The Alien World of White Island

Have you ever visited somewhere so unique that you rave about it years later? It’s been six years since my family went to New Zealand’s White Island, and I still find myself thinking about it and talking about how amazing it is. I can’t believe how few of my friends have been!

White Island is an active volcano out in the Bay of Plenty. It’s a small island, but it looms large in my memory. I remember the huge clouds of dense, white steam billowing from it as we approached in the ferry. It was so exciting, like coming upon a lost world. We’d already been treated to the sight of dolphins that day – they’d surrounded our ferry as we left Whakatane and played with us for so long we almost forgot where we were going – so, as you can imagine, things were pretty magical.

The island looked like a broken crown. As our ferry slowed and bobbed up to the jetty, I began to detect the rotten egg smell of sulphur. It was a scent I was familiar with from Rotorua. Some of the other tourists muttered complaints about it, but I liked the smell: it made the experience more immersive. It’s not that bad anyway.

As we disembarked onto the alien beach, we were given bright yellow hardhats as a precaution. They matched the streaks of sulphur in the dark grey sand. A powder-blue stream braided its way down to the sea. I remember the joy of stepping from stone to stone to cross it. You’re not allowed to wear sandals if you visit White Island. I suppose there’s a danger of stepping in a small spurt of boiling water, or a puddle of acid. The rocks are quite sharp too. But this stream wasn’t dangerous.

White Island is aptly named – much of the island looks like it has been doused with white powder, but there are many other colours too. It’s actually quite wonderful how colourful it is. On a rock face so veined it looked like a withered leaf, I saw reds and blues and pinks and purples and no, I wasn’t on drugs. The most astonishing colour was the green of the acid lake – negative one on the pH scale and no safety barrier!

Even the air is slightly acidic on White Island. It made my freshly shaved legs sting – not unpleasantly; it was more of a tingle. Some of the men in our party experienced the same thing on their faces, and occasionally my eyes felt as though I was cutting onions. It’s advisable to wear old clothes when you go to White Island, as there’s a small risk of certain garments changing colour. I was fine, but my grandpa’s beige shoes turned pink, which he wasn’t too happy about! I wonder what being on the island for too long would do to your skin.

People did live on the island at times. Between the 1880’s and the 1930’s, various attempts were made at mining White Island for sulphur, which was used to make match heads and fertiliser. It was a dangerous job.  In 1914, all ten of the miners living there were killed when a section of the crater collapsed, causing a lahar to flow over them. But their cat survived, so that’s something.

The corroded shells of the abandoned miners’ buildings and rusted cogs add to the island’s eeriness as you wend your way through bubbling pools and plumes of stream. The crusty ground feels disconcertingly hollow in places. We stopped near a yellow-streaked waterfall and the guide pointed out strange clusters of crystals. It was like we were in an episode of Star Trek, on the alien planet of the week.

I’d never been anywhere in my life that was so… different. I suppose that’s why I remember it so fondly. It was beautiful, but it was weird and haunting and a total feast for the senses. You’re standing on an active volcano, seeing the steam and the machinery and the colours; you’re also hearing the bubbling, a rumbling like the earth is hungry; smelling the sulphur; feeling the heat and the acid whispering upon your skin. You can even taste the volcano – sort of dusty and metallic.

White Island

Some people had a swim in the sea when our tour was done. I didn’t. I just sat and looked at the volcano. I wanted to imprint it on my memory and I guess it worked.

If you’re interested in visiting White Island, check out www.whiteisland.co.nz. It’s expensive, but it’s a long tour and the price includes food. Also, it’s highly likely you’ll encounter dolphins on the ferry, so that saves you paying for a separate dolphin tour. To find out more about dolphin tours, read my Top Ten Places to See Dolphins in New Zealand.

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3 thoughts on “The Alien World of White Island

  1. […] White Island is one of the most wonderful places I’ve been in my life. It’s the top of an active volcano, rising out of the sea amidst plumes of white steam. I’ll never forget it, seeing all the vibrant colours; hearing the bubbling acid; smelling the sulphur; feeling the warm rocks and the air tingling on my skin. It was like walking on an alien planet – such a different experience. I can’t recommend it enough. […]

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  2. […] I also think about how much New Zealand, the country itself, has influenced the world of my novel. Have the attitudes of my characters changed? The landscape of the world? I know that there’s somewhere in my second novel that was very consciously inspired by the magical glowworm caves of Waitomo. And another place inspired by the volcanic terrains of Rotorua, Taupo and White Island. […]

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  3. […] rising around you; the thought that the hidden underworld is close at hand. Places like Rotorua and White Island are literally on the edges of the […]

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