Tag Archives: Te Wairoa

Digging up Te Wairoa

After the Tarawera eruption, Te Wairoa and the surrounding countryside lay buried under metres of mud and abandoned by those who had survived the horrors of that fateful night. Only the curious and the ghoulish rode out from Rotorua to view the devastation.

Te Wairoa Waterfall
Te Wairoa Waterfall

In time, the grass, scrub and bush grew back and covered the scarred landscape. Tarawera, with its lake, bush walks, streams and waterfall, became a favourite spot for day-trippers and picnickers. In the 1990s, Cecil Way, the grand-son of the missionary Seymour Spencer, one of earliest Pakeha settlers in the area, opened the Te Wairoa tea rooms on the site of the original village. They enjoyed great popularity for a time but when Cecil Way retired and moved away, there were no takers for the business. .

In 1931 Reg. Smith a Rotorua accountant, and his wife Violet, bought the site. With sons Dudley and Basil, they cleared the land of gorse and blackberry and developed a small farm. While Reg. cycled off to town each day, his wife Violet ran the re-opened the tearooms.

A round-trip coach tour of the Waimangu Valley thermal valley and the lakes brought the tourists back to Te Wairoa and into Violet Smith’s tearooms. When the visitors showed an interest in seeing the remains of the old settlement, the Buried Village experience began.

Although the Smiths had uncovered some of Te Wairoa’s buried buildings as they made way for their farm, formal excavations did not begin until after Dudley Smith returned from the Second World War. Professional archaeologists were employed and the village and all its treasures were brought to light. The tearooms were re-built as a replica of the old Rotomahana Hotel, with a gift-shop and a small museum of photos and artefacts.

The next generation of Smiths developed the site to include reconstructions of village buildings and a new, modern, multi-media museum.

A visit to the Buried Village makes a great day out. The village itself provides, not only an insight into the devastation caused by a volcanic eruption but also a glimpse of life in a 19th century colonial village. The surrounding bush is simply beautiful and the views across the hills to the lake are absolutely stunning. You can watch fat trout swimming lazily in the crystal clear waters of the Te Wairoa stream then follow it down through the trees as it crashes in a long cascade down the cliff face. And, of course, you really must finish your day with a Devonshire Tea.

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