New Year Trip: 10~Walking in a volcano
Here is a great aerial photo of White Island thanks to the Civil Defence website.
Landing at White Island with a boat load of people isn’t straight forward. There are two possible places, one is more preferable than the other, but it’s still a bit dodgy. There used to be a jetty but that has long gone.
Before we left the boat we were all issued with hard hats and gas masks. Hats to be worn straight away, masks around our necks to be used when required. Looking like an assortment of Bob the Builders we were ready!
The boat stopped about 50m off shore. A zodiac, which was detached from the back of the boat, transferred us in several group lots to a place near the jetty remains. It was a bit of a step and scramble off but then we were free to start walking and gawking at this strange place.
We had been split into two groups so we went to our respective meeting points.
Each group had two guides. We were given a short speech on the main risks to our safety and what to do should say an eruption or lahar occur. They also said we would not be told when to wear our masks – it was down to the individual when they started to become affected by the acidic fumes.
Then we were off! The circuit was roughly an hour and we’d be making about 10 stops along the way.
After a time we started to feel the fumes – a tickle in the throat which made you cough – and suddenly everyone was fiddling with elastic bands to secure the breathing mask in place.
Sulphur mining in a volcano sounds like a risky endeavour but there were four operations over the years trying to do this. The first brief attempt was in the 1880s, followed by another ultimately unsuccessful endeavour two decades later, before the third mining operation starting in 1914. Unfortunately this was to be a tragic year. Two workers died in separate incidents and a few months later, part of the crater rim collapsed. This caused a lahar which swept pretty much everything out to see and all 10 men perished. There was one survivor: the island’s cat Peter. (He was renamed Peter the Great.)
In 1925 a new factory was built but profitability eluded this operation as well, not helped by the Depression, and it closed in 1933. The tour was to include a stop at the factory remains which I couldn’t wait to see.
We were able to approach the rim of the main internal crater (not the main big crater rim, the tour did not take us up there) – sometimes conditions are such that you can’t. There was so much steam though, which kept swirling around, so we didn’t get a clear view inside it.
For a few minutes at one point it rained lightly but I didn’t pay it much heed and the guides didn’t draw attention to it. Later they explained how they used to wear cotton (I think) staff t-shirts which they would start to get holes and generally fall apart because of the acid rain. But now they used a more robust material that lasted much longer.
But but but… huh?… Acid rain?!!…
I guess it’s no wonder really… acidic fumes, steam… but I did wonder why they didn’t mention this earlier. Perhaps because as a one-off, it’s no big deal for your clothes or footwear. And perhaps because it’s not ‘bad acid’. In any case, our clothes from that day are still intact so all is well.
Being a volcano it is actively monitored by GNS Science. The guides pointed out the places where the various monitoring doodads are located. This includes a couple of webcams. This link has the latest images looking up the crater floor past the old factory toward the main internal crater which constantly steams away. I like this angle best because the scientists placed a teeny model dinosaur next to the lens which appears in every frame :).
An alternative means of seeing the island if you couldn’t be bothered with the boat journey is by helicopter. Popular too, judging by the three or four that came and went during our visit. Perhaps a tad more expensive though!
Last stop of the tour was the factory. Cool!
All too soon we had to reboard the zodiac and transfer back to the boat. I loved the tour, it was a fantastic opportunity to venture through an active volcanic environment which I found really interesting, especially with the island’s history. It’s something I’ll do again one day.
On the return journey, while munching through the provided lunch packs, we had a closer look at some of the island’s coastline but I’ll pick that up in the next and final post of this series.