In the late nineteenth century, one little village in New Zealand had first-hand experience of both the benefits and, to put it mildly, the drawbacks of living with volcanoes.
Mt Tarawera erupted in the early morning of 10 June 1886 and the exact death toll remains uncertain.
Te Wairoa was a Maori village close to the Pink and White Terraces, which were known as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. These natural ‘staircases’ formed out of silica from a boiling volcanic lake above. People came from around the world to marvel at the Terraces and to bathe in their pools.
The tourist trade made Te Wairoa and the local Tuhourangi tribe extremely prosperous. Maori guides charged £2 to ferry each visitor across Lake Tarawera to the Terraces, and £5 for the privilege of making a sketch or taking a photograph. When the local chief built a new meeting house, Hinemihi, he celebrated his tribe’s status and wealth by using gold sovereigns for the eyes of the figures of ancestors instead of the traditional paua shell.
But the prosperity of Te Wairoa was brought to a dramatic and tragic end in June, 1886.
By early 1886, all was not well in Te Wairoa. Prosperity had brought with it alcohol abuse and disorder. When the Maori leader and prophet Te Kooti visited the village and saw the golden eyes of the ancestor figures in Hinemihi, he warned the tribe that trouble would come.
In May a tourist party on Lake Tarawera were startled when they saw a ghostly war canoe sailing past, its paddlers dressed for a funeral – some with the heads of dogs!
Mt Tarawera erupted in the early morning of 10 June 1886. Columns of fire spewed forth as earthquakes rocked the countryside. At 3.20am the bottom of Lake Rotomahana exploded, smashing the Pink and White Terraces into a million fragments. Te Wairoa, Moura and other local villages were buried in a pyroclastic flow.
The exact death toll remains uncertain. According to body counts by European settlers, almost 120 people were killed, many as they sheltered in buildings whose roofs collapsed under the weight of debris. Tuhourangi oral tradition holds that thousands died, most in villages never visited by Europeans.
Rescuers reached Tuhoto Ariki’s whare (house) days after the eruption. Amazingly, he had survived. He did not want to be rescued, and some Maori, blaming him for the eruption, asked the rescuers to leave him there.
Tuhoto was taken to the local sanatorium for treatment. Officials decreed that he must take a bath in disinfectant and have his hair shorn before being put into bed. His head, considered the most sacred part of the body to Maori, was shorn. He died shortly after.
The Okataina Volcanic Centre includes Tarawera, source of the most lethal eruption in New Zealand's recorded history. More than 35 vents have been active at Okataina during the last 21,000 years.