Eruption of Tarawera

Shortly after midnight on the morning of 10 June 1886, a series of more than 30 increasingly strong earthquakes were felt in the Rotorua area and an unusual sheet lightning display was observed from the direction of Tarawera. At around 2:00 am a larger earthquake was felt and followed by the sound of an explosion. By 2:30 am Mount Tarawera's three peaks had erupted, blasting three distinct columns of smoke and ash thousands of metres into the sky. At around 3.30 am, the largest phase of the eruption commenced; vents at Rotomahana produced a pyroclastic surge that destroyed several villages within a 6 kilometre radius, and the Pink and White Terraces appeared to be obliterated.

The eruption was heard clearly as far away as Blenheim and the effects of the ash in the air were observed as far south as Christchurch, over 800 km south. In Auckland the sound of the eruption and the flashing sky was thought by some to be an attack by Russian warships.


The extreme excitement caused by the eruption of Tarawera may be measured by a little circumstance. Mr Wheeler, the well-known photographer, has made prompt arrangements for sending up to the district to procure a series of views of the country affected by the new volcano. Two photographers, with an immense quantity of plates and apparatus start from Christchurch to-morrow [12 June 1886], and make their way by the quickest route to the Lake District. They have been instructed to take pictures of Wairoa, Tarawera, Rotorua, Rotomahana - if the famous lake is still in existence and to work through to Tauranga, photographing everything that may be of interest in connection with the late catastrophe.
Star, Issue 5642, 11 June 1886, Page 2

Monday...A photographer from Christchurch, named Mr Sorrell, attempted to reach, Tikatapu to-day. He managed to make the edge of the bush, when his horse stuck hard in the mud, and he had to return. It is impossible to proceed further. The mud has been washed down fully a foot. The springs are gradually getting less active. Professor Hutton arrived on Saturday, and left for Rotomahana to-day.
Bay of Plenty Times, Volume XIV, Issue 2005, 29 June 1886, Page 2

Star, Issue 5661, 3 July 1886, Page 1

Messrs Wheeler and Son notify by advertisement that the photographic party despatched by them to the scene of the recent eruptions succeeded, after some terribly hard work, in getting a number of photographs. Messrs Wheeler hope to be able to commence their issue about a week hence.
Star, Issue 5661, 3 July 1886, Page 3

The Eruptions in the North Island. 

Hinemihi meeting house at Te Wairoa, after the Mt Tarawera eruption - 
Photograph by Edmund Wheeler and Son
Edmund Wheeler and Son (Firm). Hinemihi meeting house at Te Wairoa, after the Mt Tarawera eruption - Photograph taken by Edmund Wheeler and Son. Dingwale, Reginald :7 Photographs. Ref: PAColl-2981-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Experience of a Photographer.
Mr Sorell (sic), photographer for Messrs E. Wheeler and Son, has kindly furnished our reporter with the following narrative of his trip to the volcanic district in the North Island :- I started from Ohinemutu with a Maori, as guide, and an Englishman who has lived a number of years in the district. We made several expeditions. The first was to Tikitapu bush, about seven miles from Ohinemutu. We went on horseback, as a buggy could not travel through the mud, which was about a foot deep when we started, and gradually deepened until it was about double that depth at the bush. We got as far as the bush on horseback, but once there had to alight, as the road was quite impracticable to horses any further. This was demonstrated to me most unmistakeably, for my horse fell or stumbled, and went up to her shoulders in the mud, throwing me into the trunk of a hollow tree. I fixed my apparatus, and took a couple of good views of the bush as it now is, and they give you a very good idea of -

The Desolate Appearance of the Whole District.
You know now the country looks at Home in the middle of winter when there has been a very heavy fall of snow. The trees are stripped of their leaves and even of their branches; all the land marks are obliterated or strangely altered, hedges and fences have disappeared, rough places have become smooth, amid the whole landscape is of a uniform colour. At Home that uniform colour is white, at Tikitapu it is grey. In the one case the snow, after a good frost, has a moderately firm crust, upon which you can walk; and in the other case, the mud, when there has been a good wind blowing over it and no recent rain, has a fairly hard surface, over which a man can make his way, though a horse often finds it treacherous enough.

The Blue Lake.
After I had succeeded in getting the views, we saddled up again, and got back to Ohinemutu in good time. A day or two afterwards we made another start, our destination being the Blue Lake at Tikitapu. I managed to get half way on horseback, but found that the horse could go no further. The mud had formed a crust as I have just described and this was pretty stiff, but the horse’s legs went through it or his knees gave way, and after my former experience, I did not want to risk being thrown again. I tied the horse up to a tree, put my instrument on my back, and trudged the rest of the way. This time I was accompanied by a gentleman friend who had lived at a small settlement there, which he had left when it was destroyed, or partially destroyed, by the eruptions. We pushed along, seeing on our way the dead bodies of horses, calves, cows, &c. On reaching my friend’s whare - what, at least, there was left of it— we had some refreshments, which we had brought with us. We found no water after leaving Rotorua, the Government township. Here I took some photographs, showing the Blue Lake, as it now is, with the destroyed whares. One of the pictures shows a large wagon, for which, as I understood, the Government had given £70 the day before the eruptions began. It could be taken no further than where it is, and there it remains, up to the floor of the wagon in mud. I also took several views of the destroyed bush here. We got back to the horse, and my friend and I put our respective packs on his back. My friend was Mr. Lakin, a well-known fern collector, and he had a heavy pack of some £10 worth of pressed ferns which he had saved. We had started on our return journey and had got along very well for some distance, until we came to where there was a steep incline. On one side of us was a lake with a precipitous side about 150ft down. Here the horse by some means contrived to burst his girth, and immediately began rearing, kicking and plunging, and soon got rid of the packs, which were fast descending the embankment. Fortunately the supports of my tripod stuck in the mud before the packs had gone far down, and we saved everything all right. I led the horse till we came to better part of the road, where we lashed the girths together with ropes, and we finally reached Ohinemutu at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, having be travelling ever since 6 o’clock that morning.

The photographic team of W. E. Sorrell (Wheeler & Son) by Lake Rotomahana.
Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0028

The next trip we made was out to Tarawera. On the first occasion we got as far as Pareheru, to a piece of bush there. From there we took a number, of negatives of the volcano, showing Tarawera emitting vast volumes of steam. At the same time we could hear the loud roaring from what I may call the blow-holes. I also took another photograph at the mount Kakaramea. We were then obliged to return, as the hour was getting late. When crossing Earthquake Flat, we experienced several shakes, which were accompanied by loud rumbling noises. Here we found, extending right across the Flat, a large fissure some twelve or eighteen inches wide, and having a depth we had nothing long enough to test. 

The Pink Terraces.
A few days after that, when we had had some fine weather, I went out again, as I thought the roads would now be better, and we could get to Rotomahana, at the back of the late site of the Pink Terraces. We went from Ohinemutu to Pa Kakaraka a distance of twelve miles. Here we had some refreshments—a sort of rough and ready picnic. We then pushed on to Pareheru, whence we sent back our horses. I forgot to say that on this occasion we had to have a horse each - for myself, my guide and the Maori, as well as a pack-horse — four horses altogether. We had to take everything with us in the shape of provender, as also a tent. We pitched our tent at Pareheru and sent the horses back to Ohinemutu. We then had to tramp it. As the crow flies the distances is, I suppose, about two miles and a half, but we must have gone over ten miles, over hills and through deep gullies all covered with a deposit of mud, most of which, however, had by this time a pretty firm crust. It was blowing a hurricane, and several times we had to lie down to prevent our being blown over a ridge. We made our way to the edge at the crater, of which we obtained several excellent views. Here is one showing a boiling fountain of mud. We also obtained photographs of the Terraces as they now appear. This done, we packed up our instruments and started back for our camp. Before reaching it, however we were benighted, and lost the track. We got into a deep gully of mud, and found great difficulty in extricating ourselves. In fact, we began to think we should have to give it up as a bad job, but we had a small dog with us, and it seemed to recover the track. We followed it till it brought us on to the road again, and, after a great effort, we managed to make our way to our tent, which we reached about half-past six o’clock, having taken about five hours and a half going to and returning from the craters. We lay down for the night, but, tired though we were, we had no sleep, owing to the continuous heaving of the earth, accompanied by thunderlike rumbling and lighting all night long. Occasionally the roarings were terrific. My guide, who was thoroughly acquainted with the neighbourhood, said next morning that he was convinced there must have been another eruption. On reaching Pa Kakaraka we saw some Maoris on their way to Rotomahana from Kaiteriria, and they told us that there had been another explosion at Ti Teko. We reached our horse about half-past one o’clock, and started off back for Ohinemutu. On the way I was once more thrown from my horse, the wretched condition of the road making the animals frequently stumble, but we arrived at our destination about 5 o’clock.

We obtained a number of specimens of the mud, &c., from different places at the site of the eruptions. Amongst them are some small pieces of the White and Pink Terraces, some large stones, and some pieces of granite, which we picked up within a stone’s throw of the crater. They were on the surface of the mud. I took a large number of views of the neighbourhood all around Ohinemutu, also views of a place near Whakarewarewa, where there are numerous geysers. One of these had not been active for about ten years, but since the night at the first eruption it has been very active, sometimes throwing up mud and stones to a height of 40 or 50 feet. This is near Waikite. There are also here, in course of formation, some small terraces, similar to the White Terraces though of coarse on nothing like so grand a scale. Besides these there are some very good boiling mud holes and lakes, of which I obtained some highly satisfactory negatives. A large tract of land here, which used at one time to be in active eruption, but is no longer so, is now covered entirely with sulphur, and bears the name of Sodom and Gomorrha (sic). When you are riding along the roads here they sound as if you were riding over a wooden bridge, so hollow is the ground.

Dr Hector
The Natives had an idea that Dr Hector was come there to caulk up the volcano. His visit, instead of inspiring the Maoris with confidence, disappointed and intimidated them when they found that he could do nothing towards fulfilling their expectations. I am told that Dr Hector has given it as his opinion that the volcano emitted no fire. I think, however, there is not the slightest doubt that it did. All the residents assured me that there was, and the surrounding country gives every evidence of it. In some parts you come across large patches of fern covered with cinders, similar to this (showing a decided piece of cinder). A man who was in the hotel at Taupo at the same time that Dr Hector was there, told me that the doctor asked for a bucket of water to be taken to his room at night. The girl, to whom the request was made, did not answer him, apparently thinking he was not serious. But Dr Hector asked her a second time, and the girl turned round and told him she thought he was joking. He answered— “Indeed no; in case of another earthquake or eruption, the place might be on fire, and I ought to be prepared for this.” He also requested the people in the hotel not to close the doors of their rooms, as, should there be an earthquake, the doors might get jammed, and they would be imprisoned in their rooms and be unable to escape. This I heard from the lips of a man who said he was in the room at the time.

Depth of the Mud.
Within five or six miles of the volcano there is an average depth of mud of, you may say, two to three feet; that is to say, for five or six miles in the direction which the wind was blowing at the time of the eruption. But I believe, from what I have heard, that in some parts the mud is very much deeper. I met a gentleman who came from Taupo through the Opepe district, who said that there was as much as thirty feet of mud, cinders and pumice. At the terraces there was quite three feet in some places. 

The Natives.
The Natives are in a very frightened and excited state of mind, anticipating further eruptions, and they talk freely of leaving Ohinemutu, thinking they are not safe there. The lake there has risen or the ground has sunk some inches. Fresh boiling springs have broken out at Rotorua. One is in the middle of the road, opposite Mrs Morrison’s hotel in Ohinemutu.

I see that you mention, in a paragraph published this morning, that we were not able to get to Wairoa. That is true so far as my list attempt goes; but before we came away from the district the roads had greatly improved, and we obtained very good photographs indeed there.
Star, Issue 5672, 16 July 1886, Page 3

The plucky venture of the Messrs Wheeler, of Cathedral square, in sending a well-trained landscape photographer to the Tarawera district immediately after the eruptions has been previously referred to in these columns. On the return of the little expedition, the clothes worn during the mud- plodding were temporarily resumed, and a select few were thus enabled to form some faint idea of what the "roughing it" had been. But though the difficulties encountered were very great, involving camping for one or two nights on most treacherous ground, the party evidently worked with enthusiasm, and in the resulting pictures they must feel abundantly compensated. Thanks to their enterprise, Messrs Wheeler have secured a most valuable series of photographs, showing all the leading features of the volcanic phenomena, and including the very sites formerly occupied by the Pink and White Terraces. It has thus become possible to prepare a series of what are appropriately termed contrasts," two pictures in each case showing a particular spot, as it was before the outburst and as it it now. That the operator haa a good eye for a picture, everybody who sees these photographs will readily admit and as the subsequent technical work has been exceedingly well done, it is no matter for wonderment that a large demand should already have been experienced.
Star, Issue 5686, 2 August 1886, Page 3

In addition to the relics of the Rotomahana eruptions in the North Island, which have formed such an attractive feature under the microscope, as manipulated by Mr J. B. Stansell at the Industrial conversazione last week, Mr Wheeler, of Cathedral square, has kindly furnished some photographic views of the principal scenes and events of that mighty convulsion of nature. Thus, with specimens of the White and Pink Terraces and volcanic mud, the scenes will be prominently brought before the visitors who may attend the Tuam street Hall to-night.

Star, Issue 5692, 9 August 1886, Page 3

 Press, Volume XLIII, Issue 6517, 12 August 1886, Page 4

also see: New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, 1 December 1900, Page 160

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