No paths, no tracks, no footprints – all washed away. With no evidence that anyone has been there before you, only an experienced guide can lead you up the the main crater walls of New Zealand’s only live marine volcano, White Island or Whakaari. Twenty-seven nautical miles off the coast of Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty, the volcano was discovered by Captain Cook in 1769 but is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 years old.
The landscape is ever-changing. In fact, this will probably be the last time I’ll see it as it is, as new grooves and new craters are formed all the time, eroded by the acidic water the island holds. Sulphurous steam belches from the rocks, tickling the throat – the Darth Vader-like masks distributed on the boat come in handy for dealing with the overwhelming smell.
Making my way to the main crater walls I’m acutely aware that I’m on unstable ground, feeling dwarfed by the mountain hissing and roaring around me. Up ahead is a palette of colours – dark red rocks, yellow sulphur and the turquoise water of the crater lake. The crater was formed after the eruption of 2000 and water appeared from underground in 2003.
The heat coming off the misty lake is palpable. The current depth is 24 metres, the highest to date. Count your blessings, the guide tells us – a full lake means low activity. When it starts to drain, best to find a big boulder to hide under or hightail it out of there. Comforting words.
It is an awe-inspiring experience. Walking the live volcano is like tiptoeing around a sleeping giant, knowing that one day it will awake – and hoping that we’ll be on safe ground when it does.