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A voyage to Te Puia o Whaakari

Location: New-Zealand.


Due to the strong wind it is not possible to sail from Whakatane to White Island by boat, but luckily we can charter a helicopter at the last minute.

It is 10 to 8 when I slide open the curtain of the camper after a good night’s sleep. I see that the sky is clear blue again. The number of days in a row with beautiful weather has been continuous since our arrival in Auckland. The weather app on my iPhone also predicts great weather conditions for the rest of the day. It is the beginning of February, summer in New Zealand! Furthermore, Whakatane, in the heart of the Bay of Plenty in the east, is the sunniest spot in New Zealand, with over 2,500 hours of sunshine per year.

How disappointing is the telephone call just after 8 am. The planned boat trip that day to the smouldering volcanic island of Whaakari, located 48 kilometres off the coast of Whakatane, has been cancelled. The wind at sea is much too strong, the waves too high, the boat trip too risky. Unfortunately...

The trip to the only active marine volcano of New Zealand was at the top of our list of favourite things to do on the northern island. What should we do now?

Just after 9 am, we call Whakatane airport to enquire about a last possibility of flying to the volcano by helicopter. We are connected to the airport.

“Yes, of course, flying is almost always possible. So tell me what time you want to go.” And so at 11 am we are having coffee in the briefing room of KAHU helicopters and following the safety instructions for our flight and our landing in the volcano.

Whaakari volcano is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. The volcanoes and geothermic areas of the northern island are also part of this zone. In the Taupo Volcanic Zone, the Pacific and Indian-Australian tectonic plates clash with each other and the earth’s crust is pushed into the earth’s mantle. This often causes volcanic chaos. This zone is part of the Pacific ‘ring of fire’, a horseshoe-shaped area around the Pacific Ocean which is known for the frequent occurrence of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Of the 452 volcanoes in the ‘ring of fire’, 128 are active, including Whaakari.

Whaakari is 1,600 metres high, but only the top 320 metres protrude above sea level. On his voyage of discovery to New Zealand in 1769, Captain Cook named the volcano ‘White Island’ because it ‘was enveloped by white smoke’. He did not land there and was therefore not aware that this was a volcano.

During the briefing, we are given instructions about the strict safety requirements: we are only allowed to go on the island under the supervision of the pilot/guide and we must wear safety helmets (unexpected eruptions) and gas masks (extreme smell of sulphur and possible toxic gases).

Twenty minutes after take-off we circle around the volcano

After being introduced to our pilot/guide Robert, we board the helicopter and are soon on our way.

From my seat next to the pilot, I have a panoramic view across the ocean with the smouldering crater in the distance.

After just 20 minutes, we are circling the volcano and the green steaming crater lake is already clearly visible. Another steep turn to the left and then we see the landing site in the crater in front of us.

The green steaming volcano lake is clearly visible from the helicopter.

What we immediately notice is the multitude of colours. The steep rising crater rim varies in colour from brown, orange and warm red, depending on the iron oxidation, to the bright yellow of the crystalline structure of steaming and roaring fumaroles, glittering sulphur chimneys. The sulphur smell is not too bad. Wearing helmets and with gas masks round our necks, we are ready to start walking.

Wearing helmets and with gas masks round our necks, we make a one hour hike in the crater.

Small eruptions of gases and pumice stone are a regular occurrence, but during the last large eruption in 2000 a new crater emerged and the current crater lake was formed. We cautiously approach the edge. The lake is filled with a greenish mixture of steaming hydrochloric acid and sulphuric acid with a temperature which can rise to 800 degrees... The sulphur fumes burn in our eyes and Robert warns us that the rising fumes will have a strong corrosive effect on our clothing and photo equipment. So we have to be careful! But it’s more important to be careful that we don’t slip here. Falling into the lake means certain death. The poisonous mixture reduces your body and bones to nothing...

180 degrees panorama view of the crater lake. The lake is filled with a greenish mixture of steaming hydrochloric acid and sulphuric acid. Falling into the lake means certain death.

During the trip, our pilot/guide gives a fascinating explanation of the history and geology of this area.

Up to 1914, sulphur was extracted on White Island. An eruption that year killed all the miners. The remains of the mine and the equipment are the silent witnesses to this tragic event.

Video report of our voyage to the marine volcano Te Puia o Whaakari

What a fascinating experience to be able to encounter this. Three of us on this otherwise completely abandoned volcanic island...

One and a half hours later, the helicopter takes off again towards the mainland. The pilot turns right and we just catch the wind blowing the steam away from the crown of the volcano.

Back in the camper, we look up the meaning of the Maori name ‘Te Puia o Whaakari’.

It means ‘the dramatic volcano’.




-National Geographic travel guide New-Zealand


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