Topic: The Ring of Fire by Kate Gore

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Kate Gore's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition - The Ring of Fire

Archived version here.

Another conference! Oh, well, I guess that means some extra hours spent preparing extra work for the relief teacher who will be looking after my class. I had a class of great kids who I knew would do me proud. All the usual pleas of, “Be little angels for the teacher who is going to be with you tomorrow. She is really excited and is a lovely lady.”

Fingers crossed!

There were five teachers from my school heading over to Tauranga for the one day conference. Joe's van could take five comfortably so we all met at 7.30 a.m. and piled into the van.  An easy hour through the back route and we made good time. As others arrived there were all the usual greetings to our Bay of Plenty colleagues, a cup of coffee and a muffin and we were into the business.

With so many changes happening in education the sessions were pretty intense. A welcome break for lunch meant a breath of fresh air so it was outdoors to find a comfortable spot in the sun. This was always a nice time to share stories, experiences, the highs and lows, the joys and despairs of our chosen vocation.  A vocation we all loved and embraced.

The spring sun was warm and comforting.


Suddenly a dark black cloud appeared.  It was rather odd. Not like a usual cloud, but clearly defined and moving surprisingly fast. All eyes were skyward as we puzzled about this strange phenomenon.

James happened to be on his cellphone talking to his wife in Rotorua.  She was near hysteria and we could hear her shouting. His anxiety told us something was up.

“Mount Ruapehu has erupted,” he announced. 

Now we figured the cloud above us was ash. Dark, grey, fine ash.  Unbelievable!  We were shocked and amazed.  If this is what we were seeing in Tauranga, what was it like in Rotorua and further south to Ruapehu?

So many questions.  So few answers.

We turned on a radio and sure enough it was really happening. First question – how to cope with the ash? This was a new experience for all of us so we listened intently to any advice.

Shut doors and windows. Stay indoors. Use a mask if you have to go outside. Asthmatics to be particularly careful.

The suggestions went on.

Lectures in the afternoon meant little as minds were on the eruption. We really just wanted to get home and be with family and check our homes. The van was covered in ash. Gently waving a book over the windscreen gave a little space for Joe to see to drive. A somber group got back in the van and we headed for Rotorua. 

What an eerie experience!

All the roads, hills, paddocks, trees and plants were covered in grey ash.  As we slowly moved through the Tauranga Direct Road the fine grey powdery ash rose up beside us, creating more dust clouds around the vehicle.  Slow and steady. Visibility was almost nil, and headlights offered little help.

As we inched towards Rotorua, the ash thickened. Talk turned to what we might find at our homes. Eventually we reached our own vehicles. Horrors! I couldn't tell the back from the front of my little Volkswagen car.  I knew not to use the windscreen wipers, but blowing on the screen only created a tiny little hole – enough for one eye to peer through. How to drive the 6kms home? Slow and steady. At least everyone else was only driving at a mere 5kms per hour.

Home – our lovely newly-built home. My husband and I were so proud of it. This was the first home we had built from scratch.  Now it had undergone a dramatic transformation. The green roof was grey. The terracotta pavers on the drive were grey. The lawns and gardens were grey.  Fortunately I had left all the windows tightly shut so I was able to escape to my inside haven to ponder this weird phenomenon.

By early evening this dark forbidding cloud had moved right over to the coast and disappeared out to sea.  Now we could venture outside to assess the damage. The gutters were full of ash. How on earth were we going to shift that?

We eagerly listened to any advice from anyone who would give it – knowledgeably!  Some said to scoop it out. Others said use a hose. Oh yes! That fine powdery ash sets like concrete when mixed with water. 

And what about my lovely new garden plants?  Some loved the ash and thrived. Others turned up their toes and died.  Even a light hosing to shift the ash, couldn't save them. The driveway was horrible. The carefully chosen pavers that I had christened 'Sunburst' were now more like 'Grey Rain.’

Foolishly we didn't think of claiming insurance.  Who knows? We might have been able to get the driveway re paved.  Lesson learned.


Now when I reflect, I have other memories of that day. My mother had just turned eighty and, as a surprise, her granddaughter had flown over from Australia for the celebrations. Jenny phoned her boss.

“Sorry,” she said. “I can't get back to work as there has been an eruption.”

“Don’t be silly,” came back the reply. “Get on a plane and get on over here now.”

News travels fast; that day it was a bit sluggish.

Soon I got to thinking of just how volatile this area is that I call home.  When I look back in history, I can recall some other occurrences so unique to New Zealand. 

Ngauruhoe blowing its top in 1975 was spectacular.  Whakaari, now known as White Island, erupted in 1976 and 1989. That has created a unique tourist destination for locals and overseas visitors.

In 1953 on Christmas Eve one of New Zealand's worst natural disasters occurred when Ruapehu’s crater lake burst through the rim and caused a lahar to flow down to Tangiwai, taking out a train bridge and resulting in 151 lives lost. 

Ruapehu again had everyone on alert in 1995 and 1996, but any possibility of a further lahar was now well-monitored and diversions put in place.  

Kuirau Park gave us a 15 minute display in 2001 when its 3metre lake erupted to become a 10metre lake. 

These are but a few in my living memory, but I can't forget reports of the 1886 Mount Tarawera eruption that killed 159 people, mainly tourists. I am mindful of the Rotorua caldera that was formed some 240,000 years ago.

Oh, yes, I am constantly aware that anything could happen again, be it major or minor.

Geological time is long so I can only trust that we won't be experiencing any major eruptions for many centuries to come.

Returning to that day on 25th September 1995, I still have a little bottle of ash as a reminder.  Something tangible to show my grandchildren when I re-tell the story of the day we were covered in the ash that had travelled all the way from Mount Ruapehu to Rotorua and out to the coast of the Bay of Plenty.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: 


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