were heard as far away as Blenheim, who thought it was an attack by a Russian warship visiting Wellington. For more than four hours, rocks, ash and mud poured over the village and much like the eruption of Pompeii in an earlier century it buried Te Wairoa and several other villages in hot ash and mud.
The Pink and White Terraces sank into Lake Rotomahana. The surrounding lakes and mountains had their shapes changed. Most dramatic of all was the creation of the Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley. A geyser developed, which was active from 1900 to 1904, and spewed water black with mud and rocks. Waimangu is the Maori word for “black water”. Also formed was Frying Pan Lake, which is the largest hot spring in the world. The human toll was no less dramatic as it is estimated 150 people lost their lives in the eruption. The exact number of casualties has never been determined.
Scientists announced in February 2011 that they believe they found part of the lost Pink Terraces, 60 meters underwater in Lake Rotomahana. However, the loss of life can never be replaced. They should have heeded the spiritual waka.
Sources available on request