Intrepid nineteenth century tourists travelled around the world to visit New Zealand’s famed Pink and White Terraces.
By the 1880s, the pink and white silica terraces cascading down a hillside in the thermal Rotorua region had become known as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, and were New Zealand’s most famous tourist attraction.
From the nearest town of Rotorua - which was renowned for its thermal wonders and Maori culture - travellers had to ride by horse and cart across hills, then two hours by canoe and on foot to see the natural masterpiece.
What were once the world’s largest silica terraces - created by thermal waters that flowed from the centre of the earth - must have been an impressive sight for the tourists who scrambled up and down the hillsides to have their photos taken.
Sadly today, those early photographs and postcards are now all that visibly remain of the natural masterpiece that vanished in a massive volcanic eruption in 1886.
The white terraces - known by Maori as Te Tarata / the tattooed rock - were the larger and more beautiful formation, covering three hectares (seven acres) and descending 30m.
The smaller pink terraces - Otukapuarangi / fountain of the clouded sky - were where people went to bathe.
The travertine terraces were formed by geo-thermally-heated water, containing large amounts of siliceous sinter, regularly spouting from two geysers located above Lake Rotomahana and cascading down the hill slope.
The water left thick pink and white silica deposits that formed terraces enclosing pools of silky clear water that left the skin feeling soft and refreshed.
Mt Tarawera eruption
In 1886, the Pink and White Terraces were destroyed when Mt Tarawera erupted, devastating most of the surrounding landscape, and killing more than 150 people.
As well as expanding the lake and covering the terraces, the eruption buried several villages, including Te Wairoa - now named The Buried Village.
It’s estimated that at least 50m of lake water and an unknown thickness of sediment now covers the terraces.
Lake Rotomahana is three kilometres wide and six kilometres long, and 115m at its deepest point.
When Mount Tarawera erupted - five kilometres to the north of Lake Rotomahana - it belched out hot mud, red hot boulders and clouds of black ash from a 17km rift that crossed the mountain, passed through the lake and extended beyond into the Waimangu valley.
Lake Rotomahana’s waters rose 30m after the eruption, which also created a 100m deep crater on the site of the terraces.
Today you can visit naturally recreated terraces. The Wairakei Terraces, near Taupo, were initially helped by man, but nature is now fashioning the cascading silica steps in pinks, blues and whites.
Background: Wairakei Terraces
About 90km south of the former site of the Pink and White Terraces, tourists can visit this smaller newer version - Wairakei Terraces, in the Waiora Valley near Lake Taupo.
The Wairakei Terraces have also formed from cascading silica, but in this case deposited by a man-made geyser that originates at the Wairakei geothermal power station and fed by the Alum Lakes.
The dramatic blue, pink and white pastel terraces are enhanced by wafting steam from the surrounding natural thermal waters that are renowned for their healing powers.
Long used by Māori to soothe and heal bodies and limbs, Wairakei’s Te Kiri o Hinekai healing waters became a popular destination for international visitors in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the pools were promoted as healing spas.
The main bathing areas were closed for construction of the Wairakei geothermal power project in the 1960s, but were reinstated in the 1990s as a new visitor attraction that combined the natural geothermal attributes with some man-made redirection.
Fluid tapped from the field was piped so the hot silica-enriched waters could be channelled over man-made foundations creating natural silica terraces.
The three beautiful bathing pools - reserved for adults only - are a work in progress as the deposits build with time. Visitors can enjoy the soothing effects of the natural healing waters by day or evening when the steamy atmosphere creates a specially ethereal effect. The pools complex also includes an upmarket modern spa treatment facility.
The Wairakei Terraces Māori Cultural experience operating in the valley includes self-guided and guided tours by local Māori who tell ancestral stories and explain the modern geothermal development. A marae welcome, local crafts, cultural performance and hangi meal are also part of the experience.