The opening of the newly built Tarawera Hot Springs Hotel and government bathing house was a major event in 1907. On Saturday 9 October John Vigor Brown, Mayor of Napier, along with a group of invited guests travelled in two horse-drawn coaches and several motorcars to Tarawera on the Napier-Taupo Road. Napier photographer, Percy Caz Sorrell, captured the moment, signing and dating his work.
The Museum’s photographic collection holds two images from that day, one showing the Tarawera Hot Springs Hotel and the other the bathing house. To achieve a good vantage point of the government bathing house, which was perched precariously on a steep hillside, Percy crossed the swift flowing Waipunga River carrying his heavy camera equipment and climbed the opposite hill.
The location of the hot springs at Tarawera had been long known by local Māori, who guided Pākehā to the source - a hole in the rock-face 60 feet above the Waipunga River, just off a roughly formed track. The Hawke’s Bay Herald first mentioned the spring on 15 March 1871. Twelve days later it further reported that “a bath about six feet square, and two and a half feet deep” had been excavated near to the source of the spring, with a rough track cut down to it. The water was reputed to have superior medicinal qualities, which could cure rheumatism and sciatica. The hope was that an accommodation house would be built in close vicinity so that “invalids who wish to take advantage of the waters can do so in comfort.”
The first hotel at Tarawera, was built in 1874 and used by the Napier-Taupo coach service and independent travellers as a place to change horses and stop overnight. It burnt down in 1906 and was replaced with a two-storey building re-named Tarawera Hot Springs Hotel. The proprietor at the time was Duncan Mackay, whose special brands of beverages, along with the mineral water in the hot springs, were “said to cure all the ills that flesh is heir to.”
A month later, nineteen-year-old Katherine Mansfield, to become a renowned New Zealand short story writer, joined seven family friends to take a six-week camping trip into Te Urewera country via the Napier-Taupo Road. George Ebbett, a Hastings solicitor, led the party. George, a collector of Māori taonga, was an experienced camper and competent te reo Māori speaker, with a considerable knowledge of Māori history and ethnology. The group traveled in two horse-drawn vehicles, one a roofed coach with open sides that seated four, and they took turns sitting in the less comfortable luggage wagon. To relieve the horses on steep parts of the road the passengers would get out and walk. The group slept in a large, heavy canvas tent – men on one side, women on the other.
During the journey, Katherine Mansfield kept a diary and wrote letters to family and friends giving a vivid account of her travels from Hawke’s Bay to Te Urewera, Lake Rotorua and Lake Taupō. These jottings were later published as “The Urewera Notebook.”
In a letter written to her sister, Katherine evocatively describes stopping at Tarawera.
“I felt dreadful – my clothes were white with dust – we had accomplished 8 miles of hill climbing – So after dinner – (broad beans cooked over a camp fire and tongue & cake and tea) - we prowled round and found an “aged aged man” with [who] had the key of the mineral baths – I wrapt [sic] clean clothes in my towel - & the old man rushed home to seize a candle in a tin – He guided us through the bush track – by the river - & my dear I’ve never seen such a cure – I don’t think he ever had possessed a tooth & he never ceased talking – you know the effect? The Bath House is a shed – three of us bathed in a great pool – waist high – and we of course – in our nakeds – The water was very hot - & like oil – most delicious – We swam - & soaped & swam & soaped & floated - & when we came out each drank a great mug of mineral water – luke warm & tasting like Miss Wood’s eggs at their worst stage – But you feel inwardly and outwardly like velvet.”
Sadly the pools are no longer operational or able to be accessed owing to the precarious nature of the location, the state of the pools themselves and danger from slips and falling rocks.
15 August 2019
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