Is This Really Earth?
You could be forgiven for thinking you were on a planet in a far away galaxy. It is so unlike anything else you could see, would ever see, on planet earth.
This is White Island and I am on a Volcano Tour on one of New Zealand’s islands.
The air is acrid; unlike anything I’ve experienced on planet earth, even the "rotten egg" sulphur smell of nearby Rotorua’s geysers and mud pools seems pleasant compared to this cloying smell.
Why did I do this? I need reminding of this several times throughout my White Island volcano tour. It is earth and White Island is one of New Zealand’s numerous islands but it’s also a unique environment nothing like any other part of the country.
White Island, an active volcano, thought to be between 150,000 and 200,000 years old is just off the shore of the North Island of New Zealand and close to Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty.
It can be seen “puffing” from the mainland; sometimes white cloud like formations belch into the air like giant chimney stacks. Sometimes a menacing looking black substance spews from her core. White Island alert status and moon like terrain is constantly changing and locals on the mainland (Whakatane and Ohope) are wary. Their concern is spot on too because she could erupt at anytime.
White Island’s activity is monitored constantly by the IGNS (Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences). For up to date Volcanic activity see - Volanic Activity White Island.
It’s certainly eerie wandering around this island. There is little plant life because of the acid environment.
Visitors on this volcano tour must wear hard hats at all times and gas masks are required equipment (provided by the tour operator) although they often hang loosely around the necks of this group of ramblers. Sometimes, they are called into use though and we gasp through the filtering gas mask mechanism to cleanse the air.
What does work overtime though are our cameras - they point this way and that trying to capture images of our “day on another planet”.
It’s harsh here and our two guides – one leading and one tailing the small group are on high alert. You can only visit here with a recognized and approved company and then you must be accompanied by a guide.
We pick our way, carefully, along narrow paths, fumaroles hissing beside us. Sometimes these fumaroles have small head, the size of a small coin which allows steam to escape from the boiling earth below, sometimes they are larger. They constantly change.
We wander over the island and snake our way up to the crater. If you are lucky you might be able to see, through the rising steam, the hot, hot milky colored water in the lake created in the giant crater. It’s steaming the day of our visit and rather shy. The steam only clears fleetingly and then her shroud envelops her again.
There is beauty here. A raw beauty, quite unlike anything else you are likely to see. Brightly colored and varied shapes of sulphur crystals grow and cling to edges here and there.
Natures color provides sharp relief to the browns of the volcanic rock and the burnt orange rusting steel disintegrating slowly as these man made structures erode over time.
There have been a few attempts to mine sulphur here on White Island. Early Maori recognized the value of sulphur to fertilise their abundant gardens. Later, there were several attempts to commercialize this naturally occurring resource. I shake my head in wonderment that anyone was crazy enough to even try to run a business here. Why would men work here? The sulphur even eroded their clothing we are told.
The rusting steel structures a dramatic but grim reminder of these attempts.
All attempts have been abandoned because of volcanic eruptions and the dangerous conditions. In 1914 the side of a hill collapsed causing a massive lahar which swept down the side of the island wiping out the settlement tragically killing the men working on White Island.
Still later another group tried to develop a business but the depression of the 1930’s forced them into bankruptcy. It’s ironic, I think, that economics extinguished what mother nature wasn’t able to.
The atmosphere is eerie and we are on edge, nervous in the knowledge that this is an active volcano, the whole time we are on this unique island.
The island is privately owned by the Buttle Family Trust and they have been appointed the owners of White Island Tours as guardians. The Buttle family is keen to see that the island is protected and so access is strictly limited. There are just four designated tourist operators permitted to conduct public volcano tours.
Tours depart from Whakatane wharf and they are weather dependent.
A reasonable level of fitness and agility is required to go on this volcano tour.
Take water, sunscreen, camera. Wear good shoes and take a jacket as it can get cold.
Tours cost approximately NZ$175 per person by boat. It’s also possible to fly into WhiteIsland by helicopter.
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Volcano Trip to White Island - courtesy NZ2008White
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