The Legend of the Phantom Canoe
By Charity Norman
See You in September is set on the shores of Lake Tarawera, in New Zealand’s North Island. It’s a haunting area with a dramatic history, but perhaps the strangest story of all is the legend of the phantom canoe.
In Victorian times, the area was popular with European tourists. They came to see the pink and white terraces – a natural wonder made of silica, at the foot of Mount Tarawera. Maori became boatmen and guides, and for a while everyone thrived, but there was a cost: the tourists brought wealth, but also alcohol, and a change in the way of life.
The most popular of the guides was a very competent woman called Sophia Hinerangi. One morning in May 1886, she was guiding a party of tourists across Lake Tarawera when they saw a Maori war canoe, silently gliding out of the mist. You might think this was just a trick of the light, but everyone aboard Sophia’s boat saw it – a great canoe with a double row of occupants: one rowing, the other standing upright, their heads decorated in feathers. Sophia hailed the boat but there was no response, and eventually it disappeared. A second tourist boat saw the canoe later that morning, and one of the tourists even sketched it. To Maori observers, these were the souls of the dead being ferried to the sacred mountain. They knew that there was not, and never had been, a war canoe on Lake Tarawera. A tohunga (priest) declared it to be an omen of disaster.
Eleven days later, Mount Tarawera erupted with catastrophic violence, obliterating the landscape for miles around and burying several villages forever. At least a hundred and twenty people died – possibly many more – and the famous terraces were never seen again. Sophia survived, and lived well into the twentieth century.
Make of this story what you will! Many have tried to explain it, even to suggest that perhaps an ancient, buried war canoe came to the surface that day, shaken out of the lake bed by volcanic activity. Perhaps there’s a rational explanation, but it’s a darned good story. And legend has it that the phantom canoe will appear again, next time the volcano awakens.
See you in September by Charity Norman is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, available now.