The crater good: New Zealand’s volcano-friendly White Island

White Island

Rotorua is alive, by which I mean the earth beneath one’s feet there is ever-shifting. And not in that erosion-over-the-course-of-a-million-years way, but in a come-back-in-four-monthsand-it-will be different way.

The city in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand’s North Island, a three-hour drive south from Auckland, is a hub of activity. Dubbed the country’s original tourist destination, visitors have been coming here since the 1800s to see the thermal activity at what is now Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Today, people come to Rotorua for the Maori culture and the mountain biking, the spa therapy and the region’s 18 lakes, whether it be for fishing, cruising or simply admiring. Geothermal landscape, of course, is also still a major draw, and while I indulged in a bit of everything the region has to offer, it was the geothermal activity that drew me here and kept me drawn in.

I wanted to see geysers erupt, mud pools bubble and belch and hot springs flow endlessly. As a bonus, I also got to smell the sulphur pools (though they don’t reek as badly as you’d think). Throughout my four days here, I took in these natural phenomena in a handful of places – Wai-OTapu, Te Puia, a Maori culture centre and home to pools and geysers, and the Polynesian Spa, where one can bathe in the thermal waters. But the most memorable sighting of geothermal activity was during a trip to White Island, an active volcano that contains all of those belching, bubbling features, and then some.

The island, 50 kilometres off the coast and the country’s only permanently active offshore volcano, is privately owned, so one can only get there via tour operators such as Volcanic Air Safaris, who took me up in the air via helicopter. I was as giddy as a girl on her first sugar rush simply being in the helicopter, my first heli flight and one that offered vast views of Rotorua and a number of its lakes. But as we inched closer to the island, and the plumes of smoke turned into raging billows, my gleeful grin turned into a stupefied gape. I was about to have a close encounter with Mother Nature’s fiery side.

Tim Barrow, my guide, explained that tours used to take place on the north side of the island, but due to constant activity resulting in shifting terrain, visitors now access the south side. “Two years ago, there was a lake here,” Barrow said pointing at barely visible ripples of water as we stood at the edge of the crater. Any closer and we’d be consumed by smoke. Two years ago, the lake was four metres beneath the upper ridge on which we were standing. “There was talk at one point about the lake overflowing,” he said. Now it’s virtually gone, which Barrow attributes to an increased level of heat in the crater and low rainfall. “But it could come back if conditions change,” he explained. Given that conditions here are, indeed, ever changing – in 2000, the volcano was very active (“Instead of smoke, you’d see ashing,” Barrow told me), and a few days after my visit here in August there was a short eruption – a thriving lake in the near future is entirely within the realm of possibility.

As we walked around the south end of the island passing stone and rock coloured dark grey, pale pink, yellow and orange, gas masks in hand as precaution, Barrow explained the terrain, encouraging me to dip my hand in various tiny streams of bubbling water, which got warmer the closer we got to the volcano’s opening. The sulphur smell was tolerable, mild even, until we approached one particular volcanic vent, a literal hot bed of sulphur. Almost simultaneously, the chatter between Barrow and I turned to sputtering coughs. Gas masks on our faces, we admired the lunar-like landscape then retreated further afield, happy to breath unaided again.

What blew me away more than the stench of sulphur is the history of the island, which is partially visible in the form of half-buried mining machinery and crumbling factory walls. A handful of attempts to mine the island were established between the 1880s and 1930s, when operations shut down due to poor mineral content. As one would expect, the work wasn’t easy, and in 1914, it was deadly when a section of the western crater rim collapsed killing 10 men. Their bodies were never found, not surprising given the way the island’s sulphuric gasses are consuming the factory: corroded machinery is half buried, the remains of vehicles barely discernible.

Barrow and I spent a considerable amount of our time on the island in silence, rock and debris crunching beneath our feet, the steady hiss of smoke coming out of the crater, water lapping up against the shores. There’s not much to say when nature is flaunting its power.

The best bit is that it will all look different the next time I’m there.

This story ran in the National Post (Nov. 23, 2013).