“After walking over a mile, we came in sight of the White Terrace, and here language fails to describe its beauties. Fancy a mountain of snow glittering in the sunshine and huge cups and basins shaped in fairylike forms, always running over with water of the most marvellous blue.” so wrote Louise Sise to a friend on the 17th June 1886.


Louise was in the last tour group to see the famed Pink and White Terraces at Rotomahana in the central North Island. The young Dunedin tourist was deeply affected by the awesome beauty of nature’s exquisite handiwork. So were artists and photographers who travelled from Europe to stand speechless in front of them. English artist, Henry Bates sat down to sketch the terraces, “but after a few minutes, I gave up the idea, it would be impossible to do anything like justice to it. I believe the greatest painters in the world could not do so. To describe it is equally impossible it is almost too beautiful for the world.”

Tour Group on White Terrace (buriedvillage.co.nz)

Maoris called this natural wonder ‘fountain of the clouded sky’. Tourist publications of the time gave considerable space to an attraction dubbed ‘one of the wonders of the modern world’. New Zealand considered itself lucky to have such a magic drawcard. That luck turned to mud on the terrible night of June 10th 1886. In one of the most spectacular volcanic eruptions in modern times, the previously dormant Mt. Tarawera changed the face of the countryside for miles around.  The eruption lasted a terrifying 6 hours as columns of smoke and ash shot 10km into the sky. Torrents of mud cascaded over the area surrounding the mountain.  The explosion formed a 17km rift along Mt. Tarawera.  Although 120 people lost their lives, many, including government officials were more concerned the Pink and White Terraces had been damaged.

Mt. Tarawera Erupting (waimangu.co.nz)


First reports following the eruption were encouraging. News reached Wellington that the famous attraction had been covered in ash and that in time, they would be restored to their formal glory. Premier Sir Robert Stout even reported to Parliament the following day that both terraces were safe. The relieved house greeted the announcement with loud applause.

Subsequent news from the disaster area was less encouraging. An eruption heard as far south as Christchurch and felt over most of the North Island was not going to let the surrounding countryside off lightly. As the huge black ash cloud hovered ominously over Tauranga, a frantic mayor cabled Auckland for evacuation ships. Rotorua was plunged into darkness as the fine ash settled over the terrified town. Three days later, the SS Waimea while on her way from Auckland to London was coated in ash 600 miles out at sea.

More than ash fell. Eyewitnesses to the eruption saw rocks ‘the size of houses’ projected into the air before crashing down the side of the convulsing mountain.  Lightning fizzed in the blackness, and a chilling cold wind only added to the terror. All the while, a deafening rumble like ‘constant cannon fire at close range’ accompanied nature’s ferocious fireworks display. The village of Te Wairoa was buried and Tokiniho, Moura, Te Ariki and Rotomahana were devastated. New Zealanders now began to accept the sad fact that the young colony’s famous tourist attraction in the midst of all this was also destroyed.


There was little warning of the impending disaster as the excited tour group was rowed across calm Lake Tarawera on the 9th June 1886. They would soon marvel, like so many before them, at a spectacular gem of nature. Many a captivated tourist claimed the terraces were as spectacular as any other major attraction in the world. Little did anyone in that last tour group ever imagine that twelve hours later this wondrous sight would be replaced by a grey gully oozing slowly into dangerous mud pits. Before that fateful night, tourist numbers had kept many local Maori operators busy. There were even plans to build a large hotel near the White Terrace to accommodate the swelling numbers wanting to see what all the fuss was about.

Lake Tarawera Today (rotorualakescouncil.nz)


A week before the eruption, some Maoris had become concerned after witnessing a mysterious swelling of the lake level, followed by a strange drop in water level. The creek where tourists boarded the rowboat for the trip to the Pink and White Terraces actually dried up. Some believed it was an ill omen and were convinced the world was about to end. For many of them, it did. The Tarawera eruption changed the face of the hot lakes region forever

Today nature has repaired many of the scars. Fishermen visit Lake Tarawera to catch its famed trout. A rather mutilated but dormant Mt Tarawera casts a shadow over a featureless gully nearby. It stands as an epitaph to what was once a “raised fretwork of stone, as fine as chased silver, where crystal basins held blue pools of water which cascaded delicately to lower pools. In them, the most luxurious bathing could be had.” said English author Anthony Trollop while visiting New Zealand in 1872.


In Switzerland in 2010, a researcher discovered the diaries of 19th century geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter, which contained survey bearings and the exact location of the Pink and White Terraces prior to the eruption. The researcher has recently published this material in the Journal of the Royal Society and hopes it will lead to an excavation of the site and the re-establishment of the two terraces which he says are 10-to-15 metres underground and not underwater.

A full archaeological site investigation, using ground penetrating radar will provide conclusive evidence of whether the terraces survived the eruption. Maybe the time will come when the 8th Wonder of the World will again be available for tourists to marvel at.

Ceidrik Heward

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