Climb a restlessly sleeping volcano
Mount Tarawera

In 2015 we went white water sledging just north of Rotorua with Kaitiaki Adventures. At the time we discovered that they also offered guided Mount Tarawera walks and on seeing photos of this incredible dormant volcano we promised ourselves that this would be our next adventure with Kaitiaki.

Fast forward to June 2016 and we were back in Rotorua on a perfectly clear and crisp winter’s morning to climb what, from a distance, appeared to be a very unassuming mountain. We’d paddled on Lake Tarawera in the past, from Kotukutuku Bay to the Hot Water Beach campsite and back, and we’d seen the mountain from the water but not really appreciated its beauty or understood its tragic history. That was all about to change on this trip.

A brief history of Mount Tarawera

More by chance than anything else, we’d chosen to do the Mount Tarawera hike almost 130 years to the day that the mountain last erupted. This “restlessly sleeping” volcano has erupted five times in the last 18,000 years and the Māori names given to the three domes of the mountain and even the mountain itself (tara: peak, wera: to burn or be burnt down) tells of its tumultuous past. However, it was the event which began in the early hours of June 10th 1886 that was to have the most tragic consequences for the local inhabitants of the area.

What started as an eruption of Ruawahia (rua: chasm or abyss, wahia: to break open), the central and highest dome of the mountain, spread over the course of several hours across the entire mountain to form a wall of fire and a glow that was seen from as far as Napier, some 150 km away. However, the real devastation came when the eruption spread southwest towards Lake Rotomahana (previously two smaller lakes) and molten magma mixed with water to cause a massive explosion that ejected sand, rock, lava and superheated steam several kilometres into the air. This material then fell to earth in a boiling mass which covered the landscape in deposits up to 40m deep, completely destroying villages and killing approximately 150 people. Also destroyed were the famous Pink and White Terraces, once considered to be the eighth wonder of the world. Today, only the excavated remains of Te Wairoa are visible and can be visited as The Buried Village. If you’re interested to find out more, The Buried Village website has a timeline of the events leading up to and post the eruption.

Getting cosy with Karl

We left Auckland before dawn on the Saturday morning and were treated to a spectacular sunrise on the road which was something of a relief given that the weather in the weeks leading up to our trip had been pretty rubbish. After a quick coffee by the lake, we headed over to the local information centre (i-SITE) to meet our guide from Kaitiaki Adventures. ‘Hello, you’re two very lucky people. This is the best day we’ve had all winter.’ said Karl. ‘Awesome, but where’s everybody else?’ we asked. ‘No, it’s just the two of you. Did I mention how lucky you are?’.

Faced with the choice of rattling around the back of a very empty and suitably old and battered Toyota Land Cruiser or sitting up front with Karl, we chose the latter option. It was pretty cosy, with Debs squeezed in the middle, but Karl didn’t seem to mind as we headed south on the 40 km drive to the base of the mountain.

Off the sealed road and onto gravel, we headed up the mountain, first through planted pine forest and then, as the track got narrower and steeper, through native forest that had grown back since the last eruption. Along the way we stopped to admire the view to the southwest where we could just make out the snow covered peak of Mount Ruapehu almost 150 km away. A little further along the track we stopped at an old ranger hut where we signed the usual adventure activity indemnity forms while Karl changed into his ‘serious’ shorts and gaiters. ‘You got decent boots?’ asked Karl. ‘Yes’ we said. ‘Good’.

Mount Tarawera 4x4
Mount Tarawera 4x4

First impressions and Mount Tarawera access

Back in the Land Cruiser we headed up the track for another 2 km past what was left of a disused airstrip, built by the American Army for training many decades before. As we drove, Karl told us stories of his ‘wilder’ days and how in his youth he often used to visit the mountain. Back then, Mount Tarawera used to be open to anyone but over the years, as visitor numbers grew, the rubbish began to pile up until Tarawera’s Ngāti Rangitihi owners (the local tribal group) decided enough was enough. Mount Tarawera access is now restricted to authorised tour operators and you’ll have to join a guided tour to even reach the mountain, with the access road gated and permanently locked.

The thing about Mount Tarawera is that it takes you by surprise, and no words can do it justice when you suddenly arrive at the crater’s edge. Nature’s palette of reds, oranges, greens, browns and greys on this battle-scarred mountain is simply breathtaking. The photo below was our best attempt to capture the moment but nothing can truly convey how we felt standing there with not a cloud in the perfect blue sky, not a breathe of wind and absolute silence. We could have gone home right there and then and been happy but Karl had much more in store for us.

Mount Tarawera

Walking to the summit

We headed along the southern rim of the crater at a gentle pace, the path gradually climbing the 1.5 km to the summit. It’s not a particularly difficult walk by any stretch of the imagination and soon we found ourselves looking across at ‘the scree run’ on the opposite side of the crater. Pretty much anyone who’s done the Mt Tarawera walk will tell you about the scree run that drops steeply from the crater’s edge down into the crater itself, some 120m below.

Mount Tarawera scree
Mount Tarawera crater

From a distance the run looked near vertical, and it seemed as if some giant, many legged creature had crawled its way out of the crater and was perhaps waiting to devour us when we got to the other side. We would face that monster when the time came but for now, it was onwards and upwards.

Mount Tarawera

We continued on the path towards the summit, stopping every few minutes to take in the increasingly beautiful view southeast towards the forest covered Ikawhenua Range, until we reached the Ruawahia dome saddle. From here you can look northeast along the crater as it stretches some 2 km towards Wahanga dome. To the southwest, the crater stretches almost another 2 km towards the Tarawera dome. Seeing the crater like this you really begin to get a sense of scale but even then, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like up here on the night of the eruption.

Mount Tarawera
Mount Tarawera
Mount Tarawera view

From the saddle, it’s a short rock scramble up to a ridge and from there, a short walk to the trig beacon and the summit itself. At 1,111m, the summit of Ruawahia is the highest point in the area and as you would expect, the panoramic views are spectacular. All sense of time was lost as we looked out over the early morning mist on Lake Tarawera. To the northeast we could see Putauaki (Mount Edgecumbe) and just off the coast, Moutohora Island. On the horizon, almost 100 km away, we could just make out White Island, a not so restlessly sleeping volcano, something we knew first hand having visited the island a few months previously.

By this time, a breeze had come up so we headed down the slope a short way to a large rock cairn that doubled as a picnic bench. Here we sheltered from the wind and had a small bite to eat while Karl pointed out various landmarks and shared more stories of the mountain and its history.

Mount Tarawera
Mount Tarawera cairn
Mount Tarawera view

Eventually, and with great reluctance, we had to start making our way back down, but ahead was the scree run and our thoughts turned to what we’d seen earlier from the opposite crater wall. Was it really as steep as it looked?

Mount Tarawera
Mount Tarawera

The Screeeee-am run

From the summit it’s a short 500m walk to the crater’s edge above the scree run, marked by a sign restricting access to Wahanga dome. This dome was once a Māori burial site and therefore considered tapu (sacred) but our attention was focussed on the 120m drop down to the crater floor.

How steep is the run? Well, my highly unscientific guesstimate would put it at about 45 degrees. What does that mean in real terms? It means that if this was a snow covered ski run and you happened to fall, you and gravity would be having some pretty strong words until you finally reached the bottom.

Fortunately, there was no snow, just a little morning frost and the softness of the loose sand and scoria meant that as long as we leant back and dug in our heels we could almost ‘ski’ down the slope and all too soon, we found ourselves in the eerie silence of the crater itself.

Mount Tarawera scree

Aerial combat

From the base of the scree run we headed northeast along the crater floor, stopping briefly to look at a collection of rocks, brought to life by Karl’s explanation of how they would have been formed during the eruption.

Continuing along the gradually rising track we suddenly heard a bird call and turning back towards the multi-coloured cliffs of Ruawahia saw two kārearea or New Zealand falcons. This in itself was pretty amazing given that they’re a threatened species but a few moments later, an unsuspecting hawk arrived on the scene and we were treated to a display of aerial combat. The much smaller falcons swooped and dive bombed the interloper several times until eventually it got the hint and headed off into the distance. ‘Well that was special.’ said Karl. ‘Could this day get any better?’ we thought. As it turns out, it did.

Mount Tarawera crater
Mount Tarawera

We were approaching the final climb back up to the crater’s edge, our hearts heavy with the thought of having to leave this incredible place when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted movement. Suddenly, almost out of thin air, one of the falcons we had watched earlier literally dropped out of the sky, landing just a few meters in front of us before taking off again with something in its talons. This all happened in a matter of seconds and we just stood there, glued to the spot in total amazement.

Even Karl, who had seen many things on the mountain over the years, seemed totally dumbstruck. Not for the first time that day he said, ‘you lucky lucky people’, shaking his head in disbelief. We like to think that in some small way, the events of that day will become part of Karl’s story of the mountain, shared with future visitors to Mount Tarawera as a tale of what they too could experience if they’re really really lucky.

Mount Tarawera

Epilogue: A most unexpected turn of events (and the kindness of strangers)

We were heading back to Rotorua on Highway 5, once again cosied up in the front of the Land Cruiser, when suddenly, the windscreen wipers came to life, not in a gentle side-to-side fashion, but more of a maniacal thrashing that continued for a few seconds before ending with a loud and rather ominous grinding noise.

‘Well that was odd.’ said Karl. ‘Yes,’ said Debs, ‘but not as odd as the smoke that’s coming up between your legs.’ Unsurprisingly we stopped shortly thereafter and exited the vehicle in an orderly fashion. In other words, we grabbed our stuff and got the hell out of the car.

By the looks of things, the alternator had decided to make it’s last volt and figured that if it was going to go, it was going to take the rest of the vehicle’s electrics with it. In short, we were stranded. We moved a little further away from the still smoking Toyota while Karl radioed the ‘epic fail’ (his words not ours) back to base. In reply we got a reassuring ‘sit tight bro, we’re on our way’.

And so began the unexpected portion of our guided tour as Karl kept us occupied with more tales that only locals can tell. We also got to admire some of the local wildlife in the form of a herd of grazing cattle. One cow in particular grabbed Deb’s attention with it’s deep brown hide. I suspect this was because she was picturing it as a handbag and a new pair of boots.

Over the course of the next 45 minutes, we watched the traffic going by until an approaching car came smoking and sputtering to a halt on the opposite side of the road. ‘What are the chances of another car breaking down in this exact same spot?’ we thought. Next thing, the driver did a u-turn and pulled up besides us. ‘Need a hand mate?’ he asked. Turns out he’d driven past us earlier, finally managed to turn around several kilometres up the road and then come back to give us a hand. That’s the Kiwi spirit for you right there!

Kaitiaki Adventures

Despite our little ‘event’, we had an amazing day with Karl as our guide. We never felt rushed on the mountain and we really appreciated sharing our adventure with a local who could bring the place to life. Rotorua is an amazing destination, with so much to do and we encourage you to explore as much as you can when visiting. But if you’re short on time and have to choose only a few activities, doing the Mount Tarawera hike with Kaitiaki Adventures has got to be top of your list.

Note: This was not a sponsored trip, we paid for it ourselves and would do it again in a heartbeat. ?

When climbing Mt Tarawera with Kaitiaki, they will collect you and drop you off at the information centre (i-SITE) in the centre of Rotorua. Rotorua itself offers a good mix of adventure and relaxation in close proximity to the town centre. But if you don’t mind travelling the 80 km and are looking for an adventure that’s off the beaten path, we highly recommend walking the Tarawera Falls Track.

Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Rotorua region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Rotorua.