New Zealand is a land of mountains. Flying into the South Island I saw nothing but an enormous snow-capped range, smothered in white clouds lying trapped on their peaks. Little wonder the Maoris called this land Aotearoa (Land of the Long White Cloud). Not four hours from Sydney (it takes me longer to fly to Perth), yet a completely different land lay below me.
With mountains come volcanoes. Cruising The Bay of Plenty in New Zealand’s North Island, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the boat circled a smoking volcano rising from the sea. Only a small part of White Island is visible; most of the mountain lies beneath the sea.
Named by Captain Cook in 1769, (after observing the transit of Venus but before he discovered the east coast of Australia) the Maori’s called White Island Te Puia o Whakaari, The Dramatic Volcano. Even on a perfect autumn day, with the sun blazing and the waters calm, the volcano was indeed dramatic. Plumes of smoke and steam rose into the air, and from the deck I caught some whiffs of sulphur.
A few boats had pulled up to one of the beaches at the mountain’s feet. Some people arrive by helicopter. Forest covers the lower slopes, but the upper slopes remain barren. It’s a wonder anything grows at all, for the gases escaping from the volcano measure up to 800º C, and are both acidic and corrosive. Ash and mud frequently spewing forth. For the past 40 years Mount White has been New Zealand’s most active volcano. In 2000 an eruption covered the entire island in fine ash, mud and stones. A walking tour takes the brave – or fool hardy – right to the crater’s edge, with hard hats and gas masks provided (which is more than I had when climbing Mt Bromo in East Java to see the dawn – but that’s another story).
Now privately owned, but in the 1880s White Island was the site of a sulphur mine. Sulphur was widely used in match making, for the sterilisation of wine corks, an addition to fertilisers and, prior to the discovery of antibiotics, as an anti-microbial agent. Unfortunately, in 1914, a lahar destroyed all in its path, and no survivors were ever found, aside from the camp cat, Peter the Great. (A mixture of mud and debris, lahars can move up to 35 km/hr. Once they stop moving, lahars set to the consistency of concrete , and if of sufficient speed and depth can obliterate all in their path.)
Nearly a decade later, there was an attempt to resurrect the mining, This time the miners built on a flat area near a gannet colony (now an important breeding site) from where the miners would row each morning to the mine in Crater Bay. The venture lasted only to the 1930s – even on the background of the Great Depression, there was not enough sulphur on the island to make the operation viable. The remains of the buildings are still there, corroded by the toxic atmosphere.
We circled the island as the sun set, the volcano’s smoke rising against the glorious colours of sunset. During times of heightened activity it’s glow can be seen from shore, and ash and gas plumes can rise up to 10km in the sky. Tonight, however, the island was simply beautiful.
And the most interesting fact about the island? It has it’s own resident dinosaur, Dino. Apparently a refugee from a garage sale, the bright pink snorkasaurus can be seen on the island’s webcam, apparently immune to the corrosive gases belched forth by the volcano each day.