By Chris McBeath

Lying some 50km off New Zealand’s north-eastern coast, White Island is an intimate volcanic experience. Not the X-rated genre, but the kind where you get up close and personal with steaming schisms, vents, and gaseous fumaroles that make up one of the most accessible, active marine volcanoes in the world. Coming here is to feel the rumbling origins of earth beneath your feet.

Currently one of New Zealand’s most adventurous geothermal experiences, only a handful of tour companies are permitted to set foot on the island. Safety has become such a concern that finding passage is increasingly difficult. If successful, excursions operate out of the seaside town of Whakatane with departures highly dependent on weather, and the island’s temperament. She is, after all, an 180,000 year-old, untamed part of the world that ranks an alert level rating of 1, meaning she is always active and constantly steaming. Level 5 is a national disaster. Other than a Level 2 rating in 2000, when the volcano coughed up ash for a month or two, which totally altered its landscape, and a lesser eruption in 2011, White Island usually remains quiet enough to welcome visitors.

The trip is accessible to almost everyone who is up for two-hours of walking, and sometimes clambering across rough terrain. Note however that if you’re arriving by boat, (helicopter being the only other option), getting onto the island itself involves a zodiac transfer, a climb up steel ladders, a careful walk down a crumbling concrete wharf that is bolted together with metal sheets, and maneuvering over and around large, round boulders just to get to your tour assembly point. But once you’ve made it that far, the real adventure begins.

The Moari’s traditional name for the place is Te Puia o Whakaari, meaning The Dramatic Volcano, — named with good reason.

As in Gulliver’s Land of Brobdingnag, the gi-normous scale of everything here diminishes you to insignificance: Volcanic walls rise to over 300 metres, broken only by massive areas of cliff-side space where the outer walls have been blasted out to sea. Across the crater floor of red iron oxide and lush beds of yellow and white sulphur crystals, are strewn leftovers from previous eruptions: bedrocks the size of houses. And at the island’s powerful, unpredictable heart is a turquoise lake of sulphuric acid-rich water that only drifts into sight when the wind clears the clouds of steam from the water’s surface (a sizzling 400C degrees), and pushes them up into the sky like some peace pipe offering.

Then there are the hissing sulphur holes, bubbling hot mud pools, and calcified mounds that look solid enough to climb in order to get a better Kodak moment. But it pays to listen to your guide’s safety advice and stay on the path. Those same outcrops are liable to collapse at the touch, sending you — and your camera, to the earth’s core. You’re also equipped with a must-wear hard hat, and a gas mask for when an unexpected earth-burp envelops you with its noxious, sulphurous stench. Drinking bottled water and sucking on hard-boiled candies go a long way to easing any throat irritations.

In its heyday, though, before the island became a scenic preserve, the volcano was better known for its short-lived mining operations. The Maori had long harvested the island’s sulphur as a fertilizer for their gardens back on the mainland, but it took European prospectors to try and transform those resources into a commercial venture. Purchased for two barrels of rum in the 1830s, White Island was turned into a sulphur processing operation. However, the acidic and harsh environmental conditions were as unforgiving on machinery as they were on people, and in spite of several attempts of various entrepreneurial die-hards, every one of them failed. So in 1914, when the southwest corner of the crater wall caved in, operations ceased for good. The volcanic landslide destroyed the buildings, buried 11 miners and wiped out the workforce, confirming that this was truly, and still is, a no-man’s land. The decaying ruins of the mining colony are still evident, however, as in collapsing stonewalls, and rusted machinery, which make for somber testimony – and atmospheric photos – of man’s efforts against the force of nature.

While there are many places on New Zealand’s North Island to experience the country’s famous geothermal activities– Rotorua being the most celebrated – nothing compares to the raw splendor of White Island. Coming here is certainly no majestic moonwalk. Rather, it is to feel the still-roaring origins of earth with every step and with every sense.

If you go:

Tourism New Zealand:


Header photo by Julius Silver

All story photos by Chris McBeath