Was Mount Tarawera New Zealand’s biggest volcanic eruption?

May 16

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One night in June of 1886, a 17-kilometre gash in the earth near modern-day Rotorua was ripped open. Mount Tarawera had blown.

As one witness, James Froude, described it: “We could stand on the brim and gaze as through an opening in the earth into an azure infinity beyond … 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 water was something which I had never seen, and shall never again see on this side of eternity.”

Mr Froude had just survived the eruption of Mount Tarawera. It wasn’t Aotearoa New Zealand’s biggest volcanic eruption, but it was one of its most significant.

The eruption erased the village of Te Wairoa, left more than 150 people dead and destroyed one of the most stunning natural sights on the North Island (and in the world): the famed Pink and White Terraces at Lake Rotomahana.

The day of the Mt Tarawera eruption

Mount Tarawera once had three mountain peaks: Wahanga, Ruawahia and Tarawera. Early on June 10, they blew. Nearby residents were woken by lighting, earthquakes, massive columns of smoke and ash, and the sight of molten rock spewing high in the air.

The eruption lasted for six hours. People heard it from as far away as Blenheim on the South Island, and Auckland on the North Island.

The resulting ash and debris, as well as strong winds, flattened trees and clogged lakes across an area of something like 6000 square miles. Several small settlements, including the village of Te Wairoa, were buried for good.

Locals said the eruption had been heralded by a ghostly canoe seen on Lake Tarawera.

What happened to the Pink and White Terraces

The Pink and White Terraces on the shores of Lake Rotomahana, also called Te Otukapuarangi (Fountain of the Clouded Sky, for the Pink Terraces) and Te Tarata (The Tattooed Rock for the White Terraces) in Maori, were the largest silica terraces on earth. They were called the eighth wonder of the world.

Thanks to the Mount Tarawera eruption, the Pink and White Terraces are gone, but they left behind something valuable: the practice of welcoming, of tourism as an exercise in hosting, guiding and storytelling.

The Pink and White Terrace at Lake Rotomahana were one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s first international tourist attractions, and the people who guided visitors there were the start of a long tradition.

Guides and visitors today are inspired by those who came before, like the legendary Guide Sophia of Tūhourangi, who served as host, philosopher, historian, cook, navigator and safety officer for thousands of travellers.

This style of touristing, a mix of culture, landscapes, challenge and storytelling, still infuses the region’s, and country’s, visitor experience now.

Visiting Lake Tarawera today

The lakes and landscapes that the Mount Tarawera eruption left behind have become a natural playground.

Lake Tarawera is a popular spot for boating. There’s a campsite at Hot Water Beach on its shores with a natural hot pool in the bush nearby.

Dinner’s a breeze at Hot Water Beach: take the fish you caught on the lake, wrap it in foil, and bury it in the same. The earth’s geothermal power does the rest of the cooking for you. (Local tip: it’s 40 minutes to perfection.)

Or explore the edge of the lake on foot along the Tarawera Trail. Starting not far from The Landing on Lake Tarawera, near where Sophia would have set off with her clients, it’s a 15-kilometre walk through native bush that includes groves of giant mamakau ferns thriving in the spongy ash-rich soil underfoot.

The “buried village” of Te Wairoa is also a tourist attraction.

Why Rotorua is a hot spot

Ironically, it was the very forces that caused to the Mt Tarawera eruption which drew people to settle in the area, and to visit today.

The geothermal features in the Rotorua region — from geysers to the hot mud pools to fumeroles to thermal springs to the steaming shorelines of Lake Rotorua — number more than  1200, and they are a magnet for visitors.

They are the result of magma sitting close to the surface and a water table that rests right above the magma – also perfect conditions for creating a volcanic eruption.

As for the Pink and White Terraces, in 2021, new mapping of the floor of Lake Rotomahana identified the likely resting place of their remnants. Will we see the eighth wonder of the world again?

So was Mount Tarawera New Zealand’s biggest volcanic eruption?

No. New Zealand’s largest volcanic eruption was the Taupō volcano, which last erupted around 200AD.

Lake Taupō is actually its caldera. The Taupō eruption was the earth’s most violent eruption of the past 5000 years, blowing ash 50 kilometres into the air, and created a pyroclastic flow so powerful it poured uphill over Mount Tongariro. Talk about hot.

This article is even better in print.

1964: mountain culture / aotearoa is a reader-supported magazine that explores Aotearoa New Zealand’s remote places and the people who seek them out. Working with more than thirty artists, photographers, writers, woodworkers and welders, we advocate for and support Aotearoa’s creatives.

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