Friday, 30 March 2012

Lost & Found - The Eighth Wonder of the World

The White Terraces, pre 1886 -  From a tinted Postcard dated 1908
[From my own collection]

Classed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" [1] until believed destroyed in 1886, it now appears that substantial elements of the famous Pink and White Terraces in New Zealand's North Island thermal wonderland have miraculously escaped total destruction.

Both sets of terraces were 800 metres apart on the shores on Lake Rotomahana, their distinctive shape and colour being formed by cascading hot water containing silica emitted from two large geysers above.

The Pink Terraces, as painted by Charles Blomfield in 1884.
[Source : Wikipedia]

By the time they were believed destroyed in a massive volcanic eruption on the 10th June 1886 they had already become a "must see" tourist destination. This was despite the difficulties of reaching the area, but still tourists flocked to see this natural phenomena. Māori guides took visitors in whaling boats across the lake from the village of Te Wairoa which grew as a result of the increasing number of visitors to the area.

Eleven days before the eruption both local Māori and European tourists reported seeing a phantom Māori war canoe sailing across Lake Tarawera. This was considered by Māori to be an ill omen. Māori guide Sophia Hinerangi [Te Paea] also observed disturbances to water levels in Lake Tarawera prior to the eruption.

The White Terraces, as painted by Charles Blomfield in 1884.
[Source : Wikipedia]

At around 2 am on the morning of the 10th June 1886, a fissure on Mount Tarawera erupted, and by 2.30 am the craters along the summit were venting fountains of glowing scoria and a cloud of ash up to 10 kilometres high, through which intense lightning flickered. At 3.20 a.m. the explosions spread. Craters were blasted open on the south-west side of the mountain and through to Lake Rotomahana and the Waimangu area. A 17-kilometre rift spewed steam, mud and ash. The eruptions were over by about 6 a.m.

A map of the general area published in
"The Central Thermal Springs of the North Island", 1888.
The 17 kilometre rift is clearly visible from bottom left
to right centre. Lake Rotomahana has not yet filled.
[From my own collection]

The Māori and European villages of Te Wairoa were buried, and throughout the area approximately 120 people were killed. The explosions were heard as far away as Auckland to the North and Christchurch in the South Island, whilst many in the Manawatu believed that the visiting Russian man-of-war, 'Vestnick' was bombarding Wanganui.

The fissure clearly evident on Mount Tarawera, as sketched in 1886 and
published in "The Central Thermal Springs of the North Island", 1888.
[From my own collection]

After the eruption, a crater over 100 metres deep encompassed the former site of the terraces. Over the next 15 years this slowly filled with water (as shown below) to form a new enlarged Lake Rotomahana 30 metres higher and five time larger than the old lake due to volcanic debris blocking its outflow to Lake Tarawera.

And there supposedly ended the story of the renowned Pink and White Terraces, mourned for the loss of such unique natural beauty but always remembered by period photographs and evocative paintings.

A modern map detailing the extend of the eruption.
[Source :  The Encyclodia of New Zealand]

But fast forward 125 years to 2011 when a team of scientific researchers completed mapping of the lake floor. Their startling findings initially revealed that lying 60 metres below the lake surface and covered in mud appeared to be at least two tiers of the actual Pink Terraces and evidence of a 150 metre long section of the White Terraces. But more exciting news was soon to follow.

Further mapping just completed by GNS Science using sonar equipment has concluded that a substantially intact portion of the Pink Terraces lie under two metres of sediment on the lake floor. The White Terraces, being in an area of greater seismic disturbance, appear to be less intact. The actual condition of both terraces cannot however be accurately determined.  

A GNS Science Video explaining the Latest Search

Last year we found the two bottom tiers of the buttress adjacent to main staircase of the Pink Terraces. This year the seismic data is telling us that there is a 40-meter-wide and three-storey-high stack of very hard material exactly where we estimate the Pink Terraces should be."

"We believe this represents a substantial portion of the Pink Terraces, although we were not able to determine their state of preservation. We were unable to image individual terraces. The stack of hard material is covered by a 2m-thick layer of sediment that could not be penetrated by the sonar equipment used in last year’s survey."

The White Terraces, taken by Charles Spenser, 1880.
[Source : Julian's Blog - Julian is the Outreach Educator for GNS Science]

Current mapping of the lake bed has used the most up to date equipment available. Further imaging may only become possible if and when higher resolution sonar imaging equipment becomes available. What remains of the Terraces however will never ever again be seen in their original form. But the realisation that this famous 'Eighth Wonder of the World' had not been entirely blown to pieces and a substantial portion merely rests on the lake bed under layers of sediment has created both excitement, wonder and curiosity.

One hopes that at least a small portion of the Terraces may be uncovered to at least ascertain their condition after having been buried for 125 years. But 'burial' may be their best protection and in future we can hopefully view what remains by the use of digital imaging.

Footnotes :
1 = there are actually seven natural wonders in this category, two being in New Zealand.

Bibliography :

- Wikipedia
- "The Central Thermal Springs of the North Island", 1888 [From my own collection]  
- Where stated images are from my own collection but may be freely copied for non-commercial use (only) provided a link is given back to this page.


  1. I wonder what made scientists look for the terraces, given that everyone believed they had been destroyed for all time. Ok only two tiers of the Pink Terraces and a long section of the White Terraces, but fairly amazing nonetheless.

    Doesn't NZ live on a major fault line in the Pacific? Is catastrophic geological movement like this inevitable?

    1. It was mainly curiosity as to if any remnants of the terraces survived but it has only been within the last few years that technology has advanced enough to enable such an investigation to actually be possible. It was not just mapping the lake bed but looking 'through' the sediment layer as well, all fascinating stuff. Yes, while the White Terraces appear to be the least preserved the Pink Terraces appear to be substantially intact, not just two tiers as originally believed from the first survey last year. And Scientists have found that vents on the lake bed are more active than originally believed, this information will prove very useful in understanding what the thermal crust is up to. While New Zealand sits on a very active fault line no one would ever (even now) have expected a mountain to actually blow up over a 17 kilometre rift line. This was a huge cataclysmic event that might never happen again for centuries.

  2. Hi there would you mind giving me the source for image 4 please?

    1. The map I used is from "The Central Thermal Springs of the North Island", published as a tourist map / brochure in 1888. I know the Museum at Rotorua have a copy but you may be able to access it at other archives in New Zealand

  3. I visited Te Wairoa in 1980, purchasing a booklet, "The Story of the Great Eruption of Mt. Tarawera 1886" published by D.W. Smith, Roturua, New Zealand. It seems to have been written in the teens.

    It mentions that Chief Government Guide, Alfred Warbrick< always held that the Terraces were not lown away, and would be rediscovered some day buried in the mud. He suggested that if the old Kaiwaka channel to Lake Tarawera should be re-excavated they would be found there.

    Professor of Geology at Glasgow University, Dr. J.W. Gregory, pooh-poohed Warbrick's prophecy....

    I also read on the internet that Guide Sophia saw 13 paddlers with dog's head in that phantom canoe. Dogs are mentioned in Revelations and I looked up Revelations 13:13:

    And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men

  4. Hi Rain-in-the-Face, our 2016-2017 research which rediscovered the Pink and White Terrace locations shows the colonists should have listened to Alfred Warbrick. His prophecy as you term it, has now been proved correct.


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