A des­o­late, dan­ger­ous won­der

White Is­land’s con­stant plume of white steam is as dis­tinc­tive to­day as when Cap­tain Cook named the is­land in 1769, writes Pamela Wade.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

‘It’s like Ro­torua on steroids,’’ our pi­lot Luke says, as eye-wa­ter­ing clouds of sul­phurous steam bil­low around us and we grab for our gas masks again.

Be­yond a lake of sin­is­ter murky turquoise, blow­holes emit con­tin­u­ous power-blasts of white clouds with a roar like a jet tak­ing off. The weath­ered red of the fis­sured rock that sur­rounds us on three sides, ris­ing up to the crater rim, is splashed with acid yel­low, most vividly in the area nearby from where the wind is gust­ing the strongest fumes to­wards us, mak­ing us cough. ‘‘Or it’s like Mars,’’ he adds – but Hell might be a bet­ter com­par­i­son.

This is White Is­land/Whakaari, New Zealand’s most ac­tive vol­cano, 48km out to sea from Whakata¯ne in the Bay of Plenty. Get­ting to this pri­vately owned is­land means a two-hour boat trip each way – or 20 min­utes from the town’s air­port with Fron­tier Heli­copters. This mode of travel prom­ises to be a suit­ably ex­cit­ing way to ac­cess such a vividly dra­matic lo­ca­tion, and af­ter Luke checks GeoNet’s cur­rent read­out – it’s Ac­tiv­ity Level 1, mean­ing lively, but not threat­en­ing – we board the roomy fivepas­sen­ger Squir­rel chop­per.

Ac­tu­ally, the flight is so smooth and un­event­ful that we’re able to give all our at­ten­tion to what’s be­neath and around us: first, the dis­tinc­tive dou­ble mound of Whale Is­land/Mouto­hora¯, not far from the coast.

Through the head­phones, Luke tells the usual story of in­tro­duced pests – goats, cats, rats and rab­bits – dec­i­mat­ing the wildlife, fol­lowed by the happy end­ing of their erad­i­ca­tion. The is­land is now a haven for many en­dan­gered bird species, from dot­terels to sad­dle­backs.

Then, across the gleam­ing sea and masked at first by the haze, White Is­land ap­pears. At first, it’s just a vague blurry shape but later, hov­er­ing more than 2000 feet above it, we can see it clearly. The lower slopes of the wind­ward side are clothed in po­hutukawa for­est, but the dom­i­nant fea­ture is the bare, bro­ken-sided crater.

There’s a lake in­side it, three small sandy beaches and, stream­ing away to the south­east, the vol­cano’s con­stant plume of white steam: as dis­tinc­tive to­day as it was when Cap­tain Cook named the is­land in 1769. We cir­cle the coast to where a colony of gan­nets is nest­ing, a bril­liant splash of white against bright green ice plants, be­fore turn­ing back again so pas­sen­gers on both sides get a good view.

The de­scent is only slightly bumpy, a tes­ta­ment to Luke’s, skill since the crater is filled with er­ratic swirling wind cur­rents. We climb out on to a wooden plat­form and straight away feel the bite in the air: sul­phuric acid, which catches at the back of our throats, and stings our eyes. We gladly take the fil­ter masks Luke hands out, and plonk on hard hats, which of­fer at least the im­pres­sion of pro­tec­tion in case of lava bombs.

Although we’re sur­rounded by the ev­i­dence of ma­jor vol­canic ac­tiv­ity in the fairly re­cent past, and which is clearly still a con­stant pos­si­bil­ity, fas­ci­na­tion and ad­mi­ra­tion far out­weigh any anx­i­ety. This lu­nar-like scenery is stark and bleak, with no sign of any life – and yet it’s beau­ti­ful, pow­er­ful and im­pres­sive.

Around the su­per-acid crater lake, the frac­tured rock rises up, red against the blue of the sky. Hun­dreds of fu­maroles big and small emit plumes of steam blown by the gusty wind to con­ceal, then ex­pose, bright yel­low sul­phur chim­neys and patches of white ox­i­dised crys­tals. Small muddy pools bub­ble as gases es­cape into the air, and streams of min­eral-streaked wa­ter thread be­tween boul­ders.

‘‘Try it,’’ Luke urges. ‘‘It tastes like blood!’’ And so it does, rich in iron, and just as warm. ‘‘Pretty much the same pH level as Coke,’’ he in­forms us. Other streams are more acidic: ‘‘Dip your fin­ger in this one and you’ll feel it tingly. The acid will eat away at your skin til you rinse it off.’’

He shows us some black­ened 10c coins stuck in a wooden post to show the cor­ro­sive ef­fect of the acid in the air. ‘‘The man who worked here long­est, about two-and-a-half years, had is­sues with the enamel on his teeth.’’

As­ton­ish­ingly, men did live and work in this harsh and hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. From the 1880s, they mined the sul­phur, for many uses from gun­pow­der to fer­tiliser. It’s hard to imag­ine a less ap­peal­ing way of life – or a more hor­ri­ble death.

On Septem­ber 21, 1914, a sud­den la­har in the mid­dle of the night swept away the mine build­ings in the crater and the 11 men asleep in their beds. The only sur­vivor was a tabby cat, Peter, res­cued a week later when the dis­as­ter was dis­cov­ered.

Luke tells the story as we stand sur­rounded by the de­bris from that night, rocky mounds de­posited along the path of the flow to the sea. We’re near the sandy beach, the wind blow­ing fresh air to­wards us from the sparkling blue sea, and it’s hard to imag­ine the hor­ror of that night.

By the 1920s the mem­ory had faded, or ne­ces­sity was stronger, and they tried again to har­vest the sul­phur, but the business pe­tered out in 1941. All that’s left now are the crum­bling fac­tory build­ings, a pic­turesque clus­ter of rot­ting con­crete walls and rusted ma­chin­ery, set off by the oddly well pre­served tim­ber of door and win­dow frames, and the fresh look­ing rub­ber of a trac­tor’s tyres. The only roar­ing to­day comes from the dis­tant fu­maroles. It’s a strangely peace­ful scene.

We set off back to­wards the he­li­copter: in­con­gru­ously sleek and mod­ern in such a primeval set­ting. Luke takes our gas masks and hel­mets, and we suck lol­lies to take away the taste of the sul­phur. We climb aboard and lift off, and the vol­cano shrinks be­neath us, an iso­lated point of vi­o­lence in a Pa­cific ocean.

The writer was a guest of Fron­tier Heli­copters.


It’s easy to see that White Is­land is NZ’s most ac­tive vol­cano.


Lit­er­ally acid yel­low, a su­phur chim­ney is the bright­est spot on the is­land.


Pho­tog­ra­phy is ir­re­sistible but is no sub­sti­tute for ac­tu­ally be­ing there.


It’s hard now to imag­ine men work­ing in the sul­phur fac­tory build­ings.


Pi­lot Luke points out how the tim­ber is pre­served while the con­crete has been eaten away.

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