FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Sunset over Whakatāne

Posted in New Zealand, Whakatane by folkestonejack on April 9, 2019

After returning from White Island there was still plenty of daylight left, so we took a drive over to Ohope Beach, voted NZs most loved beach in a poll a few years back. It’s a gorgeous stretch of coast line and a popular holiday destination. On a quiet weekday it was more or less deserted. The beaches in New Zealand always seem to have a little surprise up their sleeves. In this case, the sea had perfected the most beautiful natural artworks on the beach.

Sunset over Whakatane

In the late afternoon I took another walk, along the waterfront, to the point where the Whakatāne river meets the sea and waited for the sunset. One of the landmarks at this point is the Wairaka statue, situated on a rock, which was given to the town on 27th November 1965 by Sir William Sullivan. It’s a landmark with a story.

Wairaka was the daughter of Toroa, Captain of the Mataatua waka (canoe). The men had gone ashore, leaving the women and children on the waka. While they were away the boat began to drift back out to sea. In Maori culture women were not allowed to touch the paddles, but knowing that they would be doomed if she did not act Wairaka picked them up and cried out “kia tū whakatāne au i ahau” to give her the authority to take the place of the men. Wairaka’s actions saved her people and gave the town it’s name.

The statue also turns out to be a popular pigeon perch as I discovered at sunset!


Wanders around an active marine volcano

Posted in New Zealand, Whakatane by folkestonejack on April 9, 2019

A spot of good fortune saw the best weather of our trip coincide with our long awaited trip to White Island, an active marine volcano in the Bay of Plenty that was given its name by Captain Cook on 1st November 1769. It is believed to be around 150,000 to 200,000 years old and is the northernmost volcano in the Taupo volcanic zone.

White Island (Whakaari)

The 49km journey out to the privately owned island (on the Peejay IV) took around one hour and twenty minutes on a wonderfully calm sea, albeit with choppier waters for the final 10 minutes of our approach towards the island. Once we were moored offshore groups of eight were transferred to the island in an inflatable wearing life jackets, hard hats and gas masks.

On reaching the island we had to step up from the inflatable onto metal ladders set into the landing stage and then make our way across the boulders to the beach. The tour party was split into two groups of around 25 to take a walk around the inner crater.

First up, the safety briefing. Our tour guides stressed the importance of sticking to the path they had taken and not wandering off. To illustrate this point, they highlighted a relatively benign looking mound with a grey crust. These innocent looking sights are best described as egg shells as there is no way of telling how thick these crusts are from looking at them. Their hollow interiors could easily hide a boiling pool of water, mud or something far nastier.

Exploring White Island

Volcanoes can be unpredictable beasts so we were also given a run through of the evacuation plan in the event of an eruption. If the volcano starting spewing out rocks, the advice was to shelter behind even bigger rocks! Thankfully, this was reckoned to be quite unlikely. Volcanic activity is measured on a scale of 1 to 5, with White Island currently on 1 for ‘minor volcanic unrest’. In the past it has spent 90 seconds at 5 for ‘major volcanic eruption’.

The first groups to return to the island three days after the eruption of 2000 had no idea of the conditions they would find. They discovered that the ladders were encrusted with volcanic material which had not entirely set, giving it the consistency of chewing gum. Apparently, one of the tour guides picked up a large rock to show his group but dropped it as it was still hot. On reaching the ground it broke in half, revealing a still molten core!

In 2003 monitoring equipment was put in place, including 24 hour cameras that allow remote observation of activity in the crater. These have helped pick up recent developments, including clear indications that the crater lake is starting to reform.

Steaming sulphur chimneys

Our walk took us around the sights in the inner crater, starting with the strikingly yellow sulphur chimneys which were belching out steam. The potency of the steam was soon demonstrated when the wind changed direction and blew the steam towards us. We had all been issued with gas masks that we could use whenever we felt the need and boiled sweets to help generate more saliva (this was very effective at counteracting the effects of the environment on my throat) but on this occasion it was just enough to turn our backs to the steam.

The next stop was the crater lake, getting near enough to get a good view but not close enough to test how crumbly the cliff edge might be! From here, we headed on to a couple of streams with water coming from different sources on the island and got to dip our fingers in for a taste. The first had a flavour a bit like blood, showing the presence of iron, while the second had a tangy lemon flavour.

Finally, we reached the remains of the last sulphur mining operation on the island which finished in the 1930s. It was a pretty inhospitable and dangerous place to work, evidenced by the loss of all 10 workers from the operation of 1913-14 after a collapse of the crater rim caused a landslide. The remains of the factory amply demonstrate the corrosive nature of the environment.

The remains of the sulphur factory

The only survivor of the 1914 disaster was one of the camp cats, nicknamed Peter the Great, who was discovered by a re-supply vessel three weeks later. Peter was later re-settled in Opotiki and his long and happy life led to a long line of cats. Peter was supposed to have sired over 500 kittens and it is said that most of the cats in the area can trace a connection back to him!

Once our exploration of the rusting factory was complete we returned to the wharf, ready to make our way back to our ship by inflatable. There was time enough for a packed lunch (provided by the tour company) and a circumnavigation of the island before we headed back to Whakatane, accompanied for part of the way by a school of dolphins who happily played alongside the ship.

As well as taking boat trips to White Island you can also fly in by helicopter and mid-way through our tour we saw a couple of Volcanic Air helicopters arrive, swooping around the curve of the crater impressively and then dropping down onto the wooden landing pads. The view of the island from the air must be impressive, but I think I prefer the more relaxed views of our boat trip.

Our transport to and from the island – the Peejay IV

I was incredibly impressed with the efficient operation of the trip by White Island Tours, the smooth boat transfers to the island and the knowledgeable explanations provided by our tour guides. It has undoubtedly been the highlight of my trip to New Zealand and I would thoroughly recommend the experience. After all, how often do you get the opportunity to set foot on an active volcano?


The terrible disaster at White Island on 9 December 2019 has shocked and saddened the world. My thoughts go out to the tourists and tour guides, their friends and all the families affected by the terrible tragedy that has unfolded.

Setting foot on the island earlier this year, I thought I understood the risks. The safety briefings and ongoing safety explanations on the shore, on the boat and on the island were very thorough. I took reassurance from the routine checks with GeoNet, the monitoring systems in place on the island and the long history of tours without incident. It was shocking to see how little warning there could be of an eruption. Now, I can see that I didn’t have the faintest clue and put my loved ones at more risk than I should have.