Whakaari – a turbulent history.
We have a resident tui where I live in Tauranga. He or she – I think it's a he – wakes up about 4.30am and burbles away happily in the darkness of the trees outside and I think to myself how fortunate we are to live in a time where nature still has a role. But nature is not always a giver of the ineffable sweetness that our tui sings about.
The tragic events on Whakaari/White Island – this week are a reminder of the other face of nature; no longer the benign beating heart of our world but a monstrous, unfeeling force that in the blink of an eye extinguished the lives of a party of curious day-trippers. Nature in the raw.
It is hard not to live in the Bay of Plenty and be aware of the omnipotent presence of the country's most active volcano, steaming away on the horizon. I remember as a teenager working on a dairy farm in Te Tumu and finding the milk tank covered in fine yellow sulphur dust – a gift from our offshore volcano and an onshore easterly.
It's been doing that for a long time. Because according to the geological record the island has been in a constant state of volcanic activity for the past 150,000 years. It is an andesite stratovolcano built up over time from the ocean floor.
The Māori name for the island, Whakaari, can be interpreted in several ways. To appear or become visible is one and is thought to refer to the plumes of steam that often shroud the island alternately obscuring and then revealing it from sight.
In legend Whakaari was created through the actions of the explorer tohunga Ngātoroirangi who was caught in a blizzard while climbing Tongariro and summoned help from his sisters in far-away Hawaikii.
The sisters rushed to warm their brother, travelled as fire under the Earth emerging at Whakaari – so creating the volcano – and rising again to form the geothermal features at Rotorua and Taupō before emerging in the volcanic trio of Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngāuruhoe.
The other Whakaari legend is about Te Tahi O Te Rangi, another famous tohunga who lived near the mouth of the Whakatāne River. Over time his powers grew so strong that people went in fear of him. They plotted to rid themselves of this malign force in their midst. But they could not kill him outright as that would bring disaster on them all. Instead they devised a plan to abandon him on their next visit to Whakaari. They would go there to gather the young of the titi – mutton birds – from their burrows on the slopes of the volcano.
Repairs to Mauao base track given the greenlight
On their arrival, the people went about the task of gathering the birds and the tohunga lay down to rest in a small cave. When he awoke some hours later he realised he had been abandoned and standing up could see in the distance the canoes returning to Whakatāne. The resourceful tohunga summoned a whale to carry him back to the shore and the animal quickly delivered him back to his home. He sat himself down on a rock and watched with contempt as the crews slunk past him in shame.
Captain Cook sailed past the island in 1769 naming it White Island for its appearance and later in 1826 the missionary Henry Williams and a botanist Allan Cunningham landed on the island from the mission schooner Herald.
The extensive deposits of sulphur on the island attracted interest and the island was purchased in 1874 by former Native Land Court judge and scholar JA Wilson. A company formed to mine the deposits promised much but was under capitalised and went bust in 1886 with its investors losing heavily. Some of them were so incensed they lit a bonfire on the beach and burnt an effigy of the judge.
The processing plant that was built on Sulphur Point in Tauranga (which is how it got its name) was pressed back into action in 1890 using sulphur from Rotorua and other places but the industry was struggling again, and the Tauranga plant was closed and dismantled in 1900.
A further attempt to mine the island's sulphur resources began in 1912 with the purchase of the island by the White Island Sulphur Company Ltd operating out of Vancouver, Canada. Operations were disturbed in 1913 by an eruption but then in 1914 part of the crater wall collapsed causing a landslide that buried the mining camp killing all 10 men working there. The only survivor was Pete the cat.
By the 1920s memories of the 1914 disaster had faded and further mining attempts were made by the New Zealand Sulphur Company. One idea was to mine the guano deposits on the crater walls. But it was found that the phosphate was useless because the nutrients had been leached out by rainfall. Good news for the gannet colonies which clung to the outer edges of the island.
A new camp, this time outside the crater floor, was built and workers returned to live and operations continued fitfully until 1941 when a lack of capital forced the operation to close down for good, The island became a scenic reserve in December 1953.
And so, to this week's sad tragedy.
We have a worldwide reputation as a tourist destination and we frequently trade on "edge" adventure activities like bungy jumping, jet boating, white water rafting or hang-gliding as attractions. The desire to visit an active volcano is obviously something which people want to do if the opportunity is there. The question we ask ourselves now though is are those people really aware of the attendant risk? This is not a video or movie. This is not virtual reality. This is a real volcano that has been behaving like this for millennia. I feel we have a collective responsibility to look after our visitors – the Māori term is "manaaki" – but on this occasion, we have failed.
Easy to blame the tour operators and I have already heard words like "greedy" being used but that is over-simplification of a complex set of circumstances. Easy in hindsight to say. "Oh, there were warning signs… look at the series of earth tremors we have had in recent weeks… people should have known." I hate those comments.
I am sure there will be an inquiry and this ground will be well traversed at that time.
But it's what to do right now? While I feel so sorry for these people and their families who must be waiting in anxious hope not knowing who has survived and who hasn't, what's to be done? I don't know these people personally and that induces helplessness. There's that empty phrase which people use so often "sending thoughts and prayers" and inadequate as it seems, that's about all one can do right now. Ngā mihi aroha.