“ Address: 15 The Strand East / Whakatane / New Zealand / Tel: +64 7 3089588 „
White Island is a stratovolcano in the Bay of Plenty of New Zealand also known by its Maori name, Whakaari (meaning "That which can be made visible"). It is New Zealand's only active marine volcano, which makes a day trip out there very popular for tourists and adventure seekers alike.
As a geology student, I figured that it was important on my latest trip to New Zealand that as well as doing my same old sports involving jumping off tall objects, I really ought to broaden my horizons a little bit and visit as many sites of geological interest as I could do.
I had this great plan before going on the trip: visit volcanoes, especially active volcanoes. Sounds fabulous. Bubbling magma pits spewing liquid rock into the air. Amazing.
Turns out that I should have done more of the geology course first (volcanoes were book two which was several months later) because that's not quite the experience I had - not a single one of the dozens of volcanoes I saw on my trip had any magma at the surface - wrong type of volcano, plus not currently active enough.
White island is located in the Bay of Plenty 30 miles offshore of New Zealand, off the east coast of the North Island. If you picture the North island as having two prongs pointing north west and north east, it is in the bay between these two prongs. Boat excursions here are with a tour company called PeeJays and leave from/return to Whakatane, a coastal town on the eastern side of the island facing out to the Pacific Ocean.
When I arrived in my youth hostel in Whakatane, I asked them to book the trip for me (booking excursions is something that most hostels and hotels will do). They sorted it all out for me, all I had to do was turn up early at PeeJay's offices on the docks the next day and pay at the booking office. The hostel manager even volunteered to give me a lift over, which made it easier still. I was travelling in late summer (February) which made booking a lot easier; during peak time you need to book up to a week or so in advance to guarantee a place. Make sure you pick the right tour - PeeJays also do nature trips, so be sure to specify "White Island Tours"!
Peejays is the only company that offers boat trips out to the island. For the ultra-rich, helicopter tours are available, but at many hundreds of pounds per person were out of my budget!
==Checking in for the trip==
As with so many adventure activities in New Zealand, the first thing you have to do is sign away your soul. This is pretty much a formality and a book-keeping exercise since the flip side of the laws, rules and regulations that mean you can get free treatment for accidents in New Zealand hospitals mean that it's very hard to sue in case of accidents. You get a boarding pass for the boat and wait around on the dock until it is available.
The wharf at Whakatane is on the mouth of river just as it meets the sea, which makes it fairly well sheltered by a big headland. At the river's mouth there is a large statue of the Maori maiden Wairaka, a local hero.
The boat we were to be travelling on was a 60 footer with seating both inside and outside and plenty of space on decks for people to stroll around and get fresh air. Even on a calm day, I like to be outside so I do not get sick.
The boat ride over took about an hour and a half, during which time they brought around refreshments. It offered plenty of scope for relaxing, photography, and wildlife spotting. We even had some dolphins join us for a while. But I was mostly just impatient to see the island! Round the front of the boat we had views of the island from a great distance away.
For the trip, we were issued with a respirator. Very sexy! But, wait, it gets even better: when we got to the island we got orange life vests for the inflatable dinghy ride over to really create the ultimate chic outfit.
==Arrival at the island==
After arriving at the island, we donned life vests, hard hats and respirators and disembarked in small groups on a dinghy that took us over to a pier. Here, we had to climb a ladder (tricky in rough weather) to get up to the main part of the island. At least at that point, we could divest ourselves of our charming orange life vests.
The tour guide explained how to use the respirator - you wear it around your neck most of the time, then hold it up to your mouth if you need it. If you need it for long periods, you tighten the straps so you don't need to hold on. The charcoal filter to the respirator gave the air a nasty taste to it - it was pretty unpleasant to breathe through it. So most people just covered their mouth close to the vents. We were also given boiled sweets to suck which helps keep the irritation down.
==Walking into the mouth of hell==
Steeping onto the island made me think I was walking into hell or a den of dragons. Or possibly had been transported to Io. Poisonous sulphorous fumes were visible rising from many vents and fumaroles around the island as if some vast supernatural beings were lurking just out of sight and waiting to pounce.
The rocks around us were such a range of colours - from a dull grey for the bulk of the rock to deposits on the surface of the brightest of colours - yellows and reds and whites and greens mostly. The surface appeared barren, desolate and bereft of life, with the exception of driftwood that had washed up the beach. But looking at the rocks up close and the mineral deposits were delicate, almost frilly in places. Hard to imagine they weren't plants really.
On our tour, we walked through the unstable grounds on a big loop that took us up to to the main crater lake and back again over the course of an hour or two. As we walked, our guides pointed out sites of interest and special features. The ground is honeycombed with voids beneath our feet, meaning we had to walk only where the guides did a la Good King Wenceslas. Apparently, every few years, a tourist will put their food through the ground, though most escape with a minor sprain.
We stopped to pose for photos in front of a huge fumarole. The trick here is to take a deep breath, walk over, pose for the picture and walk back,*then* breathe. Breathing near the fumarole is like breathing burning acid - you will cough and splutter and your lungs and nose will be irritated. Sucking on sweets helps a little of it, but the only real solution is to wear the respirator all the time, which I soon did.
Up at the main crater lake, the waters were boiling and bubbling away. They were a vivid shade of green, quite beautiful. Although I couldn't get my bubbling magma pit, the sight of a vast lake of water boiling away was nearly as cool and I was definitely satisfied that this was a REAL, proper volcano. Not like some of the ones I visited which were more like big hills.
I must confess that I was a little sad when the tour came back to the jetty. I hated the smell of the fumes, but the majesty of the place was like nothing I've seen before or since. It was a real reminder of the power of the earth, quite a sobering thought. Definitely worth the money I had spent!
Next to the jetty, there are the twisted and wrecked remains of a sulphur mine here from a century ago. A lahar killed all the workers there in 1914 and no further mining has been done since. Now the island is home to birds.
==Don't drink the water!==
About halfway to the lake we crossed a stream and the guide said to us: dip your finger in the water just *here* and put it against the tip of your tongue. Which I did. It tasted fizzy just like sherbert. "Hmmmm, an acid..." I thought. I took a look at the yellow rocks all around us, thought "Hmmmm, sulphur...". I put two and two together, and reached the logical conclusion. "Did you just get me to drink sulphuric acid?". The guide grinned cheerfully and said that yes, he did.
I spent the rest of the day looking at my fingertip suspiciously to see if it would blister and touching my teeth to see if the acid had burned through them. Fortunately, all was well. But it went down in my life as "The day someone got me to drinking sulphuric acid". Funnily enough, I got a LOT better at saying "NO!" or at the very least "Why?" to guides for the rest of the trip.
Most of the area we walked around was in a big crater with steep sided cliffs that felt like they could collapse any moment. The walls of the volcano don't go all the way around and we entered at a part where it was much lower. The side we entered was presumed to have exploded away many years ago - it is very active and has been so in the past. This means that although most of the island is steep and inaccessible, the part we were in was only perhaps ten metres above sea level, so we just got to look at the big mountain not climb it - not too tiring, but you do need good balance.
The island is at volcanic hazard level 1. This is pretty low for an island that volcanically active, but it's pretty far off the coast, so it doesn't pose much of a risk. If Ruapehu on the mainland were that active, then the hazard level would be much higher indeed as it is closer to civilisation, thus more dangerous.
If time permits (which it did for us), you can jump off the side of the boat into the water for a swim. If you are sensible, you'll change into your bathing costume first! I've never jumped off the deck of a boat before, so I landed in the sea a couple of metres below with an almighty splash! The water was cool for the most part, but swimming round we soon found that there were warm currents leading away from the island which were much more pleasant to swim in.
The lunch that they provide on the boat ride back from the volcano is all vegetarian about half of which was vegan. I asked and it was because it's easier for them to produce a single "one size fits all" package and a fair portion of the customers were vegetarian.
If you like bird watching then you are in luck - the boat trip takes you all around the island and you can see lots of them. For the rest of us it afforded us an opportunity to look at the geology some more, read a book or just take in the sun for a bit before we headed back again.
We were lucky enough to see dolphins on both the way out and the way back. They swim along with the boat and jump out of the water every so often in an unpredictable manner that is exactly unideal for photography. But if you were lucky enough to get a good shot, I bet it would be stunning.
The island has a resident dinosaur. No, seriously, if you don't believe me, google "White island crater latest" for the web cameras on white island and look at the pictures. To the bottom right, there is a dinosaur. It must be very patient in waiting for its prey, because it doesn't move from one shot to the next.
Oh, OK, it's not real. A prank was played some years ago and a small toy dinosaur was glued in front of one of the cameras! It has been there for few years and still hasn't eroded even in the harsh fumes of the volcano. Guess what they say about all those plastic things you put in the landfill being there in years must be true - if it doesn't break down here, where will it?!
The weather can affect the trip. It was perfect and calm when I was there, but when a friend went, they had such weather that they had to be practically thrown up onto the landing pier! Because you have to arrive on the island by dinghy, it can happen that the weather is too bad to land, in which case according to the website, you get your money back.
==How long does the trip last?==
It is supposed to last for about six hours. However the lifestyle in New Zealand is very laid back so do be prepared to be flexible: when I went there, we didn't get back for about 8 hours.
The day trip costs 185 NZD per adult. That works out as about 85 pounds per person, which isn't particularly cheap for a day trip, but as an adventure sports fanatic on holiday on the other side of the world, that's pretty typical for a day-long activity. Children are only 120 NZD (about 55 pounds) apart from at peak season in summer (that's the Christmas period).
The tour isn't very good for people with limited mobility or for small children or pregnant women. The ground is pretty rough, the air is poisonous and you are on your feet outside for a couple of hours with no loo breaks. But they leave the decisions up to the individual. Although the ground is pretty uneven,the climb isn't at all arduous - if you can scramble around rocks on a beach then you can probably manage this.
They have a shop back at the main office for you to get memorabilia. I picked up some odd-smelling sulphur soaps and a T-shirt to remind me of the day.
A great day out for tourists and geology geeks alike, I can't recommend this highly enough. Shame that we have to go all the way over to the oter side of the world. Active volcanoes are lots of fun and this was particularly good trip. Like so many companies I did excursions with in New Zealand, they had the classic Kiwi combination of being both professional and fun and friendly.