Monday, August 15, 2011

Walking on a Volcano: White Island

Wednesday, May 18
North Island

Wednesday morning we were on the road at an obscene hour to make it to the coastal town of Whakatane to make our tour of White Island, New Zealand's only active marine volcano. We seemed to be racing a blue Toyota all the way from Rotorua, and when pulled into the parking lot by the harbor, we were all happy to have made it in time.

Maori culture has a hand in the origin stories of many of New Zealand's towns, and Whakatane is one of these. It is said that while the men of Mataaua Canoe went ashore for the first time, the women had to remain in the boats without the use of paddles, as this was seen as a man's tool. The canoes began to drift back out to sea and instead of allowing herself and the other women be lost with them, the brave young woman Wairaka stepped up and grabbed a forbidden paddle to get the canoe back to shore, shouting that she would act as a man, "Kia Whakatane au i ahau." Emboldened by her decision, all the women took up paddles and saved themselves and all the canoes. This is where Whakatane got its name, or so the story goes. The bronze statue of Wairaka stands proudly atop a rock at Whakatane Heads to pay tribute to this courageous act.

Above, the boat passing by an island designated as a kiwi refuge to help save the endangered bird.

White Island is about 50km off the coast, which made for a high speed boat ride of about an 80min, which I absolutely loved. There's something about being out on open, water flying over the sea's churning waves that fills me with a freeness of spirit few other experiences bring. I would have been happy to ride that boat all day long, given the rain held out.

To the left was our first view of White Island in the distance waiting for us beneath some rather ominous looking clouds on a silver sea.

As we neared the island, a pod of dolphins came racing across the water to meet our boat, accompanying us for the last stretch of the journey. You'd think I'd never seen a dolphin before the way I leaned over the rail to snap as many pictures as I could, enamored by these playful creatures.

The closer we got to White Island, the better we could see that the low-hanging clouds surrounding it weren't clouds at all, but the island's rising steam. What I found most beautiful were the colors of this place, starting with the lush green edges where rock met sea.

The boat dropped anchor and everyone got ready to take turns boarding the smaller boat that would shuttle us to the concrete dock on the island. Years ago, as this island is a rich source of sulfur, there was once a mining camp and this dock was left from that time. Chris and I were on the second to last shuttle run to get to the island.

Once on the beach of the island we handed over our life jackets, but had to keep the hard hats on for the duration of our time there, as volcanic eruptions are always a possibility. We were also  required to carry gas masks in case the fumes got too overwhelming.


Welcome to White Island!

In case of an eruption, please stay calm and make your way as quickly as possible back to this meeting spot to await further instruction.

Steam rose from vents in the earth all around us, out of white and yellow mounds, cracks in the ground, and gaping holes we had to be careful to avoid. One thing was for sure immediately: this was way more exciting than Craters of the Moon!

Luckily for us, the rainclouds held back their fury (until the ride home) and allowed for a bright blue and sunny sky while we walked the island, making for a beautiful backdrop to the clouds of steam.

The bright yellow and white areas on the ground, we learned, were sulfur crystals, something they used to mine here. Cutting here and there across an otherwise dry and brown landscape were tiny rivers of rainwater and sulfur - yum!

I think perhaps the reason this place was so much more exciting and more alien looking than our first crater experience was because it was just so massive. We were walking inside an enormous volcanic crater filled with steaming, bubbling, and hissing natural gases. Nothing can live in this space, as it's much too acidic to support life within the crater walls. It was an eerie world out there, and we loved every minute.

Below, a dry riverbed with a floor of sulfur crystal growth. The colors in the layers of earth visible on the walls were beautiful, and we tried to imagine a river this large in this place.

This was the only time we were pushed by the heavy odor to don our gas masks. Behind me (and in the picture below) was a green sulfur lake sunken down at the base of the mostly yellow rock,  but it was difficult to see for the rolling steam on its surface. If you couldn't see it right away, your nose let you know how close you really were.

The wind really picked up as we began making our way back toward the shore where our chariot awaited. It'd really been a beautiful day out there, but the rainclouds were getting anxious.

Above, boiling mud pools.

To the left, a sulfur snack! Our guide talked to us at length about pure sulfur, and even invited us to try a taste. I didn't try any, but Chris said it tasted like nothing.

 Back where we'd begun was the devastated remains of the mining camp that once was. Rusted equipment still sits near the coast, and the stone and concrete walls of the buildings are there to remind us of the mysterious tragedy that ended the lives of the men who worked here.

A boat made regular visits to bring the miners food and supplies. There was an eruption, and the supply boat was delayed. Upon its arrival, the island was found to be completely deserted, most of the camp even gone. The theory was that when the volcano blew, a great wave of rock and debris simply washed the camp and its men right out to sea, never to be seen again.

We walked around the ruins and tried to imagine living out here for months at a time.

The ride home was a little bumpy as the clouds finally opened up and let loose a nice rainstorm. They served us lunch and I think half the people on the tour ended up falling asleep in their seats, us included.

The sun was there to welcome us back to Whakatane an hour and a half later, and though we would have liked to take a stroll around the town, we had to hit the road straight away in order to get back to Rotorua for our evening plans. Still, though bookended by a little rushing, it was a gorgeous and exciting (albeit stinky) day.

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