Cap­ti­vated by White Is­land

Tak­ing a he­li­copter flight to White Is­land just adds to the wow fac­tor.

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Tak­ing a he­li­copter flight to White Is­land just adds to the wow fac­tor, writes Jo-Marie Baker.

An ac­tive vol­cano is one of the most pow­er­ful yet frag­ile places on earth. To ac­tu­ally step foot in­side a live crater is a rare op­por­tu­nity but on New Zealand’s White Is­land (Whakaari) you can easily ex­plore this arid land­scape, taste the metal­lic at­mos­phere on your lips and feel the full force of Mother Na­ture as 1000°C gas thun­ders out of the ground to­wards you. White Is­land sits 49km out to sea off the Bay of Plenty coast­line and is New Zealand’s most ac­tive vol­cano. Most of this geo­ther­mal be­he­moth sits un­der­neath the wa­ter but an im­pres­sive crater rim belch­ing white steam is vis­i­ble from Whakatane and neigh­bour­ing coastal towns. The thrills be­gin at Fron­tier Heli­copters’ base at Whakatane Air­port. They run up to five Vol­canic Ad­ven­ture Tours to White Is­land ev­ery day and have sev­eral heli­copters among their fleet. We hop aboard their Air­bus AS350 with our pi­lot and tour guide, Mark Law, who ex­pertly lifts off, leav­ing my heart thump­ing and my mouth open-wide. If you’ve never flown in a he­li­copter be­fore it’s an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and should be on ev­ery­one’s bucket list. Within sec­onds we’ve left land be­hind and are head­ing out over the vast blue Pa­cific Ocean to­wards White Is­land. We’re on the early 8am tour and the ris­ing sun glim­mers off the wa­ter as Mark starts to ex­plain the is­land’s sul­phur mining his­tory and sur­round­ing sea life. Some days you can spot dol­phins in the wa­ter and even the oc­ca­sional blue whale in sum­mer, while fish­er­men flock to this area to reel in king­fish, mar­lin and yel­lowfin tuna. Near­ing the is­land, Mark points out the im­pres­sive gan­net colonies which sit perched on the south­ern shores upon small green oases of suc­cu­lent plants. Aside from an­other small clus­ter of po­hutukawa trees on the north­ern side, the rest of the is­land is com­pletely bare. We land in Crater Bay and the smell of sul­phur hits as soon as the he­li­copter doors slide open. Mark hands out hel­mets and gas masks which we oc­ca­sion­ally breathe into dur­ing our 75 minute walk­ing tour when the gas catches in the back of your throat and starts to make you cough. Our sur­round­ings are what I imag­ine an­other planet might look

like. Cliffs scoured by rain­fall and streaked with shades of yel­low and pink tower above us, while boul­ders and loose rocks are piled pre­car­i­ously all around. The rocks look heavy but many of them are sco­ria and sim­ply dis­in­te­grate into dust when you crush them. Hot wa­ter streams trickle be­neath your feet (the wa­ter tastes like you’re lick­ing a bat­tery) and hiss­ing vents emit clouds of white steam ev­ery­where you look. As we walk closer to the crater lake the noise grows ever louder un­til at last the true power of White Is­land re­veals it­self. An enor­mous steam vent that would ri­val any Hol­ly­wood spe­cial ef­fect, swirls scorch­ing hot gas into the air like a su­per-charged LPG blow heater. The roar is deaf­en­ing and the gas turns into a bil­low­ing white cloud as it hits the cold air. Mark says the crater lake (and in­deed the en­tire is­land land­scape) is con­stantly chang­ing. To­day the lake is milky blue, but can vary in colour be­tween dif­fer­ent shades of blue and green de­pend­ing on the mi­cro-or­gan­isms liv­ing in the wa­ter. He points out dif­fer­ent ‘sul­phur chim­neys’ that have formed in re­cent weeks – tall bright yel­low columns that puff out gas from the top – and boil­ing mud pits

which “pop up all the time”. While ash events and ther­mal erup­tions hap­pen semi-fre­quently, sci­en­tists keep a close eye on the is­land’s rum­blings to try and keep ev­ery­one as safe as pos­si­ble. The last magma erup­tion was in July 2000. White Is­land’s un­pre­dictable na­ture has in­deed claimed lives in the past, and our guided tour in­cludes a visit to the aban­doned ru­ins of a sul­phur mining fac­tory. Ten work­ers were swept to their deaths by a la­har in 1914 after part of the crater’s rim col­lapsed. Only their camp cat, Peter, sur­vived. Now, the gas and salt are eat­ing away at the steel ma­chin­ery and par­tially-col­lapsed fac­tory walls that re­main. New sci­en­tific equip­ment and cam­eras are strate­gi­cally placed around the crater rim and on the vol­canic ash floor be­low. White Is­land is one very cool sci­ence lab and there’s nowhere bet­ter to ap­pre­ci­ate and study the geo­ther­mal forces which have shaped Aotearoa. As we climb back on board the he­li­copter, Mark hands out boiled sweets to help get the taste of sul­phur out of our mouths. Traces of the yel­low chem­i­cal el­e­ment are ev­ery­where, stain­ing the ground, rocks and even af­fect­ing the colour of the ocean as it laps White Is­land’s shores. But the ef­fect is fas­ci­nat­ing and beau­ti­ful to see. There is no fresh wa­ter on White Is­land so it’s a good idea to bring a bot­tle with you. You’ll also need to wear sturdy cov­ered shoes and be able to han­dle walk­ing on un­even ter­rain. There are end­less photo op­por­tu­ni­ties (so don’t for­get your cam­era) and chances to ask plenty of ques­tions. Daily boat tours to White Is­land are also avail­able but tak­ing a he­li­copter there and back def­i­nitely adds to the ex­cite­ment and wow-fac­tor. Fron­tier Heli­copters prom­ises “the best two hours in New Zealand” and they cer­tainly de­liver.

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