The end of the 8th wonder of the world

Hailed as the 8th wonder of the world, the Pink and White Terraces brought tourists from around the globe. While the local Tuhourangi people grew rich and the nearby village of Te Wairoa  prospered from the terraces’ fame, not everyone was happy.

Tarawera today
Tarawera today

Tuhotu, the 100 year tohunga, or priest of the tribe, condemned the new tourist trade which had introduced his people to decadent Pakeha ways, and in particular, to alcohol. Disaster, he predicted, would befall both Tuhourangi and the town of Te Wairoa.

Tuhotu’s predictions might have been ignored, which probably would have been better for him, but there were other signs of doom. Tuhourangi’s famous guide Sophia, noticed strange changes in the lake. One day the water level dropped, draining from estuaries and creeks and leaving eels and fish stranded on dry land. The following day it rose, covering the shoreline and trickling up into the bush.

The most chilling portent came when Sophia was rowing a party of tourists across to the terraces. Out of nowhere a large traditional carved waka, or canoe, slid across the water towards them. Its three occupants gave no response to Sophia’s karanga, or call of greeting, but paddled silently by, with their eyes fixed on the distant mountain. As she watched, the numbers in waka swelled to thirteen and then phantom canoe with its ghostly crew vanished in a shaft of sunlight.

But the fate of Tuhourangi and Te Wairoa seemed finally sealed, when a hunting party took wild honey from the slopes of the tapu, or sacred, mountain, Tarawera.

Just after midnight on June 10, 1886, Te Wairoa was shaken by a series of violent earthquakes. Then, just after 1.00 a.m., Tarawera’s first crater erupted, belching fire, red hot stones, ash and smoke into the night sky. Cone by cone, the eruptions spread along the eight kilometre mountain ridge. Smouldering rocks rained down on the surrounding countryside, setting the scrub alight. Scorching winds roared through the bush, stripping the trees. Streams of fiery lava poured into the lakes. They turned into boiling cauldrons, throwing up mud and steam, which rained down on Te Wairoa and all the Tuhourangi villages along the shore.

Houses, two stores, the bakery, the blacksmith’s business and two hotels buckled and splintered like match boxes under the onslaught. Some people stayed in their houses and were crushed. Others ran out into the maelstrom and were killed by flying debris. Some lucky souls made their way through the darkness towards the lantern on the porch of Guide Sophia’s whare. Others sheltered in the tribal meeting house, Hinemihi. Three more huddled in a chicken coop. Although these buildings were no stronger than any others in the area, their steeply pitched roofs allowed the mud and rocks to roll off. They all withstood and all inside survived.

The eruption left Te Wairoa buried under more than a metre of mud, the surrounding countryside devastated, 153 people dead and all the survivors homeless and without a livelihood. The waters of Lake Rotomahana had risen and closed over the Pink and White Terraces. The Eighth Wonder of the World was lost forever.

Many people blamed the Tohanga, Tuhotu. They believed that Tuhotu had used witchcraft to cause the disaster, as a punishment for Tuhourangi’s decadence. And, even when he was discovered alive in his half-buried whare, several days later, they refused to dig him out. He was rescued several, eventually, by a party of Pakeha but was ostracised by his people. Tuhotu died the following year later in a sanatorium.

Others blamed the hunting party who had taken the wild honey from Tarawera. They believed that they had disturbed the evil spirit, Tama-o-hoi, who had been imprisoned in the mountain in ancient times by Nga toro, a Te Arawa chief. Furious at the disturbance, Tama-a-hoi had burst from his prison and unleashed fire and brimstone on Te Wairoa and Tuhourangi. Everyone who had eaten the Tarawera honey had perished. All who had refused it were spared.

Tarawera has remained quiet for almost a century and a half now, but scientists believe that it could erupt at any time