Whakatane: Sulphur, so good on mighty White Island (+photos)

By Paul Rush

A steamy weekend in Whakatane has to include a visit to New Zealand’s most inhospitable island, writes Paul Rush

White Island steams away on the distant horizon. Photo / Paul Rush
White Island steams away on the distant horizon. Photo / Paul Rush

The wispy white steam, billowing out from the volatile volcano that is White Island (Whakaari) has always beckoned the people of the Bay of Plenty. Like some mysterious Bali Hi of the antipodes, this dark smudge of seething volcanism floating on a sapphire sea appears to call out to the mainland, 'Come to me.'

But, as our fine vessel, PeeJay V, nudges into Crater Bay, I stand transfixed and gob-smacked by the sight of this shattered, hissing, steaming, sulphurous landscape from the dawn of time and ask myself, 'Why on earth are we here?'

With a yellow hard hat on my head and a gas mask looped around my neck, I'm about to land in the giant belly of a belching andesitic vent, New Zealand's only active marine volcano. From a distance it seems benign with its feathery white plumes as Captain James Cook perceived it in 1769 - "a white island for as such it appeared to us." However, up close it's a window into a prehistoric world when planet earth was a starkly beautiful, alien, hostile place.

"Could it erupt today?" One querulous passenger tentatively broaches a subject very much on my mind. "There's always the risk of an eruption on White Island," our guide, Nick, explains with the calm assurance and nonchalance that seasoned adventure guides always portray just as their clients launch out into some death-defying, adrenalin-pumping activity.

"However, it's most unlikely that the whole shebang will blow, as we've observed a series of minor perturbations over the last year as the crater fills with water and appears to choke itself. The release comes in the form of a geyser of sulphurous water for a few days and then it settles back down."

We carefully follow the guide across a bleakly surreal Martian landscape between steaming mounds of landslide and eruption debris. No one dares to stray off the path as a brittle yellow crust covers unknown horrors of boiling water and plopping mud pools.

The complete absence of flora and fauna is no surprise as sulphurous fumes destroy everything they touch. Over time, even our guide's metal shoelace ends and backpack zips disintegrate.

At the rim of the main crater we stop short at a cautionary line of stones and stare in awe and wonder. The roar of the cauldron of boiling magma 50 metres below us is audible.

Superheated gas and steam is billowing upwards in a dense white cloud that obscures the 300 metre crater wall behind. I hardly notice the smell as the south-westerly breeze is carrying the cloud away from us. Otherwise we would now be completely enveloped in the ghostly cloud and have to resort to using our gas masks.

It takes me some time to comprehend what I'm seeing. Is this a scene of primal beauty and bizarre composition? The crater lake exhibits a rich variety of colours - aqua blue, bright green and brown. Remarkably bacteria thrive in the water despite the fact that it's 60 times stronger than battery acid. Or is this island a vision of hell on our very own piece of the Pacific Ring of Fire? One thing for sure is that Whakaari is no normal Pacific island.

We trace a figure-eight route around the hot-tempered badlands like human ants. More elemental colours are seen in bubbling pools and roaring fumaroles. The pink tinges are derived from iron, white from calcium sulphate, yellow from sulphur and green from copper. Most striking of all is the vivid orange crystal concentrations inside the active sulphur vents.

Scientists visit Whakaari on a monthly basis to measure gas emissions and internal temperatures to gauge what is happening in the principal magma chambers. Permanent ridge-top cameras take pictures to monitor change and these are relayed back to the mainland. Solar panels power seismographs to record volcanic tremors. Currently the risk level of a magma explosion is a relatively low number one on a scale of one - five, which is defined as 'constant background activity.'

We stop beside a mud pool chugging away merrily at 90° Celsius. One visitor remarks, "That looks ideal for a therapeutic face pack." Our guide puts paid to that idea by explaining that one man lost his yellow helmet into the pool in a wind gust. The boat crew fished it out the next day to find it had been bleached white and deformed.

Our walking tour concludes at the eerie ruins of the old sulphur works, where I'm shocked at the destruction of the concrete factory walls, wooden roof and iron machinery. It's all the result of weathering and those voracious sulphur fumes. These blistered factory remnants date from the period 1923-33, when men laboured here for a wage of two shillings a day to process sulphur powder for fertilizer and fungicide to promote grass growth on dairy farms.

The ferro-concrete walls are flaking off in fine pieces and the Douglas fir roof beams have rotted away. A tractor sitting forlornly on the foreshore is barely recognisable as a vehicle. This factory cannot have been a pleasant working environment even if the workers earned more than Coromandel miners in the Depression years. An earlier sulphur factory was thrust into the sea by a landslide in 1913 with the loss of ten lives.

A sign on the foreshore declares White Island to be a private reserve. James Buttle bought the steaming rock in 1769 for two hogsheads of rum and saw the potential for mining 'brimstone'. Descendent George Buttle declined to sell it to the government in the 1950's so it remains a private scenic reserve earning more from tourism than it ever did from the foul-smelling sulphur.

Landing on 'Mighty Whitey' as some locals call it, can be a challenge. On our tour a large wave-washed rock provides a relatively safe platform for us to scramble ashore. Once we return to Crater Bay to embark on PeeJay V it is an entirely different story. The south-easterly that afforded us such a sublime view of the crater is now inducing one-metre waves to pound the shoreline.

Our skipper, Paul, displays exceptional seamanship in manoeuvring a four metre inflatable stern-on to the beach while I hop on, clutching my camera wrapped tightly in a sunhat. Several waves swamp the rubber ducky and the attempt is aborted. Once it has been drained I jump aboard again for a successful run out to our boat.

The memorable ordeal by Fire, Wind and Water is over and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. A relatively benign sampling of life on Mars and a foretaste of Dante's Inferno does no one any harm.

Old 'Mighty Whitey' can continue to steam away to his heart's desire out in the bay. The raw energy of nature at work has a magical allure for me. That sense of man's fragility in the face of overwhelming power is sure to bring me back. Where else can you get such a multi-sensory experience of New Zealand's own version of hell?


FACT FILE

Whakatane is a beautiful coastal town located towards the eastern end of the Bay of Plenty 290km from Auckland, 97km from Tauranga, and 535km from Wellington. There are around 50 holiday activities on land and sea in the district and a number of mid-range hotels, motels, home stays and campgrounds to choose from. Ohope Beach is a 15-minute drive over the hill on a long sandspit enclosing the broad Ohiwa Harbour.

White Island Tours offer a six hour, award winning tour, including a two hour guided walk around the crater with scientific information explained in an easy-to-understand manner.

WEBSITES

ohopebeach.co.nz
whiteisland.co.nz

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