BAY OF PLENTY
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 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
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…