April 2014, a few hours east of Auckland at Whakatane on the Bay of Plenty, I boarded a helicopter – destination White Island. Flying out to sea we passed the mountainy forested Whale Island. Goats had been removed to make it a nature reserve and brown kiwis were reared there for release on the mainland. We didn’t land.
When he had first sighted White Island, Captain Cook thought the columns of smoke were from native fires. The island is but the tip of a massive underwater volcano. There is a gannet colony and a sheltered area with trees but otherwise it’s a hellish place. Large rocks near the island were once used as a bombing range.
We landed near the old sulphur mining works. People used mixes of it for fertilizer, among other uses. It had also been also used in medicines before the advent of antibiotics. The mining stopped with the 1930s and today sulphur is more easily got from crude oil.
The volcano continually spewed steam and acidic gases. The air was foul which meant our visit wasn’t a long one. Rain here is acidic. Streams and ponds are very much so but the water colours can be attractive. The ground changes with the seismic activity.
I saw steaming fumaroles, bubbling ponds and the most beautiful sulphur formations which could be mistaken for vegetation at times. Incredibly I saw some small plants – adaptation to an extreme environment. A guide referred to them as “pig plants”.
In the past, some miners were killed by a lahar flow but their cat Peter, subsequently Peter the Great, survived. New quarters were built in a safer place. Flying back to the mainland, none of us knew that within a few years, White Island would once again be a place of tragedy.