Getting All Steamed Up!

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Oceania » New Zealand » North Island » Bay of Plenty » Whakatane
February 26th 2011
Published: March 1st 2011
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Saturday 26th February – at 6.30am the alarm went off but we were both already up anxiously looking outside to see what sort of weather we could expect today. It wasn’t too bad – a bit cloudy but not too blustery. We had our breakfast, made sure we had everything we might need: water, anoraks, sunscreen etc and walked the 30 yards or so to the White Island Rendezvous reception and handed over our payment for the boat trip. Unusually, we each had to sign an indemnity form. Later on we would see why!!

Today we were going on an ‘adventure cruise’ to White Island – the only active marine volcano in New Zealand.

There were plenty of other people about as we filed on board, handing in our rather strange boarding passes as we went. We made for the upper deck and sat at the back from where we’d get a good view. There were about 40 of us on board plus about 10 crew although, it was explained, some of them were there to act as guides for some people who were coming from a cruise ship. We made our way gently down the River Whakatane and eased out through the river mouth into the Pacific Ocean past the statue of Wairaka. The island is 49 kilometers off shore so the outward journey took about 80 minutes.

We had a great view from the upper deck but as the journey went on, boy, were we thrown around! The sea became very choppy and a brisk breeze developed. A couple of people near us were sea sick but why they chose to be on the upper deck I don’t know! As we got closer to the island we could see the billowing steam from the volcano and the rocky landscape. In the distance we could see the huge cruise ship from which some additional tourists were due to come. On arrival at the island we watched with some trepidation as we realized how we were to get from the safety of our boat to the island. A small rubber dinghy was doing a “test run” and was being thrown about in all directions. The pilot, who proved to be superb with his dinghy handling, had to time his approach towards what passed for a “jetty” – counting the waves to ensure he approached only on the least aggressive wave. We all waited with baited breath and some began to wonder why they had signed up!!

To comply with safety regulations we were all issued with hard hats and gas masks. We were given instructions as to how to get onto the dinghy and, even more importantly, how to get off! Everyone was asked if they wanted life jackets. Foolishly, I said yes but it was so big it was very difficult to put on. Graham chose one too and also had difficulty doing his up. We watched the first two trips take place each carrying six passengers – all youngsters full of enthusiasm. To get onto the island, when the dinghy approached, passengers had to clamber up a wooden ladder construction two at a time and they had to do it quickly before the next big wave disrupted the balance of the dinghy. It all looked very scary but, armed with our life jackets, we volunteered to go on the third trip – the first “old fogeys” to go. Getting into the dinghy was easy – actually we just fell into it and straightened ourselves up afterwards. We got wet feet from the swell whilst waiting on the back of the big boat and wet everything else when we fell into the dinghy. On the journey over the pilot noticed that neither of our life jackets was tied properly and asked his crew member to sort them out. Unknown to us, he accidently tied us together!!! We were due to be the first ones off but we couldn’t move and, with time at a premium, the other four passengers clambered over and round us while the jackets were adjusted. By this time the swell was rising again and, side by side, we just managed to cling to the ladder before the dinghy plunged away. Fortunately, everyone else was so involved looking after themselves that no-one really noticed our plight so we made it on to the island with everything, including our pride and dignity, intact.

So, having made it in one piece (just!) we then had to clamber over the slippery rocks to make room for the next members of the group. Once on solid ground we checked ourselves over and got rid of the dratted life jackets. Graham had got much wetter than me but the heat from the volcano would soon dry him off! It took a while to complete the landing process but once everyone was ashore we split into three groups and marched off towards the steam.

We were in the first group and one of our guides, Sue, gave us some background information about the origins of the volcano along with what to look out for while we wandered around and, most importantly, what to avoid. Then, quite seriously, she explained how we were to behave should the volcano erupt while we were there!!!! All of the seismic equipment monitoring its behaviour suggested that an eruption was not imminent but, apparently, that was also the case the last time it “went up”. White Island or Whakaari's (Maori name) eruptions have produced both lava flows and explosive eruptions of ash. It is New Zealand's only active marine volcano and perhaps the most accessible on earth, attracting scientists and volcanologists worldwide as well as us tourists. At most times the volcanic activity is limited to steaming fumaroles and boiling mud but in March 2000, three small vents appeared in the main crater and began belching ash which covered the island in fine grey powder. An eruption on July 27, 2000 blanketed the island with mud and scoria and a new crater appeared. Sue showed us some small examples of the rock (scoria) that was blown out of the crater, pointed out some of the large boulders that had suddenly appeared and also some landslides that had occurred quite recently as a result of continuous volcanic activity. Major eruptions in 1981–83 altered much of the island’s landscape and decimated the extensive pōhutukawa forest. The large crater created at that time now contains a lake, whose level varies substantially. All of a sudden the hard hats we were wearing and the gas masks didn’t seem so silly. We used our masks quite often especially when we were close to sulphur and the steam.

We were then joined by John, the main man, who was a leading authority on White Island. We were to spend two hours on the island and walked around a specific circuit to enable us to see all of its main features. We were all offered boiled sweets to help reduce the effects of the sulphurated steam as we walked around. We were able to get close to aggressive steam vents, bubbling mud pots, hot streams of water which we were invited to taste, mounds of sulphurated lava with bright yellow areas of pure sulphur, whilst gradually making our way slowly up towards the huge, main crater which was continuously belching out steam. While this was happening we saw two helicopters land with passengers who had paid for a flight onto and over the volcano. Then John received a message on his walkie-talkie to say that the cruise ship people had decided it was too rough for them to risk the transfer to the island so they wouldn’t be coming. So the extra guides that had come to the island to lead them had wasted their time! The highlight of our walk eventually occurred as we reached a level area suitable for viewing directly into the main crater. Awesome is a very over-used word these days but it was simply awesome.

Soon we had to move on to make way for the other two groups following in our footsteps. We were shown some of the sulphur mine areas and heard torrid tales of life as a sulphur miner in early 1900s. Sadly there were many deaths and in September 1914 one small eruption resulted in 10 miners disappearing under a mudflow never to be seen again. The only survivor was the camp cat who was eventually rescued and became a bit of a celebrity on the mainland and was nicknamed ‘Peter the Great’. Other attempts at mining the sulphur followed until the early 1930’s. We found our way to the remains of the mining process where pure sulphur had been extracted but the building remains are now just a shell and the machinery has virtually rusted away.

Soon it was time for the return dinghy ride back to the boat. It was just as treacherous and we got just as wet but this time we both took it in our stride and without the help of life-jackets. Once back on the boat we were all given lunch and were able to watch a second boat load of tourists be ferried to the island using the same dinghy and pilots that we had used. One lady passenger was leaning over the side of the boat clearly not feeling well and was reluctant to go. Attempts were made to transfer her to our boat, which was still rocking wildly, but in the end it was felt that she would be better off on the island for a while where, at least, she would have a rest from the constant movement of the boat in the heavy swell. Soon we started our return journey deviating slightly to view a rare colony of Australian Gannets. Then, as we made our way towards another fascinating island - Whale Island – we slowed to enjoy the company of a pod of dolphins. There are several thousand that inhabit the Bay of Plenty and boats are invariably accompanied by them on the return trip from White Island.

We didn’t get back to Whakatane until gone 2.30pm, a good 30 minutes later than scheduled. What an exhilarating adventure it had been – and for us almost certainly a once in a lifetime chance to experience an active volcano.

After just relaxing for a couple of hours, we drove along the river front towards the break-water and strolled around a newly developed park we had spotted from the boat earlier. In the evening we visited the local Chinese Takeaway and gorged ourselves on Egg Foo Yong and Fried Rice before retiring after what had become a fabulously fulfilling day all round.

Additional photos below
Photos: 34, Displayed: 29


1st March 2011

Man over board!
Blimey that sea looks rough! What an interesting trip. Great photos as always. Thanks for the text this morning :-) x x x x
1st March 2011

pass the sick bag
Wow !!! What an experience , I felt sick just looking at the photos !

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