It's like a scene out of a Doctor Seuss book or an episode of Star Trek: an eerie, surreal, alien landscape that may as well be on Mars for it has in common with the rest of the planet.
The air is so thick with noxious gases that visitors have to carry gas masks as well as hard hats in case of falling rocks. It's nature at its worst but also its most beautiful: an ever-changing landscape of lunettes and bubbling streams where ghostly plumes dance in the air and psychedelic crystal sculptures grow from the ground.
Its White Island, a volcano that rises out the sea 50 kilometres east of the North Island of New Zealand. It's also the country's most active volcano; when it last erupted on April 27, a white plume of volcanic ash rose four kilometres into the sky.
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Rock Star Lift Off
My trip to White Island begins at Lake Rotorua, three hour's drive south of Auckland, where a sleek blue helicopter awaits at the end of a pier. Once I'm strapped in, pilot Danielle Heath lifts us into the sky over the Bay of Plenty. We fly over Whale Island as well as a cruise boat heading to White Island the old-fashioned way. But for pure wow factor, nothing beats landing on the crater floor of an active volcano that in almost any other country would be closed the public.
“The closest we ever came to danger,” Heath says, “ was back in 2013. I was walking around when the volcano made a very loud grumble, so we ran back to the chopper. But we checked the seismographs before leaving this morning, so we're unlikely to see any fireworks today.” It's hard to tell if he's joking or not, but the story certainly lends an extra element of adventure.
The Ninth Circle
Visually White Island is the geological equivalent of the Mad Hatters Tea Party – enlivened with pink, white and green Rorschach blots and deep concentric circles surrounding bubbling bogs. The badlands are intersected by trickling streams. When Heath tells me the water is drinkable, I collect a splash in my hand and take a slurp. It tastes like metal.
We continue towards the magna chamber, where superheated steam billows across our faces and the air is so foul that when I remove my gas mask it feels like I'm breathing chilli. We see nothing but steam until the wind changes and before us appears the very pits of hell.
It's not red seething lava as one would imagine but ochre-coloured with terraces that descend into a series of hissing aqua blue and emerald green pools of arsenic-laden pyroclastic material. The liquid inside is 100 times more toxic than battery acid and reaches temperatures of 220 degrees Celsius.
Worst Job On Earth
Mining commenced on White Island in 1885, when wretched men working under terrible conditions dug up rocks rich with sulphur for the manufacture of explosives. Before it was loaded on boats, the sulphur was crushed and bagged in a factory that now sits in ruins at Crater Bay, White Island's little beach. The ruin comprises a lone surviving wall overshadowing a concrete slab littered with cast-iron boilers and giant gears and cogs.
Ownership of White Island changed hands several times over the years until 1953, when it was bought by George Buttle. Originally Buttle wanted to mine it for gypsum – the main constituent of plasterboard. But when he saw White Island with his own eyes he had a change of heart and turned it into a private nature reserve.
“Strange as it may seem, the island is unbelievably beautiful and beyond description,” Buttle wrote in his dairy. “Surely it is one of the wonders of the world.”