One cold starlit night in 1886, the earth around Rotorua began to shake. By around 2:30 am Mount Tarawera's three peaks had split open and were launching tonnes of ash, mud and molten rock over the surrounding landscape. Eyewitnesses later reported that a huge column of fire was seen shooting up into the air with a roar that was heard as far away as Auckland and Christchurch. One of this country's earliest tourist attractions, the spectacular Pink and White Terraces were on the shores of Lake Rotomahana, below Mt Tarawera. The terraces were the two largest formations of silica sinter – a fine-grained version of quartz – ever known to have existed. They were extraordinarily beautiful and often referred to as "the Eighth Wonder of the World".
Following the eruption, many villages were completely buried with few or no survivors. It is estimated that about 150 people died. The famed Terraces were also thought to have been completely destroyed however exciting new research has found remnants of them far below the lake's surface.
Evidence of the ancient explosion's violence and power can still clearly be seen today, especially in views from the air. Many of the lakes surrounding the mountain were dramatically altered and the blast left a 17km-long gash running through the mountain. The massive rift runs southwestwards beneath the lake and beyond, creating the world's youngest geothermal area, the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Today this valley is a hotspot of incredible geothermal activity.
A scenic flight of Mt Tarawera and Rotorua lakes is the best way to get a sense of the scale of the explosion and experience nature's awesome power and beauty. Find out more about the options for helicopter tours by Aerius Helicopters, departing from Tauranga Airport.