Dave McGrath, kaitiaki of Rotorua's Buried Village. Photo by Janelle Marsters.

Tarawera’s phantom waka: a portent of disaster


One of New Zealand’s most famous mysteries coincides with the demise of our most iconic natural attraction.

In the 1800s, Lake Tarawera was a hotspot for tourism, with visitors from around the world coming to admire the scenic wonder that was the Pink and White Terraces. But one day, an eerie sighting on the lake changed everything.

Dave McGrath, operator of The Buried Village of Te Wairoa in Rotorua is familiar with the Lake Tarawera spirit waka story, having grown up on the shores of the lake. Dave’s great-grandparents established the Buried Village attraction back in 1931 and he is the fourth generation of his family to be managing the historic site.

Feature Tarawera waka INP

An artist's depiction of the Tarawera waka. Supplied by the Buried Village.

“On 31 May, a tour group, led by renowned Māori guide Sophia, was heading out on the lake to visit the Pink and White Terraces ,” Dave says. “All the occupants of the tour boat spotted a Māori war canoe, a waka toa, but locals knew there was no war canoe on the lake and no such vessel had ever existed in the area.”

Several eyewitness accounts tell of seeing a double row of occupants in the waka toa, one row paddling and the other standing. “According to some Māori eyewitnesses, the waka occupants wore huia and white heron feathers in their hair which was traditional for marking death. Sophia knew that something wasn’t right straight away. She called out to the people in the waka toa, but no-one responded,” Dave says.

“All accounts said that the people in the waka toa were singularly focused on the mountain. They paddled straight towards Mount Tarawera and disappeared into the mist.”

When informed of the mysterious sighting, the Tohunga (priest) at Te Wairoa knew that it was a portent of disaster. “He said that the sighting was of a waka wairua – a spirit waka –and he predicted that the whole area around the mountain would be devastated,” Dave says. “The Tohunga was over 100 years old and very revered, almost feared for his spiritual powers. I’m not sure if many people heeded his warning, though it would have been wise to.”

Eleven days later, Mount Tarawera erupted. Three of the villages surrounding the lake were obliterated and more than 150 people were killed. The Pink and White Terraces were also destroyed.

If it were not for the multiple accounts corroborating the sighting of the waka toa, the story of the phantom canoe might have been passed off as legend. As it stands, the foreshadowing of the Tarawera eruption remains one of the spookier unexplained mysteries of Aotearoa.


Story by Jo Percival for the Winter 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Jo Percival is the Digital Editor of AA Directions Magazine.

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