I cling to our little rubber dinghy as the guide times the waves, and gunning the outboard, noses it straight into the rocks directly below a couple of iron stakes and a ladder bolted into the rocks. “Go, go, go” yells the guide, but the woman at the front doesn’t speak English and takes a few seconds to realize what she is supposed to do. As we all repeat “go, go”, she leaps up for the iron pole on top of the rock, sticks her foot on the bottom rung, swings and up she goes. One more follows, then the guide yells “Sit, sit”, and we all stop sliding forward, and I grab the ropes and hold on as another wave breaks and sends our dinghy spinning around into the rocks. “Go, go”, and up we go again, and this time we all make it ashore before the next wave comes through. It crashes over the rocks where are we are standing, sending us scrambling over more rocks and a couple of steel gangways until we reach the island proper. Adrenalin still surging, I look around and realize, I am now standing on NZ’s most active volcano (and this is a country with a lot of volcanos!)
White Island – New Zealand’s most active volcano
I have just arrived at White Island, a one and a half hour comfortable boat ride from Whakatane, NZ. That includes stopping to watch pods of bottle nose dolphins playing, and more unusually, a pod of orcas as well. I look around at one of the most inhospitable landscapes I have ever seen. I am inside the perfectly curved walls of a conical volcano, but one where a whole side of that cone has previously been blasted away. The volcano’s floor and walls are a swirl of greys and whites and yellows, seemingly consisting of only ash, sulphur and rock. The yellow is very concentrated close to any steam vents, craters or mud pools. The gap in the side of the wall of the volcano makes it easy (after the initial rock landing, there’s no pier or harbour here), to walk right into the core of the volcano.
White Island last erupted ten years ago. The guide explains how NZ has a classification scale for volcanic activity, where 0 is dormant, 1 is “activity”, e.g. the steam vents, and 5 is a catastrophic eruption occurring right now. “Both White Island and Ruapehu are rated a 1 right now” he says, “and they are the highest rated sites, the most active”. “Phew” I think, “that seems nice and safe”. “Just before White Island erupted ten years ago, it was rated a 2, and we had a tour group on the island a few hours beforehand, its almost impossible to predict” adds the guide. I suddenly feel a whole lot less safe.
A lolly a day keeps the volcano away
I am equipped with a hard hat (in case of an eruption and/or rock avalanche from the walls) and a gas mask. I have never used a gas mask in my life, and yet somehow it seems familiar – too many movies? As well as the sulphur smell so familiar from Rotorua, there are some seriously acidic vapours here as well. However I quickly discover that the guide’s tip, to suck on hard candy, was much more effective that the gas masks. The lolly means that I have a constant flow of saliva going down my throat, which stops the acid wind irritating it. But every now and then a wind gust catches our group out and we are all coughing and spluttering for a minute until the wind changes again.
White Island, Dangerous?
We walk further into the crater, to the main steam vent visible from the sea. It is not only shooting thick plumes of steam some dozens of metres into the air, it is making a huge, loud noise, rumbling and hissing – it sounds so much like a Hollywood soundtrack of an eruption that I cant stop nervously glancing at it over my shoulder as we move on. Nearby is a large, and very fast growing crater – this one is growing so fast it is undermining the earth surface. It’s the only crater or vent that we are banned from getting even remotely close to, confirming that it is the real deal in terms of possible danger.
And heading towards the towering back wall, we reach the main crater, a huge bright green acidic sulphurous lake, some hundreds of meters in diameter. At the rear is the largest steam vent, shooting steam up to the crater rim and beyond. I am feeling grateful that the breeze is blowing it all away from us at this stage.
On the walk back to the open end of the crater, with the guide’s blessing, I do a taste test on some of the water streams running through this barren landscape. Like the steam, it is acidic, but won’t kill you, at least in a day! Someone claims it tastes like lemons (I suspect they were still sucking on a lolly), but to me it tasted of bitter minerals and rusty pipes, not pleasant but not undrinkable.
Back at the open end of the crater, we explore the severely decayed remnants of old buildings and machinery left over from mining many decades ago. The boat crew get us off the island again in a bit over a hour, quicker than usual. Today is forecast to be an extreme low tide event and they want us off before the tide goes out too far, as the jump down from the metal ladder to the rubber dinghies may be too risky. I am feeling so invigorated by the adrenalin bursts so far that I am disappointed that we are going to miss out on that extra excitement.
White island white water bonus ending.
The trip back to shore is in beautiful sunshine, unlike the dark and stormy skies on the way out, and we all sit chattering animatedly about our exciting volcano experience. And then as we are close to land and approaching the river mouth, we hear that there is one more bit of excitement in store for us – a special bonus only once every few years.. The extreme low tide means the boat can’t get into the river mouth and back to dock as it will run aground in the shallow water. So we are going to be shuttled in, in small groups, in our trusty rubber dinghy, through the surf and into the river mouth. So I get my final adrenalin buzz after all– dinghy wave surfing my way home.