Monday, October 6, 2008

White Island (or Whakaari)

The story of White Island is a wonderful one. There are many legends about the existence of pretty much everything in this world. One of the Maori legends talks about two mountain sisters, Whakaari and Motuhora (Whale Island). I think they were looking for a new place to live and they set off separately and were supposed to meet up later. When Motuhora couldn't find her sister, she went to look for her and followed the grooves Whakaari had made in her wake. She was speeding towards Whakaari and when the latter saw her, she jumped out of the way and ended up 50 km off the coast of Whakatane. Moruhora settled herself closer, 9 km away.
White Island is one of three active volcanoes in New Zealand, this one being the most active and the only marine volcano. We set off on a Monday morning, the sun was bright overhead and we expected only the best. That's exactly what we got.
It took about an hour and a half to get to the island. It is uninhabited and spouts steam up into the air, as if smoking.
The yacht stayed a bit off shore and we got to the island by motorboat.
The tour was very professional and they even fed us a small soup and bread breakfast on the way to the island with little stories along the way. They also fed us a box lunch on board after the visit.
After arriving on the island, we were taken along to see all the sulfur deposits that you see above.
Steam rose from holes in white mounds of minerals. The steam was 100 degrees Celsius and could regularly go up to 300 degrees. They were also able to record temperatures of up to 800 degrees! We had to wear hard hats in case of unexpected eruptions or rock slides and gas masks in case the gas emitted was too strong to breath in.
It was really cool!
These are called sulfur flowers. With the pressure of the steam, little crystalized flower-like formations would appear at the opening of a vent. This is only about a week old.
Amazing what colors nature can give us. I like to think of it as liquid silver and...a yellow like I've never seen. My words betray me here. It was just incredible to see these kinds of colors in such accidental (or not) ways.
More amazing colors. Coppers and moss greens, corals and metallic reds...
Later we reached a section of the island where there was this gigantic crater called the crater complex. Here I am standing in front of it, below.
But the picture doesn't do it just. It was this milky green lake, wispy clouds of steam rising from in one of the most mystically beautiful experiences of my life. A woman I met at the cottage who agreed to drive me to Whakatane with her husband, described the lake as ethereal and in truth, that's the only way to describe it.
Some people say that it's like stepping onto another planet and yes, I guess it is, in a way, but most importantly, it's like stepping into a land of fantasy, one of those comic books or alternate world movies where things like that only seem like figments of our imagination. Nothing that could actually be real.
But somehow, it is real and you do see it for yourself. So, for a moment there, I was mesmerized into silence at the wonder of what our earth can create.
I wanted you to have an idea of what it was like, so I recorded it. The image is not so good, but I'm hoping that it will make you dream, just a little...

After the crater complex, we started heading back to the shore. On the way, we saw plenty of other beautiful things.
Including, real boiling mud pits...
As we neared the shore, we came upon what used to be a sulfur factory. People used to live on this island and mine sulfur. They would have to brush their teeth three times a day to keep them from going black. The best article of clothing to wear was wool because it was the only thing that lasted longer than one month. Everything else wore away because of the minerals and salt from the sea. But wool was a terrible choice because the temperatures could go up into the 30s and it was obviously extremely hot.
Remnants of an old tractor.

What's left of the factory with the yacht in the distance. I love this picture, showing modern man's machines versus the machines of old.

As we headed back to the yacht, there was a very obvious milky quality to the water. That was the current that the sulfur took into the ocean. Apparently, it didn't really affect the sealife there. Many people come here every year to dive in the area. People also come to fish here. They can do that in a very specific area around the island. Things are very reglemented in New Zealand. I think that's the only way they can do that without destroying the things that make New Zealand the pristine country that it is. I'm really impressed with their conservation methods and with how so many people are dedicated in keeping it this way. I have a lot of respect for that.

And because it was such a beautiful day and the waters were calm, we were able to navigate around the island to see what the rest of the island looked like. It wasn't all barren land. On the other side there were traditional New Zealand trees called Pohutukawa. They flower in Christmastime and so are called Christmas trees here. I can't wait for them to bloom.

But a lot of the trees look like this...

They have been chemically burned from the ash falling on them. After the ash falls from an eruption, it rains and the ash turns into a kind of paste which basically burns the trees until they die. No fire or flame is involved, instead it is a slow death.

When it rains on Whakaari and people are visiting it, they get acid rain. They can feel the stinging on their faces. The guide, a woman, cheekily said that it was a free chemical peel. I laughed out loud.

Below a little video of the island to show what the other side looks like. It was a much bigger island than I had expected.


alowenthal said...

I see you made it to the island... very cool!!!!It's so funky and strange and looks like something I'll only get to experience through you and nationaly geographic! I am so envious, but so happy for you that you get to experience living in a diff way than I ever will.

love you.

L said...

Hey! No pity party. You've experienced life in a way that I can't relate to either and I have my envious moments, wondering whether I'll ever get the chance.

The plus side to this life is that it's not too late for either of us. We just have to find ways to be more creative in achieving the goals that seem out of our reach right now. One of these days you, Cornelia and I will go on a trip together and the kids' fathers will handle them while we relax and catch up on years of interupted conversations.

Love. Always.