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Te Wairoa Dwelling

Te Wairoa: The Buried Village of New Zealand


Te Wairoa Village was established by the Christian missionary in 1848, but by the time the eruption of Mt. Tarawera buried the site in volcanic debris, it had survived for less than 40 years.

Its intended layout, dictated by Revered Spencer, was based on the English village with the  whares (simple dwellings) and fenced gardens laid along streets. Early photographs, as well as archaeological finds, suggest the village developed into a remarkable combination of traditional Maori and English settlements. The architectural features were also mixed and the settlement became a mash of differing styles and materials.

A new mission station and a school were established in 1852 to cater for the Maori who moved to the fertile Te Wairoa Valley, while an increasing number of tourists visited the Pink and White Terraces.

Reverend Spencer introduced wheat to the Te Wairoa valley and a flour mill was set up beside the Te Wairoa Stream in 1857, but it had been abandoned for several years by the time of the eruption as residents turned from agricultural to tourism as their primary income.  

Te Mu Church was completed 1862 just when signs of conflict flared up in the area between the Maori people and the crown. Apart for occasional services for the next 22 years, the church stood idle until it, too, was destroyed by the volcano. 

From 1865 to 1870, many land disputes between Maori took place. As a result, the local Maori withdrew back to Kariri Point and Rev. Spencer left Te Wairoa in 1870 to be with his family who had left in 1864. He died some 30 years later.  

By 1886, Te Wairoa was a popular tourist attraction with hotels and guided walks to the terraces. It was on 31 May that tourists spotted a phantom canoe on Lake Tarawera. It was believed to be a bad omen.

Mount Tarawera In Eruption 1886 by Charles Blomfield

Mount Tarawera In Eruption 1886 by Charles Blomfield (Public Domain)

Just after midnight on 10 June, the people of Te Wairoa were woken by a series of small earthquakes, followed by a much larger one, and finally the massive explosions of Lake Rotomahana. For more than four hours, rocks, ash and mud bombarded the village. Te Wairoa Village was buried under a layer of mud four feet deep. Approximately 153 lives were lost; seventeen from Te Wairoa Village and it became New Zealand's greatest natural disaster. 

A few days later, the village tribal priest was blamed for the eruption. He was buried in his whare and the angry Maori refused to dig him up. After four days he was rescued, but died shortly after in hospital.

Guides at Hinemihi Meeting House

Guides at Hinemihi Meeting House (Public Domain)

The Maori Meeting House has found a new home in Surrey

Hinemihi, also called ‘the house with the golden eyes’ as gold sovereigns decorated the eyes of the carvings, was the Maori Meeting House in the village. As debris rained down during the eruption, many people took shelter inside. For years after the eruption, Hinemihi stood deep in hardened mud, deserted like the rest of the valley of Te Wairoa, but in 1892, the building was sold to the Earl of Onslow (the Governor General of New Zealand) and shipped to England where it now resides in the grounds of Clandon Park, Surrey.

Hinemihi at Clandon Park, Surrey

Hinemihi at Clandon Park, Surrey (Martinez, JJ / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Although tea rooms and accommodation were set up again at Te Wairoa in 1906 to accommodate tourists who wanted to see the aftermath of the volcano, it wasn’t until 1931 that the site was bought and developed by the Smith Family who’ve run it for 80 years.

Museum Exhibit At Te Wairoa

Museum Exhibit At Te Wairoa (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1999 a museum was added to the existing building to house collections and relics of the Tarawera eruption. It now displays exhibits of the early settlers, the Pink and White Terraces, and shows how Maori and European cultures were integrated during this phase of New Zealand’s social development.  More relics are displayed on the sites where they were recovered.

The Pink and White Terraces

Ernst Deiffenbach, one of the first Europeans to visit the Pink and White Terraces, wrote about them in his memoirs. His book inspired many others and as word spread, the terraces became the country’s most famous tourist attraction. Considered to be the eighth wonder of the world, tourists came from all over the globe to visit.

With the devastation of the 1886 eruption, the area’s landscape changed dramatically and the terraces were destroyed. It was a time of immense grief for the Te Wairoa village. Not only were they mourning the loss their homes and loved ones, but they had also lost the region’s most prized treasure.

White Terraces

White Terraces (Public Domain)

The terraces formed over approximately 500 years as silica rich water flowed down the hillside from boiling geysers. The water cooled and crystallized into the terraces and pools, forming massive stepped waterfalls. The White Terrace, the larger formation, covered three hectares and the smaller Pink Terrace on the lower levels was where people bathed in warm water.

In 2011 scientific researchers with sonar equipment mapped Rotomahana’s floor and found intact remnants of the silica structure along the lake bed. Then a year later, scientists confirmed that about three quarters of the Pink Terraces remain intact. They were only able to find a small trace of the White Terraces.

There is little hope they will ever be fully recovered as the terraces are submerged under nearly 200 feet of water. Nevertheless, it is heartening that part of this iconic wonder is still intact beneath the surface.

Top image: Te Wairoa Dwelling                     Source: (James Shook / CC BY-SA 2.5)

By: Michelle Freson


2014. Te Wairoa, the Buried Village. Official Website

Available at:

McGrath, P. Te Wairoa - The Buried Village. 100% Pure New Zealand

Available at:

Shelford, K. 2011-2018. The Buried Village. Haunting Echoes Of The Past. Rotorua Travel Secrets.

Available at:



My family used to own an original painting of the phantom canoe scene. Can't remember thepaintewrs name but it sold for a great deal of money.

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Michelle Freson is a professional writer and editor and has spent many hundreds of wonderful hours working with and learning from fiction writers based all over the globe.

Born in July, 1971, Michelle has long since stopped working out her... Read More

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