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White Island (Whakaari) – walk on the wild side
Whakaari sits offshore from Whakatane, an outdoors-mad town on the edge of the Pacific ocean, just 100km from Rotorua and Tauranga. You can see the island from town, but there’s no thermal activity, or smell, in Whakatane itself.
How to get to the volcano? You have several options. From Whakatane, you can take an amazing flight over the island with White Island Flights (www.whiteislandflights.co.nz); or to actually set foot on the hard volcanic ground, take a trip with Frontier Helicopters.
Or experience a longer adventure with White Island Tour, where you’re likely to see dolphins and even whales on the journey to the island.
A 90-minute boat cruise takes you 50km offshore to the island, a giant, barren moonscape streaked with iron oxide reds and vivid sulphur whites and yellows. Then it’s ashore for an unforgettable two hour walking tour past steaming cracks in the ground, bubbling pools and roaring gas fumeroles (vents).
The scale of everything on the island is giant, with house-sized boulders strewn over the tree-free landscape. The main volcanic bowl is two kilometers across, the cliffs rise near vertically to over 300 metres high and the crater lake is a huge expanse of steaming water. Other groups of hard-hat wearing visitors a few minutes ahead or behind look like little yellow-headed ants.
To help you share the island’s wonders, the guides are knowledgeable and there’s plenty of time to stop, gaze and listen to the music of whooshing and bubbling and hissing and spurting. You’re asked not to wander off the track – but really, who in their right mind would want to?
Near tour’s end you have the chance to check out the sombre ruins of a sulphur processing factory, which operated for a short time in the early 20th century. The sulphur was mined for fertilizer but the business was soon brought crashing down when a huge landslide wiped out the workforce.
Today, the huge steel beams and cogs of the factory are crumbling with rust, the stone walls collapsing inwards: time is cruel on history when the air is a rich mix of sulphur and salt. In another few years, the factory will doubtless be but a memory, but for now it makes a wonderfully atmospheric photograph.
Less prosaically, the salt air also builds up a good appetite. Fortunately, when you get back to the boat, you’re served a tasty packed lunch. Then it’s off for the return cruise back to Whakatane, still with time to enjoy the afternoon.