STOP PRESS – White Island volcano erupts

I’m interrupting the chronological flow of this blog to report a shocking piece of news. White Island volcano, which we visited on 20 October, has erupted.

Happier times: White Island volcano at the time of our visit, 20 October 2019

As I sit here – at 7:45am, 9 December 2019 – writing this, snug in my dressing gown with a steaming mug of tea at my side, the BBC News website leads with the headline One dead in NZ volcano, with number ‘likely to rise’.

Here’s a link to the post I published shortly after our visit. Reading it again, I can see that when we went White Island we were a bit glib and complacent. Yes, we were made aware of the dangers: we were required to sign a disclaimer, instructed to wear hard hats while on the island and issued with gas masks. But neither we, nor any of the others on our tour, believed for a moment that anything bad could or would happen. Bad things don’t happen to good people, do they?

And those poor souls who visited White Island earlier today wouldn’t have believed it either. They, like us, would have regarded a visit to New Zealand’s most active volcano as a little adventure, a bit of a laugh maybe.

But nobody’s laughing now. Except, maybe, nature herself. Nature always has the last laugh. Nature makes the rules, and we are subject to her whims and capriciousness. That is the way it is, and the way it should be. We’re all just guests here in nature’s garden, guests on this beautiful, crazy, brutal planet.

I’m reminded also of the role of chance in our lives, and our deaths. We could have been on White Island today. The timing of our trip to New Zealand was determined to maximise our chances of seeing Fiordland Crested Penguins. Without that driver, without our goal of laying eyes on that particular species of bird, we might have visited New Zealand a few weeks later, when the weather is kinder.

In a parallel universe, one where birding doesn’t shape our travel plans, we could have been on White Island today, terrified and in mortal peril as the volcano blew its top.

The story is still emerging, but our thoughts are with the tourists and tour operators who got caught up in today’s White Island tragedy, with those who were injured, and with the families and friends of the deceased. It’s a very sad day, and takes a bit of gloss off the memories of our New Zealand adventure.

Link to the emerging story on the BBC news website, 8:30am

Link to updated story on BBC news website, 3:40pm

It’s a washout

Shortly after checking out of our accommodation we stop for petrol. “Where are you folks off to today?” asks the friendly Maori lady at the filling station.

“We’re going to drive the Forgotten Highway down to Stratford. We might even get our passports stamped in the Republic of Whangamomona, where goats get to be president” says Mrs P proudly.

“Forget it,” she comes back, shaking her head sadly, “the road’s been washed out.”

So, not for the first time on this trip we must revert to Plan B. On this occasion Plan B is a detour via the coast road, which adds around 100km and more than an hour to our journey. Not ideal, but we have no choice, so we grit our teeth and set out on a different long and winding road.

As it happens the Plan B route isn’t at all bad, particularly once we hit the coast and start travelling south along the Tasman Sea. The black sand littered with driftwood is more appealing than it sounds, and we have a birdie treat when a Royal Spoonbill puts in an appearance.

At last we arrive at our accommodation for the next two nights. Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge sits on the slopes of Mount Taranaki, 905 metres above sea level. Mount Taranaki is a must-see volcano which, at 2,514 metres, dominates the surrounding landscape.

However, must-see isn’t the same as can-see, and we are denied a proper sighting by the low cloud that clings to the summit. But never mind, the Lodge has a piece of modern stained glass that bears an image of the volcano, as well and a waterfall and a native bird, so at least we know what we’re missing.

New Zealand is a young country and historic buildings are a bit thin on the ground, so it’s a rare pleasure to stay somewhere originally built in the nineteenth century – 1896 to be precise – in the style of a traditional European mountain lodge.

It’s a quirky place, but cosy and full of character, with staff to match. And, for reasons that are none too clear, we get to stay in the Honeymoon Suite. Now Mrs P and I have been married for 35 years, but in a place like this who can possibly believe that romance is dead?

Tongariro National Park

After a night of torrential rain we awake to flurries of sleet and a bitter wind. It’s tempting to stay in our luxurious accommodation all day to keep warm and cosy, but unfortunately the power company’s disconnecting the supply at 9am for “essential maintenance,” so we may just as well go out and brave the elements. Our host is encouraging, saying that weather hereabouts is very localised, and so up the road there may be a heatwave. We have our doubts, but what the hell there’s nothing to lose.

Our plan for the morning is to drive to the top of a nearby mountain road to admire the view, but soon after setting off we learn that the road in question is closed by 20cm of snow, and is unlikely to reopen any time soon. Disappointed we head for the nearest café and console ourselves with a large mocha and a monstrous slab of cake.

Suitably refreshed we head back to Whakapapa, retracing yesterday’s journey. It turns out our hosts were right, the weather is better here although “heatwave” would be stretching a point. Nevertheless the view of the volcanoes is much better than 24 hours ago.

Tongariro National Park boasts several impressive volcanoes, including Mount Ngauruhoe at almost 2,300 metres. Mount Ngauruhoe has the honour of being New Zealand’s newest and historically most active volcano. There have been more than 70 “eruptive episodes” since 1839. However all has been quiet since 1975, so we are relaxed about the risk.

Unsurprisingly, given the weather at present, Ngauruhoe’s summit and high slopes are cloaked in cloud, but like a flirtatious stripper she teases and tantalises us with the occasional glimpse of what lies beneath.

As the minutes pass she becomes more and more daring, giving us longer and more revealing peeps at her wares, until finally she throws caution to the wind. The cloud that has hidden her charms for so long dissipates and Ngauruhoe stands before us, naked, glorious and unashamed. A classically shaped cone, the summit and upper slopes a dazzling white carpet of snow, she is magnificent. We’ve waited 24 hours to enjoy this sight, and it was worth waiting for.

Having had our fill of Mount Ngauruhoe, the last stop on our itinerary is the Tawhai Falls. The waterfall is 13 metres high, and like so many others we’ve seen on this trip it is magnificent.

But Tawhai Falls have another claim to fame, as a filming location for Gollum’s pool where Faramir and his archers are watching Gollum fish. There’s no sign of Gollum today, but who cares? Even without the Lord of the Rings connection this place is well worth a visit, and the frustrations caused by the weather yesterday and this morning are all but forgotten.

Things fall apart

Things are falling apart.  Today we were due to take a boat trip on Lake Taupo, to see some Maori rock carvings that are inaccessible by land.  However, it was blowing a gale and the skipper decided it would be too risky – or perhaps more accurately, way too unpleasant – to sail, so he cancelled the excursion.   That’s three boat trips out of four that we’ve lost to the weather since arriving in New Zealand. I’m starting to think the gods have taken a dislike to us.

Speaking of things falling apart, my shoes have disintegrated.   I bought them just a few months before leaving the UK, but within a day or two of arriving here they were virtually unwearable.  Luckily Taupo has some decent retail outlets, so instead of visiting the Maori carvings we toured the town’s shoe shops. Thankfully I managed to get a new and comfortable pair of walking shoes without much difficulty, but that’s $137 I’ll never see again.

Newly shod, it was time for me to take the wheel again and set off towards Tongariro National Park.  On the way we stopped off briefly at South Taupo Wetland in the hope of seeing some interesting local birds while we ate our lunch.  Unfortunately the birds mostly kept their distance, but we did at least enjoy the view across Lake Taupo towards a distant volcano.

As we drove on the weather started to close in ominously.  We parked up briefly at the Makatote Viaduct which, when it was built between 1906 and 1909 for New Zealand Railways, was the tallest bridge in New Zealand. 

Our brief photo stop over, we continued on towards Tongariro National Park, which is famous for its spectacular volcanoes.  We dropped in at the visitor centre at Whakapapa (confusingly, and somewhat worryingly pronounced Fukapupa) before carrying on up the steep, winding mountain road, through dark and gloomy forest, until it opened up at a car park. 

As we looked around us the top of the volcanoes were shrouded in low cloud, while the slopes were snow-covered. A bitter wind blew and sleety rain was falling, so we decided it was time to beat a hasty retreat to a lower and more agreeable altitude.

With the weather becoming ever more threatening we concluded there was no further prospect of spotting volcanoes, so we headed off to the little town of Ohakune for dinner.  This area is the self-proclaimed carrot capital of New Zealand, and the town boasts a children’s playground – called Carrot World, or something similar, I suspect – celebrating the orange root and its various veggie cousins. 

Dotted around the playground are large fibre glass characterisations of several vegetables, including a disturbingly phallic parsnip.  In retrospect this is all a bit odd, given how much kids the world over hate vegetables. Or maybe New Zealand kids do eat all their veggies, which could explain why they grow up to be such fearsome rugby players?  

But the most dramatic feature of the playground is a huge (and I mean monstrously huge) carrot on the roadside, announcing to every passing motorist that this town has truly taken the orange root to its heart.  Mrs P’s camera has barely been used all day, so she gets it out and snaps away merrily.

But, on reflection, if the best thing we can say about today is that we saw a big bridge and big carrot, then I must regretfully conclude that it has not gone well for us.  Things are indeed falling apart, and we can only hope for better fortune tomorrow.

A visit to New Zealand’s most active volcano

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.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

We leave Kohutapu Lodge and head west towards Waimangu Volcanic Valley, via a circuitous route that takes us through the huge Kaingaroa Forest.  For Ena this is a magical place and she harbours a romantic notion that one day she will give up the tourist business and become a bushman (forester). But we see it differently. 

Vast swathes of non-native monoculture tree plantations, interrupted only by patches of brutal clear-cut harvesting, does nothing for the visual appeal of this area.  Nor does it bring much employment for the local Maori now that forestry is so mechanised. Worse still, the Maoris having in the distant past sold the land for a pittance, we are told that most of the profits of the enterprise end up in the coffers of a certain US Ivy League University.  Cleary New Zealand, despite being – geographically speaking – in the middle of nowhere, is plainly not immune from some of the negative impacts of globalisation.

Kaingaroa Forest is without doubt the most depressing thing we’ve seen in New Zealand so far, and we’re delighted to leave it behind us and instead explore the geothermal delights of Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

New Zealand lies on – and indeed is a child of – the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates collide. In North Island this has given rise to a landscape in which extinct volcanic cones and other, still active, geothermal features are widespread. In Waimangu Valley, geothermal activity remains a fact of day-to-day life. But it wasn’t always this way.

As we stand at the valley overlook and admire the lush vegetation interspersed with plumes of steam, it’s difficult to believe that prior to 10 June 1886 this area was rolling scrub country with no visible indication of any geothermal activity. Equally difficult to believe is the fact that in the months and years that followed, the Waimangu Valley was a wasteland, the result of a violent eruption on that date which created a line of craters and destroyed all plant, animal and bird life.

We spend several hours working our way along a well-marked trail, admiring a range of spectacular geothermal features that have all developed and matured since that cataclysmic event in June 1886.

During that period native forest has established itself in the wasteland and is flourishing.  To see geothermal features against a backdrop of splendid tree ferns is both a shock and a delight.  

Another delight is that the lower end of the Waimangu Valley is a hotspot for birds, where native species like the Pukeko and the New Zealand Kingfisher, and modern arrivals from overseas such as the [Australian] Black Swan are thriving. Mrs P doesn’t have her long lens with her (the lens is too heavy and the path is too steep), but some of the birds come close enough to be photographed with her “landscapes lens.”

We are well acquainted with geothermal landscapes from the USA, Iceland, Costa Rica and Japan, but Waimangu Volcanic Valley has exceeded all our expectations. It’s definitely the highlight of our first few days in New Zealand.

Auckland again

For the second day in a row the weather blows a hole in our plans; once again we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.  Although it’s stopped raining and the sun is out, today’s boat trip to Tiri Tiri Matangi island is cancelled due to strong winds.  It’s a particular disappointment for us as we’re keen birdwatchers, and the island is a bird reserve where we’d hoped to see some of New Zealand’s rarest native birds.

Our only hope for rescuing the day is a re-run of yesterday’s Plan B, so we head back to Hop-On-Hop-Off bus with the intention of hopping off at some different stops this time.   Our first destinations are the Church of St Mary, and Holy Trinity Cathedral which sits immediately next to it.

St Mary’s dates from the late nineteenth century. It’s a fine timber building, which also boasts a lectern made by the famous Yorkshire Mouseman furniture-maker, whose trademark is a small mouse carved on to every piece he makes.

St Mary’s started out as a parish church, albeit a somewhat grand one.  The first Bishop of Auckland was looking for somewhere to build his cathedral, and managed to acquire land opposite St Mary’s.  But due to shortage of funds it took nearly a century to complete the cathedral, and in the meantime St Mary’s acted as a stand-in.

From the outside Holy Trinity Cathedral looks modern and – to my eyes – rather uninviting, but inside it’s a bit of a stunner.  Interestingly it combines two starkly contrasting styles. The nave and the chancel are a massive stone affair, an attempt at replicating a grand English cathedral.  This, however, is where the project went bankrupt in the early twentieth century, and when work began again decades later ideas – as well as the budget – were very different. 

The main body of the cathedral is a thoroughly modern, cavernous, sweeping space, uninterrupted by pillars.  And the stained glass is to die for.

When the cathedral opened for business, St Mary’s began to fall into disrepair.  Fortunately this was recognised to be a mistake, and it was agreed to restore it.  But not before the church was relocated to stand immediately next to its feisty younger sister, the upstart cathedral.

So, the good burghers of Auckland jacked up St Mary’s until it was high enough to slip rollers underneath, and then towed it inch by painstaking inch across the road until it sat beneath the shadow of the cathedral.  Strange but true.

*

Although we lucked out on visiting the island bird reserve today, Auckland is not without its ornithological attractions.  We spot a variety of birds during the course of our day in the city, and although most are familiar to us as birds introduced to New Zealand from Britain, we are pleased to come across a couple of native species. 

One of them is the Tui, an attractive bird which is about the size of a magpie and looks as if it’s wearing an iridescent blue suit and a white bow tie.  However, it’s very skittish, forever hopping between branches and refusing to pose for photographs. In the circumstances Mrs P does well to get a shot of it, especially without her long lens.

*

Auckland is built on around 53 volcanoes.  None of them is still active, but they have been the major players in shaping the land upon which the city has grown up.  One of the most striking is Mount Eden, which is unmistakably a volcano when viewed from the rim into the remnants of the crater.  Close by is the Eden Park rugby union ground, where the All Blacks regularly strut their stuff.

*

The Auckland Wintergardens is another unexpected Auckland bonus.  It comprises a pair of large, period glasshouses set at either end of a sunken courtyard.  The flower displays within the glasshouses are good and help brighten up the day, but in a city that apparently lacks many structures of real architectural merit it’s the buildings themselves that are the biggest attraction.  Full of character and clearly throwbacks to another era, they are definitely worth a visit.

*

Once again the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus has shown us that there’s more to Auckland than meets the eye at first glance.  They say that it’s an ill wind that blows no good, so clearly the gales that prevented us visiting Tiri Tiri Matangi island today were not such an ill wind after all.

Walking on the wild side

We’re beginning to get our heads around the itinerary for our New Zealand adventure. And what a big, impressive beast it is!

We’ll drive down to Heathrow, where our first novel experience awaits us: the priority check-in and all-round pampering that is – I sincerely hope – the lot of the business class traveller.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Pixabay via Pexels

We’ve never flown business before, and probably never will again, so we plan to make the most of it. I hope they load plenty of champagne to keep us suitably mellow during the flight to Singapore, where we’ll spend a couple of nights before flying on to Auckland.

Sultan Mosque, Singapore (2016)

Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest metropolitan centre, being home to around a third of the country’s entire population of a little under five million. After spending four nights in and around the city, acclimatizing and recovering from the inevitable jet lag, we’ll pick up a rental car and spend a further ten nights visiting some of the highlights of North Island.

Then it’s a short internal flight from Palmerston North, across the Cook Strait to Christchurch where a second rental car awaits us. We’ll spend the next 32 nights touring the length and breadth of South Island, before returning to Christchurch for the flight back to the UK.

Embed from Getty Images

That’s if we make it to South Island, of course. Before we get there, we’re due to visit White Island on the east coast of the North Island, in the Bay of Plenty. It’s New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, and has been built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years. Active it surely is, as our itinerary advises us that we’ll be issued with hard hats and gas masks before we arrive.

White Island, New Zealand - 2 of 16

PHOTO CREDIT: “White Island, New Zealand – 2 of 16” by Phillip Wong – http://phw.co.nz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

GAS MASKS! For heaven’s sake, what sort of trip is this going to be? I’m feeling my age a bit these days and was rather hoping New Zealand would be a walk in the park. But instead it looks like we’ll be walking on the wild side.

White Island, New Zealand - 4 of 16

PHOTO CREDIT: “White Island, New Zealand – 4 of 16” by Phillip Wong – http://phw.co.nz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On the other hand, why not? After all, you only live once. It could even be fun, and if the volcano blows its top while we’re there at least I’ll leave this life with an impressive bang.

Hard hats, gas masks, random unpredictable volcanic eruptions and accompanying earth tremors? Bring ’em on I say, bring ’em on!