As a frequent surfer at Whakatane in the North Island’s Bay of Plenty, I was used to seeing almost constant clouds of smoke and steam billowing up from New Zealand’s only active marine volcano – White Island. When I discovered that it was possible to visit this place I was off down the i-SITE – New Zealand’s excellent tourist office network – immediately to book my ticket with Peejay White Island Tours.
The incredible White Island Volcano
The boat ride out was bumpy, with a good sea swell running for the whole of the 48km we had to cover. We were then transferred to a small inflatable and ferried in groups to land on the island itself. The waters directly surrounding White Island are a strange mixture of opaque whites, poisonous looking yellows and a range of greens – from lime to emerald. The visible part of the island is actually just the tip of the iceberg – or in this case the peak of the mountain which rises more than 5000 ft directly from the sea floor.
On arrival we were put into a small group with our guide Mike, handed a hard hat and gas mask and given a safety briefing of procedure in the event of an emergency evacuation. As a definitely much alive and kicking volcano this contingency plan is necessary and has actually been put into place on a few occasions.
The island is, as you might imagine, very stinky – the air thick with sulphur fumes and smoke. Initially the gas masks seemed only useful for doing Darth Vader impressions but it became obvious as the tour progressed that they were there for more than just fun, having to resort to mine on a few occasions.
Everywhere you looked something fascinating was going on – puffing steam, boiling rivers, roaring jets, smoke wisping into the air from weird yellow crystal rock formations and everywhere was coated with yellow sulphurous deposits. The whole looked like some weird and alien moonscape.
We were told to follow exactly where Mike led us and not to deviate unless we wanted to risk the chance of sudden boiling jets and small eruptions underneath us. Most of us obediently followed lemming-like but of course there is always one and this ‘one’ actually did get a bit of a shock. He must have jumped at least 5 feet into the air as a boiling steam vent suddenly spurted just inches from his feet. Like a bunch of school children we stifled our sniggers as he received a ‘told you so’ from Mike.
A little later, as we stood watching in fascination a group of boiling mud pools and being regaled with the gory story of how one sulphur miner who mysteriously disappeared was believed to have ended up in this very pool (fair means or foul play never proved), when a sudden gust of wind blew the hard hats from a German couple’s heads. The hats landed plop plop, one after the other in side-by-side pools. There they jiggled away, now grey and slimy until Mike fished one out, burning himself in the process.
The island features a large and incredibly beautiful but deadly crater lake, the climb to which is considered one of the tour’s highlights. The levels of this vibrantly turquoise lake vary and sudden rises are often an indication that a sizeable eruption is imminent.
I am someone who is far from being a lover of organised tours and will only take them when there is no alternative, but I had to admit that here I was really getting my money’s worth and relishing the experience. Mike was an excellent guide, not just in keeping us safe but with his constant amusing and informative patter on the island’s history, geological facts and anecdotes of previous tour groups and island stories.
As someone who is typically more interested in totally natural things rather than anything man-made I was surprised to find how fascinated I was by the sulphur mining factory ruins. Sulphur mining, which had been attempted here on and off, ceased in 1914 when a massive lahar, or volcanic mud flow, triggered by a collapsing crater wall, buried the factory and killed all the workers in the process. The ruins today carry a poignantly atmospheric air amongst this eerie landscape and make for an interesting explore; one of the few places you can wander off a little on your own here without risking incident.
We all ate a provided pack lunch before being transferred back again into our boat with a reversal of this morning’s process. There was one more treat in store for us as we headed back on the 80 minute journey to Whakatane – a group of common dolphins decided to play to the crowd with a display around the boat. A rather fittingly magical conclusion to an unusual and memorable day.
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