Yeti yarns: In search of the phantom war canoe
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WHEN MORE THAN MUD AND STEAM CAME BUBBLING TO THE SURFACE IN ROTORUA
I’m an aspiring Indiana Jones. But, while adoring ancient locations and fables, to all biplanes, army trucks, tanks and galloping horses, I’ll cheerfully say “Pah!”
Last weekend the horsepower was courtesy of a 2015 Skoda Yeti. The elegant 1.4-litre, petrol front-wheel-drive crossover has comfortable seats and a roomy passenger compartment.
We anticipated an armchair exploration round Rotorua’s beautiful lakes but that weekend nature cast rain, hail and snow over much of the central North Island. The Skoda’s sharp steering and road holding came in handy, especially in deep drifts of hail or snow (I never did find out which) on State Highway 27, south of Matamata.
Following about 230km in awful conditions, it was a relief to check into Barry and Shirley Mabey’s spotless Pohutu Lodge at Whakarewarewa. Only a Rotorua motel can do spas properly, thought I, tumbling into bed.
My wife, Debra-Rose, and I were in the thermal wonderland to investigate the infamous phantom canoe of Lake Tarawera.
On the way south I’d recounted how, on May 31, 1886, Lake Tarawera suddenly rose about half a metre, spooking the Maori tourism operators of the day. Reluctantly, Guide Sophia agreed to take Pakeha tourists — Mrs Sise of Dunedin, her husband and daughter, Dr Ralph, Father Kelleher, a priest from Auckland, plus others — to the Pink and White Terraces. It was this group which returned with reports of sighting the phantom canoe. Then on June 10 all hell broke loose.
That night at the motel, feverish nightmares took me to a big black rowboat, heading across calm water towards a distant mountain, which exploded in red flames.
At breakfast, Debra-Rose suggested I’d been thinking too much about the canoe.
“No”, said I sarcastically, “I was planning the next Air New Zealand safety video.”
But yes, the eruption had indeed invaded my dreams. Always wary of volcanoes, I had begun to contemplate Auckland’s eventual day of reckoning.
First up, we visited Joe Kemp’s outdoor gallery at Lake Rotoma, pictured above. Between showers, the congenial Joe served us lemon, barley and kawakawa tea in his vast landscaped backyard gallery. It’s an impressive array of artwork under those trees, both by Joe and his artist friends.
Conventional and traditional works to rival Henry Moore, carvings evoking sprites, taniwha and all mannner of creatures (to borrow from the Scottish prayer, “ghoulies, ghosties/and long leggedy beasties/and things that go bump in the night”). Joe didn’t know much about the phantom canoe, and wouldn’t venture an opinion. ‘‘Not my tribe.”
Later, enjoying the Yeti’s nippy performance and excellent visibility around Rotoma, we briefly diverted to Lakes Ranch at Tikitere.
This was once the famous Kiwi Ranch, where Auckland teens flocked in the 1970s. Kiwi Ranch was an odd combination of postwar holiday camp, horse riding school and place for hot gospelling . . .
Back on the twisty road to the Tarawera Landing, I reflected that Rotorua does indeed seem close to the deep regions of the earth. And not just mud, steam and sulphur come bubbling to the surface — but ancient stuff too, things pushed down following arrival of the missionaries.
Back in the old days, if you didn’t get saved at Kiwi Ranch you couldn’t avoid driving home past the large sign saying “Hell’s Gate”.
Arriving safely at the landing we were ushered aboard the Lake Tarawera Water Taxi & Eco Tours boat, driven by operator David Walmsley. I noted with some relief that he didn’t look like Charon, skipper of the boat to Hades.
David took us to Hot Water Beach, where we put on togs and lay in a clear pool for about 40 minutes. Not far away was stunning Pounamu Lodge, where David’s wife, Karen, was waiting with coffee.
At last it was time to hear the legend of the phantom canoe from Karen, mokopuna of the key figure in story, Guide Sophia.
Yes, Sophia led group of Maori and Pakeha tourists on their way to see the Pink and White Terraces, when several on board saw a war canoe. It wasn’t from Tarawera and hadn’t been seen before. Warriors on board looked straight ahead, refusing to answer to greetings.
A few days later Tarawera had erupted and the terraces were gone: 150 were reported dead, but some tribal elders say the toll was closer to 350.
To learn more, visit: www.teara.govt.nz/en