Mt Tarawera was thought to be extinct by Māori and Pākehā, but 129 years ago it proved itself alive and active with the onset of the deadliest volcanic eruption in New Zealand’s known history.
Mt Tarawera had an unusual shape for a volcano with a plateau at the top and multiple vents which were formed by eruptions around 1314 AD. The region was a very popular tourist destination and was visited for its scenic beauty, thermal activity, and of course the Pink and White Terraces which were often written about and featured on many postcards and lithograph prints. The Terraces covered more than three hectares and were formed over hundreds of years as water from a geyser above Lake Rotomahana ran down the mountainside leaving deposits of silica.
After centuries of quiet there were signs that something was brewing beneath the ground. There was a reported increase in thermal activity in the area and a surge in lake levels. Then renowned guide Sophia Hinerangi was leading a tourist party of both Māori and Pakeha on Lake Tarawera when they witnessed a phantom waka rowed by warriors gliding silently toward them across the water, before it vanished in front their eyes.
Sophia reported this vision to a tōhunga (priest), Tūhoto Ariki, who interpreted it as an omen of impending disaster and believed that Māori were about to be punished for using tourism to exploit the area without proper acknowledgement to the ancestors. Ten days later his prophecy of disaster came to fruition.
Shortly after midnight on 10 June 1886 a series of increasingly powerful earthquakes shook the region and an unusual display of lightening was visible around the peak of the mountain. At around 2.00am a very strong earthquake was felt, accompanied by a loud explosion, and half an hour later the three peaks – Wāhanga, Ruawāhia, and Tarawera – were in full eruption with three distinct columns of lava and smoke being thrown up to 10 kilometres into the night sky.
At around 3.30am the mountain entered the largest phase of the eruption when the vents on Rotomahana created a pyroclastic surge so large it destroyed the Pink and White Terraces and several villages located within a 6 kilometre radius.
The eruption was over by dawn, but the air was so thick with ash that it was as dark as night from Rotoiti to Maketū. Rescue parties ventured out to search for survivors and bring them back to the Te Arawa people who gave them food, shelter, and clothing.
They discovered that the eruption had completely buried several villages including Te Tapahoro, Moura, Te Ariki, Tōtarariki and Waingongongo. Te Wairoa was also hit severely, but because it had stronger buildings, more survivors were found at this settlement, including more than sixty people who had taken refuge in Guide Sophia’s hut. Te Wairoa is now commonly known as The Buried Village and is still a popular tourist destination.
Tūhoto Ariki also survived the eruption and was found in his hut four days after it had been buried beneath ash and mud; the tōhunga passed away a few weeks later. The death toll varies from document to document, but officially sits at 153.
The eruption affected most of the country. The noise was heard as far south as Blenheim and the effects of the ash in the sky were seen as far away as Christchurch. Earthquakes were felt throughout the North Island, and in Auckland the sound of the eruption and flashes of lightning were misinterpreted by some as an attack by the Russian warship which had recently visited Wellington.
It is estimated that two cubic kilometres of tephra (volcanic material, as scoria and dust) was ejected from the volcano over the six hour-long eruption, more than was recorded in the eruption of Mt St Helens, Washington, USA, in 1980. Land up to 10 kilometres away was buried under mud and ash one metre deep and ash was spread over thousands of square kilometres. It was even reported that some volcanic ash had landed on the steamer Southern Cross which was sailing off the East Cape, over 150 kilometres away.
The force of the eruption changed the landscape and left a 17 kilometre rift across the top of the mountain. Lake Rotomahana, which had previously been around 30 feet deep and covered an area of 284 acres, was now 250 feet deep and covered an area 20 times the size. The heat had forced the water to dry up and a series of craters, geysers and mud holes were left in its place. It took seven years for the water to return and fill the lake.