Flashback - The Super Geyser that dealt death

TOM HUNT
Last updated 09:58 30/08/2014
Waimangu Geyser
VAILE PHOTO STUDIO (SUPPLIED VIA ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY, REFERENCE PACOLL-0339-01)
SHOOTING HIGH: The Waimangu Geyser was once the world’s biggest, before it became dormant in 1904.

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Before hobbits, and long before bungy jumps, there was hot water spraying black and glorious from the ground.

But as four people discovered on August 30, 1903 - 111 years ago today - New Zealand's young tourism industry could prove deadly.

Three years earlier, a massive geyser had erupted south of Rotorua. It was short-lived but dwarfed all others.

It would regularly fling muddy water and rocks 150 metres into the air. "Super eruptions" would reach up to 460m, history website Teara.govt.nz says.

It was - and, if still active, would remain - the world's biggest geyser, reaching more than 100m higher than Auckland's Sky Tower.

Tourists flocked to see it in action as it settled into a regular cycle of erupting once every 36 hours for up to six hours at a time, hurling shafts of black sand, mud and rocks in the air.

It was named Waimangu, or black water. According to physicist Ron Keam, who wrote a history of Rotorua's geothermal activity, the discovery of the geyser coincided with the 1901 formation of the new Department of Tourist and Health resorts.

It was the first government department in the world created to promote tourism. Secretary Tom Donne wanted to make something of the new geyser, and "The Round Trip" was born.

From Rotorua, tourists visited a buried village before boating across Lake Tarawera, walking to Lake Rotomahana, boating across, then climbing a hill from where they looked down into Waimangu's crater.

Those who got their timing right would watch the geyser in action before walking down the back of the hill to a buggy that took them back to Rotorua. An accommodation house was built in the hill over the crater.

In mid-August 1903, guide Alfred Warbrick and another man took a wager to row across the geyser's crater lake. They survived their hare-brained escapade and even came back with some useful information - they sounded the lake and discovered it was just 12m deep.

A couple of weeks later, on August 30, Warbrick was guiding the Round Trip, with his brother Joseph - a top rugby player - helping out. Joseph and three of his group - sisters Kathleen and Ruby Nicholls and David McNaughton - would soon be dead.

Newspapers covered the inquest immediately after the tragedy, during which Alfred Warbrick told what happened.

"The cauldron looked very active, and they had not been there more than 20 minutes when the geyser played a shot between 400ft and 500ft," one reported.

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Alfred, who was with the Nicholls girls' mother, knew the geyser had at least another big shot in it. He tried to warn his brother and the three tourists to get out of the danger zone. He got Nicholls to try, "thinking she would have more power with them than he had".

"The girls looked around and smiled at their mother, and passed some remarks that he did not catch."

The geyser sent up another shot, so he led Nicholls away. "We better go on, it might encourage them to follow us," he told her.

They reached a spot overlooking the geyser.

"[Joseph Warbrick] and the young ladies were standing on the brink, six in all. That was the last time he saw those that were killed, as the geyser started to play immediately, and the steam hid them from view."

Beneath the steam, it would later be discovered, hot water gushed out, washing three tourists and Joseph Warbrick away in a boiling river. The force was so great it tore the sisters' jackets off their backs.

The four bodies were found in the aftermath, further down the hot river.

Waimangu Geyser itself died shortly after, for unknown reasons, in 1904.

The accommodation house was badly damaged in an eruption in 1917 from the same thermal system that created the geyser. Its ruins were pulled down in the 1970s.

But the Waimangu Volcanic Valley remains a popular tourist attraction. There is a plaque marking the site of the once-great geyser and the tragedy that happened there in 1903.

But most tourists these days look the other way. On the other side of the path is Frying Pan Lake, one of the world's largest hot-water springs.

- The Dominion Post

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