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The eruption of Mt Tarawera - roadside stories

'The sky was lit by great flashes of flame ...' The 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera obliterated the spectacular Pink and White Terraces, one of the world's scenic wonders, and buried a number of villages. The disaster was heralded by an apparition of a ghostly canoe on Lake Tarawera.


Archival audio: An eyewitness recalls the Tarawera eruption lighting up the sky.

Narrator: Lying 24 kilometres south-east of Rotorua, Mount Tarawera is an unusual looking mountain, with several large domes and a broad, flat top. It was shaped by volcanic activity hundreds of years ago. The Māori inhabitants of the area, and the Europeans who arrived in the 19th century, did not know that Tarawera was an active volcano until 1886, when it came to life in the deadliest known eruption in the country’s history.

Before the Tarawera eruption, the spectacular Pink and White Terraces were considered one of the scenic wonders of the world. The terraces consisted of delicately coloured volcanic rock that formed tiered layers of natural hot pools, where visitors from all around the world would bathe.

There were few warning signs that an eruption would take place, though there was a sudden and unexplained rise in the level of Lake Tarawera, and a rise in thermal activity.

European visitor (actor’s voice): Our guide pointed out that the mud from one of the geysers had been projected fully 25 yards from the crater quite recently, for it was soft, and all this was pointed out as quite unusual. I could not judge if the activity was greater than usual but on arriving at this terminal point in our expedition I began to feel uneasy and to realise a sense of danger connected with all around me.

Narrator: Then 11 days before the eruption, both Māori and European visitors, including the famous Guide Sophia, reported seeing a ghostly Māori war canoe paddling across Lake Tarawera. Guide Sophia consulted her tribe’s tohunga, or priest, Tūhoto Ariki, and he interpreted the phantom canoe as a bad omen. He believed Māori would be punished for exploiting the area for money without paying due respect to their ancestors.

In the early hours of 10 June, Tūhoto Ariki’s prophecy was fulfilled. Mount Tarawera split apart, spewing forth millions of tonnes of ash and debris. At Te Wairoa village, about 8 kilometres away from the Terraces, people were woken after midnight by a series of violent earthquakes. Around 2 a.m., Mt Tarawera erupted, and by 2.30 [a.m.], fountains of glowing lava and a cloud of ash up to 10 kilometres high, through which intense lightning flickered, were thrust skywards. At Te Wairoa, more than 60 people sheltered in Guide Sophia’s sturdy hut, which survived the eruption. Later, craters on the south-west side of the mountain blasted open and a crack 17 kilometres long spewed steam, mud and ash. The eruptions finally ended by about 6 a.m.

Earthquakes were felt throughout the North Island and noise caused by the eruption was heard as far south as Blenheim. Aucklanders thought it was distant cannon fire.

The next day, the skies around Mount Tarawera were pitch black. Rescue parties found a number of small settlements had been completely destroyed or buried. The tohunga who predicted a calamitous event – Tūhoto Ariki – survived the eruption and was dug from his buried house after four days. He died several weeks later. Over 100 local Maori died in the eruption.

The Pink and White Terraces vanished. Their former site became a 100-metre-deep crater that eventually filled with water to form a new much larger Lake Rotomahana. In 2011, some of the old Pink Terraces were apparently discovered by sonar, lying at the bottom of this lake.

Te Wairoa is today known as the Buried Village. Excavation has revealed the extent of the settlement that developed as a result of tourism to the Pink and White Terraces. The village had a flour mill, houses, a hotel, schoolhouse, and several other buildings.


Manatū Taonga - Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2011. Part of the Roadside Stories series

Archival audio sourced from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives, Sound files may not be reused without permission from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives (Reference number: sa-t-0224-su02-pm).

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The eruption of Mt Tarawera - roadside stories, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated