Tarawera – A Sacred Mountain
A Land of Volcanoes
The Rotorua District is famous for its volcanoes and geothermal activity. The dramatic landscape shows evidence of past activity – volcanic mountains, valleys, geysers, springs and hot pools abound.
Over hundreds of thousands of years, molten lava exploded through the earth’s thin crust in the area where Tarawera Mountain now stands. Eruptions built up the mountain, layer upon layer of rhyolite forced from the fires below.
For hundreds of years the restless earth slept allowing marvellous natural wonders to form.
The People of the Land
Early Arawa explorers who pushed inland from coastal Maketu discovered the secrets of a land of thermal wonders.
Legend says that Ngatoroirangi, the navigator priest who came to Aotearoa with the Arawa canoe, drew fire to warm himself on the frozen slopes of Tongariro. He also trapped the feared sorcerer Tama-o-Hoi into the depths of the Tarawera Mountain.
Te Arawa people settled in the area, sometimes living peacefully, sometimes at war with other tribes for the rich resources of the area. Over many generations they buried their dead on the slopes of their sacred mountain.
Sometimes Ruaumoko (ancestral god of earthquakes) groaned deep within the earth, causing the ground to shake, and reminding people of the volcanic power below.
The Century of Change
All this was to change in the nineteenth century. Seymour Mills Spencer and his wife Ellen established a Christian mission station in 1843 on Tauaroa, a rocky headland on the shores of Lake Tarawera, and named it Kariri or Galilee. The Spencers later shifted to the more fertile valley of Te Wairoa. Early visitors helped spread the fame of the area’s wonders to an eager Victorian world. Ohinemutu on the shores of Lake Rotorua became a stopover on the way to the terraces, and Te Wairoa grew into a bustling village of around 150.
A Land of Volcanoes
Tourism in New Zealand was born here. By 1860 the Tuhourangi people were organising day trips to the terraces and at Hinemihi meeting house the eyes of the carvings were made of gold sovereigns and the people grew rich.
There is a darker side to the story. These were times of upheaval and crisis for a society undergoing tremendous change. The unprecedented wealth was easily spent, and alcohol and illness took their toll as people became dependant on a cash economy. Tuhoto Ariki, a tohunga (priest) of great power, warned the people that disaster could follow. The sighting of a phantom canoe ten days before the eruption confirmed his fears for the area. “He tohu tera ara ka horo katoa enei takiwa” – “it is a warning sign that all will be overwhelmed.”