Art. XLV.—Notes on the Eruption of Tarawera Mountain and
Rotomahana, 10th June, 1886, as seen from Taheke, Lake
[Read before the Auckland Institute, 26th July, 1886.]
During the first week in June the weather was stormy, the wind being N.E. to N.W. and W., with a moderate rainfall. On the 6th of the month the wind changed to South, and clear cold weather set in. This continued to the morning of the 9th, when the wind hauled back to West, blowing a stiff breeze, with a cloudy sky. In the afternoon there were several sharp rain-squalls, but the night set in fine, the moon being just in her first quarter; and an occultation of Mars, which occurred about 9 o'clock, was clearly seen. The wind at this time was light. At about a quarter past 1 o'clock on the morning of the 10th I was awakened by an earthquake. This was followed in a minute or so by a much heavier shock, which aroused everyone in the place; and then there succeeded, at intervals of about 50 secs., a succession of vibrations, varying in character, some being uniform undulatory movements, others sharp and irregular; while some resembled the striking of heavy blows upwards. This state of things continued for half-an-hour. About 1.45 I was startled by a steady roar, like that produced by a blastfurnace, or a great waterfall. A friend in an adjoining room called to me to look out of my window. My room was on the east side of the house; and upon looking out I saw that all that side of the heavens was aglow, and there seemed to be a great column of fire rising to a height of about 15 to 20 degrees, while above it was a dense column of black smoke. Masses of solid matter appeared to be hurled up, amid showers of both ascending and descending sparks. At the same time there was a marvellous electrical display, all the ordinary forms of lightning were there playing, as it were, through the flame, the white light showing conspicuously against the red. Over and on either side of this there constantly flashed rounded masses of dazzling white light, as if caused by the explosion of bombs, and bayonets of sparks, which crackled like fireworks. My first impression was that there was an eruption of the Tikitiri Springs, 2½ miles distant; but upon ascending a hill I made out the Whakapoungakau Range in the foreground, the trees on its summit being distinctly visible; and then I made out that the seat of action was Wahanga, the northernmost peak of Tarawera Mountain, some 13 or 14 miles distant. There was very little tremor of the earth at this stage. I went down to the lake shore, but could not detect any disturbance there. A
gentle breeze was blowing from S.W., and in that direction the sky was perfectly clear. Later on the roar became louder, with crashing reports, as of heavy bodies falling; the thunder, too, increased, and the lightning was, if possible, more active. The shocks, too, were renewed with great vigour. At this time a dense black column rose on the right of the blaze—that is, more to the South, and in the direction of Rotomahana, and spread out in the sky. Soon after 3 o'clock the wind shifted to the South-east, and the black cloud was driven slowly in on the light, dropping over it like a veil, and by degrees blotting it out. For a time the lightning flashed through the murky mass, and then there came on the most utter and appalling darkness. The roar of the volcano could still be heard, and occasional tremendous peals of thunder; but these gradually died away. About 4 o'clock there was a pattering of light cinders on the roof, and a sulphurous smell was apparent. Upon going outside I found the air charged with fine dust, which was painful to the eyes. The night was intensely cold, and I went back to my room and slept for some time. On awaking I opened my window, and found the sill covered with a fine sandy mud. Some Maoris then, by the aid of lanterns, found their way to the house, and reported that their huts were being buried, and they feared that the roofs would fall in. At 8 o'clock there was still the most intense darkness, and no sound could be heard except an occasional rumble like thunder. The soft ooze was falling silently as snow, and covering everything up. At 9.30 there appeared a faint gleam of greenish light, low down in the South, and the wind having veered again to that quarter, the fall of sand gradually became less, and ceased altogether at 11 o'clock. By noon one could read a newspaper in the open air, but the position of the sun could not be made out until 2 o'clock. Throughout the day there were occasional tremors of the earth, and thunder and lightning in the East. All along the ridge of Tarawera immense masses of dark smoke were being belched forth, while to the right a great column of steam arose, and further south a smaller one. All round Rotoiti everything was covered with the grey volcanic deposit. In some places it was in drifts of 18 inches deep, and nowhere was it less than 3 inches. The fern and light shrubs in the open country were levelled with the ground, and in the woods every leaf and spray was covered. The telegraph wires were coated, and looked like ropes an inch thick. Numbers of straight dead tree-trunks were burning like great torches. The lake had become a soapy-white colour, and had risen 3 or 4 inches, the water being unfit for domestic use.
On the 11th and 12th of June there was a hard cutting south wind, bitterly cold. Light shocks were felt. Great
numbers of koura, and myriads of the small fish found in these lakes, were washed on shore dead or dying; many of the fish, though not dead, presented a bruised and discoloured appearance. All the small birds had disappeared; pheasants and Australian quail came almost to the doors of the houses seeking food, and numbers of rats were wandering about the hills and valleys.
There is no tradition of any activity in Tarawera Mountain, nor of any alteration in Rotomahana. The mountain was in past ages the chief burial place of the Ngatirangitihi tribe, the section of the Arawa to whom the country about the east end of Tarawera Lake belongs. Apumoana, the eldest son of Rangitihi, the great ancestor of all the Arawa tribes, who lived about fifteen generations ago, was buried in a cave on the rim of a crater there. It has been said, I believe, that the names of the different peaks of the mountain suggested some volcanic activity during the period of Maori history. I cannot see the connection myself; but, in any case, Maori names of places do not necessarily point to the literal meaning of the name. For instance, the name Rangitoto—literally, sky of blood—is thought by some people to denote that the Island of that name near Auckland was in a state of volcanic activity when the ancestors of the Maori came from Hawaiiki. But the word “rangitoto” also means “scoria” or “cinder,” and there are several places in the North Island so called where there is no scoria or cinders. Where the meaning is not palpable, great caution and research should be exercised in tracing the reasons for the names of places and things, or one may commit a great blunder. For instance, the author of the “Aryan Maori” considers that the moa (Dinornis) was so named from moana (the ocean), on account of its vast size; but he would hardly have ventured that opinion if he had known that in the Samoan Group “moa” is the name of the domestic hen.