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Amazing White Island

(Reprint from News: December 24, 2001)

December 22, 2001


I finally reached Whakatane (remember, no giggling) late that afternoon and checked in to the pleasant Nau Mai motel.  Nau Mai is Maori for "welcome" and true to its name, the proprietor, a genial fellow named Rod, made me feel quite at home.  After I asked about the next day's boat ride to White Island, Rod even booked me a reservation for it.  As I'm learning, this is how most New Zealanders are, although I think a lot of people are especially friendly towards me since I'm traveling alone.  


This was my first night in a New Zealand motel, most of which are "self-contained" with a full kitchen, refrigerator, dinnerware, and small appliances like a toaster, blender, and coffee-maker.  In the U.S., you're lucky to get a microwave in a motel room, let alone plates and utensils.  After Rod gave me the key to my room, he also handed me a small bottle of milk.  I was a bit puzzled with this odd housewarming gift, but I learned this was customary when you get a room in a New Zealand motel.  The milk, as I discovered, is for your tea, which, of course, lost its popularity in the U.S. a few centuries ago after the Boston Tea Party.


Here's Jimmy Buffett singing Volcano.

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I got up early the next day, drank my bottle of milk, and got ready for a six-hour tour of White Island, a volcanic island which lies about 20 miles offshore.  White Island is the most volcanic place in New Zealand and the only way to get there is by permitted boat tour or, for an extra $100, by helicopter.  Needless to say, considering my Spartan budget, I opted for the boat ride.  After arriving at the dock, I paid Jenny, the pleasant young woman in the office, my $40 fee.  A moment later, she handed me a long release form and, with a smile, asked me to read it and sign at the bottom.  As I was scanning down the lengthy form, I asked Jenny about potential hazards.  "Oh, don't worry," she cheerfully replied, "there haven't been any eruptions on White Island for three months."  Jeez, that was reassuring.  


About an hour later, around noon, about 30 of us boarded the 60-foot boat, "PeeJay,"  then we rode for two hours across the warm and sunny Bay of Plenty until we reached the island.  During the pleasant, bouncy ride, I became a bit more apprehensive when our guides handed out hard hats and gas masks.  I was really starting to wonder about this trip.  Finally we approached the island and the PeeJay dropped anchor in a protected cove a few hundred yards offshore.  Soon afterwards our group took the Zodiac raft ashore, where we spent a few hours hiking around.  


White Island is about two miles across and is totally uninhabited -- indeed, it's a hostile place for any living creature.  A small volcano in the middle of the island constantly belches clouds of sulfur making it pretty difficult to breathe.  Oh yeah, it smells pretty bad, too. 


Although the fumes were intense at times, I fortunately didn't need to use the gas mask.  However, after walking around the island for an hour and strolling up to the edge of the crater, I could taste a sulfuric crust starting to build up on my lips, which reminded me a bit of my homemade pizza (a tip -- don't ever eat my homemade pizza).  On the way back to the beach, we passed several steaming vents and walked through a warm, acidic stream a few inches deep which, as the helpful tour guide pointed out after we crossed it, will eat the rubber off your boots.  As utterly fascinating as the island was, it was good to get back on the PeeJay again.  


On the boat ride back to Whakatane, I was thinking about the health of the young tour guides, because they come out here twice each day.  When I asked one of the young women guides about it, she said that she wasn't bothered at all by the sulfurous fumes.  However, after I thought about it, maybe that's not a good sign.  I just hope they're making good money, because I definitely wouldn't want to visit White Island every day. 


In any event, White Island is one of the most fascinating places I've ever been to in my entire life and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who's interested in volcanoes.  Or losing their lungs.



Above left:  Saturday morning in Whakatane. 

Above center:  Boarding the PeeJay for an all-day trip out to White Island. 

Above right:  Once on board, they handed out gas masks and hard hats.  Yikes!



Above left:  After a couple hours, we anchored.  Then we hopped in a Zodiac and rode ashore.

Above center:  That's not fog... that's steam from a volcano.

Above right:  The view from the beach.  White Island is about 20 miles offshore and is the most active volcano in New Zealand.



Above left:  Our first stop was a sulfur factory that operated until the early 1900s, when several men here were killed by an eruption (obviously, pre-OSHA).  We got a lesson here from our guide on how to use our gas masks.  

Above center:  As we hiked closer to the volcano, it got harder to breathe.  The whole island smells like rotten eggs from all the hydrogen sulfide.

Above right:  I licked my lips here and tasted sulfur.  This is a nasty place and I don't think I'd want to be a tour guide coming out here twice a day.  The island was totally fascinating, though.



Above left:  The fishing here is pretty marginal.

Above center:  Hiking down one of the stream beds...

Above right:  ...and crossing a stream.  Don't worry about your shoes -- it's just sulfuric acid.



Above left:  As we returned to the ship, I realized that this island is probably what the Earth looked like (and smelled like) a billion years ago.

Above center:  Rafting back to the PeeJay.

Above right:  A warm, windy ride back to Whakatane.  So long to the amazing White Island.


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