White Island

White Island. Whakaari Clouds of sulphurous gas spew forth out of cracks in the ground as my nose runs, my chest heaves and I cover my face with a gas mask. There is no sign of flora or fauna as far as the eye can see when you are standing on the edge of White Island’s crater lake, but it’s no surprise.

The acid on this island eventually kills everything it touches. Even the metal shoelace holes on our tour guides sneakers are corroded. It’s hardly a beach resort.

So what’s the standard practice for a day on a volcano I think to myself? Apart from trying not to fall in to the boiling lake or the white-hot cracks in the earth, all you can really do is marvel at the power of Mother Nature, and hope that there’s not an explosion today.

Despite hearing the standard mention of trips to White Island from friends and relatives who had been there throughout my childhood and come back with the t-shirt, I never really knew what the big deal was. I think it was because I didn’t listen when people brought up holidays that involved having to go and do things at sea that didn’t involve finding sharks.

Maybe my memory had just stopped working, but when it was my own time to visit New Zealand’s last active marine volcano I didn’t even know the geographical difference between White,

Goat and Skull islands. I certainly wasn’t aware when I booked my tour that I wasn’t leaving from Tauranga wharf, just down from the road from the Best Western Summit Motor Lodge where I was staying, but Whakatane wharf. An hour and a half further down the east coast. Or roughly translated, an hour and a half less time in bed in the morning.

But the drive is a spectacular one, and the sun was shining, so there were certainly no complaints about being awake at that time of the day. Lush green paddocks soon turned into white coastline, and as I pulled into Whakatane Township around 8:30am, I was quite ready for my day on the volcano.

The good folk at White Island Tours had booked me a seat on Pee Jay IV. A modern 60 foot launch custom built for the trip, and with a cruising speed of 20 knots and a complimentary cup of vegetable soup and a slice of Vienna loaf, it felt like a real journey for the soul as we headed out of the Whakatane river mouth into open water.

The boat was almost full, and thirty or so passengers and a handful of staff in their smart blue and white striped t-shirts mingled as we looked for signs of Dolphins and Orca pods on the 80 minute boat ride out to the island. The lady sitting next to me, (I forget her name but she looked like a Susan or a Joan), was adamant she saw an albatross. Not a royal one, just one with black wings, a ‘big bugger’ as she put it.

Massive wingspan. I kept scanning but couldn’t see it. It’s fair to say I wasn’t really concentrating as hard as I should have been as my heart was set on trying to spot a shark fin. Or a giant squid. Or a shark being eaten by a giant squid as the shark tried to eat the albatross.

One of the Pee Jay staff seemed to think the chances of that were pretty slim.

It was perfect sailing conditions. Sun was out but not too hot, sea was calm, albatrosses soaring through the sky (apparently), and we were on our way to a volcano. A young German chap came up on to the fly deck to talk to his friends already sitting up there. He had a huge wet patch on his trouser front from the sea spray coming up on the lower level of the boat. They had a good old laugh at his expense and said something in German which I think roughly translated to “You look like you’ve had a little accident there mate.”

White Island is situated 49km from Whakatane and was not visible for at least half the trip. The Maori name for the island: Whakaari, means “that which can be made visible” – a name brought about by the island’s tendency to disappear from sight on hazy days, and reappear sharply on the horizon on clear days. I felt a tad stupid actually on the way out as we went booting past Whale Island.

That’s the island right near the Whakatane coastline. One that I could see from shore and the one I had taken about 17 photos of thinking it was White Island. No one said anything to me, but in hindsight I didn’t notice anyone else with his or her camera out as we approached it. And sped past.

When White Island did come into view the overhanging cloud made it pretty obvious and underneath it the volcano towered like a smoking beacon that was both beautiful and sinister at the same time. The last scene from Lord of the Rings when Frodo and Sam are lying half dead on the erupting Mt. Doom flashed in my head and I wondered who I would be left with if worst came to worst. The nice French girl who took ages to finish her soup seemed like a good sort.

Susan/Joan still had her eye firmly on the horizon looking for marine life as the Pee Jay tour crew handed out yellow hard hats in case of an eruption, and black gas masks that would prove a needed respite from the acidic sulphur gasses on the volcano.

Everyone on board seemed pumped, well souped-up, and ready to go. We came into Craters Bay and anchored up and boarded, in turn, our rubber dinghy transport to shore.

Eerie is the feeling that best describes the first footstep onto White Island. Knowing that you are now standing on a landmass that is so physically alive that it breathes white smoke into the atmosphere from hundreds of different holes scattered around the island, and realistically could explode at any minute. The abandoned sulphur-mining factory corroded and decrepit from the toxic air also makes you feel a little uneasy, like an old desert town, but the spectacle of the experience soon takes over, and you’re away. Up the track, towards the crater lake. It’s like walking on the moon in a way. The only real life on the island is sulphur crystals and Muttonbirds, and they are tucked up on the other side of the hill. Doing what I’m not sure. Whatever Muttonbirds do I suppose.

The volcano is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 years old, and the area we traipse over, which is the small portion of the island visible above sea level, has been in its present form for approximately 16,000 years. Our guide Andy says that we might feel a tickle in the back of our throat as we get closer to the steam; that’s what the gas masks are for, and they come in handy.

Half the tour party are coughing as we pass giant mounds and steamy vents which spit out fumes and sulphur clouds. We stop at various points for photo opportunities and anecdotes from our tour leader while everyone marvels at the encompassing clouds of sulphur smoke that waft around and amongst the tour party.

We are told that the giant mounds of earth scattered across the landscape are remnants of a huge landslide way back in 1914. Andy says they are the best places to hide behind if there is an eruption, and the best place to scoot up on to if there is another landslide or a lahar. I am a bit skeptical about this and figure the best idea is to hightail it back to the dinghy, but he assures me there is no outrunning a lahar. Or flying rocks for that matter.

The main crater is huge, and the murky and milky water in it is only two metres from bubbling over the surface to flood the surrounding valley. All around there are soaring walls of ancient rock that shield the lake. And still the steam pours out and around everywhere; from the lake, from huge fissures in the ground, and even from holes in the gigantic walls.

Although the first recorded person to spot White Island (and name it) was Captain James Cook in 1769, the Endeavour didn’t come close enough to shore to realize then that it was a volcano. And it wasn’t until 1826 that the first European man stepped onto the shore. He was a naval officer, turned missionary, called The Rev Henry Williams, who sailed there from Tauranga aboard the schooner, Herald, and described his first thoughts below:

“We walked round the crater, which presented an awful sight. Its surface was nearly on a level with the sea. One of its sides having fallen in, we had easy access. Steam and smoke were issuing from all parts of the island and to the very summit. There were several small lakes of boiling substance, and on the right a large body of smoke with the upmost fury rose up from the regions below.

We examined this awful sight as minutely as we dared but from the intolerable stench of brimstone and the lightness of the surface over which we had to pass, we deemed it not prudent to remain long, fearing suffocation from the one or precipitation into some boiling cavity from the other. As the whole island was composed of sulphur, being blackened with the smoke gave it a ghastly appearance.”

The landslide of September 1914 was huge. At the time there were people inhabiting White Island in a bid to mine the sulphur rich environment. When the landslide occurred, the Southwest rim of the island collapsed and a torrent of mud and rock bulldozed the living quarters, and its residents, out to sea.

When the supply ship arrived to make its weekly delivery of food and water the Captain sounded his horn; the cue for the team to get in their rowboat and come to collect their supplies, but nobody showed. The boat waited overnight, but as the captain had no rowboat of his own to get to shore, he headed back to Opotiki (the main port at the time) the next day. He was certain that something sinister had occurred but due to horrible weather, a rescue party couldn’t get on to White Island until eight days later.

No remains of any human life were found, and no sign of the buildings that had been erected. However a cat sat on the island alive and well. He was one of five camp cats and was from that day onward named Peter the Great .The rumour goes that Opotiki’s cat population significantally rose on his return as he enjoyed minor celebrity status and was no stranger in the ways of women.

Our trip around the island was eruption and lahar free, much to the delight of the tour party, and as we tramped back towards the boat and away from the steam everyone seemed in good spirits. Crossing a creek and being told by Andy to sample the water proved to be disgusting and a taste that could only be likened to sucking on a rusty piece of metal. He told us it was similar to drinking acid rain due to the amounts of sulphuric and hydrochloric acid content in the water, but because we only had a little taste it wouldn’t harm us. I whistled and shiftily scanned my eyes to see if anyone was watching as I discretely emptied the water bottle I had just filled up.

We walked back through the abandoned factory and waved our goodbyes to the Muttonbirds. They were unimpressed. I checked my pockets for any spare mutton I had lying around to try and get a rise from them but I must have left it in the car. But on to the boat we hopped and headed back towards Whakatane. Although no Orca’s or Dolphins were spotted, Susan/Joan located a seal who seemed to be enjoying showing off to the boatload of tourists. She certainly had an eye for detail that woman. And a hearty laugh to go with it.

Dozing off in the sun on the boat trip back I thought how magical and mystical Whakaari was. Smoky yes, habitable no, but one of New Zealand’s special little gems just tucked out the back of nowhere. White Island currently sits on an alert level rating of 1, meaning she is always active, but there is more danger of a shark attack than anything going wrong while you are there. And it’s sure worth a nosy. Besides, Peter the Great came away alright didn’t he?