79. The Buried Village, Four Lakes and a Sight of Mt Tarawera

We drove in a circuit today, taking in several lakes along with Te Wairoa/The Buried Village and Mt Tarawera. The overnight Mt Tarawera eruption of 1886 was responsible for partially burying the village of Te Wairoa and, while most inhabitants survived the night, 17 were killed. Six to ten other Māori villages dotted around the edges of the three lakes of Tarawera, Rotomahana and Rotomakariri, that lay closer to the eruptive vents, came off worse with no survivors, bringing the total death toll to at least 120 people. Two of these villages (Rotomahana and Waingongongo) were situated where the eruptions were most explosive, on the edges of the lakes Rotomahana and Rotomakariri. These two small lakes were blasted out of existence and replaced by a much bigger, deeper rent that slowly filled in to become the current Lake Rotomahana. It’s poignant to read that descendants of the Tuhourangi iwi killed in these two villages dream of returning to their ancestors’ homeland one day. Two more of the villages (Tokiniho and Totarariki) were buried so deeply under several metres of lava, ash and mud that they couldn’t be excavated. And another two (Moura and Te Ariki) were excavated enough that desperate rescuers realised there could be no survivors.

Te Wairoa is on land that’s now privately owned, having been bought by Reginald Smith in the early 1930’s. The Smith family continued earlier efforts to preserve the village and over successive years different generations have carefully excavated it out of the tephra that hardened over it, working in conjunction with archaeologists. They are doing a fantastic job as the museum and grounds of Te Wairoa make for a very satisfying experience that include social, cultural, economic and geological information. We came away with more knowledge that when we went in – can’t fault that. There’s also a great cafe next to the museum where we ate lunch.

Today was very exciting for me as it’s my first ever experience of entering the boundaries of the enormous (25 kilometres by 17 kilometres) Okataina Caldera, which formed between 400,000 and 50,000 years ago, and is today known best by the rhyolitic domes that periodically erupt within it. Everything we visited today is situated within the boundaries of the Okataina Caldera. If you look at a topographical map you can easily see the shapes of the volcanic domes and lava flows within this caldera, that are slowly filling it in.

On the way to the first of our sights we stopped at the Redwood Forest on the outskirts of Rotorua. For some reason I didn’t take out my camera; I guess we were busy trying to suss things out as there’s a lot on offer at the Redwood Forest, including mountain biking, walking and a treetops walk. We peered up the trunks of several of the 70 metre high redwoods, though, finding them magnificent – every bit as impressive as the kauri and puriri trees we saw in Northland and the Far North. Redwoods are not native to New Zealand. They were brought here from the United States over one hundred years ago and planted for the timber industry. The trees, instead of being harvested and processed in mills, came to be valued for their beauty and are themselves now protected! Totally understandable: who wouldn’t fall in love with them?

This is Rotokākahi (Lake of Shellfish) or Green Lake, due to the way the sun shines on it and reflects off it’s shallow, sandy bottom. Rotokākahi/Green Lake is owned by several local iwi which are part of the larger hapu Te Arawa. At one end of the lake sits the small island Motutawa, where Hinemoa, the great Te Arawa swimmer, is buried. This lake is tapu (sacred), and while you can walk on a track around it, you cannot engage in recreational activities in the water such as fishing, boating or swimming.

The water from this lake flows through Te Wairoa/The Buried Village and into Lake Tarawera and is aptly named Te Wairoa Stream.
This is Tikitapu (Sacred Necklace) or Blue Lake. You can see to the end of the lake where a motor camp lies. Unlike Rotokākahi/Green Lake, this lake can be used for recreation.

To take these photos of the Green and Blue Lakes, I am standing on Okareka Volcanics. More precisely, to take the shot of Green Lake I was standing on a rhyolitic dome that erupted and formed 21,000 years ago; and to take the shot of Blue Lake I am standing on a rhyolitic dome that formed 13,500 years ago. This most recent eruption caused a river system to block which caused the formation first of the Blue Lake, then the Green Lake. On the other side of the hill that I’m standing on lies a huge lava flow that leads down into Lake Tarawera. Can’t wait for our first glimpse of that lava flow, and the lake!

Like Rotokākahi/Green Lake, Tikitapu/Blue Lake shines due to its shallow depth, only this time it shines blue because of the white rhyolite and pumice that lines the base. The deepest point is just shy of 30 metres; just a couple of metres shallower than Rotokākahi/Green Lake. This lake has no stream running into or out of it; and as it has a slightly higher altitude it’s likely that it outlets into Rotokākahi/Green Lake beneath the ground.
This monument pays tribute to the origin of tourism in New Zealand, which lies with two of the local iwi, Hinemihi and Tuhourangi. The two iwi developed the means to host and guide wealthy British and European citizens to the Pink and White Terraces.

One guide was Te Paea Hinerangi (better known as Guide Sophia), who was actually from Kororāreka/Russell and was half Ngāti Ruanui/half Scottish. On her second marriage Guide Sophia moved to Te Wairoa and quickly came to be the most well known guide of all to tourists. She was popular with the local guides as well, working alongside them, learning, supporting and mentoring them for the tourism trade.

The monument sits about one kilometre away from Te Wairoa, but it’s situated right at the start of the Tarawera Trail. I didn’t realise that the Tarawera Trail started here – or even existed – but I made a decision to walk it in the coming days.
The entry grounds into Te Wairoa, the Buried Village. Kevin stayed in the entrance, drinking and eating and chatting in the cafe which he loves to do, while I took myself walking through the museum and around the extensive grounds.
I’m not going to show many photos of Te Wairoa – it’s much better to go along and experience it. There’s every bit of information you could want on the history of Te Wairoa and its social and cultural and economic development, and lots of artifacts and geology on display.

But I just wanted to put in one that shows the depth of the rhyolitic tephra that landed on Te Wairoa in the eruption of 1886 – this one shows it pretty well as the ground has been excavated back to the level of the floor before the eruption.

The glass cabinet under the roof holds some of the artifacts found in the diggings.
Volcanic soil is very fertile. Why am I mentioning that? – because these stumps show a line of poplar trees that grew to 40 metres high in the years after the eruption, literally just from fence posts of the time that were buried in the mix of small rocks, ash and mud that rained from the sky. The trees grew so high that by the 1940’s they were toppling over and had to be cut down. That didn’t actually stop them from trying to grow again either, so these days they receive a pruning from time to time. Here you can see that the two stumps at the back have started growing again.

It illustrates well the tenacity of plant life to grow back after volcanic activity – every bit of bush around here was destroyed in the eruption, but look at it now!
Well, I wasn’t going to put many photos in, but here I go! Can’t help myself…this is the cellar of the only licensed hotel in Te Wairoa, Rotomahana Hotel, where wine and other supplies were stored. Apparently they had only just stocked the cellar with wine when the eruption occurred – wonder if they managed to salvage any?
This shows the overall site of the same hotel.

Many residents of the hotel and other buildings in the village went to Guide Sophia’s whare, or house, to shelter out the eruption. Everyone who made it to her house (about 40 in total) survived.

Behind this hotel and across the road we drove in on, is the site of a Māori meeting house that held members of the Hinemihi family/iwi and others during the eruption. No one died in this house either, due to the slope of the roof and the strength and thickness of the timber. It’s the only building that survived the eruption, and is still going strong. It’s name is Hinemihi and it was bought in 1883 by Governor General Onslow as a momento of his time in New Zealand. He took it to Clandon House in Surrey, England, where it still sits now. It’s in the guardianship of the National Trust there, so it’s unlikely to be returned to New Zealand. One of the Hinemihi descendents, Jim Schuster, has been to England a number of times to visit the meeting house and help ensure its protection and well being. When members of the Māori Battalion were recuperating at Clandon House after World War 2, they noticed it had been put together wrongly so they reassembled it properly! It’s a lovely meeting house and of course you can google images and stories about it on the internet if you wish.
A replica whare, or house.
This is Te Wairoa Stream that runs from Rotokākahi/Green Lake into Lake Tarawera.
It’s a beautiful stream!

Speaking of beauty, some of the stories here in Te Wairoa tell of the magnificence of the eruption as it blasted red hot lava into the night sky from up to five vents at a time; and of the amazing blue colour in the water of the Pink and White Terraces. You can google Charles Blomfield, artist, to get an insight into the colour of the water which he’s painted in such a translucent blue that it’s hard to describe – and that’s not even the real thing!
Lining the bank in the background, on the other side of the stream, are kauri trees. They’ve been purposely planted and are cared for and cultivated by the Smith family.
In the middle of the photo is a tiny glimpse of Lake Tarawera.

I’m standing on Okareka Volcanics, which extend to the hill that’s bare and beyond – this is the lava flow that I mentioned earlier at Tikitapu/Blue Lake, that descends into Lake Tarawera.

On the right is the Kapenga Rhyolite Dome and in the far distance is the Makatiti Rhyolite Dome. These, and the Okareka volcanics, are all young volcanics having ejected all their rhyolitic material in the last 21,000 years.

If I was any higher, I would be able to see Putauaki/Mt Edgecombe on the far, eastern reach of the Okataina Caldera, which started forming 7500 years ago with andesitic and dacitic lava flows.
My path continued on, following Te Wairoa Stream down into the Waitoharuru Valley, treading steeply down on well-built stairs and tracks.

Visitors to the Pink and White Terraces, which were destroyed or buried in the 1886 Tarawera Eruption, walked through this valley on their way from Te Wairoa to Lake Tarawera, where they would take a boat trip aross to the current site of the lake Rotomahana where the terraces once lay.
The stream, so benign at the site of the village, now becomes cascading falls of water, known as Te Wairere (fast water).
It’s spreading its fingers and letting the water run over them to splash in the pool below…
Suddenly my ankle collapses under me as I tread the very edge of a rock, and I find myself on the ground, feeling faint and nauseous. I rest there until the feeling gets better, then haul myself up and hobble on.
Nothing can stop me from enjoying this walk I’m on, and I notice the track passes under some spectacular examples of tephra, possibly not only from the 1886 Tarawera Eruption but also from different eruptions through the ages. Back out of the steep valley, I catch a view of the Makatiti and Kapenga Volcanic Domes seeming to rise out of Lake Tarawera.
Then there’s Kevin, waiting for me at the exit gate: I’ve taken a long time and the Buried Village is closed for the day. Once the gate shuts behind me, that’s it, I can’t go back in, much as I want to.

Back in the car we continue on along our road, driving to Lake Tarawera following the Waitoharuru Valley. We found this view of the lake and Mt Tarawera on the far shores before dropping to Lake Tarawera. I liked this view even more than the one I was just at where I could see the Makatiti and Kapenga Domes. Apologies as I’m likely going to repeat myself and label the hills I can see again – even though I just did that a few photos ago!

Everything you can see here is made up of rhyolitic volcanic eruptions and lava flows of varying ages – this is a truly classic view of the Okataina Caldera.

I’m standing on Okareka Volcanics, and the lava flow directly in front of me is also part of this. Beyond, at the far end of Lake Tarawera, the long, low, gentle gradient is the Makatiti Dome, part of Haroharo Volcanics. The dome to the right, blocking the view of Mt Tarawera, is the Kapenga Rhyolite Dome which was last active around 5000 years ago.

There’s a lot of scientific study and testing going on in New Zealand’s volcanic hotspots, which lie in large tracts of the North Island, so hopefully scientists will be able to warn local communities of any impending eruptions so they can mobilise and evacuate from the danger zones in time.
At the lakefront…it was amazing to be able to see Mt Tarawera, end to end. The beginning of sunset just added to the glory.
This beauty is an Australian Coot, which arrived on New Zealand’s shores in the mid 1900’s and is here to stay.
The boat is named after Guide Sophia – as she had 15 living children, she has a huge number of descendants in and around Rotorua.
A young German woman, part of a small group of friends, took a photo of us, and I took some for them.
Our last stop for today: peaceful Lake Okareka – though that becomes deceptive when you remember you’re in the Okataina Caldera! There’s a DoC camp here and we thought about coming with the caravan, but we were settled in at the NZMCA park up in Ngongotaha, finding it central to Rotorua and it’s surrounds, so we were happier to just stay where we were for a couple of weeks.

There’s one more lake to see, which is Lake Okataina, but I noticed, as chief navigator, that the road comes in from the north; there’s no road access from where we are due south of it. A. that would be a mighty long drive through the dark and B. we have no boat, so off we drove home to cook dinner.

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