The night Tarawera awoke
When Mt Tarawera and the surrounding area erupted in the early hours of June 10, 1886, the explosion annihilated the world-famous Pink and White Terraces, smothered a vast swathe of countryside with ash and killed more than 100 people. It remains the largest volcanic eruption since European settlement, an outburst of subterranean fury that continues to fascinate and terrify more than a century later.
Secluded in a remote corner of colonial New Zealand lay what some 19th-century travellers called the Eighth Wonder of the World: two terraced stairways of silica that cascaded down fern-covered slopes to the waters of a small naturally heated lake.
These delicate constructions of nature, which sparkled under the massive buttresses of a sombre mountain, were known by Maori as Otukapuarangi (Fountain of the Clouded Sky) and Te Tarata (the Tattooed Rock). Pakeha labelled them, less poetically, the Pink and White Terraces.
They were the star attraction in a geothermal wonderland the like of which was unknown elsewhere in the world. The hot springs of Iceland—which gave the world the word geysa, to gush—paled in comparison, and North America’s Yellowstone was yet to make its mark.
To gaze on the terraces, tourists had to get themselves first to Ohinemutu, on the shore of Lake Rotorua—generally by a combination of coastal steamer and coach. Once at the small resort town, where they were immediately enveloped by the distinctive odour of sulphuretted hydrogen, new arrivals plugged into a well-rehearsed tourist programme. Having recovered from their journey, and perhaps having sampled the waters of the Rachel or Priest Bath, they clambered aboard a coach for the 16 km ride through hill country and the beautiful Tikitapu bush to the village of Te Wairoa, Gateway to the Terraces.
At Te Wairoa visitors were ministered to at several Pakeharun hotels and stores, before being treated to a haka and Maori singing in the impressive wharepuni, or meeting house, named Hinemihi.
Early the following morning the party, with hotel luncheon, towels, bathing costumes and old footwear for walking around the terraces, made their way to the boathouse on Lake Tarawera. In canoes or whaleboats they were conveyed to the small kainga of Te Ariki, stopping en route to purchase baskets of cherries, potatoes and koura (freshwater crayfish) at another village, Moura, on the headland. A short walk through manuka and fern then brought them to the northern tip of sedge-fringed Lake Rotomahana.
The effort was soon rewarded by the sight of Te Tarata, the White Terrace, which appeared a foaming cascade of water turned to stone. “No wit could possibly conceive or execute anything half as beautiful,” wrote Lieutenant T. M. Jones, of the survey ship HMS Pandora. “The constant pouring of the water over [the basins’] edges has rounded them off in the most graceful curves: the incrustations resembling in many places plumes of ostrich feathers in high relief or the beautiful arabesques to be seen on a frosted window pane.”
The broad sinter terrace rose in irregular steps 30 m from the lake to its summit, where a two-metre-thick rim enclosed a steam-wreathed cauldron of boiling water. The overflow from this pool, cascading down the alabaster staircase, filled each basin in turn, creating an array of baths of decreasing temperature. As the water cooled, deposits of silica built up on the scalloped walls, forming intricate patterns and forcing visitors to wear protective moccasins against the sharp new surfaces.
The narrower Pink Terrace consisted for the most part of solid shelves of silica. Cupped pools near the top fringed with stalactites and filled with blue water formed delightful bathing chambers.
The artist Charles Blomfield, whose majestic oil paintings have done much to preserve the memory of the terraces, left an evocative account of a working holiday at Lake Rotomahana with his daughter, Mary, at the height of the tourist boom. Every weekday at about 11 o’clock in the morning, he witnessed groups of “moneyed people” from all parts of the world arrive at the White Terrace and scramble about the glistening silica formations, admiring the tiers of basins, while potatoes and koura were cooked for them in a boiling spring. After lunch the tourists would be conveyed across the lake to the Pink Terrace, where they bathed in its silky waters before heading back to Te Wairoa and a good night’s sleep.
With the afternoon departure of the visitors, calm descended on the Blomfields beside the lake. Charles often made use of the boiling water for cooking, lowering plum puddings by string into the seething cauldron atop Te Tarata, while Mary hunted for petrified ferns and bird feathers in the mineral pools round about.
Often, at night, Charles would leave Mary asleep in the tent and row gently around the moonlit lake in his boat. “It was a most uncanny experience,” he wrote. “The mysterious shroud of vapour, the absolute solitude, the strange weird sounds on every hand, hissing, gurgling, muttering, moaning, sighing, seemed like some unknown world, while every few yards a wild duck would rise from the water with a startled cry, and vanish in the gloom . . .”
For many newcomers, it was the palette of Otukapuarangi, the Pink Terrace, which left the most indelible impression. From a marble whiteness at its base it graded into delicate ice pinks and then stronger roseate hues higher up, the topmost basins becoming tinged with primrose.
At the summit, it was the central cauldron with its cerulean and cobalt tints that captivated the eye. The well-travelled writer James Froude was not short of a word or two to convey what he beheld when he gazed as through a portal in the earth into an “azure infinity.”
“Down and down, and fainter and softer as they receded, the white crystals projected from the rocky walls over the abyss, till they seemed to dissolve not into darkness but into light. The hue of the waters was something which I had never seen, and shall never see again this side of eternity. Not the violet, nor the hare-bell . . . not turquoise, not sapphire, not the unfathomable aether itself could convey to one who had not looked on it a sense of that supernatural loveliness.”
Other illustrious guests recorded their impressions of the thermal wonders. Novelist Anthony Trollope, who greatly enjoyed bathing in the crystal basins, emulated Blomfield, sleeping in a whare at the foot of the White Terrace—and later complaining of hard ground and insects.
The Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter went one better, camping on Lake Rotomahana’s diminutive Puai Island, but getting as little rest as Trollope. He likened the experience to living in an active crater. “The whole ground is . . . so warm from below that I started from my couch unable to bear it any longer.” Hochstetter plunged a thermometer into the soft clay, watching it rise at once to boiling point. When he removed the instrument, hot steam hissed alarmingly from the hole it left in the ground.
It did not surprise Hochstetter that the Maori of late seemed increasingly to shun what he called this “dismal laboratory of subterranean forces.”
“In reality the island Puai is nothing but a torn and fissured rock which, boiled entirely soft in the warm lake, threatens at any moment to fall to pieces,” wrote the geologist.
As it happened, a far more spectacular end awaited Puai. And that end had everything to do with the blunt, weather-beaten mountain that counterpointed the fragile, evolving beauty of the terraces—austere Tarawera—and its surrounding volcanic basin.
Mt Tarawera was actually a series of three distinct domes separated by ravines: Wahanga, the most northerly, then Ruawahia, whose 1080 m summit was the highest point in the hot lakes district, and, finally, overlooking the terraces, the slighter form of Tarawera itself. Collectively, the three formed an imposing massif of bare volcanic rock, streaked with red oxide and with glassy obsidian that caught the evening light. An age-old burial site for Maori, who placed their chiefly dead in caves and clefts high on Wahanga’s flanks, the mountain was declared tapu.
“There is a strange fascination about this curiously truncated mountain,” wrote Alex Wilson in his book Maoriland. “It looks bare and scarred, its steep walls rising up black and terrible as if blasted with lightning—the very sublimity of desolation. No wonder that the Maori imagination invests this spot with a sacred horror. It is to them a city of the dead, and may not lightly be approached; and when clouds gather round its summits, and roll in heavy masses along its sides, driven by the fierce winds that play about the crest, it requires no active imagination to people it with weird and spiritual terrors.”
Into this realm of terror and beauty, on Sunday, June 6, 1886, came the figure of 20-year-old Edwin Bainbridge, an Englishman midway through an excursion to the United States and the South Pacific. Having spent some time in Auckland, Bainbridge caught the train to Oxford and then the coach to Ohinemutu. The next day—Monday—he soaked in the town’s Pavilion Baths before boarding another coach and, in the company of five fellow travellers, making his way over the pumice hills to Te Wairoa.
Early Tuesday morning the party made the customary trip by canoe across the placid waters of Lake Tarawera, escorted by the seasoned guide Sophia Hinerangi. They ate, explored and bathed in the limpid pools of Otukapuarangi before being shepherded back to Te Wairoa and the comfort of Joseph McRae’s Rotomahana Hotel.
As they retired for the evening, none could have suspected that they were to be the last Pakeha ever to set foot on the famed terraces, or that within days all that they had beheld would be blown to oblivion.
The following morning the entire group, with the exception of Bainbridge, who lingered for a chance of some shooting, retraced their path to Rotorua. It was raining, but in the afternoon the weather cleared and the young Englishman went out with McRae and the hotelier’s young grandson and was delighted to bag his first New Zealand pheasant.
Around them, life at Te Wairoa went on as usual. Charles Humphreys, lessee of the Terrace Hotel, stayed indoors writing up a stock list in order to renew his expired insurance policy. McRae’s brother-in-law, John Bird, arrived with a wagonload of supplies, which he offloaded, leaving the empty wagon and five-horse team near the Rotomahana Hotel, ready for the return trip the next day. The hotels and a nearby store were well stocked in anticipation of an upcoming Maori Land Court hearing over the legal status of land at the site of the terraces, on which Humphreys proposed building a hotel.
It being the off season, Bainbridge was now the only tourist in Te Wairoa. He and McRae spent the evening cleaning their guns and swapping yarns of home. Talk may also have touched on certain omens that had in recent weeks been concentrating the attention of locals.
Guide Sophia herself had alluded to several of these as she had accompanied Bainbridge over Lake Tarawera. Just the previous week she had been on the lake with a party of sightseers when they had seen a canoe in the distance. As it drew closer it seemed to grow to the dimensions of a war canoe. The paddlers increased in number and, to Sophia’s horror, they appeared—in at least one version of her story—to possess the heads of dogs. As she watched, the deathly waka shrank before disappearing into the waters of the lake.
The appearance of what came to be called the “phantom canoe” was not an isolated event. Before setting out that day, Sophia and her group had been surprised to find Wairoa Creek dry at the landing, with the boats beached on the mud. As they watched, the water twice surged up the channel “with a crying, moaning sound” and refloated the craft, before draining away again, dropping the hulls back onto the creekbed.
The incident had rattled some in the party, but the Maori boatmen, keen to get their fee for conveying the passengers to Te Ariki, had persuaded the group to go on. It was midway through the journey, and under a clear sky, that the spectral canoe had been sighted not half a kilometre distant and being paddled hard.
At the terraces an old chief, Rangiheuea, interpreted the omens as indicating that a big war was brewing. At Te Wairoa the ageing tohunga Tuhoto Ariki, when asked for his opinion, declared that the apparition on the water foretold that the entire region would be overwhelmed.
Tuhoto’s prophecy of doom was attributed to his anger at the effects of tourism on the local Tuhourangi people. No visitor to Te Wairoa could deny the changes it had brought. Froude wrote scathingly: “The influx of foreign gold had here, as often elsewhere, proved more of a curse than a blessing. The drunkenness and vice . . . was nowhere so rampant as at Wairoa. The usual restraints of religion went for little here.”
Froude certainly took exception to the facility with which the local Maori relieved Pakeha of their money. The customary placing of a token—peaches, maybe, or a fern branch—on a rock near Moura in the hope of fine weather, for example, had been gradually transformed into an obligatory tourist donation. “The gentleman to whom the money is entrusted jumps up the rock with it and disappears for a second, then strikes the rock, utters some gibberish, and comes down again with the coin in his pocket or boot, to be converted into rum on the first opportunity,” he wrote.
Other travellers, less blinded by class divisions and perhaps more admiring of commercial enterprise, thought the Maori splendid both as guides and companions. There could be no doubt of the result, though, either way. The terraces had brought a great deal of wealth to Te Wairoa, a former centre of missionary activity. Charges for boat journeys, for photography and sketching and for entertainments brought in an estimated £1800 a year, at a time when an Auckland–hot lakes round trip cost £5.
Despite the wealth—even the shells in the carvings of Hinemihi were replaced by gold coins—the 120 or so Maori of Te Wairoa were far from sanguine, even before the appearance of the ghostly canoe. The community had suffered a seemingly unending succession of deaths over recent months, some from typhoid, and tangi had become an almost daily occurrence. Just days before Bainbridge’s arrival in Rotorua, the editor of the Waikato Times had appealed to the government to investigate the causes of the disturbing mortality rate.
Given this climate of misfortune, Tuhoto’s damning prediction carried an awful ring of truth. Furthermore, in the summer just gone the flax had failed to flower, which was interpreted as portending a big earthquake. Some locals may also have recalled the words of Te Kooti, who, earlier that year, had been the guest of Rangiheuea. As he was leaving, the warrior prophet reportedly turned to his host and said: “Take my advice and clear out of this place. Something is going to happen, I cannot tell you when it will happen—it may be soon, or it may be late—but come it will.”
In the dark, early hours of June 10 several people in faraway Kaikoura were startled from their sleep by what sounded like the boom from a gun. A few rose, thinking a ship might be in distress near the peninsula, but seeing nothing in the darkness returned to bed. Some wakeful souls in Christchurch also thought they heard distant explosions, and one or two felt slight earth tremors. And was that a flash of light in the northern sky?
Up the coast, in Blenheim, windows rattled and regular detonations were heard. Distant noises were also detected in Wellington and yet more clearly through the Wairarapa, where they reverberated in the hills.
Hearing martial clamour, Maori at Atene prepared for what they suspected was a war party making its way down the Whanganui River—it being only some 20 years since followers of the Pai Marire religion had descended on the river from the west, carrying before them the head of a murdered European soldier on a stake.
In Auckland, duty police, nightwatchmen and crews in the harbour heard what they took to be signals from a ship in trouble off Takapuna or even aground at the Manukau Heads. The Pukekohe stationmaster saw what he took to be rockets to the south.
Concussions, the noise of distant artillery, quakes, electrical activity in the heavens . . . reports up and down the country testified to some catastrophic event.
One of the clearest views of proceedings was had by Henry Roche, leader of a team surveying a new railway route. Roche and his men were camped beside a stream at Te Puna-a-Tuhoe, four kilometres or so north of Ohinemutu.
The night was clear and cold with the promise of a hard frost. Shortly after 2 A.M., Roche felt a series of ground tremors and then heard a thunderous roar that sounded like an approaching tornado. Fearing his tent would be blown flat, he sprang outside to find stars shining and no sign of a storm. Over the eastern side of Ruawahia he noticed a high, thin column of smoke forming a mushroom cloud.
“All this smoke cloud was blazing with lightning, which scintillated through every part of it and, shooting out from its dark edges, fringed them with vivid light,” Roche later wrote.
The rapidly growing cloud then drifted westward, leaving the mountain clearly visible. “Continuous showers of red-hot scoria and great masses of rock, at white heat, were thrown up to a height of about 1,500 ft,” noted Roche. “The larger pieces were as big as houses, and at a distance of 16 miles were clearly visible from the time they left the crater until they reached their greatest height, turned and, having fallen, went bounding and thundering down the steep sides of the mountain . . .
“The light in the sky resembled the glow from a great fire, and the eruption, which had hitherto been confined to the point where it first broke out, began to spread . . . The whole mountain appeared to crack open . . . We then beheld the striking spectacle of a dark, flat-topped mountain more than a mile long, red hot along its crest, and surmounted by a wall of fire 1,500 ft high.”
By 3.30 A.M. the entire landscape had become enveloped in a dense, grey cloud, which at about six o’clock announced its arrival at the survey camp with a light shower of black volcanic dust. In the pale dawn twilight the dramatic electrical activity over the mountain could be seen to continue unabated.
“The whole face of the cloud was flashing and flaming with lightning in stars a mile across and curves and balls and fantastic shapes without number darting across the sky and down upon the highest points of the hills,” Roche continued. “Meanwhile the incessant roar of the thunder close overhead almost put to silence the sound of the volcano.”
The blanket of sulphurous dust that engulfed the surveyors at Te Puna-a-Tuhoe reached the coast by early morning, plunging Tauranga into darkness. The fine particles blinded those who tried to force a way through and obliged shopkeepers who had ventured to open for business to close again. The town was brought to a standstill, with people unable at times to see their hands before their faces without the aid of lamps and candles.
The mayor contemplated an evacuation of the borough, contacting Auckland by telegram to see whether a steamer were available for that eventuality.
At nearby Te Puke, where some 72 earthquake shocks had been felt through the night, the ground lay covered in slate-grey ash to a depth of 8–10 cm, and ash had to be scraped off windows with a hoe.
Off the coast, the SS Southern Cross was caught by what the purser called a “downpour of sand,” accompanied by balls of lightning in the rigging, the ash shower continuing through the morning. Reports later came in that, almost 1000 km out at sea, the London-bound SS Waimea had also been struck by falls of blinding dust.
One question must have been on many lips that morning: If the fallout from this cataclysmic event could be so spectacular and far-reaching, what fate had befallen those who were living under the shadow of the mountain itself?
For those at Te Wairoa who braved the cold evening of June 9 to watch it, the conjunction of Mars by the moon at 10.20 P.M. was clearly visible in the starry sky. Storekeeper John Falloona spent the evening playing cards. Surveyor John Blythe read aloud from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Others wound wool or played chess. One by one they retired to their beds, Blythe, pausing on a creeper-entwined verandah, remarking on the beautiful night and predicting a fine day on the morrow.
Just after midnight came the first ground shudders. One quick-witted observer judged from the swinging of a ham that the shocks originated from the direction of Tarawera.
Family and guests at the schoolhouse of Charles Haszard, built on a hillside facing east, gazed across what carrier John Bird, on a nearby cliff, called the “copper mirror” of Lake Tarawera toward the mountain. There, above the triple summit, a great cloud-curtain was rising, tinged saffron and orange on its underside. From time to time the spctators saw flaming rocks issue from the cloud and plunge with a splash into the water below.
Higher up the hillside, McRae, Bainbridge and others, who had made their way to the old mission station, were suddenly thrown to the ground by a sharp jolt. They picked themselves up and, as rolling cloud began to extinguish the stars, retraced their steps to the hotel, gathering stragglers on the way.
It had grown bitterly cold, and, thinking to make cocoa, McRae found that water on the blazing stove could not be coaxed to boil. Instead, he offered a stiff tot of whisky or port to each of the dozen or more shaken refugees about him. Then a din erupted as hot stones began smashing windows and striking the kitchen roof overhead. Outside, the wind was blowing hard and swirling in all directions, though it could hardly be heard for the crash of plummeting scoria and the roar of the mountain.
The party moved from room to room, amid a sulphurous stench, seeking safety Venturing upstairs with a lantern, McRae and Humphreys saw a red-hot rock smash into a bed, setting fire to the blankets. The two men extinguished the flames, but with the ceiling now bulging under the weight of falling debris, they retreated down the stairs just as the roof collapsed.
The guests quickly abandoned their unsafe quarters and withdrew along the verandah to the drawing room. A strong wind blowing through the jammed door prevented a lamp being lit, so, in a profound darkness relieved only by the intermittent flicker of lightning, they waited on events.
For the Haszards, a pleasant evening spent celebrating the birthdays of Charles’ wife, Amelia, and cadet surveyor Harry Lundius, a house guest along with Blythe, came to a dramatic end with the awakening of the volcano. Prudently shifting to a newer, ironclad building abutting the schoolhouse, they were soon troubled by rocks piercing the ceiling.
Charles’ grown daughter, Clara, suddenly noticed the wall bulging under the weight of debris on the roof and instinctively ran to brace it. At that instant the roof caved in, releasing a deluge of mud into the thick blackness of the room. Lundius kicked out a window and, with Blythe and Clara, escaped into a freezing night filled with the thunder of the eruption and the splatter of falling clay.
After searching in vain for the others, the trio struggled through an uprooted orchard and, unable to reach the main settlement, spent the rest of the night sheltering as best they could in a hen-house.
Back in the building, the schoolmaster was dead; so, too, was his nephew. Amelia was alive but pinned by a fallen beam. With two of her children, Adolphus (10) and Edna (6), by her side, she cradled her youngest, Mona, who was slowly suffocating under the weight of the timber.
The grief Amelia must have endured in that dark hell is unimaginable, though her courage in the face of utter helplessness is heartbreakingly clear from her later unadorned account:
“Mona . . . cried to me to give her more room, as I was pressing her against the beam, but the load of volcanic mud pouring down on me prevented me from being able to render any assistance, and the child was crushed, and smothered in my arms, and died.
“My little boy, who had been standing by me, said ‘We can’t live, can we?’ and I replied, ‘No, dear, we will die together.’ He then said, ‘Jesus will come and take us,’ and I never heard his voice again.
“[Edna], I think, died shortly after [Adolphus], as she said ‘Oh, my head!’ as the mud was beating down on her, and she spoke no more . . .”
Meanwhile, at her whare, Guide Sophia was surrounded by refugees, packed tightly into the small house for shelter. She counted 62 in all, Maori and Pakeha alike, pressed together beneath the sagging raupo roof, which her husband, Taiawhio, and others had braced with wooden props. Amid broken window glass and in darkness, people uttered prayers and tried to comfort children.
It was to the whare that McRae’s party had staggered, some time after 4 A.M., following the collapse of the hotel roof. With rugs and blankets over their heads as protection against the pelting mud, they had struggled through an icy gale to reach the building.
When McRae discovered that some of his group were unaccounted for, he went out into the ferocious night once more to find them. He carried to the whare his injured cook, then helped several others who had been forced back to the hotel. Not content with that, the indefatigable helper went out again, groping about by the light of a burning whare and calling for missing people. Stopping briefly at the home of Tuhourangi chief Wi Kepa Te Rangipuawhe, which was full of sheltering Maori, he fetched up at Hinemihi, along with fellow hotelier Charles Humphreys and his wife.
Few at Te Wairoa came through Tarawera’s violence unscathed. When, at about 6.30 A.M., McRae wedged a candle into a bottle and set out to search for yet more survivors, he stepped into an unrecognisable landscape. In the early pre-dawn it seemed as though everything had been covered by a metre or two of slate-coloured snow. Here and there the ridges of whare roofs and the stripped branches of trees jutted through a thick blanket of mud. Fence lines, little more than pegs poking up through the ground, were easily stepped over. The Rotomahana Hotel had been reduced to a single twisted clapboard facade, shorn of its roof and verandahs, its rooms so much rubble. The old mission church on the hill had been levelled. The shells of other buildings burned and smouldered.
As the daylight strengthened, the shocked and dazed villagers who had survived the night, in ones and twos and in ragged groups, picked their way over the now unfamiliar ground, abandoned their dead and what was left of their homes, and in the eerie silence began the long walk to Rotorua.
McRae and Bird took up the search once more for Bainbridge and the missing Haszards, but without spades were forced to abandon the attempt. Seeking out Bird’s horses, they found that though three had broken free in the night, two still stood where he had left them, caked in mud but unharmed. These the men freed before following the solemn exodus out of the valley.
On a crisp winter morning 117 years after the cataclysm, I retrace by car the route taken by the grim relief parties from Ohinemutu. Leaving State Highway 30 just out of Rotorua, I turn to follow a smooth sealed road along the fringe of Whakarewarewa State Forest Park and past the scenic Blue and Green Lakes (whose surfaces were turned grey by the eruption ) toward Te Wairoa. Nothing remains of the celebrated Tikitapu bush which enchanted early tourists. Refugees from Te Wairoa struggled here through sticky volcanic mud in a wasteland of smashed timber. Big trees, uprooted by the tornado of air sucked in by the eruption, lay broken on the ground, some charred and smoking from lightning strikes.
It was on this road that coach driver Ted Robertson, making his way with all haste to Te Wairoa, met the first straggling survivors—Maori wanting to know whether Ohinemutu had “gone down,” among them mud-coated women with matted hair looking as if they had just emerged from a lime kiln.
The devastation was widespread. Fall-out from the six-hour upheaval had blanketed some 15,000 square kilometres of countryside, blinding cattle and sheep and burying pasture. Cows, horses and bullocks went hungry. Insects were no more. Rats and mice, driven into the open by lack of food, were to be seen everywhere. Nothing remained of the small settlements of Moura or Te Ariki, or of those Maori camped at Lake Rotomahana. All had been wiped from the face of the earth in a single night of fire.
Te Wairoa itself now has a new name: the Buried Village. A souvenir shop and tearoom stand at the entrance to a few hectares of partially excavated land bounded by the main road and a pretty trout-filled stream.
Having found a space in the crowded car park, I wander through the shop and into the adjoining museum to get a sense of what it was like in the valley that night. Display cabinets hold an array of objects that over the years have been won from the ground hereabouts. A Staffordshire dinner plate, flat irons, medicine bottles, shoes, fragments of flax weaving, waistcoat fabric. A piece of silica reputed to have come from the White Terrace. Molten rock formed into the shape of a lava bomb.
Behind one plate of glass are artefacts from the Rotomahana Hotel: part of an iron bedstead, a leather belt, a large earthenware jug said to be the repository for McRae’s hotel earnings. The remains of a clock, rust on its face etching the time, 2.45 A.M., when its hands stopped forever.
An alcove containing a reconstruction of part of the hotel stands as an evocative memorial to Edwin Bainbridge, whose body was found crushed beneath the building’s collapsed balcony, hands still clutching a shawl to his head.
The young Bainbridge had been a source of courage to those around him during the upheaval, calmly leading McRae’s party in prayers and reading aloud from the Bible. When the din drowned out his voice, he closed the Good Book and opened his writing-case to pen a brief message: “This is the most awful moment of my life. I cannot tell when I may be called upon to meet my God. I am thankful that I find His strength sufficient for me. We are under heavy falls of volcano . . .”
At that instant another resounding crash was heard and he set down his case. Full of presentiments that he would not see morning, Bainbridge then calmly followed McRae out into the night.
Today, in the tranquil fields of old Te Wairoa, visitors can amble along paths past fern-covered depressions staked out for future archaeological spadework and into excavated whare and houses. I join others in the bright sunlight, before stepping down into the gloomy cavity of the barman’s house, unearthed in 1938, and on again to where McRae’s hotel once stood. Across the road, amid regenerating bush, I glimpse the chimney, built of locally quarried perlite, that marks the site of Chief Kepa’s house.
Not far from the blacksmith’s workshop is Tuhoto’s whare. The remarkable old tohunga who had caused such consternation with his dire prophecies was incarcerated here by the eruption. Many Maori, believing him in some way responsible for the calamity, feared that disturbing his resting place would only bring new misfortune.
Some days after the eruption, and despite such misgivings, several Pakeha decided that they should recover the tohunga’s body.
As they dug into the whare, they were amazed to hear sounds coming from beneath their feet—though, admittedly, not of the sort to be expected from someone about to be released from a four-day entombment. Tuhoto was telling them to go away and leave him alone.
Ignoring his protestations, the men dug on. The aged priest was pulled free and, owing to the dread among Maori at his survival, was borne off to a sanatorium in Rotorua for treatment. There, in violation of tapu, his long spiky hair was cut and his head doused in disinfectant. The tohunga was fed his customary diet of potatoes and water and subjected to a stream of concerned or merely curious visitors.
The ministrations of Pakeha hygiene and careful nutrition notwithstanding, Tuhoto Ariki died on July 1 at the reputed age of 110. He had, said those best able to judge, merely decided not to go on living.
Back in the museum among the exhibits, I come across museum guide Huru Maika, a direct descendant of chief Wi Kepa Te Rangipuawhe, singing the tangi that mourns those who died in the eruption:
Tera te auahi ka patua i Tarawera, kai raro iti iho
There above hangs the deadly pall from Tarawera
Ko Ngati Taoi i moe ra i te whenua, haere ra e te iwi . . .
Diminutively below, Ngati Taoi slept upon the slopes, farewell my people . . .
When his tour group has moved on, we talk. Maika has been a guide here for four years, and before that guided elsewhere in Rotorua. He tells me that Tuhourangi have free access to the Buried Village.
“Some feel the sadness of being here,” he says. “For me, it is just like being home. I feel my ancestors. They walk with me all the time.”
Maika lives just outside Whakarewarewa thermal village, and bathes there in the communal baths. “That is where my great-grandfather and his son are buried. Guide Sophia, too.”
The next day, I decide to visit the final resting place of Sophia Hinerangi. If Te Wairoa became the Buried Village, then Whakarewarewa, on the edge of Rotorua, thinks of itself as the Living Village.
Shortly after the eruption, dispossessed Tuhourangi were invited to live here by a closely related hapu, Ngati Wahiao.
Having developed a liking for thermal springs while enjoying temporary shelter at Ohinemutu, the majority of Tuhourangi overcame their new-found mistrust of vulcanism and took up the offer. Sophia herself spent the last 25 years of her life at Whakarewarewa, guiding people around the village until her retirement, and even thereafter happily welcoming visitors who wished to talk.
It is a tradition carried on to this day. Descendants of the people who made a living helping tourists to the terraces now turn a dollar sharing with visitors their steam-shrouded way of life in the midst of popping mud pools and boiling lakes.
“Every person in the village is a guide,” 62-year-old Chris Gardiner tells me over a generous hangi meal at an establishment called Ned’s Café. Urewera-born Gardiner, who arrived at Whakarewarewa some 40 years ago, remembers that it took time to get used to the day-long presence of outsiders.
“We used to do all of our laundry in the washing pool, but I would take off whenever anyone came up with a camera,” she says. “The older people told me just to carry on. They said, ‘Utilise it. Ask them questions while they are asking you.’ I see our children doing that now, finding out about the world.”
To the distant sound of the cultural group Te Pakira in concert, Gardiner shows me through the village, which is home now to some 25 households. The hapu, she tells me, is much bigger. For important occasions thousands of people descend on Whakarewarewa.
In the middle of a concreted courtyard she stops before a wooden box set into the ground and lifts the lid. Steam clears to reveal muslin sacks of potatoes, kumara and wild pork. Other boxes hold more vegetables as well as chicken and stuffing. The food is for an evening fundraiser, with 300 expected.
Passing a stall selling cooked sweetcorn, we arrive at the public baths Maika mentioned. The procedure is beguilingly simple. Every morning water from the hot pools is let in along shallow channels to six open-air concrete baths. The water cools over the course of the day until by evening it is at the right temperature for people to ease their aching frames into.
Further along the path, Gardiner points out a pool once used for boiling sheets, nappies and pillow slips. “It was the village copper. Because of the minerals, we didn’t need to use bleaches.”
Gardiner stops beside another pool, Korotiotio (Prickly Heat), where she once plucked chickens. Three seconds in the water, then give the bird a shake and the feathers would come out easily.
“It really is an amazing pool. I still use it for steamed puddings. Leave them in for two hours and let nature toss them around. It brings out all the spices.”
A nearby sign directs visitors to a look-out from which distant geysers can be seen.
Several weeks after the Tarawera eruption, these same geysers became very active, with three or more playing high into the air at any one time. Towards the end of June 1886, a cooking pool in nearby Parekohoru began tossing up stones and boiling water, to the alarm of resident Ngati Wahiao, many of whom left temporarily. Throughout the summer Whakarewarewa remained highly active, and for a time became the district’s major tourist draw card.
The most spectacular result of the Tarawera eruption, however, has been the creation of the volatile Waimangu Valley, a hotbed of thermal activity extending south-west from the mountain beyond the rim of present-day Lake Rotomahana.
During the eruption, water heated to well over 100° C in the rocks in the Rotomahana area turned to steam, possibly when a fissure associated with the eruption caused the pressure to drop abruptly. The resulting hydrothermal explosion created a huge crater and blasted mud over a wide area. It was this ejecta that fell with such devastating effect on Te Wairoa and other Maori settlements.
Several expeditions made their way across the bare land shortly after the eruption, seeing only a sea of mud where Moura had once stood. One party, led by surveyor James Stewart, attempted to discover the fate of the Pink and White Terraces. Passing through a landscape covered in fine dust and around a hill that was energetically spitting out scoria, they came to Hape-o-Toroa, a hill some 300 m above the western side of Lake Rotomahana. From the summit they surveyed something that wouldn’t have been out of place in Dante’s Inferno. What had once been a placid lake was now a vast crater veiled by thick clouds of steam and ash. Stones were being flung high into the air from a dozen vents, while seething mud bubbled and spluttered all around. Not only had the water gone, but the very floor of the lake had been scooped out to a depth of 80 m or more below the old bed.
It was the dawning of the realisation that the famed terraces were no more. Nature had destroyed its own handiwork.
Local boatbuilder Alfred Warbrick was asked by the Auckland Evening Star to lead another party in. He and a reporter named Philp attached themselves to the end of a manila rope secured to an alpenstock and lowered themselves into the sulphurous pit, where Warbrick thought he could make out the shape of the Pink Terrace under a coating of mud. Then, much “baked,” they made for the place where the White Terrace had stood. Eruptions and unstable ground hindered their efforts, however, and Philp decided that the geography of the area was so changed as to make accurate location of anything almost impossible.
Assistant Surveyor-General Stephenson Percy Smith agreed. One of a number of government experts who methodically examined the region over the coming months and years, he declared early on that either Te Tarata was buried under stone, or else it had sunk into the main crater. It was a view that others were to endorse.
In the course of time, however, other marvels arose in the once quiet, scrub-covered Waimangu Valley as if to compensate for the loss. In 1900, with little warning, Waimangu (Black Water) Geyser came into being on the east side of a small lake known today as Echo Crater. Named after the black sand, mud and rocks hurled from its vent, Waimangu gained a reputation as the world’s biggest geyser, at times erupting to a height of 400 m. With a roughly 36-hour cycle of activity, it was largely responsible for renewed tourist interest in the Lake Rotomahana region. A tea tent on Frying Pan Flat, beside Echo Crater, and, later, shelter huts on the rim, were soon set up to cater for the growing number of visitors drawn to the spectacle of the black geyser.
In 1903, a year before the geyser ceased to exist, Warbrick added to the lustre of his reputation by rowing a boat on its small lake to satisfy a dare, and with the aid of a companion attempted to plumb the water’s depths.
Calamity struck days later, when, despite Alfred’s warnings, his brother, Joseph, and three others got too close to the geyser. It suddenly erupted and all were swept to their death in a tide of hot mud and water.
If anything, the area became more active after the demise of Waimangu Geyser in 1904, but nothing prepared people for what happened on the morning of April 1, 1917. Just after 6 A.M. virtually the whole of Frying Pan Flat exploded. The blast was so powerful that it lifted the roof off the Waimangu Accommodation House 800 m away, fatally burning the wife and child of the resident guide.
The flat was destroyed, but water soon collected in the enlarged Echo Crater, creating a new wonder, Frying Pan Lake, the world’s biggest hot spring.
Sauntering along a well-marked track from the modern visitor centre (where the old accommodation house once stood) down the volcanic valley to Lake Rotomahana as it is today, I pass the spring, along with fumaroles, delicate sulphur crystals, rhyolitic lava pinnacles, even silica terraces.
The place is an arcade of visual delights, and I arrive at Lake Rotomahana with the feeling of overwhelmed satiety that must have been the lot of Victorians visiting the terraces. I am in time to catch the last cruise of the day, and along with half a dozen others board the steel-hulled Ariki Moana for a stately spin on the lake.
The vast eruption crater examined by Warbrick gradually filled with rainwater and run-off, forming a body of water 20 times bigger than the two lakes, the old Rotomahana and Rotomakariri, that it had replaced. Like lost Atlantis, the sites of both terraces now lie deep below the surface.
Skipper Philip Angus tells me how the boat trip helps visitors appreciate that the valley, the lake and the mountain are part of a single eruption event—some 16 km of earth splitting open like bread in an oven to form a series of craters and rifts aligned north-east to south-west. Behind us, as we turn for home, rears the bulk of Tarawera, its deeply gouged southernmost crater trapping the last of the sunlight.
“The way I look at it is that nature took one thing and gave us something else,” says Angus equably. “At least we have photographs and paintings of the terraces.”
In the evening I make for Tarawera with my son, Theo. Turning off State Highway 38, we drive the back roads to a secluded gate, beyond which a rutted, rock-strewn track twists uphill. We follow it for a few kilometres, eventually coming up against another gate. All about us the thick bush is silent. Then, over the crinkle of the cooling exhaust, I hear a bike coming down the track.
It is Charles Feast. Charlie. The man who manages the operation here for tourism company Mt Tarawera NZ Ltd. He is togged up in storm-beating outdoor gear and work boots. He leans forward on the bike, his lean features breaking into a smile, mobilising his moustache. “All good!”
I smile back at the trademark phrase and we load our gear onto the quad bike and make for base camp, two kilometres short of the crater rim. Base camp is a modified Portacom with two big old beds and a desk. A kitchen bench stands in one corner amid a clutter of provisions and utensils. A small adjoining room houses an office and information centre. I like the place immediately.
“For the first six months the boys did hard yards. No fridge, no stove, no lighting,” says Charlie. “DoC had a Portacom up by the airstrip—they were doing pine eradication—and it blew down the hill. We get some good winds up here, it fair hums and sings.” He looks about him. “So we dragged it here.”
Since the day the company started in September 2000 it has maintained a 24 hour presence on the mountain, eradicating feral animals and controlling the movements of people. “It’s like having a 1600 ha warehouse with several back doors and a counter at the front,” says Charlie. A number of old tracks lead in from various points, and for some people the notion that visits be restricted to organised tours sticks in the craw. It is akin to putting a turnstile on nature. Matters are not helped by one popular travel guide advising would-be visitors that access costs $2. The actual price is more like $110 for a guided 4WD tour and three times that for a helicopter landing.
The arguments are not unfamiliar. Earlier, I had spent time with Charlie’s boss, Steve Collins, owner of Mt Tarawera NZ, in his office near Whakarewarewa. A helicopter pilot with 23 years of flying under his belt, much of it in venison recovery, Collins bought property near Lake Tarawera in 1990.
For 10 years he took people to the mountain, but he was not the only one. Fifteen other companies offered mountain tours, and the visitor count soared from 600 a year to around 40,000. Motorbikes carved up the fragile subalpine plants, and rubbish began piling up. By 1999, Tarawera’s Ngati Rangitihi owners had had enough. They called for tenders for exclusive management of their ancestral landmark, and Collins, himself of Tuhoe and Ngati Kahunganu descent, proposed a profit-sharing joint venture. He got Tarawera on a seven-year lease, and in the first year carted 12 tonnes of rubbish from the mountain.
After meeting Collins, Charlie had then taken Theo and me up during daylight in a 4WD. Clearly, the mountain had endured a great deal. The proliferation of scars from free-ranging vehicles was slowly healing now that travel was limited to a few tracks and paths and access to the crater rim was by foot only.
“People can’t come here and abuse the place. That’s over,” Charlie told me.
We saw the unkempt fingers of self-sown Pinus contorta scattered here and there on the scrub-covered slopes. A former logger, Charlie doesn’t conceal his disgust at the invasive trees, which are incapable of redeeming themselves even by producing usable timber.
The night of our stay at base camp Charlie lists some of his challenges. Watching the mountain’s back doors ranks high. As does eradicating the pines. Then there are the stoats, ferrets, wallabies, feral cats and possums.
After a meal of venison stew we rug up and haul out some electric lamps. Charlie pulls out a .22 Magnum and a few dozen rounds. We roar off into the night, Theo and I playing beams of light through the bush while Charlie’s dog, Lucky, charges off excitedly on a dozen missions, all of which are entirely beside the point. Theo fixes a possum in his beam and Charlie shoots. Branches jostle. More shots. Lucky crashes through undergrowth. Something hisses. There is a bark. Another shot.
So it goes. By midnight we have brought grief to seven or eight possums and Tarawera can sleep lighter. The unrelenting shooting and trapping programme is working, says Charlie. The bush is healthy and flushed with regrowth. Last spring was the best yet, with the upper slopes carpeted in delicate flowers.
“When we started there was no dawn chorus, so you know you’re winning,” he tells me next morning as we pull on gloves.
I want to see the crater at sunrise, and Charlie obliges. He kicks the quad into life and we climb the track to the crater rim. Light is just beginning to paint the land, silhouetting Mt Edgecumbe to the east.
From the rim it is a dizzying drop to the crater floor, the steep slopes of scoria and rhyolite coloured reddish brown and creamy white. All about us the mountain is silent, its battered scars seemingly disconnected from the reign of terror of that night in 1886 when the raw ground beneath our feet shook itself awake and broadcast destruction.
As we stand in the freshly minted morning, the warmth of the sun at our backs begins to penetrate. Against the far wall of the crater, a hundred or more metres below the crusty rim, a falcon slowly circles, and its shadow flicking across the cliffs is like a benediction.