The incredible landscape of Whakaari White Island © Camilla Rutherford

Whakaari White Island: a moonscape of volcanic desolation


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Volcanoes are a bit like big dogs. However well you think you know them, however dopey and friendly they might seem there’s always the chance they’ll cut up rough, and if they do, look out.

Some volcanoes, of course, are stroppier than others. A stroll on Mount Eden, for example, feels safe. A poke around on the flanks of Whakaari – White Island – by contrast, does not.

That’s because White Island is the most obviously active of our volcanoes. Ruapehu and Ngāuruhoe have a history of waking suddenly and with very little warning, catching everyone by surprise. On the other hand, if you were to be so unfortunate as to be in the way when White Island blew its top, it’d be hard to argue you weren’t warned. In big dog terms, White Island has a permanent snarl twisting its lips, and slobber hanging from its jaws.

Of course, that’s what makes it so much fun to visit. It takes around 80 minutes – far less by helicopter – to get there by boat, landing in Crater Bay. On the way, you’ll be issued with a gas mask and a hard hat, which will make you feel really safe.

Once ashore, you’re greeted by a moonscape of volcanic desolation, with the melancholy, rusted remains of a sulphur factory visible at the terminus of the mudflow that overwhelmed it, taking 11 lives, in 1914.

One of the unique features of White Island is that there is no exhausting climb up sliding scree slopes or flinty lava flows to get to where the action is. Access to the central crater is a short stroll over packed dirt that may as well be flat. It takes you past hot springs and mini geysers, and fissures in the rock through which steam hisses. In the crater area itself, active fumaroles de-gas in the middle of the crater area, earning themselves names such as Donald Duck and Noisy Nellie, and the sulphuric stink of geothermal activity hangs over everything.

A crater lake has been intermittently present over the site of recent activity: this changes colour depending on the weather and the mood of the mountain, from milky grey to vivid green or azure blue.

Inside out 🌋 📷: @calsnape Tag #moodnation to be featured!

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One thing is certain: you’ll want to take photographs... a walk on White Island is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

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