Tarawera and the Phantom Canoe

New Zealand. To some, it brings to mind the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, where director Peter Jackson filmed most of the scenes. To volcanologists, it’s the land of gorgeous volcanoes!


hobbiton tongariro

Figures above: (left) Hobbiton in New Zealand as depicted in the Lord of the Rings films, and (right) Tongariro and volcanoes in the same volcano chain, aka Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings (Images from Sara Orme and Corbis)


The North Island of New Zealand is particularly abundant in volcanoes, and several of these volcanoes are considered active and closely monitored by the government and GNS Science, one of the more active research institutes in New Zealand. There have been several notable eruptions in the North Island, including the caldera forming one that created what is now Lake Taupo. As always, the science behind these eruptions is interesting, but what makes it fascinating is when science and culture cross.


north island volcanoes

Figures above: (left) New Zealand's North Island and associated volcanoes, (right) The Taupo Volcanic Zone (Images from http://www.civildefence.govt.nz/ and http://www.explorevolcanoes.com/)


New Zealand is exceedingly rich in history and culture, with the Māori being the indigenous people of New Zealand (or Aotearoa in Māori – its popular translation is ‘long white cloud’).  It is not a surprise, therefore, that part of this history and culture cross over with volcanic eruptions, especially eruptions that have occurred during their oral history. One such eruption is the eruption at Mount Tarawera in 1886.



Figure above: Tarawera as seen today (Image from tourcraze.com)


Mount Tarawera is located within the Taupo volcanic zone, same as Taupo. It erupted in 1315, producing one of New Zealand’s largest historic volcanic eruptions. Its more recent eruption, in 1886, is the one that has struck the interest of many due to the appearance of the “phantom canoe”.


The lead up to the 1886 eruption was a series of really strong eruptions starting in the middle of the night, on the 10th of June. The initial pyroclastic surge destroyed several villages in the immediate surroundings, and ash was found as far as Christchurch! What is really unique is that the eruption was so big and loud that residents in Auckland saw flashes of light and hear the roaring of the eruption that they thought Russian warships were attacking! Considering how big the eruption was, it was a miracle that the death toll was between 120-150 people. Several Māori villages were buried, including one that has since become a tourist attraction, Te Wairoa.



Figure above: A painting depicting the 1886 eruption of Tarawera (Source unknown)

What has captured the fascination of many with this eruption is its entanglement with the culture of the Māori. 11 days before Tarawera erupted, a traditional Māori war canoe was spotted travelling across the waters of Lake Tarawera, the water body in the shadow of Mount Tarawera. On this war canoe, eyewitnesses observed two rows of people, dressed in the traditional style ready for death. According to the Māori culture, this war canoe appeared to be souls being ferried to the mountain of the dead, Mount Tarawera. As far as Māori history knew, there had been no historical war in that area, so the presence of this spiritual war canoe was considered a bad and ominous omen and a bringer a death. And sure enough, 11 days after, Mount Tarawera erupted and destroyed several Māori villages.



Figure above: Painting depicting the phantom canoe that appeared on Lake Tarawera 11 days before the eruption (Painting by Kennett Watkins)


Based on this phantom canoe appearance, Māori now believe that it will appear again before the next time Mount Tarawera erupts. And in case you might be skeptical, several people witnessed this appearance, including several tourists visiting Te Wairoa village. Many of them had no vested interest or knowledge in Māori culture but simply observed a canoe with passengers appearing on the lake. If you’d like more details, check out this official account


Can the next eruption at Mount Tarawera be foretold with the appearance of the phantom war canoe? We don’t know, but we like this fascinating combination of culture and volcanoes!


For more information on Tarawera, click here