By Michael Travers
In 1886, New Zealand’s Mt. Tarawera violently erupted killing scores of people under tons of red-hot mud and ash, destroying then creating a lake, and obliterating the famous Pink and White Terraces in the process. Today the area is a geological and cultural wonderland and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country.
Surrounded by lakes, forests, hot springs and boiling pools of mud, Rotorua is the North Island’s best-known tourist town and people come from around the world to see and experience the myriad attractions that offer so much natural scenery and jaw-shattering adrenaline adventure that it would take a month of Sundays to see and do it all. Sadly for the visitor, each tourist operator seems to think that their operation is number one and they overcharge accordingly, making it a tad expensive to see and do everything you want. Moreover, the thrill is often over in seconds (a bungy jump!) - and where’s the value in that? For a full day of culture, history and natural history, not to mention being surrounded by the scenic wonder that makes New Zealand famous, visiting the Te Wairoa Buried Village and the Waimungu Volcanic Valley will not only give you more bang for your buck, they will also fill you with shock and awe. Both are only 15km and 25km from Rotorua respectively and inextricably linked in the shadow of the infamous mountain responsible for New Zealand’s worst natural disaster.
The Buried Village of Te Wairoa is truly unique to Rotorua. Set up in 1840 it was a prosperous mission settlement on the shores of Lake Tarawera. It was also the staging post for people coming to visit the Pink and White Terraces on the nearby Lake Rotomahana; great crystalline pools and waterfalls that cascaded down the hillsides of the lake. These huge, cascading structures were known as Otukapuarangi (fountain of the clouded sky) or Te Tarata (the tattooed rock) and were seen as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. Each pool had varying temperatures and mineral contents and people would travel from far and wide to soak in the waters, which were rumoured to cure every ailment from arthritis to asthma. All that changed on June 10, 1886 when nearby Mt Tarawera exploded without warning.
Just after midnight, people in Te Wairoa village were woken by a series of violent earthquakes. At about 2am the Ruawāhia Dome on Mt Tarawera erupted, sending molten scoria rushing down its sides and a cloud of ash 10 kilometres into the sky. In the following hours further craters were forced open, spewing out mud, ash and steam burying Te Wairoa, and other villages around the lake, under many metres of volcanic mud and ash. When the mountain erupted so did Lake Rotomahana, and the terraces were totally destroyed along with the lake.
Over 150 people were killed. Today, Te Wairoa is a living museum. It has been partially excavated over the years and offers a first-hand insight into the chaos and mayhem that transpired on the night of the eruption and is an authentic appreciation of the people of the village, both Maori and European, on how they lived and died.
Visitors enter appropriately through the gift shop before proceeding on through to a wonderfully curated museum, which shows the early lives of the local inhabitants with lots of artifacts and photos taken both before and after the eruption. A local tour guide will take you on a 45-minute tour through the half buried and excavated dwellings, both Maori and European, vividly detailing the dramatic events of the night. Random artifacts and remnants of colonial life lying in situ can be seen throughout the 12-acre site. A clear stream with rainbow trout runs along the side of the property which culminates in the 30-metrehigh Wairere Falls, accessible by walkway, that crash off into the forest below. From here it is only a five-minute drive to Lake Tarawera, where its impressive namesake volcano can be seen on the opposite bank a few kilometres away.
A 20-minute drive away to the south is the Waimungu Volcanic Valley (the other end of the catastrophe), a geothermal scar of hot pools, silica terraces and steam vents left behind by the concurrent eruption of Lake Rotomahana, which although destroyed by the eruption, filled to its current size of 20 times its original volume fifteen years later.
The area is a scenic reserve and the views down the valley from the visitors centre take in pristine native bush, steaming vents and the dramatic ragged-topped Mt. Tarawera in the distance above the lake. There are organized tours but it’s just as easy, and more leisurely, to simply take a brochure and head off down the well-marked lush forest track to see what unfolds. Among the sights are steaming lakes and cliffs, silica terraces, gurgling geysers, burping mud pools; all with names like Frying Pan lake and Emerald Pool, and, most spectacularly, a highly acidic cobalt-blue pool called the Inferno Crater, which overflows, recedes and oscillates over eight metres during a several week cycle.
At the bottom of the valley is Lake Rotomahana, where a 45- minute boat cruise will take you to see some of the more beautiful geothermal features inaccessible by land. After returning to the jetty a bus will be waiting to take you back to the top of the trail and the visitors centre so you don’t have to make the arduous walk to the top.
So, if you have no more than a day or two to visit Rotorua, don’t waste time and money bungy jumping or jet-boating - you can do that anywhere. Get out amongst the amazing culture, history and geothermal legacy that the region has to offer. You won’t regret it. Unless you hear a distant rumbling to the east, then simply run like hell!