Lake Tarawera, meaning 'Burnt Spear' is one of the largest lakes in New Zealand. The lake was home to many small Maori villages and mission settlements until the Tarawera eruption in 1886. Legend has it that a "waka wairua" (phantom canoe) appeared on the lake as a portent of death a few days prior to the eruption.

Lake Tarawera is a picturesque lake, famous for the size and condition of its rainbow trout. Several lakes in the area drain into it directly or via groundwater, along with geothermal springs on the southern and northern shores. Lake Tarawera is a deep lake; any water flowing in to it stays there for around 10 years.

History & Legends


The Pink & White Terraces

Rotorua is the birthplace of New Zealand tourism with the famed pink and white terraces considered one of the eight wonders of the natural world. They were reclaimed by Mount Tarawera when it erupted late in the 19th century.

The Maori people who lived near Tarawera Mountain faced many changes during the nineteenth century.  Early in the 19th century missionaries came to spread the message of Christianity. Pioneer missionary Seymour Mills Spencer, and his wife Ellen, built a mission station at Kariri (Galilee) in 1843, later moving to the more fertile valley of Te Wairoa where a village was laid out along English lines.

Early visitors to the Pink and White Terraces stayed with missionaries.  Governor Grey’s visit in 1849 helped spread the fame of the terraces and the “thermal wonderland” to the far-away Victorian world.


Te Tarata - The White Terraces

Te Tarata, which means the 'tattooed rock', covered three hundred hectares and tumbled to the lake from a height of 30m, fanning to a frontage of 240m and covering seven acres.

At the base, where the terraces dissappeared into the lake, the height and distance between the platforms could be measured in millimetres. The higher up the greater the distance between the, those near the top being around 3.5m high.



Otukapuarangi - The Pink Terraces

Otukapuarangi, which means `fountain of the clouded sky’, was slightly smaller. 
The steps gradually rose to the crater platform where three one metre deep basins were filled with warm, clear blue water making superb bathing places.  The Pink Terrace was wider at the top than the White Terrace, narrowing to 23 metres on the lakeshore.

Victorian travellers recorded their experience in a rich legacy of art, photographs and words.

Writer Anthony Trollope enjoyed a bath in one of the pools of the Pink Terrace in 1874: “In the bath, when you strike your chest against it, it is soft to the touch, you press yourself against it and it is smooth…..The baths are shell-like in shape, like vast open shells, the walls of which are concave and the lips ornamented in a thousand forms.”





The wealth of tourism from the Pink and White Terraces was easily spent by the Maori and Tuhoto Ariki an old priest warned disaster would come if they forgot the ways of their ancestors. Ten days before the eruption a ghost canoe was seen on Lake Tarawera – it was a waka wairua, a spirit canoe. The Maori believed an event such as this foretold many deaths among the people.

Visitors were willing to pay a high price to visit the Pink and White Terraces on Lake Rotomahana.  Annual income for village residents was said to reach up to ₤4,000 each. The eyes of carvings on the wharenui Hinemihi, where tourists were entertained with an extended haka, were decorated with gold sovereigns instead of paua shell.  

The wealth that came with tourism also had a dark side. The wealth was easily spent and illness and alcohol took a heavy toll on the Maori people. Tuhoto Ariki, an old priest of great power and wisdom, warned the Tuhourangi people that to forget the ways of their ancestors would bring disaster.

Ten days before the eruption, on May 31 1886, Guide Sophia on her way to the terraces with a group of six European visitors, saw a mysterious canoe on Lake Tarawera. Both European and Maori statements about the strange sitting have been recorded. The canoe appeared to be racing and was sufficiently close for the group to see the flash of paddles. 
When the tourist boat turned Moura point to enter the Te Ariki arm of Lake Tarawera, the canoe passed from their view. To the Maori onlookers the meaning was clear – it was a waka wairua, a spirit canoe. An event such as this foretold many deaths among the people.

There were other signs of disturbance. Wairoa creek dried but, as people watched, the water returned with “a crying sound all along the shores of the lake.”  Then the water rushed away again, exposing the muddy creek bed.

Much later, Guide Sophia remembered another event. The old chief Rangiheuea had offered “Tapu” honey collected on Tarawera Mountain to her. Knowing it was tapu (sacred), she had instantly refused.  Everyone who ate the honey died in the eruption, including the chief.


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.


This deep clear lake is renowned for the size, condition and rapid growth of the rainbow trout it produces. Its reputation draws anglers from around the world to Rotorua in search of trophy fish. Many in excess of 4kg are taken.

The lake is open to both fly fishing and trolling, with lead core or wire lines, from October 1 to June 30, except for the Tarawera Outlet, which closes on May 31, in order to protect spawning fish. The river upstream from the footbridge, is a totally closed spawning reserve.

While deep trolling can produce beautiful trout throughout the season to the patient fisherman, little fly fishing is done until late March.


Walking Tracks


Tarawera Outlet to Humphries Bay

This area was extensively altered by the 1886 Tarawera eruption, but the landscape is slowly regenerating. Cross the bridge at Tarawera Outlet and take the left-hand track at the junction.

The 6 km, 3 hours one way, track passes a jetty a short distance from the outlet and progresses westward. The track climbs inland and descends into Humphries Bay, a pleasant picnic and camping area.

Trampers can then take the Eastern Okataina Walkway north to access Ōtangimoana Bay on Lake Okataina (approximately 20 minutes one way) and carry on for a further 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete the walkway at Okataina car park (Tauranganui Bay). 



Tarawera Outlet to Falls Track

The 5km, 2 hours one way, track begins at the Tarawera Outlet. Cross the bridge and take the right-hand track at the junction. The track meanders through native bush, largely following the river, which disappears underground at various sites. This section of track is amazingly picturesque, bobbing and weaving over

The water at Tarawera Falls surges out of fissures in a large rock cliff face surrounded by native bush. The cliff is, in fact, the end of an ancient lava flow. The plant life seen here today has developed since the 1886 Tarawera eruption. An unusual feature is the range of hybrids that have evolved from closely related species pōhutukawa and rātā.

From the Waterfall Rd car park, follow the track that heads upstream along the Tarawera River. Cross the bridge and continue upstream to the falls viewing area.





Tarawera Outlet

Accessible by car, foot and boat, this large, self-registration camping area is the perfect spot for family summer holidays.

Facilities include toilets, cooking shelter, reticulated water supply and a boat ramp – dogs are welcome too. Walking tracks and good places to trout fish are all nearby. Access by car is via Kaweraw and permit is required to use the private forestry roads. 



Hot Water Beach

Accessible by boat only, the Hot Water Beach campsite in Te Rata Bay is a popular summer time destination. Enjoy the nearby geothermally heated hot water beaches and cook in the thermal sands on the shores of Lake Tarawera. Water Taxis are available for drop off and pick up.



Humphries Bay

Accessible by boat, kayak, or foot via the Northern Tarawera Track or the Eastern Okataina Walkway - a small and basic campsite at the Northern Arm of Lake Tarawera. Camping is restricted to visitors arriving on foot or via kayak only.