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New Zealand’s Volcano Postage Stamps


New Zealand is known internationally for its spectacular and beautiful variety of mountain, lake and river scenery, from high snow-capped mountains and lakes in the South Island to the awesome volcanoes, geysers and hot springs of the North Island.

It is unsurprising then that New Zealand was among the first countries in the world to issue pictorial stamps in 1898, although, while half of the stamp issue showed mountain and lake scenery, there were no volcanoes.

Mt Taranaki (Egmont) was the first volcano to appear on a postage stamp – the three shilling 1935 pictorial (see Fig 1). Mt Taranaki rises 2 518m, dominating the Taranaki landscape. It is symmetrical with a subsidiary cone approximately 2km south of the summit, and it last erupted about 400 years ago. It also appears on several more recent stamps including the 23c (1970), 10c Centenary of Stratford (1978), $1.80 scenic walk (1999), and the $2 scenic (2014), all shown in Fig 1.



Figure 1. 23c (1970), 10c Centenary of Stratford (1978), $1.80 scenic walk (1999), and the $2 scenic (2014) Otago Museum Collection.

The mountains and volcanoes of New Zealand were formed by the collision of two tectonic plates, the Pacific Plate moving down underneath the North Island, colliding with the Australian Plate along the Alpine Fault in the South Island. This movement causes lateral movement north-west of 2-3cm and vertical movement of 1cm per annum. This collision and movement began about 25 million years ago and continues today causing the Southern Alps to rise nearly 3 800m with lateral movement of 450km. In the North Island, the friction melts the rock, which then flows upwards through cracks in the buckling plate, appearing as volcanic lava eruptions. The active volcanoes in the North Island all occur on a line parallel with the Hikurangi and Kermadec offshore ocean trenches caused by the downward movement of the Pacific Plate.

The compound volcano Mt Tongariro contains three active volcanoes. Mt Ngauruhoe, at 2 287m, is a perfectly symmetrical ash and lava cone and appears on the 30c (1967), 8c (1973), 50c (1996), and $2 UNESCO World Heritage (2015) stamps (Fig 2).



Figure 2. 30c (1967), 8c (1973), 50c (1996), and $2 UNESCO World Heritage (2015) Otago Museum Collection.

The tallest, Mt Ruapehu at 2 797m, produces a pumice lava which is more viscous and forms a block-like mountain as shown in the $1.10 (2000) scenic reflection (Fig 3). In 1996, Ruapehu had a large eruption causing serious damage to its three ski fields. There is nothing so awesome and terrifying as a major eruption as shown on the $1.10 stamp (Fig 3).



 Figure 3. $1.10 (2000), $1.10 stamp (2000) Otago Museum Collection.

The Taupo volcano erupted several times during the last 300,000 years, with huge eruptions in 26 500BC and again in 181AD. The former caused crustal collapse which created Lake Taupo, shown on the 1d 1898 pictorial. The 181AD eruption was the world’s most violent in the last 5000 years.

Rotorua is the centre of the large Okataina volcanic complex, which last erupted from Mt Tarawera in 1886. No postage stamp has been issued to commemorate this event.

White Island in the Bay of Plenty is constantly venting sulphurous gas, steam and sometimes small ash flows. In 1914, a landslide from the crater rim destroyed buildings and killed some sulphur mine workers; see Fig 4 for the 18c Offshore Island and 70c Tiki Tour stamps.



 Figure 4. 18c Offshore Island and 70c Tiki Tour stamps.

The southernmost boundary of the Australian and Pacific Plates is in Antarctica, where Mt Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world at 3 940m, dominates the skyline of Ross Island in the Ross Dependency. Mt Erebus is shown on three stamps issued in 1957, 1999 and 2012 (Fig 5). During my academic working life, I met many of the DSIR scientists who were responsible for the research leading up to the utilisation of geothermal steam for the generation of electricity at Wairakei and Broadlands. One of these, Dr Werner Giggenbach, recalled one of his most frightening experiences when he was lowered into the throat of Mt Erebus’s crater on a hemp rope to collect samples of gas from the volcano, just centimetres away from red-hot crater walls.



Figure 5. Three Ross Dependency stamps issued in 1957, 1999 and 2012 Otago Museum Collection.

Dr R M Carr 

Honorary Philatelic Curator

Otago Museum