Another World Right On Our Doorstep

White Island from aboard White Island Tour's custom made vessel. (photo Tori Hayley)

White Island from aboard White Island Tour's custom made vessel. (photo Tori Hayley)

Photos: Tori Hayley

Last year Elon Musk (Tesla, PayPal, Space X etc), published an article about setting up a colony on Mars. He estimates establishing a colony of 12 people would cost around US$10 billion per person. Now I know his goal is to ensure the human race endures, and it’s about more than just experiencing something new. But I say to Musk (and anyone else thinking along the same lines), instead funnel that money into saving the planet we are on, and to tick the ‘experience’ box, get themselves to White Island.

New Zealand’s most active volcano, Whakaari (or White Island) is located off the coast of Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty, and is about as different or otherworldly as you can get here on planet Earth. This feeling hits you as soon as the island comes into view. The white smoke slowly rising from the island is your first clue, followed by the absolute barren landscape that inches into view as the White Island Tours boat moves closer to main entrance of the island at the southern end.

It is not a quick trip from Whakatane out to White Island, and the crossing of the Bay of Plenty did have some (myself included for a time) feeling slightly wobbly. I would definitely suggest you take some sort of sea sickness remedy if you are prone to it.

Upon arrival, we were decked out in hard hats, a life jacket and a ventilation mask, and then ferried to the island from the boat on an inflatable (not too dissimilar to that of the Surf Lifeguard’s).

Landing on the island looked and felt like some sort of evacuation in reverse. And given the stories about the trials and tribulations (sometimes ending in death) of those that have mined sulphur on the island over the years, and I guess the threat of an eruption, apprehension did tend to creep.

Nothing on the island has been left unscathed – the volcano is very much in control here. Even the stairs you use to climb onto the island bear the scars from an eruption in 2013. The mining equipment from the early 20th Century, having seen a few more, even more worse for wear

Once on the island your attention is pulled in every which way, it’s all familiar and yet not. The contrasts in colours are incredible, the white of the smoke and steam, the red of the iron covered rock, and the yellow of the sulphur up against the deep blue of the sea, and the cloudless sky.

The tour takes you slowly towards the crater, stopping at heat vents, bubbling mud, and fizzing streams. The ground is uneven and constantly changing. If you have visited White Island in the past chances are the White Island I saw is completely different from the one you did. It is difficult to fathom given the size of the thing but the crater that consumes such a huge part of the island currently didn’t exist until after an eruption in 2000.  

After the crater the tour winds its way to what is known as the ‘overall lookout’. Names aren’t complicated here; the lookout named as such because it gives you, yup, an overall view of the island. There is also Shark Bay, yes indeed you guessed it, someone saw some sharks there once.

After the lookout it is down to remnants of the sulphur mine, and big dose of perspective. Whatever it is you do for work, however much you hate it, your job ain’t got nothing on those that worked here in the various sulphur mines! The constant threat of death, decaying teeth, decomposing clothing, just general conditions you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy…. Or maybe you would? Sicko.

After exploring the sulphur mine, our group is taken from the island in the same way we arrived, lunch is handed out (featuring the most delicious NZ apple I have eaten in a very long time) and the boat takes us for a tour of the exterior of White Island before heading back for Port Whakatane.

More than content with the events of the day, and ready for the return journey (I had found myself a sweet spot at the back of the boat that meant I would have the sun in my face and the wind in my hair all the way home), the day went from awesome to ridiculous as we found ourselves cruising alongside a pod of not ten, not hundreds, but literally thousands of dolphins.

They were everywhere. I’m not sure what the next step up from a pod of dolphins is? I’m going to suggest a ‘school’. However, I don’t feel even that is enough. More like ‘schools’. I’ve never seen anything like it. But apparently, this is normal during the summer months in the Bay. For those of us that weren’t White Island Tours crew, we didn’t know which way to look? The dolphins were breaching the water, left, right, behind, in front, and for hundreds of metres around. You’ve never seen happiness sweep over a group of people so quickly. What is it about dolphins? Just magic.

So again, Mr Musk I reiterate. Save the planet we are on and visit White Island on a White Island Tour. You are hardly going to encounter thousands of the world’s most delightful animal en-route to Mars from Cape Canaveral are you?

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