Billowing clouds of gas, steam and ash are spewing out from the crater and you hesitate to move. An explosion seems imminent but the guide appears relaxed and in control.
You marvel at the fumaroles that spout erratically in a frenzied effort to release the pent up forces below. Garish yellow and white sulphurous crystal deposits form bizarre shapes that don’t belong on this planet. You check your gas mask before pressing on into this ghostly whiteout. One glance into the fiery crater convinces you its time to retreat – it’s an 800°C furnace in there.
The famous navigator, Captain James Cook, named Whakaari (White Island) as the island always appeared white from its billowing steam. The island was thrust upwards by the continuing clash between the Indo-Australian tectonic plate and the Pacific Plate, which has been driven underneath the former plate for two million years. Whakaari is New Zealand’s most active volcano. It lies 50 km off the Whakatane coast and attracts thousands of visitors each year on six hour boat cruises and helicopter excursions (if conditions are safe).
Early settlers first acquired the island in the 1830’s for the purpose of sulphur production. Mining work was interrupted in 1885 and stopped completely the year after when Mt Tarawera erupted, reshaping the Rotorua landscape. The Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ extends through the Bay of Plenty from White Island to Rotorua and Taupo. In the late 1970’s two new caters formed and 100,000 cu. metres of rock was ejected in the process.
The Bay of Plenty is a sun-drenched region of glorious white sand beaches, beautiful harbours and a laid-back lifestyle. Whakatane is the main eastern centre and Tauranga holds court at the western end of the bay. Tauranga is a cosmopolitan lifestyle city with first-class cuisine and fine wines. Across the harbour is Mt Maunganui, another volcanic cone at the tip of a long sandspit. From its summit the view is quite phenomenal – the deep blue of the Pacific and a white sand beach stretching as far as the eye can see towards Whakatane. Directly below is a premier beach resort alive with surfers and swimmers.
For an exciting and sometimes disconcerting challenge, visit White Island and then seek out a safe refuge on the sunny beach resorts of the Bay of Plenty.