The sleeping giant

In the early morning of 10 June 1886, a 17 kilometre rift opened in the mountains on the far side of this lake, spewing out steam, fire, and finely pulverised rock.


It sleeps on the far side of the lake with the same name. Tarawera. The translation is something like the peaks (or cliffs) that burn. And on 10 June 1886, it did, indeed, burn, and more than a dozen villages around the shores of the lake ceased to exist in a cataclysmic six hours.

Until that day, Lake Tarawera had been part of the journey to the famous Pink and White Terraces, silica deposits cascading down the hillsides of Lake Rotomahana in a series of delicately coloured terraces, studded with hot pools.  Tourists came from Europe to see this scenic wonder of the world, making the long trip by ship and then by coach and finally by whale boat or canoe.

In the early hours of the morning of 10 June, the tourist trade died, along with over 150 people.

It began with a series of violent earthquakes that woke people in the village of Te Wairoa, starting point for the Lake Tarawera crossing. When the mountain began erupting around 2am, tourists left the hotels to climb a nearby slope to see the fireworks, retreating as the great clouds of ash, lava and lightening began to rain debris down on their heads.

The view from the road down to Lake Tarawera. The mountain is in the distance. Te Wairoa was tucked behind the ridge to the right.

It was the beginning of a bombardment that would last six hours and leave the village buried in metres of mud and ash. At that, the village got off lightly. Te Wairoa was protected in a valley and sufficiently distant for most residents and visitors to survive. Those closer to the mountain were not so fortunate, their settlements completely destroyed and buried.

The Pink and White Terraces vanished, leaving a 100 metre crater that later filled with water. Ash choked the skies, so that the day was turned to night. Refugees from the disaster began to trail towards Rotorua, meeting rescue parties as they trudged.

The story of that night is told in diaries written by the tourists and European residents of the area, in the oral tales handed down through the local people, and excavated from the material thrown up by the volcano.

My novella for the Belles’ 2017 holiday box set takes place against the background of the eruption. 





A thriving tourist trade and a deadly volcano

Pink_Terraces_-_Blomfield - CopyIn 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.

White_Terraces_-_Blomfield - Copy

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.