Walk on the crater of a live volcano? My partner was dead keen. Me? Mmm …. maybe. So we did it. The big sweetener for me was Iâ€™ve written about being on the slopes of a live volcano in my forthcoming book, For One Night Only, and decided a bit of reverse research could come in handy. And itâ€™s not often one is offered an opportunity to experience such a surreal landscape.
White Island, or Whakaari, is a marine volcano about an hour and a half north of Whakatane in New Zealandâ€™s Bay of Plenty. Most of the volcano lies beneath the sea leaving the main crater just above sea level. Access is by helicopter or boat and there are a couple of licensed operators who will take you there.
You have to sign away all rights to sue – should you die or be maimed or scalded or die of fume poisoning â€“ before setting forth with hard hat and gas mask. A tad alarming but the boat people appeared to know what they were doing, although they did mention the volcano was on a level one alert, officially â€˜unsettledâ€™ and had erupted earlier that week. This just made my partner even keener to get out there.
The smell of a volcanic crater is hideous. Acidic sulphurous fumes filled the air and I was straight into my gas mask. The acid tormented the back of my throat and I couldnâ€™t breathe. Some macho souls didnâ€™t bother with the mask but the sulphuric stench is unbearable for us more delicate types, and breathing is a must-have accessory for all travellers.
Before we set out we were giving a little safety talk. Stay on the path at all times as much of the surface is a thin crust and you can fall straight through to hell if you stand on it. Secondly if the volcano erupts, crouch behind shelter such as a boulder or two. Right. If there is a landslide, donâ€™t try and outrun it, run to the side. Yes, right onto the thin crust which will then collapse and you end up in the Fires of Mordor. I looked back at the boat longingly at this stage. A deep inhale on my gas mask restored my spirits and off we went.
Rivulets of acid water and bilious yellow outcrops of sulphur, streaks of orange and ochre mineralised rocks and vents spewing out steam laden with gold and mercury, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, argon, helium, you name it. Puddles of boiling water and mud and handfuls of boiled sweets to suck to help our saliva flow and wash away the acids. They thought of everything.
Standing on crunchy spent lava, or scoria, looking down into the crater was an eerie experience. I didnâ€™t see Cerberus, just an algal green lake wreathed in steam and vapour, a definite no-go zone for humans. Pretty rare these days, except if you look up to the stars.
Our guide had a reasonable amount of scientific fact available, but as usual, for me itâ€™s the human interaction I find interesting. The Maori made journeys to the island to collect sulphur, and once Europeans came they saw a bob could be made mining sulphur and selling it to fertilizer manufacturers. So like the miners of today, men were paid good money to live and work on the island. But it couldnâ€™t be made to work, the environment was too hostile and it all ended in 1914 when the ten resident miners were buried in an avalanche leaving the camp cat, Peter, as the only survivor.
The guide told me some visitors to the island found the menacing, alien landscape too confronting and retreated to the boat rather than walk among the vents and vapours. It is a harsh and hostile place, but numerous Australian summers in the arid zones have toughened me up to harsh. Something I guess weâ€™ll all have to get used to in the future.
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