28 May 2014

The 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera

From Eyewitness, 3:30 pm on 28 May 2014

Mount Tarawera in eruption June Courtesy of Rotorua Museum
Mount Tarawera in eruption 1886. Image courtesy of Rotorua Museum.

"The time was winter, and the 10th of June to be exact. The year 1886."

The place was the village of Te Wairoa, just west of Lake Tarawera and under the shadow of the massive, three-domed volcano that gave the lake its name. Willy Bennett was 12 years old.

Sixty-eight years later, on the anniversary of the eruption, Willy Bennett sat down with a New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation presenter to recall his memories of that night and of the mountain.

A few kilometres away to the north in Rotorua, Postmaster and Telegraph Operator Roger Delamere Dansey was at home with his wife and children. His written account is read here by Bill Beavis of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation and was recorded in the 1960s.


12:30am – A series of tremors being to shake the region

Dansey ran outside to see what he thought was an electrical storm over the volcano. Willy Bennett was asleep when the tremors began, but he didn’t stay that way for long.

After the tremors subsided, Dansey went to bed to read. In his own words, he had not the slightest idea what was to happen. A little later his reading was disturbed by a “terrific roar”. Running outside, he saw “an immense column of fire, miles in height” coming from the mountain.

1:45am – The main eruption begins at the north-eastern end of Mt Tarawera

The mountain explodes upwards into an enormous column of black smoke and boiling hot rock.

2:30am – A second and a third eruption occur

The final southern eruption bursts with an immense roar which is heard as far away as Auckland. The smoke cloud reaches a height of approximately 10km and is visible in Gisborne, nearly 150 kilometres away to the south west. Mount Tarawera is split into a rift running for 17 kilometres.

3:30am – Lake Rotomahana’s vents go up in a devastating pyroclastic surge

The nearby Maori villages of Te Tapahoro, Moura, Te Ariki, Totarariki and Waingongongo are destroyed. The loss of life was near total.

In Te Wairoa, the decision was made to try and get the people, including a distraught Willy Bennett, out of the village to safety.

The ‘Sophia’ that Willy refers was Sophia Hinerangi of Ngati Ruanui, the famous tour guide who lead thousands of visitors to the Pink and White Terraces on the edge of Lake Tarawera. Eleven days earlier, she had noticed a difference in the waters of the lake and also famously claimed to have seen a waka wairua or phantom canoe. As a result of these ominous signs, Guide Sophia predicted an end to guiding on the lake. You can hear more about Sophia Hinerangi, also known Te Paea, the waka wairua and the eruption in ‘And There Was A Great Darkness”, a Spectrum programme from 1975.

Approximately sixty-two people sheltered in Guide Sophia’s whare that night, the steep pitch of its roofs proving strong enough to withstand the falling debris. Roger Dansey was still outside watching the eruption from the relative safety of Rotorua.

5:30am – the eruption ends suddenly

In Te Wairoa, Willy Bennett and the sixty-one other survivors who had sheltered in Guide Sophia’s whare crept outside to greet a different world.

Rescue parties from Rotorua and Ohinemutu were beginning to reach the survivors. Feeling a sense of duty, at 8am Roger Dansey tentatively made his way to his telegraph office. He wasn’t altogether hopeful about his chances of getting through.

The toll on the people of the Tuhourangi and Ngati Rangitahi iwi was terrible. Estimates initially put the toll at over 150. Eventually it was agreed that the dead numbered no more than 120, with over 100 Maori dead, along with seven Europeans. Six villages were totally destroyed. Te Wairoa, where Willy Bennett sheltered in Guide Sophia’s whare, is now a tourist attraction known as The Buried Village.

Remnants of the Pink and White Terraces, thought destroyed forever, were recently rediscovered by scientists from GNS Science.

Roger Delamere Dansey died in 1900. Willy Bennett went on to be a tour guide on the reshaped Mount Tarawera and recorded his account in 1954, 68 years after the eruption.

Mount Tarawera now displaying the km long rift caused by the eruption
Mount Tarawera now, displaying the 17km long rift caused by the eruption. Image Courtesy of GNS Science.

Listen to the full documentary

Nga Taonga Sound VisionArchival audio supplied by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.