Tarawera's Buried Village

17:00, Jun 07 2011
BIRD'S EYE VIEW: The Pink and White Terraces were buried underneath Lake Rotomahana, south of Rotorua, by the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886. Mt Edgecumbe is the volcanic cone beyond.
BIRD'S EYE VIEW: The Pink and White Terraces were buried underneath Lake Rotomahana, south of Rotorua, by the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886. Mt Edgecumbe is the volcanic cone beyond.

A volcanic eruption was certainly more than English tourist Edwin Bainbridge bargained for in June 1886, when he visited the Maori village of Te Wairoa, gateway to Lake Rotomahana's internationally famed Pink and White Terraces.

In 1886, they were the most extensive silica terraces in the world.

Unable to sleep for earthquakes and lightning, young Edwin left his room in Joseph McCrae's Rotomahana Hotel in the early hours of June 10 to check out what was happening. He was killed by a falling verandah.

The eruption of Mt Tarawera was heard as far away as Christchurch; ash fell in Tauranga and Napier. Bainbridge was one of 150 or so who lost their lives that night – most of them were Maori. Six kainga closer to the shores of Lake Tarawera were buried forever beneath 10 metres of mud. The only reason there were not many more European deaths was that it was midwinter, and visitors were largely absent.

Te Wairoa – these days an easy half-hour drive out of Rotorua on the no-exit road to Lake Tarawera – was a popular visitor attraction well before the eruption of Mt Tarawera. The then Duke of Edinburgh had already paid a visit to the "eighth wonder of the world" in 1870. It became a stop on the tourist circuit again, not long after the disaster, when a tearoom was built on the site by the grandson of missionary Rev Seymour Spencer, who had originally laid out the village in English style.

Today the Buried Village is owned and respectfully run by the third generation of the Smith family, who bought the property in 1931. Entry is through a reconstructed version of Joseph McCrae's hotel which houses a splendid small museum – home to a wealth of artefacts uncovered during excavations from 1945 and winner of a tourism award when it opened in 2000. Visitors are greeted by a large photograph of three whare almost submerged in mud – and that warning about the perils of sightseeing. Edwin Bainbridge's touching story is re-enacted on a short film.

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Even though so many lost their lives here, the Buried Village is more thought-provoking than creepy. Deciduous English trees define "rooms" in a green and pleasant park – the tall poplars sprang from fence posts planted over a century ago. Paths wind past excavated structures, from the foundations of the old hotel (including the original wine cellar) and flour mill to the blacksmith's house and tohunga's whare. Te Wairoa stream, meandering past a rare stone pataka (storehouse), leads to a spectacular waterfall – well worth the extra quarter-hour side trip, though not for those with creaky knees.

Standing at the nearby lookout honouring local ancestor Tuhourangi, today's traveller sees only verdant bush slopes covering the valley below. Far across Lake Tarawera is its mountain – so far it's hard to imagine what it must have been like on that cataclysmic night when the caldera spewed red-hot rocks and ash right here, and lakes erupted in showers of steam, boiling water and mud.

The eruption was all over in about four hours, although the lakes – an extension of the mountain's string of vents – spewed volcanic matter for another fortnight. While many in Te Wairoa survived, including 62 who huddled in guide Sophia's whare (its steep roof shed the muddy weight more effectively than European buildings), the thriving village's raison d'etre was gone forever, along with the submerged silica terraces.

Or was it? Once thought to be shattered to bits, the Pink and White Terraces have recently been rediscovered by GNS scientists using sonar scans and underwater cameras. Beneath about 60 metres of water, covered by lake sediment, they lie exactly where they were before 1886.

The scientists, according to team leader Cornel de Ronde, are "elated". And they're "95 per cent certain" that what they are seeing are the bottom two tiers of the Pink Terraces.

Who knows? Instead of bathing in the lukewarm lower levels and enjoying lunch cooked in a hot pool, a new generation of visitors to the terraces may dive to experience the remains of the eighth wonder of the world. "Taking the waters" takes on a whole new meaning.

More at buriedvillage.co.nz.

The Dominion Post