I Don’t Know Where I’ma Gonna Go When the Volcano Blow!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Let that be another Jimmy Buffett reference that none of my new foreign friends will get… For the past few days, I kept noticing a steady cloud over a certain spec of land upon the bay’s horizon. About 49km off the coast of Whakatane (the “wh” is pronounced as a “f”), lies New Zealand’s most active volcano, and I was going to spend my ANZAC Day (“Australia and New Zealand Army Corps” type of Memorial Day) exploring it!

We enjoyed an hour and a half at sea aboard the nicest of yachts before arriving at Whakaari or White Island. Once we disembarked, I quickly understood why the waiver I had to sign suggested it a wise decision to currently be covered by some sort of health insurance. The current threat of an eruption is very real. It last went off in October 2013, just over 6 months ago. Even though scientists closely monitor any changes in the volcano’s activity, they still cannot precisely say to the day when it will blow. On a scale of 1 to 5, White Island consistently sits at a level 1 danger because it lies so far off the coast (not taking into account any visitors such as myself), and last October the threat only rose to a level 2. While this type of volcano chucks rocks and ash into the atmosphere through its suffocating smoke instead of spewing out scalding lava, this particular eruption could have still been life threatening. Fortunately, the explosion occurred in the evening while nobody was on the island.

As we walked along the rocky crater floor, we passed boiling mud pools and hissing sulfur chimneys. At points, the smoke was so thick it stung your eyes and pinched the back of your throat, so I was very grateful for my gas mask. It actually felt like we were in another universe. This is almost the type of home I envision when I picture aliens living on another planet. Their thick green astronaut suit type skin would be able to withstand temperatures to any extreme degree, and I could just see them scrubbing their foreign bodies in these gnarly baths. But the eeriest part about visiting was knowing that real human miners use to live and work on this island.

From 1923-1933, brave men excavated sulfur here. I don’t know how they did it; breathing in such toxic air, let alone living in severe isolation. Even the “fresh” stream water wasn’t healthy for them. We got to taste water from two different sources, both with two very bizarre aftertastes. Our guide told us that you can find any mineral from A to Z in there, both good and bad. From what I could extract, the first finger licking drop I tried was obviously very warm and a bit salty, and the second had a metallic type vinegar tang. After my Tui HQ experience, I was hesitant to ingest anything else a guide might suggest. Regardless, the acid levels were so off the carts, parts of the island measuring -0.6, that the miners had to brush their teeth 4-6 times a day to keep their teeth from rotting and turning black. These men literally risked their lives every day to work in such a hazardous environment, and in 1933, the volcano erupted, leaving only but one survivor. The factory ruins are still on site today, and it is very creepy and a bit Pompeii-esque to imagine the tragedy.

Comparatively, White Island doesn’t sit all that high above the sea level. Mount Gisborne peaks at 321m. But the interesting thing to me was that the vast majority of the volcano lies underwater. I bet scuba diving around the island would a truly unique experience. And oddly enough to me, there are over 20 different plant species that live and can survive on the island. It was a highly enthralling experience, and I can proudly say now that “I made it out of New Zealand’s most active volcano alive!”

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