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New Zealand: Walking on Whakaari

“One river tastes of blood, and the other one like lemons,” my guide, Mata, tells me. I consider the stream that trickles at my feet. Then I remove my gas mask and utter a two-syllable word that calls his honesty into question.

New Zealand: Walking on Whakaari
Whakaari, New Zealand. Image: James Draven

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It is he, after all, who told me my breathing apparatus was to prevent a slow, agonising death from sulphuric acid smog burning my lungs out and — although the great billowing clouds rising from this island’s volcanic crater lake are now stinging my eyes and sticking in my throat as if I were imbibing a cocktail of smelling salts and scouring powder served over nuggets of wire wool — he’d evidently been pulling my leg. As the sole tour operator licensed to take visitors out on the six-hour round-trip across the water to don a hard hat and explore on foot New Zealand’s only active marine volcano, people would quickly start pointing fingers if guests were apparently buying one-way tickets.

“Go on, drink it,” he encourages me with a grin. Cautiously, as if playing a game of chicken, I crouch by the water’s edge and run my finger through the stream, slowly bringing my hand towards my face, expecting Mata to swerve first. He doesn’t. I insert my wet digit into my mouth. It’s like putting my tongue on a flat nine-volt battery.

Buoyed by my nonchalance, a Romanian tourist with an appropriately thick accent follows suit: “Mmm, yes-s-s. The river tastes like blo-o-od,” he says like the spectre of Bela Lugosi. He looks baffled when I ask if he’s from Transylvania.

Whakaari, located 30 miles from land in the Bay of Plenty, is New Zealand’s largest volcanic structure — if you count the submerged portion. It’s also the country’s most active cone volcano. When Captain James Cook passed this way in 1769 he uncharacteristically didn’t take the time to explore Whakaari and — having never set foot on it — failed to realise it was a volcano; instead, he lazily named it White Island, due to the cloud of steam that perpetually enshrouded its peak, and sailed on by. Its crater lake, which can boil at up to 200C and be 60 times stronger than battery acid, has been near-continuously belching a nebulous cloak ever since and the name has stuck.

The other stream Mata mentioned does indeed have a slight lemony tang. Both of the rivers’ peculiarities are simply caused by mineral deposits in the water: iron oxide producing the former and sulphur the latter. After he’s had me quaff it, my guide cheerfully shows me how the caustic waters also clean dirty pennies. I would be concerned, but fizzy drinks do the same thing.

With the decimated remains of a corroded, 1920s sulphur-mining factory crumbling on its shores, the scene is redolent of a steampunk-infused explosion in a macabre Wonka candy shop, reverse-terraforming Earth to its primordial landscape. Like sweeties, the island’s noxious atmosphere also rotted the miners’ teeth from their skulls.

Despite being replete with natural fertiliser, virtually no vegetation survives in this inhospitable environment, leaving a craggy, open-air laboratory of hissing gasses, effervescent pools, and rivers of bitter lemonade. Sans flora, the island’s colour chart is mineral: Copper Green, Calcium Sulphate White, and Pink Iron, the paint-can swatches would read.

Yellow encrusts a fumarole piping out superheated steam. Mata tiptoes over to it, gingerly scrapes some off and presents it to me. It’s crystallised sulphur: biblical brimstone cooked in hellfire. It tastes like sour, fizzy sherbet. It’s quite nice; I go back for seconds.

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