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Monday 3 Feb 2014
White Island, New Zealand

White Island, Dragon Lair

I wasn’t the only person going to White Island from the hostel, so I gave Natascha a lift down to the port.  We chatted easily on the 90-minute ride out to the island, watching the cliffs get taller as we approached and wondering how we were going to get into the crater.  That became clear as we rounded the far side of the island.  One wall of the cliff was missing completely leaving a horseshoe-shaped crater.  We’d seen puffs of steam rising as we approached, but now we could see that the back of the crater was full of it.  The weather was in our favour as it kept the steam blowing that way, giving us a clear view of everything else. 

We split into three groups and donned hard hats and optional gas masks.  They ferried us across to the island in a dingy (reminding me a lot of the shore excursions in Galápagos).  Our guides, Nick and Mata, led us around the island.  We were told to stick closely together and listen to instructions at all times.  This was an active marine volcano, and while lava eruptions were so unlikely as to be almost impossible, gaseous explosions still happen regularly, sending showers of rocks and gravel into the air.  Should that happen, we were more likely to flee in the same direction if we were in a group, which made evacuations easier.  What a comforting thought…

There have been several attempts to mine sulphur commercially over the years, but none have proved lucrative enough and the human collateral has been high.  We were led around the outside of the crater to see bright yellow sulphur oxide deposits, steaming streams, bubbling mud pools and stinky fumaroles.  The gas masks were optional, only really necessary by one particularly smelly pool.  The main crater lake at the back of the caldera was bubbling violently.  It is extremely acidic and we were kept well back from the edge in case the overhang decided to break off at that moment.  It was easy to see how the makers of the Narnia Chronicals had seen this as the perfect setting for the dragon lair in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

It was fascinating to see this kind of environment up close.  I’d seen something like it in Lassen National Park in California, but this felt much more real as we weren’t confined to a boardwalk.  Some of the old mining equipment still remained, but it had rusted well beyond use and in come cases almost beyond recognition.  It just added to the atmosphere.  It was hard to imagine being left out here for a month at a time while mining the sulphur.  Miners had to climb the steep cliff trail up to the campsite each day for a safe place to sleep, but accidents still happened.  Eruptions damaged equipment and storage sheds and several miners fell victim to the steaming vents and acidic pools.

There are seismographs and cameras set up on the island to monitor activity on a regular basis.  One seismologist set up a small plastic dinosaur in front one of the cameras as a joke, but the DinoCam has become an Internet sensation.  The White Island website crashed after the New York Times mentioned it in an article.

On the journey back to Whakatane, we were lucky enough to cross paths with a huge pod of dolphins, who wanted to play.  We watched them coming in from some distance away, leaping over the waves in groups, before they surrounded us.  They stuck with us for about 15 minutes, leaping out ahead of us, ducking under the boat to reappear on the far side and playing with each other.  I counted at least 30 of them, though there could have been double that number.  It was certainly the most dolphins I’ve seen in one place at once.  It was a fantastic highlight to an already brilliant day.


After dropping Natascha back at the hostel, I drove down to Rotorua and checked in at the Blarney Rock Backpackers in the middle of town.  I just missed the shops, but still had a wander around the town to stretch my legs before cooking dinner and introducing a few younger backpackers to the classic 80’s movie Pretty in Pink.

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #4 New Zealand and Australia

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I had so much fun in New Zealand and Australia that I'm going back around again! This time I'll see more of the North Island and catch up with friends and family in Melbourne

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