While ferrying tourists across Lake Tarawera to visit Rotomahana’s famous Pink and White Terraces in 1886, guide Sophia Hinerangi saw a mysterious phantom canoe. The high priest Tūhoto Ariki of the Tūhourangi tribe interpreted this as a warning. He feared the terraces were being exploited as a tourist attraction without due regard to ancestral values. In the early hours of 10 June, the domed mountains of Wāhanga, Ruawāhia and Tarawera split apart, spewing forth millions of tonnes of ash and debris. The fissure extended down the mountain and through the terraces, from Rotomahana to Waimangu, some 10 kilometres away. Earthquakes were felt throughout the North Island. Auckland residents mistook the noise for distant cannon fire.
The following day it was pitch black from Rotoiti to Maketū – ash choked the skies. Lake Rotomahana, its terraces and over 150 Tūhourangi–Ngāti Rangitihi residents were buried. Protected by a valley, the village of Te Wairoa was distant enough for most residents to survive. Many sheltered in Guide Sophia’s house, which did not collapse. The priest Tūhoto Ariki also survived: he was dug from his buried house four days later.
Te Arawa kin provided shelter, clothing, lands and food for the survivors. Most found refuge at Whakarewarewa (Ngāti Wāhiao), Ngāpuna (Ngāti Hurunga), Waitangi (Tapuika), Matatā (Ngāti Rangitihi) and Coromandel (Ngāti Hei). Descendants of the tribe still live in these places today. Because the government acquired the devastated area soon after the eruption, the people of Tūhourangi could not return to their Tarawera homeland when it recovered in the early 1900s. Today Tūhourangi are seeking redress through the Waitangi Tribunal.