The Maori explanation for New Zealand’s volcanic activity is that a priest from the first canoe fought a monster and locked it beneath the earth. That volcanic activity has defined a great deal of local geography and history.
White Island is an important part of that, being the only active marine volcano in New Zealand. The Island sits 50km off the East coast; a distance which took our little convoy of two helicopters only 20 minutes to traverse. The Island is constantly shrouded in steam rising from the caldera, its blasted landscape a combination of grey, white and yellow. We circled the Island and then landed on a rocky plain amid the wafting smells of sulphur. And then we set off to get really close to the dangerous bits – it was hard to forget the words on the disclaimer we’d signed earlier warning of the dangers of flying and landing on an active volcano.
Walking on White Island is like walking on the moon. Virtually no vegetation survives the harsh acidic environment inside the crater walls. Instead, lush beds of yellow and white sulphur crystals grow amongst hissing, steaming, bubbling fumaroles.
White Island was for many years used to mine sulphur and it’s easy to see why. Spills of yellow are everywhere amongst the steam. The gases are so strong that we had to wear gas masks for much of our visit. And, yes, we did sound like Darth Vader. We had the whole island to ourselves which really drove home the isolation and the foreignness of the whole environment. Water bubbled from the ground; gases spurted upwards; mud exploded up through the steam in enormous , noxious ejaculations. We were all grinning through the experience; although you couldn’t see that because of the gas masks.
The other fascinating thing about the island was the decaying industrial machinery left over from the days of sulphur mining. The highly acidic fumes are rapidly eating away at the huge tanks, gears and walls. The metal surfaces in particular have become beautiful as they are deeply pitted and rusted.
I don’t know if the Maori ever made it to White Island, but later in the day, the Rotorua Museum gave us an insight into Maori culture both past and present. The whole original story of the canoe trips to New Zealand are remarkably well-preserved in an oral tradition. It was all too easy to draw a contrast with our GPS-guided helicopter trip of the morning. The museum also included a great presentation on the Maori battalion in WW2. There was also a fascinating story on the pink terraces which was made more personal because a member of Jennifer’s family had photographed them before their destruction. White Island, by the way, was formed when the Maori priest who trapped the monster was rescued by his sisters. When they popped up to get their bearings after crossing the Pacific, they burst into flames and White Island was created.
While the Museum was pretty interesting, it was really the Skyline luge that was the other bookend to our day. Up the mountain in a gondola; a high-speed, adrenaline-fuelled luge down the mountain and then ski-lift back up to do it all again. Honestly in my view the whole process should have carried far more of a danger warning than visiting the live volcano did this morning. And we didn’t even get gas masks.