IN THE early hours of 10 June 1886, the ground beneath Mount Tarawera on New Zealand’s North Island began to shake. After an intensifying swarm of earthquakes, the volcano erupted from three domes, spewing hot gases and rocks into the air. Surveyor Henry Roche observed the inferno from his camp nearby, describing “the striking spectacle of a dark, flat-topped mountain more than a mile long, red hot along its crest, and surmounted by a wall of fire 1500 feet high”.
Finally, a fourth explosive eruption occurred directly below Lake Rotomahana, one of several waterbodies surrounding the volcano. The lake and the sediments on its bed were blasted hundreds of metres into the sky with a force so great that it totally reshaped the surrounding landscape. And what a landscape. On opposite slopes of the lake, water cascaded down the hillsides into pink and white rock pools. Local Maori called them their taonga, or treasure. Others saw them as the eighth wonder of the world. On the day of the eruption, they disappeared without trace.
Over time, the so-called Pink and White Terraces have largely faded into obscurity, although New Zealanders still cherish the memory of them. But a few years ago, a chance find hinted that they might have survived after all, at least in part. Then, historical records came to light putting that discovery in doubt. It suggested that researchers had been looking in the wrong place and that the terraces might have had an even more intriguing fate.
The Pink and White Terraces were actually two gigantic deposits of silica, formed when the mineral precipitated …