The Phantom Canoe on Lake Tarawera

The subject of ghosts and the spirit realm in Maori culture is often considered a tapu subject, yet much of Maori folklore bears mention of ghostly apparitions and supernatural occurrences.
One legend surrounding the 1886 eruption Mount Tarawera, is that the disaster was heralded by an apparition of a mysterious phantom canoe on Lake Tarawera; On 31 May 1886.
Mount Tarawera erupted in 1315, producing one of New Zealand’s largest historic volcanic eruptions. Its more recent eruption, in 1886, is the one that has struck the interest of many due to the appearance of the “phantom canoe”. Eleven days before the eruption, a boat full of tourists returning from the Terraces saw what appeared to be a war canoe approach their boat, only to fade away into the mist at close proximity to the tourists.
Mrs R. Sise, her husband, and daughter, of Dunedin, were visiting Te Wairoa at the time. Their recollections of that eventful morning are interesting: “After sailing for some time we saw in the distance a large boat, looking glorious in the mist and the sunlight. It was full of Maoris, some standing up, and it was near enough for me to see the sun glittering on the paddles. The boat was hailed but returned no answer. We thought so little of it at the time that Dr. Ralph did not even turn to look at the canoe, and until our return to Te Wairoa in the evening we never gave it another thought”.
Another description mentions the canoe’s double row of warriors; one row paddling and the other standing wrapped in flax robes, their heads bowed. Such intricate detail included their hair being plumed, with the feathers of the huia and the white heron.
A second tourist boat on the lake that morning also reported having sighted the ghostly apparition, and one of the passengers on board, Josiah Martin, sketched his impression of the incident. Unfortunately, it is not known what became of this drawing, or whether it is still in existence. Another witness was a clergyman, a local Maori man from the Te Arawa iwi.
Nobody around the lake owned such a war canoe and nothing like it had been seen on the lake for many years. One theory was that the rise and fall of the lake level caused by pre-eruption fissures had loosened a sunken burial waka (canoe) from its resting place, though sceptics stayed steadfast that it was merely a freak reflection on the mist. An optical illusion.
Whilst tribal elders at Te Wairoa claimed that it was a waka wairua (a spirit canoe) and was a vision of impending disaster and tragedy. These were the souls of the departed being ferried to the mountain of the dead. Sure enough, eleven days after the mysterious sighting, Mount Tarawera erupted, destroying several Maori villages and killing many in its wake.

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