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White Island

We had an early start out of Rotorua as our transfer to Whakatane where the the ferry would take us to White Island and allow to get up close and personal with a live and active marine Volcano! The driver was giving us info about the area as we drove through it but unfortunately Sarah and I both nodded off. When we got to the harbour everything was in full swing as the boat we would be taking had at least 40 passengers.


The boat was called Pee Jay 4 and was fitted out nicely inside. We chose to sit out the back so we could get a good view. The harbour was quite small and at its end point there is a statue of a women which commemorates Wairaka who saved a canoe of women from being washed out to sea by breaking tribal bans on women paddling, and safely bringing them into the bay whilst shouting out ‘Kia Whakatane au i ahau’ (I will act the part of a man) and the story goes that this cry was the origin of the towns name. Maori Girl Power!


As we reached the end of the harbour we had to slow down as one of the passengers was late. With the extra passenger on board we set off and it was only 9am. It wasn't long before we drifted off again as the boat ride to the island would take an hour and a half.


I woke up half hour later and on the speaker the skipper said we had Dolphins coming towards us so Sarah and I jumped up and had a peek. These guys were pretty excited and whizzed along with the boat for at least 5 mins before deciding to head in the opposite direction. Even after our dolphin experience it was still a rush to see them, one even jumped full body out of the water which was awesome to witness.


After that excitement we begin to see the white steam cloud of the volcano rising in the distance.


Upon seeing the island the resident pirate aboard the boat called 'Land ho! :-)


It was so cool to see the island get bigger and bigger and the cloud above it rise further and further in the huge sky. At this point we were given the safety rundown and were handed safety helmets and gas masks! ...perhaps this was a little more dangerous than we thought? ....As part of the contract the company had with the government, they required that all customers to wear the gear but it didn't mean it was totally unsafe. Even so, it was odd to be handed a gas mask as part of a tour. White Island has a volcanic alert level 1, indicating constant background activity. The sulphur that the volcano dishes out in the air can be irritable to breathe with and so with the gas masks we would be able to walk around with ease.


As we go closer to the island it was interesting to see that a large colony of birds were living here. They picked one of the better spots as the volcano was situated around the otherside. We approached one of the bays and would all need to be ferried in a small speedboat to the old jetty that was built when the island was originally used for mining. Back in the day the sulphur from this island was in high demand due to it being an important mineral for fertiliser when farming.


As soon as we reached the jetty you could instantly smell and see the sulphur. The smell is like rotten eggs and the intense yellow colour that was all over the island was clear to see. It was really eerie and felt like we were walking on another planet!


Our guides Vicky and a guy (who's name I didn't quite get, and also was a dead ringer for the professional golfer Rory McCilroy) showed us around explaining the geological facts, history and any dangers that we should be aware of.


It was important that we stuck to the track as on either side. There were mounds that looked ok to walk on but these were known as 'blisters' that would collapse instantly under any weight so you would fall into a pool of boiling hot sulphuric liquid which would be quite painful, so we adhered to their advice.


As you walked around the island you could see many vents with hot steam coming out of them, some of which were like a boiling kettle, whistling away. The sulphur crystals, which are the stronger yellow colour, form at 94 degrees, so you can imagine how hot the steam was.


We walked further towards the volcano crater and the guides explained that this area had been changed due to recent explosion....eh ....what? .... Its ok, it was in 1912, and had left its mark on the landscape with big boulders scattered around the island whereas before it was a flat plain. The eruption occurred when mining was still going on and sadly all people on the Island at the time died, with the exception of Peter the cat. He somehow managed to get away from the action and stay safe on the other side of the island, his story was later presented the rest of New Zealand and he became a bit of a celebrity.


Unbelievably, years later the island was reopened for mining due to the demand for sulphur and workers would still come to the island because the pay was much better and during the depression it was a good enough incentive. We heard that generally the workers would have 2 or 3 year contracts and would leave after that. But one guy was documented as having worked on the island for 8 years, which is crazy when think how potentially dangerous it is. That being said, none of the workers were recorded as having any long term health issues apart from their teeth turning black as the enamel was worn away by the acidic atmosphere! The acidity of the gases that are released in the air from the volcano meant that clothes would slowly disintegrate as well as the enamel of your teeth meaning they would go black!. Not an ideal side effect.

We later got to the rocks edge and peered onto the volcano crater which was pretty amazing considering the power that was coming out from underneath us.


The noise of the gases being released was a loud roar and so you definately knew that there was activity going on!

Leaving the crater we headed for the old mining factory that was situated near the bay and as we made our way back the guides told us that there were two different streams that run past us to out to sea both with different tastes due to the types of minerals in the water. The first tasted a bit like that metallic taste, or a bit like blood due to the iron in the water. The other tasted more citrus like with a different ph level to the other. It was quite remarkable that these two streams could have such varying differences considering they flowed from the original source.


As we approached the old mining factory the guides explained that the process for obtaining the sulphur was based around breaking up the rock and placing into furnaces which would heated up to 110 degrees in order to extract the sulphur in a liquid form, it would then by cooled and kept in a silo to be shipped backed to the mainland. The factory had fallen apart over time but you could still get a idea ofwhat it would have been like.


It was also here further away from the vents spewing out the acid into the air that we found a plant! A stark contrast to the rest of the barren landscape.


We left the island for our boat and as we were handed out a packed lunch we were given a short tour around the island to see where the miners had set up home on a new location the second time they came to the island. We left the island to head back for mainland and were pleased that we had made the trip and witnessed a natural wonder!! YES!!

Stay tuned for more tales


Posted by doyledan 00:46 Archived in New Zealand

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