“If there’s an eruption”, the guide said, “stay calm, and stay with your group. We’ll head back to the boat and get you off the island as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
I looked around me at the clouds of steam billowing over the barren landscape shaped by 150,000 years of volcanic activity, and wondered just how fast they’d actually be able to get us out of here if they needed to. How long might it be before it was ‘safe to do so’ in the midst of a volcanic eruption?
This caused me a momentary hesitation in continuing with my White Island tour, but it was tempered by the guide’s reassurance that although it’s New Zealand’s most active volcano, it is still only rated at Alert Level 1 out of 5, and that they did this tour regularly without incident.
Besides, this was a rare opportunity to walk on an active volcano. Was I really going to turn it down because of the vague possibility of a piddly little eruption?
Armed with hard hats and gas masks, we tramped after our guide across the rocky ground, picking our way carefully around the mounds that our guide said not to walk on. Climb up onto one of these and the thin crust was likely to break, sending us plunging down into a hole that once had steam coming out of it.
We made our way slowly into the crater, stopping to examine sulphur chimneys and have our pictures taken in spots where the gas mask was an absolute necessity, the sulphur dioxide in the clouds of steam irritating our throats and eyes and making us cough. Candies were handed out, to soothe the throat they said, but they didn’t help much.
The Maori name for the White Island is ‘Te Puia o Whakaari’, which means either ‘The Dramatic Volcano’ or ‘to make visible’ (I’ve seen both…which is it?), but is most often referred to as just Whakaari. As the Maori legend goes, the high priest Ngatoroirangi was climbing Mt. Tongariro in the central North Island when a raging blizzard began. About to freeze to death, he called out to his sisters Te Pupu and Te Hoata for help.
The girls immediately rushed to help him, traveling under the sea and earth in the form of fire, and wherever they rose to the surface, they left part of the fire. Whakaari was the first, and the other spots where they emerged form the many geothermal areas of the North Island, including Tongariro where the sisters were able to warm their brother with fire from Hawaiki, the Maori homeland.
Getting to White Island is easy. As it sits just 48km off the coast from Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty, a 90 minute boat ride is all that’s required to reach New Zealand’s largest volcanic structure. You’d never know it was so big, as the peak only reaches 321 metres above sea level, with 70% of the mountain being under the ocean and the crater itself only 30m above sea level. This means you can get right off the boat and walk into the crater, without having to climb a mountain!
This easy access means that there has been economic activity on White Island, aside from the daily tours that now take place. In 1885 a sulphur mining operation began, but in 1914 part of the crater wall collapsed and the resulting landslide killed eleven people when it destroyed the mine and the miner’s village. This wasn’t discovered until days later when the resupply ship came by, and after finding no trace of the village or any people, they discovered the lone survivor, a cat they then called Peter the Great. Another effort at mining occurred in the 1920s, but was uneconomical and did not last.
It’s probably just as well that there is no mining on White Island anymore, as the island is changing constantly. The crater lake comes and goes, eruptions modify the shape of the landscape and regularly cover the ground with mud or fine ash. New vents and fumaroles appear out of nowhere. Increased volcanic activity in 2012 and 2013 caused tours to stop temporarily, and our guide said that the tour they give actually changes regularly with the terrain.
The entire rocky moonscape was devoid of any life. Not a single speck of green was visible; no leaf or even a sprout would dare to try to grow in this toxic environment.
And yet Whakaari is alive. It hisses, it roars, and it whistles, its landscape under constant transformation by the volcanic processes continually at work. It’s moody and unpredictable, sometimes fairly calm and quiet and at other times ferociously angry without any warning. Sulfur chimneys shoot out hot toxic gases, cautioning off any intruders. Steam swirls all around, huge dense clouds of it alternately showing and then hiding the crater’s steep walls and peaks and the boiling lake within. The bright yellow of the sulfur deposits punctuates the stark grey landscape in between steaming rivers, cascades of hot water trying to escape this hell to the cool ocean that surrounds this behemoth on all sides.
We sampled tiny bits of the sulphur, sharp on the tongue a bit like fizzy candy, an unusual but not entirely unpleasant sensation.
On arrival at the edge of the crater lake we looked down into its murky grey depths, careful not to go too close to the rim. The steam billowed all around us, sometimes obscuring the lake completely.
We climbed a big hill and admired the view back towards the crater, to the steaming rock faces lining it, and to the other direction beyond the steam and across the barren rocky outcrops and pools of boiling mud to the sea.
Stopping at one of these pools, we looked back towards the crater, another tour group tiny upon the hilltop we’d just come from. The mud plopped and bubbled and splattered and steamed in several pools all around us.
On the way back out of the crater we tasted the water from a couple of the streams, noting how in one it was hotter, and in another it was slightly lemony.
Following a dry stream bed, we arrived at a separate bay from the one where we’d arrived.
Here there is no pier, but in rough seas the boat anchors in this slightly more sheltered bay, the passengers transferring to the island just four at a time, literally hopping out of the zodiac onto a flat, slippery rock when the waves are just right and the guide yells ‘GO!’. I’m so glad we didn’t have to do that!
Near White Island’s main boat pier there are the rusting old remains of the sulphur mining operation from the 1920-30s. Not worth removing from the island, they will remain here until the acidic environment disintegrates them completely.
Then it was over. Climbing down the ladder from the pier to the zodiac, I breathed a sigh of relief that I was safe from this dangerous, volatile environment, free from the possibility of eruptions and landslides and toxic gases.
And yet I was a bit sad that it was over so soon. I wanted to see more, to know more, even though they’d already shown us so much. I was curious what this island would look like in different seasons, in different weather, and at different times of day. I craved the opportunity to see it from the air, from a helicopter or airplane tour, and from all sides. I even wanted to walk the treacherous path around the island to the old miner’s village near the gannet colony.
But all that was not to happen, and I have to be satisfied with what I did get to see. Because really, how many chances in life do we get to walk on an active volcano?
Have you been to White Island? Or have you walked on an active volcano somewhere else? Would you? Tell me about it in the comments!
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