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Land of the Pink and White Terraces

We are driven down the winding Waimangu Volcanic Valley in a rickety bus. The heavy rainfall from last weekend has flooded out half the walking track to the lake, so temporary transport is required to ferry the tourists through ‘stage two’ of the valley. A spitting geyser erupts to the left; on the right, boiling water rushes by at an unimaginable speed. The air smells pungent, like boiled eggs that have been left to rot. The sticky steam billows in the wind, shrinking down around us, dissolving candyfloss which fogs my glasses.

A steaming Frying Pan Lake.
Frying Pan Lake in Waimangu Valley, which used to be Echo Crater before it violently erupted in 1917 (killing two people and destroying an accommodation house). It covers 38,000 square metres and is the world’s largest hot spring, with a surface temperature of 55 degrees Celsius.

The driver is a happy-go-lucky man in his 60s. My mum is expert at talking to strangers, so we soon know the abridged autobiography of his life – where he was born (Ahipara), where his family moved to (Kerikeri, then ‘down south’), what he has been doing for the last forty years (travelling publishing salesman in Vietnam). He blithely announces that he has returned to New Zealand ‘for the next five years so I can claim my pension!’

He turns us sharply round a steep corner and my mum grips the edge of the seat in front of her. She eyes the bubbling stream down below. ‘Don’t you ever feel nervous working here?’

He laughs loudly. ‘If you were nervous, you wouldn’t live in New Zealand!’

In many ways, he’s right. New Zealand is not a country for the faint hearted. Lying within the Pacific Ring of Fire, our country is one that has experienced the threat and horror of shifting ground and volcanic explosions over centuries and millennia. In recent years, the devastating Christchurch, Kaikōura and Seddon earthquakes come to mind, but the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera (the eruption that carved out the very volcanic valley we are now travelling down) is considered ‘recent’ in terms of geological time. With New Zealand experiencing around 14,000 earthquakes a year and possessing 12 active volcanic areas, the ever-present threat of ‘the big one’ is whispered about – and shouted about, if you are the media – but the warnings are mostly ignored in our typical ‘she’ll be right’ Kiwi attitude. In one of my most disliked sayings, most New Zealanders agree that ‘what will be, will be’.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t muse on the possibilities of a volcano destroying half (or all…) of New Zealand. Naturally, there is no better time to think about this possibility than when you are deliberately walking into a live volcanic valley. On admiring the incredible beauty of the lush fauna and flora, I couldn’t help but walk with half a mind – one half on the physical beauty of such an ethereal place, and the other half imagining its violent history. On a special trip away for my twenty-fourth birthday, the volcanic valley experience was an otherworldly one.

With the ground splitting and spitting, craters of steam circling and 100-degree Celsius pools bubbling, it was a stark reminder to me that we live on living, breathing ground.

A mini geyser with blue-green algae.
One of the mini geysers we saw on our journey through the valley. The incredible green, orange, brown and blue coloured algae cover the terraced rock – this algae cannot survive in water over 75 degrees Celsius.

After walking and busing down through the beautiful valley – viewing natural sites such as the Emerald Pool, the Crystal Wall, Cathedral Rocks and Clamshell Spring – I began to believe I must be on a film set, because surely it couldn’t be real? Wiping my glasses frequently to remove the fog, I had plenty of chances to blink and reassure myself.

Our final destination was the gorgeous Lake Rotomahana.

Lake Rotomahana used to be two lakes before the 1886 Mt Tarawera Eruption changed its shape forever, exploding it to 20 times its previous size. The lake hides 15 huge craters beneath its surface, and it is the deepest lake in New Zealand. As one of the newest ecosystems in the world, it is also a wildlife refuge. My parents and I take photos of the picturesque black swans gliding across the lake in the pin-drop silence.

Lake Rotomahana with black swans
Lake Rotomahana with Mount Tarawera looming in the background, feat. black swans.

In a place so gloriously peaceful (we got lucky – it was off-peak tourist season), it is hard to believe the devastation that occurred here.

The natural Pink and White Terraces on Lake Rotomahana were New Zealand’s premier tourist attraction during the nineteenth century. Once known as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, the awe-inspiring terraces were a series of beautiful silica hot pools. Wealthy domestic and international tourists flocked to Te Wairoa, where they would be taken to the large White Terraces (Te Tarata – ‘the tattooed rock’) in waka and whaleboats across Lake Tarawera, by foot over the Kaiwaka Channel and then over the hill to Lake Rotomahana. It was a long and difficult trip, but one that caused tourists to fall into raptures over the beauty of the site and the feeling of the water – the pools were silken with natural minerals. The Pink Terraces (Te Otukapuarangi – ‘the fountain of the clouded sky’) were smaller in stature, but considered more picturesque for their salmon pink colour.

One tourist, a C. M. Ollivier,  wrote an essay in 1871 describing his experience of the terraces for the local newspaper:

“The baths of the ancient Romans could not have surpassed them . . . the loveliness of the water, its softness and purity, its varieties of temperature, increasing so gradually with each rise . . . Who would not bathe in such luxury as this?”

He describes Te Otukapuarangi as:

“… the lady in everything in comparison to Tarata . . . The material that the terraces are formed of would excel the finest Italian marble. It is soft and delicate to the touch, yet its surface looks and shines like glass. The terraces are pure white at the top, and as we descend they gradually change their colour, until in the centre and towards the bottom a rich, full, and yet delicate rose-pink prevails. . . . but beautiful as were the shell shaped pools of Tarata, those of the pink terraces far excel them”.

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On 10 June 1886, violent earthquakes woke locals and tourists early in the morning. Outside, the sky was lit: burnt orange and sharp yellow. Mount Tarawera had split open and a huge column of fire could be seen shooting up into the air. Molten rocks, hot mud and immense clouds of black ash smothered the scene. The roar of the eruption could be heard as far away as Christchurch and Auckland.

It is estimated that 153 people were killed that night. The entire villages of Te Ariki and Moura were buried completely under volcanic mud, with no survivors recorded. The ‘Buried Village’ museum of Te Wairoa made for a sobering site: while the deaths of all the local Māori, Pākehā and tourists at Te Wairoa were recorded on a large memorial sheet, many of the Māori families who perished at Te Ariki and Moura were simply not recorded, their names buried under the volcanic mud along with their bodies.

The Pink and White Terraces were thought to have been completely destroyed. In 2011, however, a large team of scientists announced the discovery of a part of the Pink Terrace 60 metres deep beneath the surface of the Lake Rotomahana. In June 2011, part of the White Terraces were found. While this discovery has been challenged – with a recent article arguing that the terraces are more likely buried 10 to 15 metres underground along the shoreline of the lake – it doesn’t erase the fact that the beauty of the terraces are gone forever. It is tempting to imagine how big an attraction the terraces would have been for locals and tourists today; how it would have been on the World’s ‘Top Ten Places to Visit’.

And there we were 132 years later, drifting idly along on the calm Lake Rotomahana, gasping in awe at the huge geysers and admiring the wall of steam billowing out from the cliffs. On such a beautiful clear day, the heat of the geothermal activity was palpable.


Ollivier, the man who I quoted earlier, described how it had been ‘customary’ for visitors to etch their names on the top of Te Tarata with a pencil. These names, even from fifteen years previous, ‘are now as plain as the day they were inscribed.’ Making ones mark on landscapes or landmarks – or even the local bridge – has been a past-time since humans began.

However, the fact that tourists inscribed their names on the terraces did somewhat surprise and horrify me – it is difficult to imagine tourists scrawling their names on such a pristine natural environment. But the names of those visitors are now long gone, as are the visitors to that place. The wonders of the terraces remain merely in the form of written accounts and photographic proof, and it was a reminder to me how important written communication and records are in the larger scheme of history. Thanks to the artists, photographers and writers who visited them in the nineteenth century, we still have a (albeit black-and-white) record of the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.

The bus driver took us back up the winding valley at the end of our trip. He gave us a pamphlet on the local hot pools, urging us to try them out. On the way up, we came across two tourists – Australian – who had failed to read the signs that the ‘stage two’ walking track was closed for access. Although our driver had earlier reassured my parents that he ‘always feels safe’ working in the valley, he hastened to tell the tourists off. ‘Naughty people. Don’t you know, that this is a live volcanic valley?’

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