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The Eighth Wonder of the World was the description conferred upon Lake Rotomahana's geothermal "Pink and White Terraces." The terraces were New Zealand's most famous attraction for intrepid tourists in the mid-19th century, until the massive volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera on June 10, 1886 destroyed them and buried two villages. The arduous journey from the nearest town, Rotorua, required travelers to ride by horse and cart across hills, by canoe for two hours, and finally by foot to view this natural wonder. Their photographs, postcards, and paintings are all that remain to remind us of the splendor of these natural masterpieces.
The geothermal Pink and White Terraces formed over thousands of years by two geysers spouting above Lake Rotomahana. The geysers' waters were laced with silica that cascaded down the hillside, forming pink and white terraces with pools of water at the bottom. The white terraces, known as the tattooed rock, covered seven acres and descended almost 100 feet. The smaller pink terraces, known as fountain of the clouded sky, were where people enjoyed a thermal bath that left their skin soft and refreshed.
The terraces vanished with the 1886 Tarawera eruption. Hot mud, red hot boulders, and black ash killed an estimated 150 people, mostly native Maori and several Europeans. Although Mount Tarawera is now dormant, the eruption substantially altered the geography of Lake Rotomahana. This lake and Lake Tarawera emptied during the eruption, refilling afterwards to form larger lakes. Lake Rotomahana is now 20 times its original size and today covers about 2,224 acres. It lays claim as the deepest lake in New Zealand's North Island and the newest of this country's larger, naturally formed lakes. It is still thermally active with geothermal fields, hot bubbling springs, and steam escaping from the cliffs. It's no wonder that Rotomahana means "warm lake."
A pervasive Maori legend tells of the phantom canoe of Rotomahana. A boat full of tourists returning from the terraces spotted a war canoe (waka) approaching their boat nine days before the eruption. The war canoe vanished into thin air before reaching the tourists. Although skeptics explained the sighting as a freak reflection on the mist or a freak wave caused by seismic activity, tribal elders at Te Wairoa (The Buried Village) claimed it was a waka wairua (spirit canoe) to warn the village of impending doom. Today, many locals still believe that a reappearance of the phantom canoe will signal a future eruption. The Buried Village is open to the public with excavated ruins and a museum displaying recovered relics and the history of the eruption.
Lake Rotomahana is one of 16 Rotorua Lakes in the Lake District of New Zealand's North Island, all of which are volcanic in origin. Access to Lake Rotomahana requires a forestry permit, available from the Forestry Corporation Information Centre. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the lake's beauty and unique ecosystem is by a guided tourist cruise, which provides the closest encounters with the graveyard of the Pink and White Terraces, including hot springs, geysers, fumeroles, steaming cliffs, and a volcanic crater.
The Rotorua Lakes offer up excellent fishing, mainly rainbow trout, brown trout, and brook trout. Lake Rotomahana boasts having the "purest strain of rainbow trout in the world." The lake is popular with anglers due to its remoteness, beautiful scenery, and excellent rainbow trout fishing. Anglers must also obtain a forestry permit before launching onto the lake. Although the lake has no boat ramps, boats can be launched from the hard lake bed surface at the end of a well-marked access road.
Today, tourists to New Zealand can visit a smaller version of the Pink and White Terraces, approximately 60 miles south of Lake Rotomahana near Lake Taupo. The original Wairakei Terraces and geysers disappeared with the construction of the Wairakei Geothermal Power Plant in the 1950s. A cooperative effort between Contact Energy and local Maori re-created the terraces with a man-made geyser originating at the Wairakei geothermal power plant. Hot silica-enriched waters channeled over man-made foundations created new silica terraces. Although helped by human intervention, Mother Nature is perfecting cascading terraces in dramatic pinks, whites, and blues. Guided and self-guided tours are available.
Lake Rotomahana has been protected from development, so it will remain a natural wilderness and wildlife refuge where both native and exotic birds live year round. Patiti Island, in the middle of the lake, is undergoing restoration as a predator-free sanctuary for endangered New Zealand native birds. Steps such as these should secure the future of Lake Rotomahana as an unspoiled national treasure.
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