The Eye of The Volcano

White Island 059 New Zealand is an active volcanic region, and has been for millions of years.  The North Island was largely formed through volcanic activity.  Its biggest active volcano is White Island, about 50 kilometers off the east coast near Rotorua.  We had a chance to visit White Island by helicopter, including landing on the small island and exploring it by foot.  We then flew over a chain of volcanoes in the area, including Mt. Tarawera, a large crevice volcano on the main North Island.

White Island 068 The day we flew by helicopter to White Island was quite windy, so I was reassured when our helicopter pilot said it was his second full week on the job and, so far, so good.  The Kiwis have very good senses of humor (or at least I hope he was joking :-) ).   We took off and in no time were hovering above the most interesting geology.  You could see all of the patterns of mountains, caldera lakes (lakes that fill in the top of a volcano that’s caved in), and valleys.  We then crossed over the Pacific, heading for White Island. 

White Island 074 Our visit to White Island might as well have been a visit to Mars.  It bears no resemblance to life on Earth.  At the center of the small island is a small, bubbling pool of sulphuric acid.  Needless to say, none of us were tempted to go in for a dip in the 60 degree (Centigrade!!) acid bath.  Surrounding the pool are some of the weirdest rock structures, many of which are oozing hot sulphuric gases.  We were equipped with gas masks, and put them to serious use!

White Island 081 Years ago, there was a sulphur mine on White Island, the remains of which are still in place there, barely.  The last major eruption on the island was in the year 2000, wiping out most of the structure.  As the price of sulphur collapsed, the mine ceased to be economic and was shut down.  The island was viewed as a wasteland and sold — for two pounds (British).  Now, though, it’s an active area for tourists, who come by boat or helicopter, and pay ten pounds per person.  Given that some 20,000 people visit a year, that initial purchase is looking pretty shrewd.  The next time someone wants to sell me an island for a couple of bucks, I’m a taker!

White Island 108 Well, as much as we were all hoping for a major eruption while we were on the island :-) , it stayed dormant, and we whisked off to the mainland.  But not before braving the sandy winds that whipped across the island, and we were all feeling lucky to make it back to the chopper.  And we felt even better when the helicopter made it back safely, especially Elizabeth (who is not a big fan of helicopter travel, to say the least!).

White Island 123 We got a good overhead look at Mt. Tarawera, which is another volcano in the chain around Rotorua.  It doesn’t look at all like a volcano, though.  No cone, no crater, no symmetry.  It’s more like a nasty cut in a mountain where the volcano erupted and oozed out its lava.  It last erupted in 1886, killing hundreds of people.  Before it erupted, there were world-renowned pink and white terraces around Tarawera that drew visitors from all over the world.  They, like much else in the area, didn’t survive the 1886 eruption.

White Island 132 We then spent a couple of very nice days at the Treetops Lodge in Rotorua.  The Treetops is set on 2,500 acres forest acres, and is incredibly well run.  We did a whole range of things, including getting a geology and natural history lecture from a very interesting local expert.  We also did a night hike, seeing glow worms, brush-tailed possums, and wild hares.  We toured an interesting museum in Rotorua, and got a great tour from the curator.  And on our last morning at Treetops, Elizabeth and Sterling went horseback riding, and Gibson and I took a photography class from a very talented local photographer.  We hope his expertise rubs off on our photos!!

Feel free to check out our photos of White Island, Treetops, and Rotorua.

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