BAY OF PLENTY

Go Travel New Zealand - - Contents - By John Roberts

A vol­cano! I’m go­ing to walk around a vol­cano…this is a good idea right?

My part­ner and I de­cided that this would be a gift to each other, a he­li­copter flight over to New Zealand’s most ac­tive marine vol­cano, White Is­land or Te Puia o Whakaari, as we now know it!

We de­cided to take the 2 hour tour with Fron­tier He­li­copters, mar­keted as “The best two hours in NZ”…a big claim to live up to.

Fron­tier He­li­copters is the clos­est he­li­copter op­er­a­tor to White Is­land, and there­fore the cheap­est (he­li­copter) op­tion if you want to FlyLand & Ex­plore!

Just 49km North of Whakatane, NZ’s Sun­shine Cap­i­tal, White Is­land sits steaming away, rich in his­tory and a ge­o­log­i­cal won­der.

We ar­rived at the Whakatane Air­port and checked in at the hangar re­cep­tion, where we were given an in­for­ma­tive safety brief­ing about the he­li­copter and White Is­land be­fore we ex­cit­edly boarded

our cool-look­ing

he­li­copter.

Our pilot, Ross, has been fly­ing out to the White Is­land for over 5 years and was in­cred­i­bly in­for­ma­tive through­out our flight, as well as be­ing a su­per smooth pilot.

It took around 20 min­utes to fly out to White Is­land in the he­li­copter, and we passed over Whale Is­land, or Mouto­hora, which is a small dor­mant vol­cano, now un­in­hab­ited and de­clared as a wildlife refuge in 1965. Pro­tected by the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion and lo­cal Maori, Ngati Awa.

Across the Pa­cific Ocean, White Is­land sits on the hori­zon, puff­ing away with its bil­low­ing steam cloud reach­ing high in to the sky. We couldn’t have asked for any­thing more spec­tac­u­lar.

Or­bit­ing the vol­cano by he­li­copter was awe-in­spir­ing; we were fly­ing at around 1500ft and look­ing straight in to the crater.

Even from the air we were able to smell the sul­phur leech­ing out of the mas­sive vents and the ex­cite­ment rose as we started to de­scend to land within the crater.

Land­ing gen­tly on to the crater floor, the smell of sul­phur be­gan to

seep through

the doors and tickle my nose – the is­lands friendly way of say­ing “hello”. Sur­pris­ingly the Is­land doesn’t smell to bad! There is a slight sul­phurous odour but noth­ing like the bad- egg smell I ex­pected af­ter be­ing to Ro­torua.

Step­ping out into this sur­real en­vi­ron­ment, feels like be­ing on an­other planet. We were com­pletely sur­rounded by tow­er­ing red-coated crater walls and steaming vents that create this spec­tac­u­lar lu­nar land­scape.

With our bright or­ange hard hats se­curely in place and our gas masks in hand, we head off on our ex­plo­ration.

Our pilot guide, Ross, was care­ful to keep us to­gether on the worn track and away from the more brit­tle bits of crust. As there are no bar­ri­ers, it was re­as­sur­ing to have such a knowl­edge­able guide like Ross show­ing us fea­tures like roar­ing fu­maroles and bub­bling mud pools, al­low­ing us to get up close and per­sonal, even tak­ing our pho­tos on re­quest.

The last thing he needs out here is a foot break­ing through the frag­ile pres­sure mound into a su­per-heated pool of acid wa­ter or boil­ing mud.

Walk­ing up through the crater floor was like be­ing on an­other planet, rich vi­brant colours, tiny sul­phur crys­tals lit­ter­ing the ground, magma heated mud pools, and steaming acid brooks that hiss a stern warn­ing. Never be­fore has the Earth’s crust seemed so thin or frag­ile – or so ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

As we ap­proach the crater in the mid­dle of the Is­land, the masks - su­per­flu­ous un­til now - are pulled on as quickly as the cam­eras are pulled out. The steam from the pale green acid lake is acrid and makes it hard to breathe without them.

The rear vents hiss and boil send­ing steam tow­er­ing into the air over the bub­bling caul­dron-like lake.

To be this close to the mid­dle of a live vol­cano, to see the Earth fum­ing and mut­ter­ing is ex­cit­ing and hum­bling.

White Is­land’s last erup­tion was in the evening of Oc­to­ber 2013, so there wasn’t any­one on the Is­land at the time, thank­fully. Ap­par­ently it was a huge erup­tion cov­er­ing the whole of the crater floor in ash and rocks.

Ross points out the mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment dis­cretely lo­cated at var­i­ous points en­abling GNS sci­en­tists to mon­i­tor the Is­land’s ac­tiv­ity at all times.

I have ev­ery con­fi­dence in Ross as he as­sures me that whilst there are al­ways el­e­ments of risk in such a visit, Fron­tier He­li­copters has been bring­ing visi­tors here for over 24 years and have ex­pe­ri­enced the Is­land through dif­fer­ent lev­els of ac­tiv­ity.

As we thread our way back down the edge of the crater we ab­sorb the fan­tas­tic views of the en­tire crater floor and out to sea.

At the far eastern side of the crater lies the ru­ins of the aban­doned sul­phur-min­ing fac­tory that many years ago stood strong. At­tempts were made in the mid-1880’s, and early 1900’s to mine sul­phur on White Is­land but these came to a halt in Septem­ber 1914, when part of the western crater rim col­lapsed, cre­at­ing a la­har which killed all 10 work­ers. Some years later in 1923 min­ing was again at­tempted, even­tu­ally end­ing in the 1930’s.

The re­mains tell a spec­tac­u­lar story that Ross nar­rates as we nav­i­gate through old door­ways and we ad­mire rusted im­ple­ments, bro­ken walls, crum­bling beams and cogs rusted am­ber.

It is amaz­ing to think that peo­ple once lived in this harsh en­vi­ron­ment that is now just home to a large gan­net colony and a few doomed rats!

Ross grad­u­ally peeled us away from the beau­ti­fully de­cay­ing rem­nants of the mine and lead us re­luc­tantly back to the he­li­copters.

As we fly away, I have one last op­por­tu­nity to take in this unique and truly beau­ti­ful land­scape, re­flect­ing on my sur­real ad­ven­ture.

Fron­tier He­li­copters, White Is­land Vol­cano Ad­ven­ture, claims to be “the best two hours in New Zealand” and now I know why…

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