That breathtaking view is of Lake Tarawera. As I took that photograph, I couldn’t believe how peaceful it was, how much like paradise it looked. In 1886, it was the site of the most terrifying volcanic eruption in New Zealand’s human history.
Modern tourists admiring a steaming hot pool in Rotorua’s Government Gardens
Back then, Rotorua was just as much a tourist trap as it is today. People came from all over the world to see its geothermal marvels – the mud pools, the geysers, the “healing” waters – all while breathing in the magnificent smell of rotten eggs. Most spectacular of all were the Pink and White Terraces, revered as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The Pink and White Terraces were naturally formed bathing pools. They were tiered, flowing with warm, silica-rich water. From the paintings, photographs and written descriptions of delighted tourists that remain, we know they were beautiful. They cannot be visited today because they were obliterated in 1886, along with the lives of about a hundred and twenty people, when Mt Tarawera blew its top.
This is what Mt Tarawera looks like today, from across Lake Tarawera – a shadow of its former self. When it erupted, it buried several villages. You can visit one – Te Wairoa – that has been excavated from the ash, like Pompeii.
Nearby the Buried Village, on the shore of Lake Tarawera, lies a very nice café. The food’s surprisingly awesome, and you can sit on the deck and look out over the lake. Last time I went, it had just been raining heavily, so the lake, Mt Tarawera and the surrounding bush were swathed in mist. It was highly atmospheric. I could easily imagine the ghosts of the eruption drifting across the water. As we ate, the mist slowly cleared. Now we saw the lake in its full sparkling glory. We drove up to the lookout spot and stood amazed.
After that, we drove to somewhere we always go when we visit Rotorua: Government Gardens. I’ve written about Government Gardens before, but they’ve got even better since then. You’ll want to take your time exploring them – it’s easy to miss bits, there’s so much. On the gardens’ periphery is the gorgeous 1930s bath house of the Blue Baths. (That’s it in the picture.) My family loves it there. It’s less crowded than the more famous Polynesian Spa, and more sophisticated with its Art Deco décor.
Bringing us back to the Tarawera Eruption, the best thing about Government Gardens is they’re home to the Rotorua Museum, which has a fantastic exhibition on the subject. I enjoyed it so much, the science, the history and the artefacts – including a pair of Victorian women’s boots I seriously wanted to steal, and a mummified cat.
The building that the houses the Rotorua Museum is beautiful. It was built to be a luxury bath house, offering mud baths and electroshock therapy, and some of the bathing rooms remain as exhibits. Rather excitingly, one of the exhibits is an underground labyrinth showing you all the pipes under the building. You’re offered a hardhat before you descend, but I’m so short I didn’t need one. I must say I found it rather creepy. In a good way.
You can also go up onto the roof of the building. As well as being a fascination in itself, it offers a 360° view that encompasses the Government Gardens and Lake Rotorua.
Being a history nerd from England, I often bemoan New Zealand’s comparative lack of interesting history. That day in Rotorua, visiting Lake Tarawera and then the museum, I found a new appreciation for New Zealand’s history. Besides, England doesn’t have bubbling mud pools or steaming geysers. Or quite the same danger of having lava rain from ash-darkened skies…