This vast fissure on the now-dormant Mount Tarawera was caused by a major eruption in 1886. © Jon Bower at Apexphotos

Mount Tarawera: sleeping giant

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Lake Tarawera, at the foot of the ruins of Mount Tarawera, is the site of New Zealand’s creepiest ghost story.

On the morning of 31 May 1886, just as the mist was rising from the lake, a pair of sightseeing parties set out across the water. Their guides were reluctant, because the lake was acting strangely: as the boats were preparing to take on their passengers, the water level rose suddenly by more than a metre then sank just as rapidly. It took some fast talking and, one suspects, the greasing of palms before the European passengers were able to persuade their boatmen to proceed.

While they were out on the water, both groups saw a large waka tauā being paddled toward the mountain. The occupants wore full ceremonial dress and the greenery of mourning. Their crew called out to the paddlers, but there was no reply. As they watched, waka and crew disappeared into the mist.

All agreed it was a magnificent sight, but the local Māori later pointed out that no such vessel had ever graced the lake, or at least, not within living memory. They were perfectly certain that this was an omen of the direst possible kind.

Anyone who scoffed would have felt a mite silly when, 11 days later on the night of 10 June 1886, Mount Tarawera launched into a violent six-hour eruption that tore the mountain apart, drained a lake, buried the famous Pink and White Terraces along with three villages and killed an estimated 153 people. It was the worst natural disaster in New Zealand’s recorded history.

Both stories – the phantom canoe and the deadly eruption – add a frisson to any visit to the dark waters of Lake Tarawera, or the blasted remnants of the mountain itself. The area draws thousands of visitors.

The summit ridge of the volcano is a wearying scramble up fans of scree, the reward being spectacular views and the exhilarating return journey down the rolling, rattling cinder slope.

If you can stand a few bumps and grazes, then the way to tackle it is by mountain bike.

There are several picnic spots dotted around the shores of the lake. One of these, at Hot Water Beach, is adjacent to an area of submerged springs and fumaroles, and if you pick your spot, you can have a hot bath over sand heated by the same thermal engine that drove the Tarawera eruption.

Choose your spot wisely, though: anglers who get lucky with the local trout use areas of the thermally heated sand to cook their catch. Mind where you put your feet.

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