In the 1880s, the geothermal area of Rotorua was home of New Zealand’s first thriving tourist trade. People came from all over the world to see the famous Pink and White Terraces. Formed over thousands of years, they comprised two staircases of terraces and terraced pools cascading down from two large geysers that sent silica-laden water down the hills at the end of Lake Rotomahana.
Hotels sprung up to hold the tourists, and the local Maori people cornered the guide and transportation business, escorting parties on the walk to Lake Tarawera, shipping them by whale boat to the other side of the lake, then escorting them on foot over the hill on the final 1 kilometre to the terraces.
In June 1886, aurges in the water caused some concern, but people ignored the warnings of the local tohunga (wise man), who said that his people were becoming too fond of the tourist dollars and were upsetting the ancestors.
Then travellers on the lake saw a war canoe – and none had travelled the lake in many years. Many saw it appear, come towards them, and then vanish.
Eleven days later, people in the nearby village of Te Wairoa were woken by a series of increasingly powerful earthquakes. By 2.30, craters the length of the mountain were venting scoria and ash, mud and steam, along a 17 kilometre rift.
As wet mud began to fall, many buildings where people had taken shelter began to collapse in the six villages around the lake. By morning, upwards of 100 people had died, though many had survived in the stronger buildings in Te Wairoa.
New Zealand’s first tourism operation had gone down in flames.