Hiking The Crater Of An Active Volcano
Forty-nine kilometers from the shores of New Zealand’s North Island is a turbulent marine mountain that conceals a dark secret. Currently defined as in a ‘permanent state of unrest,’ this volcanic island harbors the power to exert an unimaginable force on the surrounding oceanic landscape.
Often referred to as ‘Whakaari’, this name translates as ‘that which can be made visible’ and as I arrive at the port of Whakatane it is obvious why.
Stepping off the dock and onto the boat I begin to feel a little nervous. Armed with a yellow hard hat and a gas mask I can feel the excitement bubble inside me like a kettle on the boil. As the Captain motors through the calm waters of the estuary I glance over at the horizon. On a clear day the plumes of steam rising from the crater are visible from the mainland, however today the sky is littered with white fluffy clouds and I am unable to see any sign of Whakaari.
White Island The Dramatic Volcano
Cruising at speed towards the volcano the journey takes just under 90 minutes. As the boat rides the waves the Captain keeps me entertained with tales from the island’s past. First discovered by the Maui settlers, although they never actually set foot on its shores, it was later named ‘White Island’ by Captain Cook and his crew as they sailed past the apparently docile shores 800 years later.
An anomaly amongst the neighboring islands, Whakaari is the only active marine volcano in New Zealand. Set on the famous ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ the constant activity has been a source of great interest for scientists all over the world and over the course of the past few decades, teams of researchers have installed equipment with which to monitor the site for signs of impending eruptions.
As the boat comes to a halt, the crew prepares for our landing. I am to be ferried to the shore in a small inflatable despite the ocean swell rolling in towards us. Just a week before my arrival, the make shift jetty had taken a beating by the waves and now lay on the ocean floor beneath the turquoise waters of the bay. Improvising somewhat with the landing I am taken to what remains of the structure and quickly climb ashore.
Exploring An Active Volcano
The earth crunches beneath my feet and my senses are bombarded by the primordial gases choking the surrounding atmosphere. I take a few deep breaths, a jerk reaction in an attempt to clear the sickly sweet ache in the back of my throat. Failing to clear the sulphuric air from my lungs, I grab my gas mask and secure it in place.
After a safety briefing, to which I listen intently, I follow our guide towards the center of the crater. The earth is littered with giant mounds of shingle, the remnants of a gargantuan landslide that killed the inhabitants of a small mining operation in the early 1900s. While attempting to plunder the mineral riches of the crater, they fell victim to the island’s tempestuous nature and were buried under masses of volcanic rock.
Molten rivers criss-cross through the lunar landscape and bursts of steam erupt from the pressure mounds that cover the ground. I am advised to keep to the path forged by the guide in front, however boiling pools of mud and patches of earth tinged yellow and mauve taunt me to throw caution to the wind and explore.
The Great Lake
As I reach the center of the crater the great lake comes into view. Once a mighty feature in the heart of the island, today the lake is but a shadow of its former self. It is unclear why the waters are receding, formed not from the surrounding ocean but a toxic cocktail of condensed gasses and rain water, the lake is a product of the activity deep within the island’s core. Colored by the levels of mineral components within its ‘waters’ the color of the liquid varies in tone with each day of volcanic activity. From rich turquoise to shades of pink and orange, this rainbow lake is a true wonder to behold.
Stood on the rim of the lake I feel intensely insignificant against the surrounding cliffs of the crater walls. Looking skywards I see the thick plumes of steam rising from the center of the lake, a calling card to remind those over on the mainland of the power stored deep within this marine dinosaur.
As we make our way back to the jetty I can’t help but try and soak in as much of the landscape as possible, although I do my best to avoid soaking in any more of the atmosphere.
Hiking across White Island is as close to a lunar landing as I may ever come, the igneous rock strewn beneath my feet, the toxic atmosphere and the craters scaring the landscape make me feel like I have been transported to another planet.
Getting To White Island
There are just two operators who have permission to land on White Island. For those on a limited budget Pee Jay Tours offer a boat ride and hiking excursion, which I thoroughly enjoyed and can recommend to anyone keen to explore this phenomenal landscape. Family owned and operated Peter and Jenny are the legal guardians of the island and they are striving to preserve this captivating environment for future generations.
For those who relish the chance to stretch their wings, there is the opportunity to hop aboard a helicopter and take in magnificent views of the island from above, however, this will set you back more than double the cost of the equally impressive marine tour.
The current levels of volcanic activity on White Island along with a live volcano web cam are updated hourly on the Geonet Website. If you’re a budding geologist or just a little curious, nip over and take a look at the most up to date readings.