In the early hours of the morning of June 10 1886, the Tarawera range was erupting. By 2.30am its three peaks were in eruption, columns reaching thousands of metres into the sky. The death toll will never be known exactly but some 150 people are believed to have died that night.
Without warning on June 10 1886 Tarawera Mountain woke and rumbled into life. At 12:30am the first earthquakes were felt. People throughout the area were jolted awake as earthquakes became increasingly powerful. A rumbling noise began and by 2:30am Tarawera Mountain had ripped open across the summit domes. This fissure or hole began to erupt scoria and ash and an eruption cloud reached 9.5 km into the night sky.
Destructive, hurricane force winds developed as the eruption columns sucked in air from the surrounding countryside. Violent electrical storms above the eruption columns blasted into the night sky, with water vapours poured out by the eruption causing torrential rains. The final length of the craters was a massive 16-km long.
Worse was to come. Basalt magma mixed with the hydro-thermal system under Lake Rotomahana and, at 3.20am, the bed of Lake Rotomahana blew out, taking with it the famed Pink and White Terraces. Nearby villages of Te Ariki and Moura were buried under a scalding pyroclastic flow.
The settlement of Te Wairoa was almost completely destroyed by falling rocks and mud. At the schoolhouse Charles Haszard, his family and guests were awoken around 1am. They gazed in awe across the lake at a crimson glow above Tarawera.
As they watched, a dense black cloud rose above the glow, lit by a tremendous display of lightning.
A guest, William Bird, recalled the scene vividly: “Lake Tarawera was a copper mirror, reflecting the mountain from base to summit in a lurid glare. Dominating all, hung the great cloud-curtain, gloomy and dark above, saffron and orange on its under-surface. From the cloud, great balls of flaming rock dropped from time to time, descending with a splash into the waters of the lake.”
The awe of the watchers quickly turned to fear. A hail of stones began to rain down, and a strong wind accompanied by a deafening roar of smashed windows.
The death toll will never be known exactly but some 150 people are believed to have died that night. Maori guide Sophia later estimated that 62 people had survived the night with her in her whare. Five members of schoolmaster Charles Haszard's family perished and a young English guest named Edwin Bainbridge died under the falling verandah of the Rotomahana Hotel.
The grief was terrible for the Tuhourangi and Ngati Rangitihi people who lost family members, their livelihood and the bones of their ancestors in one terrible night.
Many of the survivors were offered land at Whakarewarewa and Ngapuna – and the Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley became the new home for many and the tradition of guiding continues in the thermal area today.
*This information has been shared and sourced from the people of Te Arawa and should be respected as their cultural and intellectual property. Not for commercial reproduction without express permission.