White Island is New Zealand’s most active volcano, yet it’s among the most accessible in the world.
WORDS JENNY RUDD / PHOTOS WHITE ISLAND TOURS
Volcanoes are one of nature’s most majestic shows of might. If you climb Mt Maunganui, you can see further than the curvature of the Earth allows from the ground, and on a clear day you’ll get a childlike pleasure from seeing puffs of smoke above the active Whakaari/White Island. It’s almost 90km away from the Mount but takes an hour to get to on the purpose-built Te Puia Whakaari, a smart and comfortable catamaran run by Whakatāne-based White Island Tours.
If you’re not interested in volcanoes, there’s clearly something wrong with you! They’re unpredictable, scary and mesmerising in action, and loom over you in a fearsome way, hissing smoke and reeking of sulphur, which scratches your eyes and throat.
We set off from the Whakatane Wharf while chatting to our tour guide Kelsey Waghorn about White Island’s many eruptions in the past few decades. “It’s impossible to have a bad day out there,” she says. “One day we couldn’t talk much because there was ash blowing all over the place. We had to strap on gas masks and stay quiet. But it didn’t matter – it was amazing to watch.”
We’re surprised to see the remnants of a factory in the bay when we arrive. Sulphur was mined here in the 1880s till the 1930s, shipped to Tauranga’s Sulphur Point and sold. The operations were never really profitable, though; gathering high-quality sulphur was harder here than in other more hospitable and stable environments, and the activity of the volcano meant the factory and living quarters were liable to disappear as the volcano belched and spewed.
On the island, you can’t help but think, ‘Oh my god, I’m walking on an actual volcano in the middle of the ocean!’ Now and then Kelsey warns, “No further, please, that’s a sinkhole in front of you”, and “That mound you’re about to walk on is a pressure point with a thin crust on top. Stand on it and you’re likely to end up in whatever’s producing the clouds of steam coming out of it.” When asked whether the water around the island is warm, she says, “I’m not sure, but I do know there’s a vent around the far side – divers have told us it’s like swimming in a glass of Champagne.”
We sample water from different streams (one tastes salty, another citrusy) and hear how much the landscape has changed after a series of recent eruptions, then having walked across craters and pictured ourselves living and mining on the volcano, we get back on the boat and are served an absolutely delicious packed lunch while sailing around the island. We see flying fish and dolphins, and plumes of smoke spilling from the centre of the volcano as it recedes from view.
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