TARAWERA, PHANTOM CANOE
On 31 May 1886, so the story runs, a phantom war canoe sped silently across the waters of Lake Tarawera in the shadow of Mt. Tarawera, the “Burnt Peak” of the Maoris, its outline ghostly in the morning mists that a wintry sun could not quite dispel. Eerie and uncanny though it all was, watchers had no difficulty in discerning the craft's double row of occupants, one row paddling and the other standing wrapped in flax robes, their heads bowed and, according to Maori eyewitnesses, their hair plumed as for death with the feathers of the huia and the white heron. To the terrified Maoris these were the souls of the departed being ferried to the mountain of the dead. But everyone knew there was no war canoe on the lake, which had borne no such craft in living memory.
James Cowan, in his Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori, says the spectre was clearly seen by the matakite, “those of the wise and understanding eye”; but confirmation is lent to the story that circulated through the whares and low-roofed thatched huts of Te Wairoa throughout the rest of the day by the testimony supplied by a mixed company of European tourists early abroad on the lake on a sightseeing trip. It may well be that, but for such evidence, the story of the phantom canoe would have remained just another of the innumerable legends that comprise Maori lore.
To the Maoris in the village and on the lake the occurrence had only one meaning. It was an omen of disaster, dire and inevitable, the certainty of which was rendered the more sure by the fact that earlier on the same morning the waters of the lake rose suddenly over its whole expanse, and as unexpectedly subsided again in a matter of minutes. Not that this incident produced any immediate panic. The whole countryside was all too familiar with the perennial menace of Tamaohoi, the fierce cannibal chief of the tangata-whenua, whom Ngatoro-i-rangi, the high priest of the Arawa war canoe, 500 hundred years before, had caused to be imprisoned forever in a waro, or chasm, deep down in the bowels of the slumbering fire mountain. Always in the back of the minds of the Maoris had lurked fears of Tamaohoi's vengeance, and when Tuhoto the Ariki, a violent quarrelsome old warlock placed a curse on Te Wairoa after his tribe disowned him, there were those who were quite certain that eventually he would invoke the spirit of the mountain to vindicate him.
Myth it may all have been, but for the scoffers there is the incontrovertible fact that 11 days after the lake's upheaval and the swift passage of the phantom war canoe, on 10 June 1886, Mt. Tarawera exploded to an accompaniment of earthquake, fire, and flood, and Te Wairoa was one of three villages completely obliterated. The meaning of the spectral canoe was plain. The mountain had taken its vengeance.
So much for the story which might readily be dismissed as just another myth. But in the case of the phantom canoe, there were independent eyewitnesses, disinterested persons uninfluenced by superstition and probably wholly unaware of the particular legend relating to these occurrences. Among such were Mrs R. Sise, of Dunedin, and her husband and daughter, who were visiting Te Wairoa at the time. Their recollections of that eventful morning must be given every consideration, since Mrs Sise the same evening included them in a letter to her son in Dunedin, R. G. Sise.
The tourists had been waiting to embark on a cruise of the lake with the famous Maori guide Sophia. In the party were three other Maori women, six Maori rowers, and a Dr Ralph, Father Kelleher, a priest from Auckland, and a Mr Quick, also from Auckland. Mrs Sise described their experiences in detail. Before anyone could enter the waiting boat, the lake level rose swiftly, surrounding the group with water, and then the water subsided even more speedily. The Maoris reacted violently to this phenomenon and at first refused point blank to put out on to the lake. After some persuasion they agreed to do so, though one of the boatmen was heard to say darkly, “Very well, we can die but once, so we will all go down together”. Mrs Sise stated also that Sophia, later, seeing a white steam cloud hovering over Tarawera, quietly murmured, “I don't think I shall see the Terraces again”. (These were the world-famous Pink and White Terraces destroyed in the subsequent eruption.)
The sighting of the phantom canoe is best described in Mrs Sise's own words: “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”.
“Then to our surprise we found the Maoris in great excitement, and heard from McCrae [a permanent resident] and other Europeans that no such boat had ever been on the lake.”
A second tourist boat on the lake that morning also reported having sighted the ghost canoe, and one of the passengers on board, Josiah Martin, actually sketched his impression of the spectacle. Unfortunately, it is not known what became of this drawing, or whether it is still in existence.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- (For further details of “The Phantom Canoe” see the files of Otago Daily Times, June 1886. These give the best account of the incident. Ed.)