The eruption of Mount Tarawera remains one of the worst recorded natural disasters in New Zealand history.

Shortly after midnight on June 10, 1886, the first earthquakes were felt and people throughout the area were jolted awake.

By 2.30am the mountain had split open across the summit domes, all three peaks spewing ash and mud across the district.

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At 3.30am the worst of the eruption took place when vents at Rotomahana created a surge of gas and rock.

On that fateful night more than 120 people died and entire villages disappeared forever.

People from Te Arawa lived near the mountain, with Tuhourangi holding power over the
Tarawera lakes district, including the terraces of Rotomahana.

The mountain was considered tapu, as each generation laid the bones of their dead in secret places on its upper slopes.

Before the eruption, the Pink and White Terraces, a major tourist attraction once described as the "Eighth Wonder of the World", had drawn people from all over the world to Tarawera.

On May 31, on their way to the terraces, Guide Sophia and a group of six European visitors saw a mysterious ghost canoe on Lake Tarawera.

To the Māori onlookers the meaning was clear – it was a waka wairua, and an event such as this was a warning of impending death.

The terraces were destroyed during the eruption, along with the livelihoods of nearby tribes which relied on the visitor trade.


At Ohinemutu, Tamatekapua meeting house was readied for the arrival of people who came to share in the terrible loss.

Ngāti Rangitihi people from the Rangitaiki and Tarawera river areas, also refugees, congregated at Matatā.