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The New Zealand Reader



We descended to the lake head by the path up which we had seen the party returning the previous evening. The boat was a long, light gig, unfit for storms; but Tarawera lay unruffled in the sunshine, tree and mountain peacefully mirrored on the surface. The colour was again green, as of a shallow sea. Heavy bushes fringed the shore. High wooded mountains rose on all sides of us as we left the creek and came out upon the open water. The men rowed well, laughing and talking among themselves, and carried us in little more than an hour to a point eight miles distant. Little life of any kind showed on the way; no boat was visible but our own; there were a few cormorants, a few ducks, a coot or two, three or four seagulls come from the ocean to catch sprats, and that was all. Kate, our page 40guide, said that the lake held enormous eels, as big round as a man's leg, which were caught occasionally with night lines; but we saw nothing of them, and did not entirely believe. At the point, or behind it, we came on a Maori farm on the water's edge. There were boats and nets hung up to dry, a maize field, an orchard, and a cabin. We stopped, and they offered us crayfish, which we declined, but bought a basket of apples for the crew. We were now in an arm of the lake which reached three miles further. At the head of this we landed by the mouth of a small rapid river, and looked about us. It was a pretty spot, overhung by precipitous cliffs, with ivy fern climbing over them, A hot spring was bubbling violently through a hole in the rock. The ground was littered with the shells of unnumbered crayfish, which had been boiled in this caldron of nature's providing. Here we were joined by a Native girl, Marileha* by name, a bright-looking lass of eighteen, with merry eyes, and a thick but well-combed mass of raven hair, shot with orange in the sunlight, which she tossed about over her shoulders. On her back, thrown jauntily on, she had a shawl of feathers, which E— wanted to buy, but found the young lady coy. She was a friend of Kate's, it appeared, was qualifying for a guide, and was to be our companion, we were told, during the day.

We took off our boots and stockings, put on canvas shoes which a wetting would not spoil, and followed our two guides through the bush, waiting for what fate had in store for us—Miss Mari laughing, shouting, and singing to amuse Kate, whose head ached. After a winding walk of half a mile we came again on the river, which was rushing deep and swift through reeds and tea-tree. A rickety canoe was waiting there, in which we crossed. Then we climbed up a bank, and stretched before us we saw the White Terrace in all its strangeness—a crystal staircase, glittering and stainless as if it were ice, spreading out like an open fan from a point above us on the hillside, and projecting at the bottom into a lake, where it was perhaps a hundred yards wide. The summit was concealed behind the volumes of steam rising out of the boiling fountain, from which the siliceous stream proceeded. The stairs were about twenty in number, the

* [Impossible as a Maori name. Probably Marereira.]

page 41height of each being from one to seven feet. The floors dividing them were horizontal, as if laid out with a spirit-level. They were of uneven breadth—twenty, thirty, fifty feet, or even more—each step down being always perpendicular, and all forming arcs of circles. On reaching the lake the silica flowed away into the water, where it lay in a sheet, half-submerged, like ice at the beginning of a thaw. There was nothing in the fall of the ground to account for the regularity of shape. A crater has been opened through the rock a hundred feet above the lake. The water, which comes up boiling from below, is charged as heavily as it will bear with silicic acid. The silica crystallizes as it is exposed to the air. The water continues to flow over the hardened surface, continually adding a fresh coating to the deposits already laid down; and, for reasons which men of science can no doubt supply, the crystals take the form which I have described. The process is a rapid one. A piece of newspaper left behind by a recent visitor was already stiff as the starched collar of a shirt. Tourists ambitious of immortality had pencilled their names and the date of their visit on the white surface over which the stream was running. Some of these inscriptions were six or seven years old; yet the strokes were as fresh as on the day they were made, being protected by the film of glass which was instantly drawn over them.

The thickness of the crust is, I believe, unascertained, the Maoris objecting to scientific examination of their treasure. It struck me, however, that this singular cascade must have been of recent, indeed measurably recent, origin. In the middle of the terrace were the remains of a tea-tree bush, which was standing where a small patch of soil was still uncovered. Part of this, where the silica had not reached the roots, was in leaf and alive; the rest had been similarly alive within a year or two, for it had not yet rotted, but had died as the crust rose round it. Clearly, nothing could grow through the crust, and the bush was a living evidence of the rate at which it was forming. It appeared to me that this particular staircase was not perhaps a hundred years old, but that terraces like it had successively been formed all along the hillside as the crater opened now at one spot and now at another. Wherever the rock showed elsewhere through the soil it was of the page 42same material as that which I saw growing. If the supply of silicic acid was stopped the surface would dry and crack. Tea-trees would then spring up over it. The crystal steps would crumble into less regular outlines, and in a century or two the fairy-like wonder which we were gazing at would be indistinguishable from the adjoining slopes. We walked, or rather waded, upwards to the boiling pool; it was not in this that we were to bathe. It was about sixty feet across, and of unknown depth. The heat was too intense to allow us to approach the edge, and we could see little, from the dense clouds of steam which lay upon it. We were more fortunate afterwards at the crater of the second terrace.

The crystallization is ice-like, and the phenomenon, except for the alternate horizontal and vertical arrangement of the deposited silica, is like what would be seen in any northern region when a severe frost suddenly seizes hold of a waterfall before snow has fallen and buried it.

A fixed number of minutes is allotted for each of the " sights." Kate was peremptory with E— and myself. Miss Marileha had charge of my son. "Come along, boy," I heard her say to him. We were dragged off the White Terrace in spite of ourselves, but soon forgot it in the many and various wonders which were waiting for us. Columns of steam were rising all round us. We had already heard, near at hand, a noise like a blast-pipe of some enormous steam-engine. Climbing up a rocky path through the bush we came on a black gaping chasm, the craggy sides of which we could just distinguish through the vapour. Water was boiling furiously at the bottom, and it was as if a legion of imprisoned devils were roaring to be let out. "Devils' Hole" they called the place, and the name suited well with it. Behind a rock a few yards distant we found a large open pool, boiling also so violently that great volumes of water heaved and rolled and spouted, as if in a gigantic saucepan standing over a furnace. It was full of sulphur. Heat, noise, and smell were alike intolerable. To look at the thing and then escape from it was all that we could do, and we were glad to be led away out of sight and hearing. Again a climb, and we were on an open, level plateau, two acres or so in extent, smoking rocks all round it, and scattered over its surface a number page 43of pale-brown mud-heaps—exactly the African ant-hills. Each of these was the cone of some sulphurous geyser.* Some were quiet, some were active. Suspicious bubbles of steam spurted out under our feet as we trod, and we were warned to be careful where we went. Here we found a photographer, who had bought permission from, the Maori, at work with his instruments, and Marileha was made to stand for her likeness on the top of one of the mud piles. We did not envy him his occupation, for the whole place smelt of brimstone and of the near neighbourhood of the nether pit. Our own attention was directed specially to a hole filled with mud of a peculiar kind, much relished by the Natives, and eaten by them as porridge. To us, who had been curious about their food, this dirty mess was interesting. It did not, however, solve the problem. Mud could hardly be as nutritious as they professed to find it, though it may have had medicinal virtues to assist the digestion of crayfish. The lake into which the terrace descended lay close below us. It was green and hot (the temperature near 100°), patched over with beds of rank reed and rash, which were forced into unnatural luxuriance. After leaving the mud-heaps we went down to the water-side, where we found our luncheon laid out in an open-air saloon, with a smooth floor of silica, and natural slabs of silica ranged round the sides as benches. Steam-fountains were playing in half a dozen places. The floor was hot—a mere skin between us and Cocytus. he slabs were hot, just to the point of being agreeable to sit upon. This spot was a favourite winter resort of the Maori—their palavering hall, where they had their constitutional debates, their storeroom, their kitchen, and their dining-room. Here they had their innocent meals of dried fish and fruit, here also their less innocent of dried slices of their enemies. At present it seemed to be made over to visitors like ourselves. The ground was littered with broken bottles, emptied tins, and scraps of sandwich papers. We contributed our share to the general mess.

Kate was out of spirits, with her headache; we did what we could to cheer her, and partially succeeded. The scene

* [The sound of "gey" is like that of "guy"]

[Co-cy′-tus, a fabled river of the under-world.]

page 44was one to be remembered, and we wished to preserve some likeness of it. The Maoris prohibit sketching, unless, as with the photographer, permission has been exorbitantly paid for. Choosing to be ignorant of the rule, E— sat himself down and took out his drawing-book. Two or three Natives who had joined us howled and gesticulated, but, as they could speak no English, and Kate did not interfere, E—affected ignorance of what they meant, and calmly finished his pencil outline.

We were now to be ferried across the lake. The canoe had been brought up—a scooped-out tree-trunk, as long as a racing eight-oar, and about as narrow. It was leaky, and so low in the water that the lightest ripple washed over the gunwale. The bottom, however, was littered with freshgathered fern, which for the present was dry, and we wore directed to lie down upon it. Marileha stood in the bow, wielding her paddle, with her elf-locks rolling wildly down her back. The hot waves lapped in and splashed us. The lake was weird and evil-looking. Here Kate had earned her medal. Some gentleman, unused to boats, had lost his balance, or his courage, and had fallen overboard. Kate had dived after him as he sank, and fished him up again.

The Pink Terrace, the object of our voyage, opened out before us on the opposite shore. It was formed on the same lines as the other, save that it was narrower, and was flushed with pale-rose colour. Oxide of iron is said to be the cause, but there is probably something besides. The water has not, I believe, been completely analysed. Miss Mari used her paddle like a mistress. She carried us over with no worse misfortune than a light splashing, and landed us at the terrace-foot. It was here, if anywhere, that the ablutions were to take place. A Native youth was waiting with the towels. Kate and Mari withdrew to wallow, rhinoceros-like, in a mud-pool of their own. The youth took charge of us and led us up the shining stairs. The crystals were even more beautiful than those which 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 being due in part, I suppose, to the light of the sky refracted upwards from the bottom. In the deepest of these we were to bathe. The temperature was 94° or page 4595°. The water lay inviting in its crystal basin. E— declined the adventure. I and A—hung our clothes on a tea-bush and followed our Maori, who had already plunged in (being unencumbered, except with a blanket) to show us the way. His black head and copper shoulders were so animal-like that I did not entirely admire his company; but he was a man and a brother, and I knew that he must be clean, at any rate, poor fellow! from perpetual washing. 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.

The bath over, we pursued our way. The marvel of the terrace was still before us, reserved to the last, like the finish in a pleasant battue. The crater at the White Terrace had been boiling; the steam rushing out from it had filled the air with cloud, and the scorching heat had kept us at a distance. Here the temperature was twenty degrees lower; there was still vapour hovering over the surface, but it was lighter and more transparent, and a soft breeze now and then blew it completely aside. We could stand on the brim and gaze as through an opening in the earth into an azure infinity beyond. Down and down, and softer and softer as they receded, the white crystals projected from the rocky walls over the abyss, till they seemed to dissolve not into darkness but into light. The hue of the water was something which I had never seen, and shall never again see on this side of eternity. Not the violet, not the hare-bell, nearest in its tint to heaven of all nature's flowers; not turquoise, not sapphire, not the unfathomable æther itself could convey to one who had not looked on it a sense of that supernatural loveliness. Comparison could only soil such inimitable purity. The only colour I ever saw in sky or on earth in the 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! Had it been in Norway, we should have seen, far down, the floating Lorelei, inviting us to plunge and leave life and all page 46belonging to it for such a home and such companionship. It was a bath for the gods and not for man.

J. A. Froude

("Oceana," 1885).