Volcanic activity provides the main theme for attractions southeast of Rotorua, most having some association with Lake Tarawera and the jagged line of volcanic peaks and craters along the southeastern shore, collectively known as Mount Tarawera, which erupted in 1886.

Prior to that eruption Tarawera was New Zealand’s premier tourist destination, with thousands of visitors every year crossing lakes Tarawera and Rotomahana in whaleboats and waka, frequently guided by the renowned Maori guide Sophia, to the Pink and White Terraces, two separate fans of silica that cascaded down the hillside to the edge of Lake Rotomahana. Boiling cauldrons bubbled at the top of each formation, spilling mineral-rich water down into a series of staggered cup-shaped pools, the outflow of one filling the one below. Most visitors favoured the Pink Terraces, which were prettier and better suited to sitting and soaking. All this came to an abrupt end on the night of June 10, 1886, when the long-dormant Mount Tarawera erupted, creating 22 craters along a 17km rift, and covering over 15,000 square kilometres in mud and scoria. The Pink and White Terraces were shattered by the buckling earth, covered by ash and lava, then submerged deep under the waters of Lake Rotomahana.

The cataclysm had been foreshadowed eleven days earlier, when two separate canoe-loads of Pakeha tourists and their Maori guides saw an ancient waka glide out of the mist, with a dozen warriors paddling furiously, then vanish just as suddenly; the ancient tohunga (priest) Tuhoto Ariki interpreted this as a sign of imminent disaster. The fallout from the eruption buried five villages, including the staging post for the Pink and White Terrace trips, Te Wairoa, where the tohunga, lived. In a classic case of blaming the messenger, the inhabitants refused to rescue the tohunga and it wasn’t until four days later that they allowed a group of Pakeha to dig him out. Miraculously he lived, for a week.

In 2011, scientists discovered that rather than being completely destroyed, parts of the Pink Terraces appear to have survived the 1886 eruption (the White Terraces are thought to have been more likely to have been affected). The gas and hot water vents discovered on the lake floor indicate rare active underwater geothermal systems, which scientists are continuing to research.

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