20 October 2019
White Island (Whakaari) lies 49km off the small North Island town Whakatane. It is New Zealand’s most active volcano, and is regarded as one of the world’s most accessible live volcanoes. Inevitably, therefore, we are keen to pay it a visit.
The trouble is, we’ve not had much luck with boat trips since arriving in New Zealand, and we’re worried that this might be the third in a row to be cancelled due to the weather. But for once the gods smile upon us. Although the sea’s choppy, the wind has dropped a bit and the captain decides it’s safe to leave the protection of the harbour.
As soon as we’re in open water the boat begins to bounce and roll on the waves. Mrs P and I have taken the precaution of having only a modest, light breakfast and so are untroubled by the motion of the ocean. Many of our fellow travellers have been less circumspect, and their breakfasts come back up to haunt them.
Pretty soon we’re passing the steep, heavily wooded volcanic island of Whale Island (Moutohora), which, being free of rats and other introduced mammalian predators, is now a haven for native birds. It’s an impressive sight, clad in thick vegetation and rising steeply from sea, but there’s no time to stop and admire it. The boat speeds on, its spray creating a rainbow that appears to sit over the top of Whale Island, while we concentrate on staring out to sea and ignore the moans and groans of our bilious buddies in the passenger lounge.
At last, after around 90 minutes, we make our final approach to White Island, from the centre of which rises a mighty cloud of steam. It’s impossible for our little boat to land there, so we all clamber into inflatable landing craft to be transferred ashore. But not before we’re issued with our safety gear.
First there’s the life jacket, in case we fall overboard during the transfer. Then there’s the canary yellow hard hat, in case the volcano has a hissy fit and starts showering us with rocks. And finally we are handed a gas mask, in case the bugger tries to poison us instead. Bloody hell, this is supposed to be a holiday, not a training exercise for the Marines or the SAS. Thank god we updated our wills before we left the UK.
As it happens the transfer on to dry land goes well, and nobody dies. Once there we clamber over boulders and gather into groups to be ushered around the island by our guides. There are stern warnings not to stray off the path: the crust in places is wafer thin, and beneath it lies pits of baking rocks that will fry you alive in seconds. Nobody needs to be told twice.
The landscape is stark and barren, mostly shades of grey and white, but interspersed with splashes of vivid colour courtesy of the sulphur and other minerals that the volcano has spewed out over the years. Inevitably a sulphurous stink hangs over the island, although to be fair we’ve experienced worse. We don our gas masks for a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, but they aren’t really needed for most of our 90 minutes on the island.
Some of the dangers here, such as the steaming craters, are obvious to the naked eye but others aren’t immediately apparent. The acidic nature of the rocks on which we walk doesn’t enter our thoughts until our guide, who does this trip most days, tells us he gets through a pair of shoes a month thanks to the acid that eats away at them every time he sets foot here.
As we cast our eyes over the grim wasteland that is White Island it’s difficult to believe people have ever lived here. But they have, albeit in pursuit of the dollar. There have been several attempts to establish a sulphur mining industry, all of which failed due to the remoteness of the island and the inherent challenges of mining in such a hostile environment.
Although mining continued sporadically until the 1930s the most notable event in the history of the industry was on 10 September 1914, when 11 men were killed by a massive landslide and the accompanying torrent of mud and rock (known as a lahar), caused when part of the volcano’s main crater wall collapsed.
The outside world knew nothing of the disaster until the skipper of a supply boat sailed to the island on 15 September and witnessed the devastation. He returned a few days later with a rescue party but found no survivors other than the camp cat, Peter. The Bay of Plenty Times reported on the scene that the skipper encountered:
He was confronted by “a scene of desolation”, according to the Bay of Plenty Times. “The effect of the eruption seems to have been to throw the whole hillside overlooking the large lake and camp into the lake and over the whole surrounding area, completely burying the works, dwellings, boats, small wharf and all the inhabitants. The camp was obliterated, the buildings being buried in about 20 feet of sulphurous mud.”Source: Article in New Zealand Herald, 12 September 2017, retrieved 21 October 2019
Interestingly Peter, the only survivor of the disaster, became a bit of a celebrity in his own right. Having cheated death and used up eight of his nine lives, the cat decided to devote the rest of his life to debauchery. After being repatriated to the mainland he played the mating game as often as possible and with great skill. He is reputed to have sired countless litters of kittens in his adopted town, and such was his reputation for sexual prowess that he became known locally as Peter the Great.
We may even have met one of Peter’s descendants. We are staying for a couple of nights in a villa just across the road from the boat dock where the White Island cruise starts and ends, and on our return there we spot a black cat sauntering through the garden. He has a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye, as if he knows that greatness is embedded within his DNA. We bow respectfully as he passes but he merely glances at us disdainfully, as royalty does when in the presence of commoners. He is clearly a cat on a mission, almost certainly a mission of the carnal persuasion.
Peter the Great would be proud of him.