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Today I took a boat to the moon; it only took an hour and A half and on the way home I took a nap and stopped for ice cream.

WORDS AND IMAGES BY KATIE COX

From the coastline of Whakatãne, White Island appears on the horizon as a stereotypical volcano, the kind you may have doodled in schoolbooks as a kid. She has a classic conical shape with a plume of natural gases rising high above the crater rim as if to warn “I am still breathing.” I was filled with excitement as I climbed aboard our vessel The Phoenix, and was both surprised and intrigued by my travelling companions to this unusual and adventurous destination. On my right, a middle aged couple in their 60s with walking sticks, tramping shoes and cameras at the ready, on my left a family of three with a 5 year old and one on the way, and across from me, two friends in their early twenties attached to their phones.

As our boat drifted down the Whakatãne River through the harbour entrance into the Pacific Ocean, our trip to the island had begun. We passed little blue penguins, a pod of travelling dolphins and a scarcely seen blue shark sunning himself on the surface, one of the rarest sites I have ever seen. The middle aged couple were snapping wildly, cheers of excitement roared from the 5 year old encouraged by mum and dad, and even the young friends had put their phones away.

As we drew nearer to the island, intricate details became visible.

White Island

Trees stood like lone toothpicks seemingly charred to within an inch of their lives, bright yellow cliff faces and rusted ruins of buildings had once stood. It looked as if we were arriving at the moon to find an abandoned space station centuries old.

Being issued with hard hats and a gas mask added to the excitement of the adventure that lay ahead. The middle aged couple were first off the boat (no hesitation there) followed closely by the enthusiastic 5 year old, who was so excited about his yellow hard hat that I think he had forgotten momentarily about the volcano.

As we disembarked from the vessel my senses were overwhelmed by this other worldly place. The sound of air escaping from ultra hot fumarole vents with a hiss and a roar required me to raise my voice to be heard above the constant sound of this volcanic jet engine. Plumes of steam from the centre of the crater and it’s surrounding vents, rising over a kilometre into the atmosphere, were absolutely mesmerising and also a haughty reminder that I was standing on a living, breathing volcano. The crystallised earth crunched below my feet, as if to warn “don’t jump here, my skin is thin.” The shifting wind brought with it the smell of sulphur and the stinging characteristics of carbon and sulphur dioxide, passing just as quickly as it had come. My senses were quickly put at ease by the warm sun on my skin and a gentle sea breeze. I drew in a long deep breath casting my gaze over the royal blue sparkling vista.

The tour group of 40 were incredibly silent as everyone took in this wild landscape and its surrounds. Our tour

guide was the first to break the silence, a reassuring plan of action if the volcano were to start ‘spitting’ followed by a very comprehensive narrative that lasted for the rest of the tour. Our group split into four groups of ten as we made our way around the island and towards the centre of the bubbling, boiling mass. Slowly, we wound our way around cauldrons of bubbling mud and sand. Crystal clear springs looked so tempting to touch, but we were quickly cautioned by our guide of the thin crust surrounding the spring. “You wouldn’t want to get too close; if the crust gave way you would find yourself standing knee deep in 100 degree centigrade water.” That got everyone’s attention. I made up my mind then, that on this occasion, I would stick to the beaten path.

The most awe-inspiring sights were the crater rim walls towering 323 meters above the sea, only visible in brief glimpses of clear air pockets through the steam. The magnificent battle scars that gouge the cliff walls created over a millennia of geological upheaval add to the majestical beauty of the inner crater rim.

Every direction I turned was filled with something just as intriguing as the last vista. The colours reflected through natural spring water, the sulphuric crystals glistening in the sun, the misty haze concealing the cliff tops. It really was a journey to middle earth.

Our time spent on the island was about two hours, but it felt like a quarter of that. The guides were extremely knowledgeable about the geology, history, and past culture of the daring individuals that called this strange island home. Time just seemed to disappear. As we climbed aboard the small tenders to be shuttled back to The Phoenix, I couldn’t help but look back in sheer wonder at the power of New Zealand’s only active marine volcano.

Back aboard the ship, I realised for the first time how tired I was. We covered a fair amount of ground on our walking tour, and as much as anything I think sensory overload played a large part in my mental fatigue as well. The boat crew hand-delivered boxed lunches and bottles of water and within minutes after finishing, three-quarters of the tourists onboard had drifted off to sleep. Full bellies, a days adventure, and a calm rolling ocean lulled the five year old, the friends, and myself into a hazy dreamland.

Back on dry land and headed north towards Mount Maunganui on the Pacific Coast Highway, I stopped at Julian’s Berry Farm. After a long day of adventure I felt very deserving of a fresh blueberry and vanilla ice cream and was not disappointed. The cool creaminess of my single scoop provided just the texture my throat was after, as well as a natural sugar hit to keep me fresh for the drive.

An hour and half later I arrived at the base of yet another volcano and a sister to White Island, Mount Maunganui or Mauao is a favourite holiday destination for Kiwis as well as international travellers, which says something about this little town.

The whole of New Zealand is so beautiful, that if this is where Kiwis come to vacation, it must be the best of the best.

Seemingly I was not done with volcanos for the day. I checked into the Beachside Holiday Park and Campground at the base of Mauao, a 232 meter dormant volcano, after which the town is named. This volcano, however, posed no threat to my much needed night's sleep. Tomorrow will bring more adventures of swimming with dolphins, hiking, and learning to surf. I can’t wait for another day of adventure in the Bay of Plenty.

Check out our Experience White Island page for more information on how to get yourself out there!

Created: 19 February 2018

Last updated: 22 March 2018