In this post, I describe a trip to the most notorious of all the Rotorua lakes, Lake Tarawera, at the foot of Mount Tarawera where the great eruption of 1886 took place, and nearby Lake Rotomahana, where the fabled Pink and White Terraces now lie under mud and water.
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 ‘blue’ and ‘green’ lakes of Tikitapu and Rotokākahi, the smallest and also among the prettiest of the well-known lakes in the region.
I also check out the Waimangu thermal valley, which actually continues the incredible volcanic fissure that lies at the heart of Mount Tarawera, and nearby Wai-o-Tapu, the fourth ‘thermal wonderland’ of the region after Te Puia, Ōrākei Kōrako and Waimangu, and which claims to be its most “colourful and diverse.”
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.
Here is a short video that I made:
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-quarters centuries before the 1886 eruption. So, I imagine that it has been scorched-looking for a very long time.
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. 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.
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.
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 Taupō 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 Taupō — 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 Taupō 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 Taupō 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 Taupō 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.
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.
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.
Just past Lake Tarawera is Lake Rotomahana, which existed only in the form of two much smaller lakes before the 1886 eruption, and which is a continuation of the great Tarawera Fissure, which created the crater of Mount Tarawera in 1886.
I went for a boat tour on Lake Rotomahana, which included sailing up close to the location of the former Pink and White Terraces, now a steaming hillside.
In 2019, there was a plan for an expedition to the bottom of the lake to try and find the Pink and White Terraces, but then Covid hit and put the scheme on hold, at least for the time being.
I made a video of the boat tour, including a view of a sudden eruption of steam: the sort of thing that makes people nervous since the eruption on Whakaari / White Island in 2019, an island that used to be a tourist destination but is no longer.
Beyond Lake Rotomahana, and still in line with the Tarawera Fissure, is 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.
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.
Here are some photos that I took on my latest visit. First, my own photo of Frying Pan Lake, showing more of its greenish colour. Frying Pan Lake is officially called Waimangu Cauldron, and it is the world’s largest hot spring.
Here are some green algae in a stream, of a type that perhaps contributes to the colour of Frying Pan Lake. The temperature of the lake is 50 to 60 degrees C, which is just within the range of temperatures that so-called ‘thermophilic algae’ can stand.
There’s also a place called Inferno Crater, which is actually quite pretty and turquoise-blue. I took a selfie, catching my friend Esther, who was busy photographing something else, in the background.
Here’s an information panel about “the largest geyser ever recorded,” called Waimangu, meaning ‘black water’. The valley is named after the Waimangu Geyser, though that particular geyser is no longer active.
Here’s a sign that caught my attention: maybe the Māori warrior is a personification of all the land’s unruly spirits!
This whole area really is quite a bit more active than its American equivalent, Yellowstone; though not as active, on a day-to-day basis, as Whakaari / White Island, where all those tourists were killed and injured in a huge steam explosion in 2019. There has been a long-running court case over Whakaari, as, basically, it was just stupid taking tourists to that place.
However, people have a better idea of the balance of risk and reward at Rotorua, which has been a well-established tourist destination for about as long as Yellowstone.
We had the whole valley to ourselves as in mid-September, when we were there, it was the shoulder season: definitely the time to go!
From Tikitapu and Rotokākahi, you get to Lake Tarawera by way of Te Wairoa, the famous ‘buried village’.
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.
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-foot-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 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!
Finally, just down State Highway 5 in the direction of the Waikato River, you come to the fourth of the region’s ‘volcanic wonderlands’ and supposedly its most “colourful and diverse,” Wai-o-Tapu or the sacred waters, also spelled Waiotapu.
I filmed the daily eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser, set off daily at 10:15 am by dropping soap down its throat, an accidental discovery made by minimum-security prisoners from a nearby camp in the early 1900s, as they were washing their clothes in the hot geothermal waters.
Because it is artificially triggered and was only discovered in the twentieth century, it has no traditional Māori name and is instead named after Constance Knox, a daughter of one of our Governors-General at the time. The soap suds give it a characteristically soapy appearance and are partly incorporated into the volcano-like structure from which it now projects.
Between Waimangu and Waiotapu, you can bathe for free in the gothermally heated Kerosene Creek, and also at the Hot’n’Cold Streams on Waiotapu Loop Road, halfway between State Highway 5 and the entrance to the Wai-o-Tapu Welcome Centre. If you zoom in close enough, the location of each bathing area is given on Google Maps.
The Waiotapu Tavern is another place where you can stay quite cheaply in the shoulder season, for just $70. It is popular with motorcycle tourists.
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.
Bookme NZ is good for bookings in the Rotorua area. And do go in the shoulder seasons, which are in autumn from March to May and in spring from September to November, when the weather is reasonably OK — indeed, ideal — and there are not yet the throngs of summer, a time of year when this part of the world can also get pretty hot and dusty.
Finally, here are my previous blog posts about the Rotorua area:
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, a-maverick.com.
Subscribe to our mailing list to receive free giveaways!