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Tarawera eruption: What was the mysterious ghost canoe?

Kennett Watkins’ 1888 painting The Phantom Canoe: A Legend of Lake Tarawera. Image/Alamy

For more than 130 years, lovers of ghost stories have enjoyed talking about one of our most enduring mysteries: the Phantom Canoe of Lake Tarawera. But was it a put-up job, a piece of stagecraft devised by a local tohunga? 

The tale of the waka seen on the waters of Lake Tarawera 10 days before the mountain erupted on June 10, 1886, is a tantalising one, a local cross between the Mary Celeste and the Loch Ness monster, with more than a hint of Māori leg-pulling.

The version most of us have known is the one written by Ronald Jones in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand:

“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 …

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“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.

“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 …

“The sighting of the phantom canoe is best described in [eyewitness] 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.”

By 1966, when the Encyclopaedia was written, the yarn of the mystery canoe had sailed a little far from its origins, and separating fact from layers of myth and embellishment had become tricky. But let’s try.

Illustrators introduced elements of Gothic horror to their portrayal of the canoe.

Occasional tourists

Te Wairoa village on the western shore of Lake Tarawera was the home of Tuhourangi, a 150-strong sub-tribe of Te Arawa. As early as the 1840s, a few hardy tourists had slogged through the bush on foot or horseback to see the incredible Pink and White Terraces on Lake Rotomahana, but the trickle turned to a flow after a road from Rotorua to the embarkation place at Te Wairoa was built in 1875.

By the beginning of the 1880s, the meeting house Hinemihi had been completed and two hotels built, and Te Wairoa was becoming something of a tourist hub. The village had a school, a church and a cemetery, three stores and a Temperance Hall. An experienced boatbuilder was engaged to make whaleboats for the tourist trade to replace the traditional canoes.

Tourists, who boarded the whaleboats at Te Wairoa, were rowed 12km to the southern end of the lake, where they disembarked and walked 800m south-east to Lake Rotomahana – then mostly a series of smallish, reedy meres – where a second boat took them to first the White, then the Pink Terraces.

The two months before May 31, 1886, had been unsettling for Tuhourangi, and nerves were jangled. The village had been hit with a bad typhoid outbreak and 13 tangi had taken place in just seven weeks. The latest to succumb was a revered chief, Aporo, whose body lay unburied after his tangi, as some villagers believed he had been cursed. As the Otago Witness reported, with Victorian melodrama: “They had an old woman too amongst them at Wairoa – an infernal character, skilled in the black art – by whose machinations the defunct chief had been called to his account. They had also among them a tohunga, or professional prophet, who had served his apprenticeship to the business and had been sent for specially to curse the witch who had killed the chief. He was a vigorous and proficient curser, and great results were expected from his efforts.”

As if this tragedy and its attendant drama were not enough, the thermal activity around the lake had been unpredictable. As a party of 15 stood ready to climb into their whaleboats for their visit to the terraces, the lake produced a seiche, or sudden surge, that pushed the water up by about 150cm along that part of the shoreline and caused it to run out and in more than once. It took some persuasion to get the nervous oarsmen into the boats, but soon they pushed off and they were about a mile offshore when they saw an unusual canoe.

A JC Hoyte painting in the 1870s depicted the Pink and White Terraces, destroyed by the eruption. Image/Hocken Collections, Otago University

Close-up view

American-born Dunedin businessman George Sise, 47, his Prussian-born wife, Louise, 37, and their teenage daughter, Frances, were holidaying in the area and were passengers on a boat to the terraces. Mr and Mrs Sise each gave their own account. They assured readers of the Otago Witness of June 25, 1886, that neither of them believed in the supernatural and hastened to correct fanciful additions to the story made by reporters who had interviewed them earlier for other newspapers. George Sise was reported in these terms:

“His party, composed of six Europeans and nine Maoris, started from Wairoa in a canoe at about 8 o’clock one fine morning to cross the lake to the terraces. When a little more than halfway across, another canoe emerged from the shore some distance to the northward, and kept a parallel course with them until a headland shut it from view. The strange craft might have been half a mile or so distant, or possibly more, it is not easy to judge distance upon the water.

“Mr Sise thinks that about nine persons were counted in the ‘Phantom Canoe’, not thirteen, and, as to their being ‘naked warriors’, the craft was by no means near enough to ascertain whether they were clothed or not, and there was absolutely nothing en evidence to show that they were warriors. They might have been apple-women or nurse-girls. No warrior-chief with feathers or anything else in his head-gear was seen brandishing his spear in the prow of the boat, but three of the figures did rise to a standing posture after a while. Doubtless their reason for doing so was that they were tired of sitting down.

Charles Blomfield’s Mount Tarawera in Eruption was painted in 1887. Image/Alamy

Flash of the paddles

“The canoe was sufficiently close for Mr Sise to see the flash of the paddles, of which there were three on the side nearest him. She was certainly heading in the direction of the old Maori burial place at Mount Tarawera, and the Natives in the tourists’ boat whistled and shouted to the ghostly paddlers but received no answer.

“Their supernatural character was not, however, known to the Sises at the time. It was only after landing that Mr Sise and his companions learned that they had been watching the movements of spirits as ghostly as [Flying Dutchman captain] Vanderdecke[n]’s crew, and spirits, too, with a fine muscular development, as was evidenced by their style of paddling.”

Because they did not know the canoe was a phantom, claims the Witness, the Sises were cool and composed, but the poor Māori at Wairoa were not. “Between present troubles and portents of greater troubles to come, they were in a state of abject superstitious terror, and were prepared for anything marvellous, from a mermaid to a banshee.”

The Witness report said “the only peculiar feature about the incident according to Mr Sise’s account is that the canoe seen was of a singular shape, raised at either end higher than usual, and it is asserted by both Europeans and Maoris that there is no such canoe on the lake”.

Louise Sise’s version of events is contained in a letter she wrote to a relative on June 17, 1886, a week after the eruption: “After rowing several miles we saw a boat, not like ours, but an old Maori war canoe manned by nine people, going in the same direction as ourselves, and evidently racing us. Our rowers hailed them but received no answer and after going together about two miles we turned towards Lake Rotomahana and lost sight of the boat … Our idea is that there must be some boat there unknown to the Maoris and that their prophet may use it as a portent.”


Guides Sophia Hinerangi, Kate Middlemass and an unidentified colleague outside Hinemihi meeting house. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Sophia Hinerangi, a much-respected guide of about 54, had been leading parties to the terraces from Te Wairoa for 16 years and living there for 10. Guide Sophia’s version was supplied to the New Zealand Herald by one H Fildes:

“We pulled away [from the shore] about a mile and a half, when I looked round and saw a small canoe with one man in it come from under a Christmas tree. We thought it was someone going to catch koura, and the men said, ‘Look, there is someone going to catch koura’, but as we looked the canoe got larger and shot out into the lake, and from one man the number increased to five; they were all paddling fast, fast, but to our horror they appeared to have dogs’ heads on the bodies of the men.

“Then the canoe got larger till it looked like a war canoe, and then we saw 13 in all, paddling faster and faster. While we were watching astonished and terrified (for the boatmen had stopped rowing), the canoe got smaller until only five men were left and at last there remained but one very big man. The canoe got still smaller, and then with the last remaining man, disappeared into the waters of the lake.”

Mr Fildes adds on his own account, “The vision alleged to have been seen by Sophia and the party, who, like all the natives at Wairoa, were scared by the unusual natural phenomena that had been showing for over a year prior to the eruption, was perhaps inspired from their knowledge of the Maori legend of the canoe which brought volcanic fire from Hawaiki, or else a real canoe was seen, and the peculiar atmospheric conditions obtaining were, along with the state of minds of the natives, responsible for making it appear somewhat as an optical illusion.”

If they thought it was a portent, however, their fear did not last. A passenger on the last expedition to the terraces, on June 6 (four days before the eruption), was quoted in the Nelson Evening Mail of June 17 as saying that Guide Sophia and the Māori boatmen had been in excellent spirits. Sophia laughed about the apparition the previous excursion had seen and told the tourists of the tidal wave (seiche) that had rolled over their feet, but it seemed to have in no way alarmed the natives. That must have been the calming professional talking; the Sises recall that because of the seiche, the Māori crew had taken some hard persuasion to start the voyage, and they had replied, “Ah well, we can only die once, so we’ll all die together.”

So what was it the boat party saw?

Rewiri before a whare half-buried by the eruption. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Mirage or marvel?

In a letter to the Wairarapa Daily Times of July 6, 1886, local telegraphist GM Park wrote that no one had attempted to explain one particular phenomenon, vouched for by several eyewitnesses, “namely the war canoe seen on Lake Tarawera on the day preceding the eruption. Might this not have been a mirage? You will recollect that this phantom war canoe ‘rowed abreast of the tourists’ canoe’. Now there must have been an unequal refraction of the lower strata of the atmosphere (the condition which produces mirages) over Lake Tarawera on the day which would cause the canoe of the tourists to be reflected in a fantastic form, thus giving the mirage the appearance of a large war canoe.”

Was the mystery canoe an optical illusion, a real canoe or a combination of the two? The more the stories and the options are explored, the stranger things become.

In 1943, RNZAF airmen were flying from Woodbourne, Blenheim, across Cook Strait to Rongotai Aerodrome in Wellington. It was early morning and a clear sunny day was in prospect. Crew member Leading Aircraftman Arthur Ashenden, my father, recalled: “We approached a cloud bank and without warning saw the figure of another plane appear to approach us out of the cloud. The pilot rapidly took evasive action and we were shaken to see the other plane do the same – heading in the same direction and seeming to fly parallel with us. Then we reached the far edge of the cloud, and it vanished.”

“And that,” said my father, “is when we realised we had just seen a spectre of the Brocken.”

A spectre of the Brocken (also Brocken spectre, Brocken bow or glory, named after a peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany where these are frequently seen) occurs when the sun is low in the sky and projects the image of an object onto nearby water vapour – cloud or mist – usually at a slightly lower angle from the object or person. Details are not visible on the image, and its shadowy outline can be distorted by the movement of the water droplets. A rainbow is nearly always seen around the spectre. When the reflected object moves, the spectre moves with it.


Eyewitness Julia Maude Bennett was no painter but made an instant recording of the eruption on a piece of cardboard as she watched from Te Puke, 50km away. Photo/Getty Images

If the canoe image was simply a Brocken spectre, this would allow the image of the canoe to be of a greater size than the object being projected (the whaleboat) and would permit it to alter its configuration, move parallel with the whaleboat, stop when it stopped and turn when it turned. When approaching the mist, the “canoe” could look small, as the whaleboat would be being projected head on, then as the whaleboat turned, the image would appear to grow longer.

This explanation poses some difficulties. George Sise’s account said the canoe appeared to the north of their boat. This would rule out a Brocken spectre, as a northerly sighting would require the sun to rise in the south. Guide Sophia’s accounts said the tree from beneath which the canoe appeared was on the western side of the lake, which would be congruent with an eastern sunrise. But in either case, as meteorologist Erick Brenstrum points out, the angles of the three objects needing to be aligned would be wrong – the sun would be too high (even an early morning winter sun, because of the hills it had to rise above) and the two craft would be on the same level, instead of the spectre being lower than the article projected.

Even if the projection of a Brocken spectre were possible, what would it have been projected onto? George Sise and Sophia both stress how clear the morning was, without the slightest impediment to a clear view, yet in a later account, Louise Sise mentions the canoe appearing from mist, as did some subsequent reports probably based on hers. But if the canoe accompanied the tourist boat for two miles (Louise’s account), that would require two continuous miles of mist sitting on the lake edge – and this would be on the eastern side, as the whaleboat headed south along the lake. Nor does anyone mention having seen a rainbow halo, which nearly always accompanies a Brocken spectre. A Brocken spectre canoe would look like a dark, distant shadow, and the sight of the flashing of paddles would be impossible.

One type of mirage that can and does deliver images of a boat above a stretch of water is the sort traditionally known as a Fata Morgana. Although the term is often used imprecisely, in this type of thermal inversion mirage, the images may be stacked two or three above each other, with alternate layers being reversed – that is, the first boat may be the right way up, the second upside down, and so on. However, they may also consist of a single image of a boat the right way up. Such images have been reported from Arctic and Antarctic waters, from coastal Queensland and California and irregularly from some of the Great Lakes in America.

But although Fata Morgana mirages shimmer constantly, they do not move horizontally with the viewer and they seem confined to expanses of water (or desert) with a horizon line. Lake Tarawera is too small and surrounded by hills for the sort of Fata Morgana mirages experienced on ocean horizons or the Great Lakes.

McRae’s Hotel, Te Wairoa, before the eruption. Image/Alamy

The voyage of the dead

So if the travellers saw a real canoe, what might it have been? In recent years, Tuhourangi had taken to using the European cemetery in Te Wairoa, but before that had followed traditional customs. When chiefs died, their bodies were taken to a sacred area high on the mountain; other tribal members were given an air burial in a sacred site nearer the village. For many years, Tuhourangi had stowed their dead in a canoe in one of several burial sites in the bush around the lake shore. American missionary William Snow, who lived at Te Wairoa from 1880 to 1882, described one of two such locations he visited around Lake Tarawera, this one on the northern shore.

“At the base of an overshadowing ledge of rocks, rendered intensely sombre, and concealed from view by the shade of a dense rata tree, is a canoe raised several feet above the ground with its ends resting in gaping crevices of the ledge. This canoe is one of the present receptacles of the dead … corpses of every size and age … packed in the canoe like corded wood, from one to six or seven tiers deep and resting against the ledge to prevent their toppling … packed in flaxen kits and wrapped in Maori mats …”

The appearance of the canoe from under the landmark tree, which all observers noted, was a major factor in the alarm of Sophia and the Māori boatmen, who would have been well aware of the tree’s significance in marking a tapu place. So did a sonic boom, or the seiche that followed it, dislodge the burial canoe from its resting place and send it into the lake? Could a rippling seiche wave have sent it from under the tree and out along the lake?

The problem with this version is that the burial canoe could not have carried on far without an additional series of seiche waves moving it in the same direction – and no seiche waves are mentioned by Louise Sise, who emphasises the still clarity of the lake waters. Additionally, there is no written record of the burial canoe having been a war canoe or of any of its occupants being fixed in a standing position. And there would, of course, have been no “flashing paddles” or signs of its occupants propelling it, especially for two miles.

In an appendix to his outstanding book Tarawera: The Volcanic Eruption of 10 June 1886, Professor Ron Keam raises an intriguing possibility. He believes that the Arawa inhabitants of another very small village, Tokiniho, further up the western side of the lake, may have heard the sonic boom that arose from the small eruption, 9km away, that apparently gave rise to the seiche on May 31. He suggests they may have interpreted it as a signalling explosion (a technique sometimes used by Māori) and believed it to have been sent by coastal Māori who had come down from the Bay of Plenty to the Te Tapahoro arm at the extreme eastern end of the lake, possibly to tell them about an important death.

He suggests some of the Tokiniho residents rushed down to the shore and set off in their own canoes, probably decorating them with greenery because news of a death was expected. They may have rowed in two canoes side by side and, determined on their important errand, not acknowledged the calling from the whaleboats because it was an unwanted distraction.

When they reached their destination, finding no signalling party waiting for them, they probably returned to their village and went about their business, as the tourists went about theirs in a distant location. No one from the two villages met up in the next 10 days, and as the people of Tokiniho were all killed in the subsequent eruption, the truth was never learnt.

If, however, there were two canoes, it seems unlikely that the Sises saw two canoes, particularly for the time and distance they recorded. Further, the tourists noted that the other canoe stopped when the whaleboat rowers stopped and started when they started. And none of the occupants of the whaleboats mentioned hearing a sonic boom, although Sophia did state that an eerie wailing noise accompanied the rushing in and out of the seiche waters.

McRae’s Hotel, Te Wairoa, after the eruption. Image/Alamy

A put-up job

George Sise believed that the canoe was a “got-up arrangement” or “a put-up job” on the part of the tohunga, who, he says, was painfully aware that it was about time he did something for a living and needed some unusual accessories to produce anything like a satisfactory effect upon his people. Louise Sise agreed that the tohunga may have been making a memorable display as a portent.

The tohunga of Te Wairoa, Tuhoto, has been variously estimated to have been between 80 and 104 years of age at the time. Referring to some earlier feats by Tuhoto, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Gudgeon, writing in 1907 in an essay on tohunga in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, referred to Tuhoto as a “practical magician”. Was he using a little shock and awe to reinforce his cursing? If so, how might he have brought a war canoe to the lake without being detected?

War canoes – which at their biggest could be 30m long and weigh as much as three tonnes – were often built in several sections for easier portage. On arrival at their destination, the sections would be lashed together via pre-drilled holes, the holes then filled either with wooden pegs, which would swell when wet, or caulked with tree gum. A war canoe could have been portaged in sections through the bush to the lake, but it would have required a large workforce.

Alternatively, the tohunga’s collaborators could have converted and decorated an existing large fishing canoe to resemble a war canoe, by the addition of a carved tauihu/prow and taurapa/sternpost. Photographic evidence exists of fishing canoes elsewhere in New Zealand having been convincingly converted to war canoes by such a measure.

But a third option is that hinted at by a display at today’s Te Wairoa, the Buried Village, of the prow section of a war canoe found near the village in 1927. The original sign, which accompanied its display until recent years, read: “Built by the Northern Maori for the invasion of the Lakes District, it was paddled down to the Bay of Plenty and dragged over Hongi’s Track. In 1823, after the invasion, the canoe was used on Lake Tarawera for conveying tourists to the Pink and White Terraces. This canoe, still in a good state of preservation, was unearthed below Te Wairoa Falls in 1927.”

If the sign was accurate, there was indeed a war canoe in the vicinity (perhaps, as George Sise suggested, hidden up a creek designated tapu), and one of Hongi Hika’s, no less. It would have been feasible to smuggle in through the nearby bush the characteristic carved prow and sternpost and enough tree gum, lashings, decorative feathers and white-tipped paddles to restore the appearance of the war canoe to a sufficiently dazzling state, particularly if seen from a distance.

Was this the tohunga’s cunning plan: the sudden appearance of a majestic war canoe, with all the elements of its secret and sacred point of origin on the lake, the timing of its appearance for maximum impact and its silent crew, cleverly devised as a wonderful piece of professional stagecraft? Has part of the “phantom canoe” been hiding in plain sight at Te Wairoa since 1927?

Perhaps. But in what secret place was the canoe kept before its sudden appearance, and where did it go to afterwards? Even if a plan to disguise an existing canoe had succeeded, a number of “warriors” would have had to be smuggled in as well. That’s a big and risky secret to keep in a small village.

An aerial view of the volcano in 2007. Photo/Alamy

No satisfaction

Applying Occam’s razor, the theory requiring the fewest assumptions is that offered by Mr and Mrs Sise: that the mystery canoe was a calculated display intended as a fear-inducing portent, supplied by a craft that was either adapted from an existing canoe or secretly brought in, and crewed by co-conspirators of the tohunga.

Yet none of the theories is entirely satisfactory. The topography of both lakes, Tarawera and especially Rotomahana, was drastically altered by the volcanic eruption; we have difficulties even envisaging the landscape seen by those on the lakes on May 31, 1886. Any secrets the lake shore or bed concealed are probably buried metres deep in volcanic silt and ash.

Humans love to weave stories around significant events. The tale of the unidentified canoe was taken up by newspapers nationwide after the eruption and grew a little larger with each telling. Just weeks after the event, Alfred Burton of photographers Burton Bros had faked a photograph of the Phantom Canoe for inclusion in their travelling limelight lectures. They played it for laughs, which was somewhat callous, considering the recent loss of life and livelihood among Tarawera locals, but within a couple of years, artists had taken up the theme and were recreating the mystery canoe in oils, exaggerating and twisting details for a more Gothic effect.

They depicted the event as having taken place close to the shore, with the canoes almost within touching distance, or even set it by moonlight and mist and lightning bolts for added spookiness. The real-life clear morning reported by the eyewitnesses was jettisoned in favour of mist and eerie lighting, and the unexpected but normal conveyance that the onlookers on the day believed they had seen was transformed by art into a skeletal white ghost ship with tattered remnants of sails and a spectral crew brandishing weapons.

By the end of her life, after hundreds of oral retellings and at least five written versions, Guide Sophia’s version also had extra embellishments added. And so a myth was born, eagerly taken up by later writers and ornamented even further.

Perhaps a young country with few ghost stories simply felt the need to create its own, and the opportunity presented by an apparition that both Māori and Pakeha could agree on having seen was too good to miss. It added to the national sense of special identity, and to an extent it even allowed some to draw a moral around the profound trauma and grief that the eruption had caused. Perhaps the story served an emotional need; maybe it still does.

A correspondent to the New Zealand Herald in 1933 discussed recent alarming heavings and receding of the waters of Lake Taupo. “It is as well perhaps that explanation should falter, because when all the mystery of natural phenomena has been cleared up, much of their atmosphere, their charm and their awesomeness disappears too.”

It is seldom wise, as they say of royalty, to let too much daylight in upon the myth. The Phantom Canoe is our awesome story. The legend lives on.

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.