Experiencing Tarawera’s Eruption

Early in the morning of the 10th of June 1886 residents of the Bay of Plenty experienced, first-hand, the sudden eruption of a previously dormant volcano. The sudden eruption was so violent that residents of Gisborne district, 140 km away, heard the explosions, saw the rising ash clouds and received a coating of volcanic ash.

Near the opposite shore of Lake Tarawera from the mountain, residents and tourists had become alarmed during the evening of the 9th at the sudden onset of many earthquakes, some violent. Most of the tourists were spending the night at the hotel in the village of Te Wairoa which had sprung up to allow visitors to experience the thermal wonders of the area, and visit and bathe in the famous Pink and White Terraces at nearby Lake Rotomahana.

At the time, New Zealand was a growing colony of Great Britain, and the Victorian past-time of the “Grand Tour” brought a welcome boost to the growing economy. However, the tourism had its downside, bringing alcohol, money and young men looking for pleasure to the many Maori settlements in the area.

Maori communities were divided between those who wished to retain traditional ways and those who wished to move with the tide of change brought by the European. A local tohunga (Maori priest or knowledgeable person) had warned of impending doom, and the appearance of a phantom war canoe (waka) paddling across Lake Tarawera 10 days before the eruption added to the tension. The canoe was seen by Maori and European alike, and some observers reported the warriors had dogs heads, and that the waka mysteriously disappeared in the misty conditions at the time.

The eruption was a relatively small one by New Zealand standards and, though it only lasted 6 hours, the opening of a 17-km long rift through the three domes of Mt. Tarawera (Wahanga, Ruawahia and Tarawera Domes) was to have a profound effect on the area. Ash up to a metre thick was deposited up to 10 km away, and many tourist attractions were destroyed. European settlers counted 120 bodies, but the death toll may have been in the thousands as the ash affected many small villages occupied by Maori that Europeans never visited.

The story of the Tarawera eruption is thoroughly covered by exhibitions at the museum at the nearby city of Rotorua which grew from the initial settlement of Ohinemutu on the shore of Lake Rotorua. Many artifacts from the eruption are on display, and a short documentary describing the event plays regularly in a small alcove in the display area.

A feature of the current display is a longer video presentation which plays at 20 minute intervals in the main auditorium. The presentation covers the social, economic and geological aspects of the Tarawera eruption both before and after the eruption. Museum staff have gone to some lengths to make the presentation both informative and entertaining. But make sure that nervous adults and young children are supervised. The seating in the auditorium has been set to move abruptly in a most realistic way during the earthquake and eruption sequences on the video. Most perplexing is the very realistic rotational movement of the seating which caused a grandmother to hastily evacuate a distressed youngster from the auditorium when I was last there. Even so, the 15-odd minute presentation is not to be missed.

The Rotorua Museum is located in the refurbished Bath House, built as part of government investment in tourist facilities 1908. The opening of the spa rejuvenated the local tourism industry which had languished after the Tarawera Eruption. It is situated in the Government Gardens on the shore of Lake Rotorua, within easy walking distance of central Rotorua. The museum is well-signposted in the city, but foreknowledge is required to easily locate it once in the gardens, a small oversight.

One of the villages buried by the eruption’s ash, Te Wairoa, has been largely excavated and provides stunning insights into the effects of a volcanic eruption. From the lakeside nearby, the triple domes of the volcano responsible can be viewed.

For the more adventurous, it is possible to walk around and down into the rift craters of Mount Tarawera. Allow at least half a day if you wish to scramble down the scree slopes to the rift floor – a dramatic experience which rewards the adventurer with remarkable views. On a clear day, other nearby volcanoes can be observed from the top of the domes, of which Ruawahia is the tallest at 1111 metres. Access is via 4-wheel drive vehicle, and charges are steep as the volcano is on sacred, private land which is tightly managed and preserved. Several different tour options, one of which offers a return leg via helicopter, are available.

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