The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 6 (December 1, 1931)
The Glory of the Terraces — The Tarawera-Rotomahana Region, Past and Present
Rotomahana, the wonderful lake in the heart of our Thermal Regions, has attracted more than usual attention recently, because of a suggestion that its level should be lowered in order to give the geyser action along its shores more play, and particularly to allow investigation to be made for traces of the lost White Terraces and Pink Terraces, the one-time glories of the lake. In this article the old-time Rotomahana and its environment are described, and some account of the present lake is given.
“Before the Eruption” is a period hazed with a kind of romance in our Rotorua Geyserland. Everything was more or less adventurous and devoid of the luxuries which we take so easily to-day. Travel was slow; time jogged along like the old coachie's horses; you didn't get everything in the hotels by merely pressing a button or turning on a switch. There was no railway to Rotorua; you either went from Auckland to Tauranga by steamer and thence drove through the Oropi Bush route to Ohinemutu, or else took the long coach journey from the Cambridge railhead. There were no fine bath-houses wherein you laved your delicate limbs on sumptuous porcelain sunk in the floor like some old Roman palace bath. You just dipped in the pool amongst the manuka scrub or with your native friends, male and female, in the social warm bay at Ruapeka or a score of other places. And the centre of the sight-seeing traffic was not the Rotorua township so much as Te Wairoa, now so celebrated as the Buried Village, the point of embarkation for the great showplace of the “Hot Springs,” as the thermal district was then generally called, the Terraces of Rotomahana.
Yonder looms the grim old mountain that changed all that, that ruined the old easygoing life of the Lakes as it ruined the most lovely things in wild Nature in this territory. Tarawera may be harmless to-day, but it towers there in sulky desolation, unrepentant of its ferocious past, menacingly regarding those who venture up its shattered sides as much as to say: “If you don't look out and behave with respect and circumspection I'll do it all over again.”
Forty-five years have passed since the eruption of Tarawera and the destruction of Rotomahana. Some of the physical changes which were brought about by the outburst would seem to have been the work of centuries, so greatly have they altered the face of the land in the central part of the Thermal country. Most of all has this transformation affected Rotomahana. The little shallow reedy lake of the pre-eruption era is now a deep gulf of water many times its former size, with a surface nearly 150 feet above its before-the-eruption level. The tourist's power-launch cruises through clouds of steam, floats on water that thuds against the lake thumping with threatening fist, as if to announce that he is still all-powerful if he but wished to assert his might.
Governor Grey at Rotomahana.
Turn to the old Rotomahana, the old Tarawera, and draw again the curtain from the dramatic scenes of an unearthly beauty that once brought travellers from the ends of the earth.
One of the earliest pakeha visitors to Rotomahana and the White and Pink Terraces was Sir George Grey, during his first Governorship of New Zealand. The account of the tour, which is contained in a now rare little book, “Journal of an Expedition Overland from Auckland to Taranaki,” published in Auckland in 1851, is the first detailed description we have of the lake and its page 26 thermal marvels. It was written, at the direction of the Governor, by his assistant private secretary, Mr. G. S. Cooper, and there is a Maori version, by the Governor's interpreter, Piri-Kawau. Grey and his party made the journey in the summer of 1849–50. After visiting the resident missionaries, the Rev. Thomas Chapman at Te Ngae, and the Rev. S. M. Spencer, at Kariri, Tarawera, the Governor crossed Lake Tarawera in a lb>arge war canoe on December 28, 1849, accompanied by the Chief Te Rangiheuea, and landed at Te Ariki village. Next day the party pitched camp on the shore of Rotomahana, close to the foot of Te Tarata, the White Terrace. The Grey description of the lake need not be quoted here, as there is a more scientific account by Hochstetter, to be given presently.
Percy Smith's Pioneer Visit.
Two years before Hochstetter came, Mr. S. Percy Smith, afterwards Surveyor-General, visited Rotomahana and canoed about its waters. Early in 1858 he and his cousin, C. W. Hursthouse (the “Wirihana” of the Maoris) walked up here from Taranaki and Taupo. Mr. Smith described the beauty and interest of the place in his diary. He frequently spoke to me about the charm of old Rotomahana, and he recorded the appearance of the lake and its islands in some sketches, one of which is reproduced in this article.
“In the middle of the lake,” Mr. Smith wrote, “are the pretty Chinese-looking islands of Puwai and Pukara, covered with houses and manuka.” These islets, with the Maoris camped on them—the chief Rangiheuea was on Puwai with several other people—were blown into the air in a twinkling of an eye when Rotomahana and the Terraces were destroyed in 1886. Mr. Smith was charmed with the abundance and tameness of the birds of the warm lake, especially the “elegant little torea.” These torea, he noted, were lucky rascals, protected by the tapu (the close season lasted nearly all the year). “They have nothing to do but hop up and down all day long, first on one leg, then on the other, warming their feet in the water, and then jumping into the air with a loud scream.”
One of the sketches in Mr. Smith's journal shows that beautiful little lake, Okareka, between Rotorua and Tarawera. There is a canoe on it with sail set. There were in those days two or three Maori villages on its shores, which were wooded nearly everywhere, relieved by beautiful white beaches and headlands. Most of the shores, with the lake, are now a State scenic sanctuary.
Dr. Ferdinand von Hochstetter's account, written in 1860, is the first scientific description of the lake and the terraces. Hochstetter, who visited the place, after seeing Taupo, on his journey through the heart of the Island, said that Rotomahana was one of the smallest lakes in the district, barely a mile long from north to south, and over a quarter of a mile wide. According to his measurement it was 1098 feet above the level of the sea. Its form was very irregular on the south side, where the shore was formed by swamp; three small meandering creeks discharged themselves into the lake. In many parts of those swamps warm water streamed forth, mud pools were visible here and there, and from the projecting points muddy shallows covered with swamp grass extended almost as far as the middle of the lake. At the north end the lake grew narrower. The quantity of boiling water issuing from the ground, both on the shores and the bottom of the lake was “truly astonishing.” Of course the whole lake was heated by it. Near the mouth of the cool creeks, the water showed a temperature of 50 deg. F. to 52 deg. F., but in the middle of the lake and near its outlet 80 deg. F. was about the mean temperature of the lake. The water was muddy, turbid, and of a “smutty green colour.” It was the harbour of countless water and swamp fowl. The main interest was attached to the east shore. There were three principal springs to which the lake owed its fame.
“First of all,” Hochstetter wrote, “is Te Tarata, at the north-east end of the lake, with its terraced marble steps projecting into the lake, the most marvellous of the Rotomahana marvels. About 80 feet above the lake, on the fern-clad slope of a hill, from which in various places hot vapour was page 27 escaping, there lies the immense boiling cauldron in a crater-like excavation with steep reddish sides 30 or 40 feet high, and open only on the lake side towards west. The basin of the spring is about 80 feet long and 60 feet wide, and filled to the brim with perfectly clear transparent water, which with the snow white encrusted basin appears of a beautiful blue, like the blue turquoise….
“The native who served me as a guide asserted that sometimes the whole mass of water is suddenly thrown out with an immense force, and then the basin is open to view to a depth of 30 feet, but that it fills again very quickly. Such eruptions are said to occur only during violent easterly gales. If it be true, then Te Tarata spring is a geyser playing at long intervals, the eruptions of which equal perhaps in grandeur the eruptions of the famous geyser in Iceland. The deposit of the water is like that of the Iceland springs, silicious, not calcareous, and the silicious deposits and incrustations of the constantly overflowing water have formed on the slope of the hill a system of terraces, which, as white as if cut from marble, present an aspect which no description or illustration is able to represent. It has the appearance of a cataract plunging over natural shelves, which as it falls is suddenly turned into stone. The silicious deposits cover an area of about three acres of land. For the formation of these terraces, such as we see them to-day, doubtless thousands of years were required.
“The flat-spreading foot of the terraces extends far into the lake. There the terraces commence with low shelves containing shallow water basins. The farther up the higher grow the terraces—two, three, some also four and six feet high. They are formed by semi-circular stages, of which, however, not two are of the same height. Each of those stages, has a small raised margin, from which slender stalactites are hanging down upon the lower stage, and encircles on its platform one or more basins resplendent with the most beautiful blue water. These small water basins represent as many natural bathing basins. Some of the basins are so large and deep that one can easily swim about in them. During violent water-eruptions from the main basin, steaming cascades may occur; but at ordinary times very little water ripples over the terraces, and only the principal discharge page 28 on the south side forms a hot steaming fall. After reaching the highest terrace there is an extensive platform with a number of basins five or six feet deep, their water showing a temperature of 90 deg. F. to 110 deg. F. The pure white of the silicious deposit, in contrast with the blue of the water, with the green of the surrounding vegetation, and with the extensive red of the bare earth-walls of the water-crater, the whirling clouds of steam—altogether presents a scene unequalled of its kind.”
Froude's Pink Terraces Bath.
More poetic, if less scientific, is that eloquent passage in J. A. Froude's “Oceana,” describing the pleasures of the warm baths on the Pink Terraces and the glory of the crater pool. His Maori guide took him to the Pink after seeing the White Terraces. “The youth,” he wrote, “led us up the shining stairs. The crystals were even more beautiful than those we had seen, falling like clusters of rosy icicles or hanging in festoons like creepers trailing from a rail. At the foot of each cascade the water lay in pools of ultramarine; their exquisite colour was due in part, I suppose, to the light of the sky refracted upward from the bottom. The temperature was 94 or 95 degrees. The water was deep enough to swim in comfortably, though not over our heads.
“We lay on our backs and floated for ten minutes in exquisite enjoyment, and the alkali, or the flint, or the perfect purity of the element, seemed to saturate our systems. I, for one, when I was dressed again, could have fancied myself back in the old days, when I did not know that I had a body and could run up hill as lightly as down.”
Froude gave us this picture of the crater pool at the top of the Pink Terrace: “The hue of the water was something I had never seen, and shall never again see this side of eternity. Not the violet, not the harebell, nearest in its tint to heaven of all Nature's flowers, not turquoise, not sapphire, not the unfathomable aether itself could convey to one who had not looked on it a sense of the supernatural loveliness. Comparison could only soil such inimitable purity. The only colour I ever saw in sky or on earth in its least resembling the aspect of this extraordinary pool was the flame of burning sulphur. Here was a bath, if mortal flesh could have borne to dive into it!”
The “Singing Isle.”
As mentioned by Mr. Percy Smith, there were two small islands in the lake, with thatched huts peeping out among the manuka. These islets were named Puwai and Pukara. Puwai especially was resorted to by the Maoris for the healing hot springs, and there were often people camped there. It was the “Singing Isle” described by Alfred Domett in “Ranolf and Amohia.” The poetical name fitted it, because there was a continual sound of steaming water and escaping vapour. One visitor to Rotomahana in the old days (Lieut.-Col. St. John) compared a night's camping on Puwai to sleeping on top of a steaming tea-kettle. Domett described the camping-ground of his romantic lovers on the Singing Isle. They heaped “Elastic fern and broom to keep Down to a pleasant warmth the heat The ground gives out.” There they were lulled to sleep “… by that low changeless churme, The hissing, simmering, seething sound That sings and murmurs all the while, And ever round that mystic isle.”
Puwai, with its Maori campers, and pretty Pukara were utterly destroyed when Rotomahana exploded and was blown into boiling mud and shattered rock on that fearful morning of June 10, 1886.
Now—the changed scene. Rotomahana is six times its original length, it is over 500 feet deep in places, and its area is more than twenty-five times that of the old lake. Its surface is more than 140 feet higher than the level of pre-eruption days. This is due to the fact that the Kaiwaka Stream was not only blocked up by the eruption but was covered by considerably more than a hundred feet of volcanic ash and mud. Some of the water finds exit into Tarawera by subterranean channels, but it is suggested page 29 that a canal should be cut across the short isthmus to relieve the lake of some of its surplus waters. The idea is that the level should be reduced to that before the eruption. This would still leave Rotomahana more than 400 feet deep, and it would no doubt stimulate thermal action along the shores where the weight of water at present prevents full play for the many boiling springs and geysers. Most important of all, it would enable a search to be made for the lost Terraces. The man who knows more about those parts than any other living person, Mr. Alfred Warbrick, the Chief Government Guide, is strongly of the belief that the Terraces, or part of them, were not blown up and shattered in the eruption, but were covered with ash and mud and lost to view. Even the uncovering of a small portion would be a wonderful thing, of immense interest to all who visit Geyserland.
The lowering of the water level here would without a doubt make the Rotomahana launch cruise a more thrilling trip than ever.page break
“Here Nature floods my heart in unseizable dream.”—Robert Bridges
(Rly. Publicity photo.)
Mt. Egmont (8,260ft.) as seen from the Gardens, New Plymouth, North Island, New Zealand. (A daily express service connects Wellington with New Plymouth (251 miles) from which town the mountain is readily accessible.)
“Delightful task … to fix The generous purpose in the glowing breast.”—Thomson.
Our Children's Gallery.—(1) Pat Harpur; (2) Zoe. Alan and Edna Berry; (3) Lois Evans; (4) Nola Peterson; (5) Russell McCrae; (6) Kevin and Maureen Smith; (7) J. McLeod; (9) Ken Anderson (all of Marton) (8) Ruth Hart (Lower Hutt); (10) Eric Pickering (Te Kuiti); (11) Jim Luff (Wanganui); (12) Rosina Pearce (Wanganui); (13) Roland McLeod (Kauri).