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.
‘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.