The night of June 9th 1886 was cold and clear.
In the early hours of the morning of June 10th 1886, Tarawera Mountain erupted.
By 2.30am its three peaks were in eruption, columns reaching thousands of metres into the sky.
Worse was to come.
Basalt magma mixed with the hydro-thermal system under Lake Rotomahana
and at around 3.20am the bed of Lake Rotomahana blew out, taking with it the terraces.
Nearby villages of Te Ariki and Moura were buried under a scalding pyroclastic flow.
The settlement of Te Wairoa was almost completely destroyed by falling rocks and mud. At the schoolhouse Charles Haszard, his family and guests were awoken around 1am. They gazed in awe across the lake at a crimson glow above Tarawera. As they watched, a dense black cloud rose above the glow, lit by a tremendous display of lightning.
A guest, William Bird, recalled the scene vividly: “Lake Tarawera was a copper mirror, reflecting the mount from base to summit in a lurid glare. Dominating all, hung the great cloud-curtain, gloomy and dark above, saffron and orange on its under-surface. From the cloud, great balls of flaming rock dropped from time to time, descending with a splash into the waters of the lake.”
The awe of the watchers quickly turned to fear. A hail of stones began to rain down, and a strong wind accompanied by a deafening roar of smashed windows.
The death toll will never be known exactly; around 120 people died that night. Guide Sophia later estimated that 62 people had survived the night with her in her whare. Five members of schoolmaster Charles Haszard’s family perished and a young English guest named Edwin Bainbridge died under the falling verandah of the Rotomahana Hotel.
Written by Edwin Bainbridge of Newcastle on Tyne, England.
“This is the most awful moment of my life. I cannot tell when I may be called upon to meet my God. I am thankful that I find His strength sufficient for me. We are under heavy falls of Volcanoe.”
The Time of Grief
The grief was terrible for the Tuhourangi and Ngati Rangitihi people. They lost family members, their livelihood and the bones of their ancestors in one terrible night. Many of the refugees were offered land at Whakarewarewa and Ngapuna. Whilst nothing can ease the loss, moves are now underway by members of the Tuhourangi and Ngati Rangitihi hapu to have ownership of some of their lost lands returned.
“In the heart of the Tuhourangi people today, it is strongly believed that the lands and waters in the shadow of Tarawera Maunga where the wairua of our ancestors still walk will again be ours,” wrote Rea Rangiheuea in 1992.
The eruption of Tarawera Mountain happened over 100 years ago. Rotorua is very close to the place where great tectonic plates meet; the land has been moving here for thousands of years and continues to do so. Deep in Tarawera Mountain the pressure builds, the mountain merely sleeps. Scientists measure volcanic activity, keeping an eye on the restless earth for signs of a the next eruption.
Tourists from all over the world still visit the mountain, many transported to its awesome summit by descendants of the people who escorted early visitors to the terraces. People can even trace this fascinating story by experiencing the violent eruption of Mount Tarawera at the Rotorua Museum; exploring the excavated site of Te Wairoa Village known today as “The Buried Village”; and meet the descendants of the survivors in their living thermal village at Te Whakarewarewa.
The eruption of Tarawera Mountain happened over 100 years ago.