Wee Jacob looking like butter wouldn't melt
For the third time in my life, I landed at Auckland airport at about half past midnight excited about seeing the land of the long white cloud. Annoyingly for Clubby, who'd kindly agreed to collect me from the airport, I was late landing after fog saw me diverted through Brisbane instead of Sydney. It had been two years since I'd been to NZ, and in that time my friends Clubby and Stan (aka Mike and Rochelle!), who live in Auckland, had produced young Jacob, who was now six months old. Jacob was all smiles when I was introduced the next morning, but unfortunately for him, his vaccination was due, so Stan dropped me off at Ma and Pa's (aka Christine and John) while she took Jacob for his jabs. It was nice to have some time out from travelling after leaving Australia, so the next day was also spent with the Stanleys, trying to amuse Jacob and eating Stan's bloody yummy coffee tiffin.
Come Saturday morning, it was time to leave Auckland. John and Christine have a beachhouse at a small place called Te Mata on the Coromandel Peninsula, and I'd been there with my sister twice before, including once
Kayaking with Stan at Te Mata
to celebrate Christmas with the Stanleys. So we headed down to Te Mata for the weekend, collecting a hire car for me on the way. I'd decided to do a circuit of the North Island, filling in the gaps of previous visits. It was now autumn in NZ, and my other visits had been in summer, so it would be nice to see the country in a different season. After unpacking our things and handing Jacob over to the grandparents, Stan and I grabbed kayaks and went for a paddle in the small creek next to the beachhouse. Kingfishers swooped across the water as we paddled upstream in the freezing water (some kids were swimming! Madness), then we headed out into the Firth of Thames to ride some waves and try to avoid the shit raining down from a few hundred shags nesting in the trees on the shore (does that count as an adventure sport??).
After a restless night with wee Jacob, Stan and Clubby decided to head back to Auckland early, so I hung around the beachhouse for lunch with John and Christine, then set off south for my first destination, Whakatane (pronounced Fokatane
). My 'circuit' of
Getting up close and personal with the volcano
the North Island would start with a unique part of the country that I'd always wanted to see - White Island. The only active marine volcano in New Zealand (and possibly the world, who knows?!), White Island sits 50km off the coast from Whakatane, in the tantalisingly named Bay of Plenty. We can thank Captain James Cook for the names of both the island and the bay, as usual in this part of the world, but the town retains it's Maori name, derived from a legend about a Maori woman who saved lives by rowing her boat back to shore in spite of social rules which forbade women from taking up oars. Good on her. There's a pretty statue marking the entrance to the harbour in her honour.
Our boat chose to leave the harbour just as a big swell crashed against the harbour wall, so we drove out with at least one wave washing clear over us... they closed the harbour immediately after we'd left! But the sun was out and there were few clouds in the sky, perfect weather for walking into an active volcano. White Island is a pretty amazing place. We set down on one
Looking out from White Island's central crater
of only two landing spots, and took an inflatable ashore. Gas masks and hard helmets were in position... requirements which were supposed to save us in times of danger. The mask would help filter out the sulphur and help us breathe, which I was happy with, but the hat was only there to make us feel better... if we were caught in an eruption, and rocky missiles came raining down, a yellow plastic hat would do bugger all good. But we looked the part, trekking towards the main plumes of gas wearing our matching gear.
Of all the places I've been over the last year, White Island was the only place that felt like I'd left planet Earth. Never before have I seen rusty brown water running alongside banks of psychadelic yellow soil. It's a bizarre place, smelling of rotten eggs and looking like a Doctor Who set. You can get surprisingly close to the gas plumes, and in the far end of the main crater there's a huge pool of lime green water, rain water, which steams and bubbles at around 70 degrees. There are also some fabulous mud holes, which gloop and splatter just a few feet
One of the beautiful crystalline formations in the crater
from our 'path'. Amazingly, the island was home to a sulphur mine in the early twentieth century, with the poor sods who worked there living on the back of the island and having to row their way round to the main crater every day. Eruptions continue to happen here so the island has been uninhabited for quite some time, and thankfully for us the activity is now monitored (no doubt by some scientists with beards and glasses). The only downside to my visit was the absence of my SLR camera... a compact just isn't the same! Sadly, our trip back to Whakatane was smoother than the way out (calm seas are just boring), and the next day it was time to get into Clyde (a silver Nissan Sunny... about 90% of cars in NZ are silver) and make my way south across the East Cape.
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