The news that Mt Tongariro is blowing its top once again has sent Te Ara staff hunting for background information in earlier entries of the encyclopedia. Our Earth, Sea and Sky theme gave us a summary of volcanoes themselves, and also an account of historic volcanic activity, which noted previous eruptions at Tongariro in 1868 and 1896–97. The Volcanic Plateau entry of the Places theme explained more about the traditions and history of Tongariro and its two neighbouring volcanoes.
From there, some of us turned for more details to the magnificent Papers Past website, where reports of the 1896 eruption of Tongariro sounded similar to the current upheavals:
At 12.40 Te Mare [Te Maari], a steam hole on Tongariro, burst into violent eruption, emitting an immense volume of steam and the smoke rising to a great height, travelling against the wind. It presented a grand spectacle … Ruapehu also appeared to be emitting a small column of steam. (Marlborough Express, 16 November 1896, p. 2)
Te Maari crater, as Te Ara points out, had been formed by another eruption in 1868. Mt Tongariro is actually a complex of craters that have been active at different periods, and Mt Ngāuruhoe, although usually regarded as a separate peak, is Tongariro’s main active vent. The current volcanic activity on Tongariro is the first since the 1896–97 eruption, but Ngāuruhoe has been active much more recently.
In 1926 John Cullen, a former police commissioner and later a self-appointed warden at Tongariro National Park, witnessed Ngāuruhoe in action from his hut ‘about halfway between Waimarino and Ngāuruhoe Mountain’. The volcano was erupting in a series of loud explosions:
[E]very shot that went up gave a great display of fireworks. A smelting-furnace or foundry as seen at night is a good representation in miniature of Ngāuruhoe’s after-dark discharges. Everything would appear quiet in the crater; then a small puff of steam rise about the rim of the volcano; next a great body of fiery matter would be hurled high into the heavens, to spread out fall over and roll down the mountain-sides. (‘Eruption of Ngāuruhoe’, AJHR 1926 C–13 p. 5)
To have a look at the kind of spectacular performance that Cullen was watching take a look at the eruption of Ngāuruhoe in 1954 which you can find on Te Ara, and for more information check out NZHistory’s Today in History feature on the 1896 eruption.