Terrible Tarawera: Rotorua's burnt peak and its buried villages

March 4, 2022
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AFTER spending time in downtown Rotorua and then travelling around the big lake, you should head out toward the more distant lakes!

In this post, I describe a trip to the most notoriously-named one of them all, Lake Tarawera, at the foot of Mount Tarawera where the great eruption of 1886 took place. And to the amazing buried village of Te Wairoa, a sort of colonial Pompeii, buried by the 1886 eruption. On the way, I visit the pretty 'blue' and 'green' lakes of Tikitapu and Rotokākahi, the smallest and also among the prettiest of the well-known lakes in the region.

In the Tarawera area, I also check out Lake Rotomahana and the Waimangu thermal valley, which actually continue the incredible volcanic fissure that lies at the heart of Mount Tarawera.

Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

Two Pretty Lakes on the Way to Tarewera

A couple of small but pretty lakes, definitely worth visiting on the way to Lake Tarawera, are Lake Tikitapu (known in English as Blue Lake) and Lake Rotokākahi (a.k.a. Green Lake).

The English names aren't translations of the Māori ones. Tikitapu means sacred tiki, or sacred neck ornament in other words, and refers to an incident in which a chief's daughter lost her tiki in the depths of the lake. Which isn't actually very deep; its blue colour comes from reflections off a white sand bottom.

Another legend has it that Lake Tikitapu was the abode of a taniwha, a ferocious reptilian water-monster which would normally hide in deep water and keep away from people. But perhaps because the lake was too shallow to hide in and contained too few fish, this particular taniwha turned rogue, living in a cave on dry land and regularly venturing forth to devour unwary travellers. Fortunately, tribal heroes slew the rogue taniwha of Lake Tikitapu long ago!

As for Rotokākahi, that means lake of the shellfish, which used to be abundant. The bottom of Lake Rotokākahi is more yellow in colour than the bottom of Lake Tikitapu, whence the English name of Green Lake.

Even though the Blue Lake has 'tapu' in its Māori name, it is open for swimming and recreation of every kind. On the other hand the Green Lake, Rotokākahi, contains an island on which many ancestors are buried and is thus considered sacred and is off-limits to swimmers, boaters and fishers. You can walk along its shores, however.

There is a lookout called the Blue and Green Lakes Lookout, where, as the name suggests, you can get a good view of both lakes.

Rotokākahi, or Green Lake

Here is a short video that I made:

Lake Tarawera, at the foot of Mount Tarawera

Further on is Lake Tarawera, loomed over by Mount Tarawera, which erupted so catastrophically on the 10th of June, 1886. In this locality, the name Tarawera means 'burnt peak', a reference to its scorched-looking appearance. The Tarawera volcano suffered a major eruption in 1310 CE, some five and three-quarter centuries before the 1886 eruption. So, I imagine that it has been scorched-looking for a very long time.

The looming, brooding 'burnt peak' of Mount Tarawera, over Lake Tarawera

A jetty on Lake Tarawera

The Cheap and Cheerful Boatshed of the Lake Tarawera Water Taxi. I have a link to the tourism website Totally Tarawera at the end of this post.

The village of Tarawera, beside the lake of the same name, has really developed quite a lot since I first went there. Check out this facility, which looks as though it is aimed at a more upmarket clientele.

The region was uninhabited for a while after the 1886 eruption, which actually blew the earth asunder over a distance of several kilometres. The eruption altered the shoreline of lake Tarawera and greatly enlarged Lake Rotomahana, which had just been a collection of small ponds before that time. It also buried the Pink and White Terraces: natural wonders that were just starting to become known to the wealthy-tourist trade.

The pink and white terraces were made from a stalactite-like mineral called travertine, deposited by warm springs as they trickled down the hillside. Luckily, just as many caves have stalactites, so there are several travertine terraces around the world. Three of the best-known are the ones at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, Pamukkale in Turkey, and Huanglong in China.

Two Victorian paintings by Charles Blomfield capture the beauty of the White Terrace and the horror of the subsequent eruption of Mount Tarawera, in which the earth quite literally burst open. The upper painting has accession number 1894/4 at the Auckland City Art Gallery (gift of Sir Henry Brett, 1894) and the lower painting is item C-033–022, National Library of New Zealand. The lower painting depicts the eruption as seen from a village called Waitangi, which was far enough away to escape with only one fatality.. Blomfield was not actually present on the night, so the details are not accurate. But you get the idea.

Lake Tarawera looks very beautiful today, but there's a spooky tale about a phantom canoe which was seen on its waters on the 31st of May 1886, some eleven days prior to the eruption, and was immediately perceived by local Māori as a portent of doom. In 1888, the artist Kennet Watkins painted a lurid account of the incident.

Kennett Watkins (1888), 'The Phantom Canoe: A Legend of Lake Tarawera'. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, accession number
1915/2/72. Public domain reproduction via the
Google Art Project.

In reality, the phantom canoe was seen in broad daylight, not just by local Māori  whom it alarmed but also by Pākehā tourists who did not understand it to be anything other than just a traditional canoe. The canoe was reported in a letter by one such tourist, Mrs Sise of Dunedin, within a day of its sighting; so we are not dealing in every case with recollections coloured by the subsequent eruption. This has to be one of the more well-attested ghost stories.

About a hundred to a hundred and fifty people were killed when Mt Tarawera erupted in 1886, including a tohunga (Māori shaman), who was said to have predicted the eruption. He was dug out alive from under the ash at the village of Te Wairoa, often simply referred to these days as the buried village, but succumbed a little later. A British resident of Te Wairoa, Charles Haszard, exclaimed “What a grand sight! Should we live a hundred years we shall never again see its equal!” Haszard also perished when his roof fell in under the weight of the ash. It is surprising, given the scale of the cataclysm, that more people weren’t killed.

Part of the reason was that very few people lived close to Mount Tarawera. According to a superb New Zealand Geographic article called ‘The Night Tarawera Awoke’, the Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter, who drew a pre-eruption map of the Rotorua region in 1859, recorded that he personally felt unsafe near Mount Tarawera and that local Māori also tended to keep their distance. Wisely so, as things turned out.

Tarawera and the nearby lakes overly what is known as the Okataina branch of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, a massive ‘supervolcano’ akin to Yellowstone, but more active in the present era. The most recent full-scale eruption at Yellowstone ejected a thousand cubic kilometres of magma, mostly as ash. On the other hand, it also took place 640,000 years ago. In New Zealand, an eruption only 26,500 years ago at Lake Taupo — a date that might as well be today, geologically speaking — erupted 530 cubic kilometres of magma.

Though large by most standards, rupturing the earth’s crust for seventeen kilometres and ejecting an estimated one cubic kilometre of magma, the 1886 Tarawera eruption was quite puny by the standards of what the Taupo Volcanic Zone, like Yellowstone, was capable of.

It was, perhaps, a sign of this relative puniness, a mere throat-clearing of the underlying supervolcano, that the eruption occurred with only one hour’s warning in terms of premonitory tremors!

It’s thought that larger eruptions would be preceded by more warning than that. Which is probably just as well because, while Yellowstone’s volcanic dangers are now thought to lie mainly in the distant past, the Taupo Volcanic Zone is fully active in volcanic terms and, indeed, overdue for an eruption thirty times larger than the 1886 one. Such cataclysms happen every thousand years on average in the Taupo Volcanic Zone, but the last one was 1,800 years ago.

Curiously enough, my mother was born at another locality called Tarawera in Hawkes Bay, which at that spot means ‘burning spear’. The coincidence was one of the things that piqued my interest in Rotorua and Mount Tarawera, though, even at an  early age.

The Guardians of the Volcano

Tours to the top of Mount Tarawera are operated, these days, by a Māori agency called Kaitiaki Adventures.

Kaitiaki means ‘guardian’ or ‘guardians’, and the name refers to the fact that earlier, unregulated tourism had left the mountain covered in rubbish. At one time, a truck was hired, and filled, with junk picked up from the mountain. So, these days, the tourist has to go on a tour organised by Kaitiaki Adventures.

(After all, offending the Māori god of volcanoes and earthquakes, Ruaumoko, by dropping litter all over his face is surely not such a good idea in these parts.)

The mountain’s not very high — I suspect it’s blown its top to atoms more than once — and it’s pretty easy to get to the top. And then you get to run downhill into the scoria-filled crater, or rather, the great crack in the earth which is the nearest thing Tarawera has to a crater.

The author in the fissure of Mount Tarawera

Somewhere near the top, overlooking Lake Tarawera

Scenes of painted-looking volcanic rock near the top of Mount Tarawera

Here's a video I took while scree-running inside the great fissure of Mt Tarawera. Scree is loose rock, and you run down it. Simple! The fissure was well-ventilated where I was, so there was no risk of being overcome by fumes, which is a risk inside volcanic craters otherwise.

Lake Rotomahana and the Waimangu Thermal Valley

Just past Lake Tarawera is Lake Rotomahana, which existed only in the form of two much smaller lakes before the 1886 eruption, and the Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley, the world's newest geothermal area, which includes the Waimangu Cauldron, popularly known as Frying Pan Lake, the world's largest hot spring.

A view over Frying Pan Lake, Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley. Photo by Pseudopanax, 27 April 2014, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Between 1900 and 1904 the Waimangu Geyser was also the world's largest geyser. The name means 'black water' as the geyser came up very murky due to all the volcanic ash it passed through. The area is still very active today.

The Waimangu Volcanic Valley is actually where the Pink and White Terraces were and possibly still remain, though buried. There is an app that you can get for the Waimangu area, the Waimangu Volcanic Valley App, which enables you to rediscover the Pink and White Terraces.

The Buried Village of Te Wairoa

From Tikitapu and Rotokākahi, you get to Lake Tarawera by way of Te Wairoa, the famous 'buried village'.

Mid-twentieth century tourism poster advertising the buried village of Te Wairoa, on the shores of Lake Tarawera. Mount Tarawera is visible in the background.

Te Wairoa is a sort of colonial Pompeii, which has been progressively excavated for decades. The excavations were begun in 1931 by a family whose members had been caught up in the eruption at Te Wairoa. It only cost me NZ $22 to do a tour of the village.

An information panel at Te Wairoa

The village of Te Wairoa was a prosperous and peaceful one, where Māori and Pākehā lived side by side, all thriving on the proceeds of the tourist trade: which in those days revolved around the world-famous Pink and White Terraces, natural wonders in which silica precipitates had slowly built up to form bathing-pools as hot water cascaded down two local hillsides. Here is part of a display from the local Te Wairoa Museum:

And a detail from an engraving of the White Terrace by Charles Heaphy, probably done in 1849. The Māori name for the White Terrace was Te Taratā, meaning the carved peak. The Pink Terrace was called Te Otukapuarangi, meaning the fountain of the clouded sky.

But all good things must come to an end, or so they say. And so, Mount Tarawera duly erupted and destroyed the terraces, and the model community of Te Wairoa as well. In fact, three villages were buried in total.

This did not mean that everyone was killed outright. At Te Wairoa, at least, the burial was gradual, and many people fled as it became clear that things were hopeless. Others were able to shelter in place and survive, though some were killed or injured when roofs fell in.

One of the survivors, famously, was the aged tōhunga or shaman I mentioned above, who was said to have predicted the eruption, though he died shortly after being rescued.

The old tōhunga's house has been preserved to this day.

In fact, everyone seems to have been sensing portents to some degree, to judge by a letter penned by another Pākehā tourist who was in the area at the time.

There's also a 30 metre or nearly 100 feet high waterfall near Te Wairoa, called Wairere ('swift waters') Falls. There is a larger and better-known Wairere Falls in the Kaimai Ranges; so these are the Wairere Falls near Te Wairoa, just to be specific.

The beautiful Wairere Falls near Te Wairoa

The trail to the Wairere Falls was first put through in the 1930s. There might well have been an older trail, but everything in the area, including old traditional paths, had been buried for decades.

Here's another collage I made, which includes Te Wairoa Museum staff dressed up in period costumes!

Along with Kaitiaki Adventures which does the climbs to the top of Mount Tarawera and some other things, you can also arrange guided tours and Lake Rotomahana boat trips on

The Tarawera regional tourism site Totally Tarawera is also very useful. In particular, it has an excellent history page which includes a beautiful and highly coloured image of the Pink Terraces.

Finally, here are my previous blog posts about the Rotorua area:

A Māori Yellowstone and a Jurassic Forest: Recreating an ancient ecology in Rotorua, New Zealand

Return to Rotorua

Around Rotorua: Te Puia's thermal wonderland, Ngongotahā, Railcruising, Hamurana Springs and Ōkere Falls

For more, see my book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half, available on this website


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