The 1886 Tarawera Eruption – Precursors

The 120th anniversary of the eruption of Mt Tarawera on the 10th June 1886 was widely remembered earlier this year.

Vulcanology was poorly understood at the time, so it’s not surprising that a series of events which had occurred 5 years earlier were not fully appreciated, despite being widely reported in the nation’s newspapers during 1881.

New Zealand already had a fledgling tourist industry by the late 1870s, with wealthy visitors, writers, naturalists, and others visiting our shores to enjoy the scenery, walk in the bush, soak in the spas and marvel at the geology.

Ohinemutu, now part of Rotorua city, was the starting point for tourists wishing to visit the thermal wonders of the Volcanic Plateau. Visitors could take guided tours to the Pink and White Terraces at Tarawera, soak in hot pools, wander around areas of bubbling mud pools or watch geyser displays.

Scientific knowledge of the geological mechanisms responsible for all the activity was slowly growing, and the community had a keen interest in the reporting odd or unusual behaviour. So, it’s not surprising that a series of incidents in the Bay of Plenty area were well-reported.

Mt Ngauruhoe, on the flanks of Mt Tongariro south of Lake Taupo, had been active on and off, with eruptions in 1870, 1875 and 1878 and it was just getting ready for its next eruptive episode which began on the 6th of July 1881.

The Poverty Bay Herald of Monday 30th May 1881 carried the following report in the eloquent prose of the time:

“The Ohinemutu correspondent of the New Zealand Herald, writing on May 5th, gives the following account of a strange phenomenon which occurred in that district during the previous week: – Visitors to the hot lakes will remember the lovely drive from Ohinemutu to the Wairoa, passing through about one mile of the prettiest bit of bush scenery in perhaps all New Zealand. Upon emerging from the lofty bower of tangled fern and moss-clad hoary trunks of mightly trees, a glimpse is caught of a dazzling sheet of deep sky-blue water nestling in a basin of fern-clad hills. It is the prettiest romantic Tikitapu Lake, generally known as the ‘blue lake.’ Following the white sandy road by the margin of the lake, we come to a thin uprising ridge of rock, from the summit of which we look down on to a fine stretching slatey-grey mass of water known as Rotokakahi. The lake lies some 90 ft. lower than the blue lake, but no communication has ever been found between them.

“A few days ago the Rotokakahi gradually turned a most peculiar, intense, vivid pea green colour, and its temperature suddenly rose from about 60 deg. Fahr., at the same time rising in its basin some 2 ft. in height. A small creek generally as clear as crystal, runs from this lake through the English-like, pretty village of Wairoa, and dashing in a sheet of pearly foam over the celebrated Wairoa falls, enters the waters of Lake Tarawera. This stream, upon the rising of Rotokakahi, became green, and discoloured for some distance the waters of Tarawera. The natives got somewhat alarmed, and a deputation of them, purchasing a quantity of candles, sat by the edge of the lake the whole of one night in expectation of seeing the water rise and submerge their village. Many of them took to the hills for a refuge. Towards daybreak the waters subsided, and quietened their fears. One remarkable feature was the many thousands of dead and dying fish, which were swept down the creek or cast gaping upon the shore. Carefully examining these fish, they present exactly the same appearance as those found floating dead on the East Coast some twelve months ago, on which much discussion took place.

“How to account for this freak of nature both Europeans and natives are at a loss. Most likely the disturbances lately at White Island have extended far inland towards the western coast. About this time, too, many of the geysers on the banks of the Utuhina Creek, near Lake House Hotel at Ohinemutu, suddenly, threw up a column of water some thirty feet in height, and in a few minutes subsided. Some of the remote springs lying out at Sulphur Point show that about this time some unusual action was at work.”

Two weeks later, The Poverty Bay Herald of Tuesday the 14th of June 1881 carried another report, this time from a vessel en route to Auckland on May 30th:

“A most alarming volcanic eruption was witnessed from the s.s. Taiaroa as she passed Cape Colville on Monday fortnight last, [i.e. Monday 30th May 1881] on the way from Gisborne to Auckland. When just off the Cape a most remarkable upheaval of water, mud, sand, shells, etc., took place, the description of which as given, is of the same nature as the eruption seen from the Glenelg about a month ago between the Slipper and Mayor Island. The Taiaroa’s course had to be altered considerably to keep clear of the boiling waters, and it is said that had a sailing vessel been in such close proximity as the steamer, she would most likely have been unable to keep clear, and have been engulfed and never heard of. At first the eruption was thought to indicate that a reef was somewhere near at hand, but there was no reef set down. Steamers and sailing vessels are in the habit of passing over the spot, but they will now, like Captain Anderson, determine to give it a wide berth.”

Conditions under the Volcanic Plateau were changing in the lead-up to the eruption at Mount Tarawera.

[Information sourced from The Poverty Bay Herald and East Coast News Letter, published by Samuel Pullman Craig at Gladstone Road, Gisborne, selected May and June editions, 1881. Access kindly provided by the National Library of New Zealand through its Papers Past website.]

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