This past Monday started like most other days here at my home in Portland.  I got up, went downstairs, turned on my computer, sat down and started browsing through news websites to see what had been going on in the world overnight.  Not much news.  But then on the CNN website, a breaking story suddenly flashed with a headline:  a volcanic island in New Zealand had just erupted, killing several people.  I figured it was probably White Island and, when I clicked on the link to read more, I learned I was right. 

Reading the story on CNN and seeing the cellphone video that had been hastily posted brought back memories of my own visit to White Island in December 2001, 18 years almost to the day before the tragic eruption.  As I saw on the shaky CNN video, the day of the eruption had been very much like the day I had visited White Island back in 2001, warm and with clear blue skies. 

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Above:  Hitting the beach at White Island during my visit in December 2001.  Wait, we're going up THERE?  Um, really? (Larger/clickable version is below).

Let me back up:  In the spring of 2001, after spending 10 years working for an engineering firm in Portland, I decided to quit my job so I could go traveling.  In fact, I quit on the 10-year anniversary of my hire date, figuring that no one should work at the same job for more than 10 years.  I spent that summer and fall taking a 20,000-mile road trip alone around the U.S., during which I learned how to create a website.  This was during the infancy of the Internet before travel blogs were common, but during that trip I created my first travel website, called DelsJourney.com, which ultimately grew to over 400 pages as I posted almost-daily stories about my adventures. 

After traveling for six months around America, I returned to the Northwest and spent November 2001 at my Dad's house in Bellingham, Washington getting ready for Part 2 of my journey:  my first trip overseas.  In early December, I flew to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, where I spent a week, then headed on to New Zealand, where I rented a car in Auckland and embarked on what would be a two-month trip around the country, spending one month on North Island and a month on South Island. 

One of my first stops in New Zealand was the coastal town of Whakatane (a Maori word pronounced "fock-a-tawny") where I hopped on a boat and took a day-trip to see volcanic White Island, which lies about 30 miles offshore.  I had studied geology in college and had long been fascinated by volcanic places around the U.S., like Yellowstone, Craters of the Moon in Idaho and Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, so I was eager to see White Island, which was the most volcanically-active place in the very volcanic country of New Zealand.  I was enthralled with White Island and after my incredible visit there, I thought it was one of the most amazing places I'd ever seen (and 18 years later, it still is).  Even now, the memory of that pleasant afternoon trip out to fascinating White Island in 2001 is clearly etched in my mind. 

This past Monday morning, however, I was saddened to learn that during a similar excursion, several people died there after a tremendous volcanic eruption.  A lake in the middle of the island -- the same steaming lake I'd seen in 2001 -- had apparently erupted during the explosion.  Only about 10,000 people visit White Island each year because it's so hazardous and inaccessible, and this was the first time it had erupted since a few months before my visit there in 2001.  I remember my feeling of excitement and anticipation when I first landed on the beach at White Island, but in retrospect I didn't fully appreciate the potential danger, figuring it was similar to visiting the innocuous geysers and bubbling mud pots at Yellowstone.  I've always had fond memories of the time I spent on White Island, but those memories will now-and-forever will be tinged with sadness, given the tragic events there earlier this week.  Reflecting on the people who died there, I'll never again think of my visit to White Island the same way.

I posted a story about my trip to White Island on my DelsJourney website shortly after my visit there in 2001 and included several photos.  I'm reposting that story below to give you an idea of what visiting White Island was like before the eruption.  I'm including all of the photos in my original story, plus several more which I've never posted (and all the photos are now at a much larger size).  But if you'd like to read my original story from 2001, it's at:  http://www.delsjourney.com/news/news_01-12-24.htm

Reprint:  My 2001 Visit to White Island, New Zealand 

 

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Above:  My Travels in New Zealand from December 15 - 24, 2001.

I finally reached Whakatane (remember, no giggling) late that afternoon and checked into the pleasant Nau Mai motel.  "Nau Mai" is Maori for "welcome" and true to its name, the proprietor, a genial fellow named Rod, made me feel quite at home.  After I asked about the next day's boat ride to White Island, Rod even booked me a reservation for it.  As I'm learning, this is how most New Zealanders are, although I think a lot of people are especially friendly towards me since I'm traveling alone.

This was my first night in a New Zealand motel, most of which are "self-contained" with a full kitchen, refrigerator, dinnerware, and small appliances like a toaster, blender, and coffee-maker.  In the U.S., you're lucky to get a microwave in a motel room, let alone plates and utensils.  After Rod gave me the key to my room, he also handed me a small bottle of milk.  I was a bit puzzled with this odd housewarming gift, but I learned this was customary when you get a room in a New Zealand motel.  The milk, as I discovered, is for your tea, which, of course, lost its popularity in the U.S. a few centuries ago after the Boston Tea Party.

I got up early the next day, drank my bottle of milk, and got ready for a tour of White Island, a volcanic island which lies about 30 miles offshore.  White Island is the most volcanic place in New Zealand and the only way to get there is by permitted boat tour or, for an extra $100, by helicopter.  Needless to say, and considering my spartan budget, I opted for the boat ride.  After arriving at the dock, I paid Jenny, the pleasant young woman in the office, my $40 fee.  A moment later, she handed me a long release form stating that the company wouldn't be liable if I were injured or killed, and with a friendly smile, she asked me to read it and sign at the bottom.  As I was scanning down the lengthy form, I asked Jenny about potential hazards.  "Oh, don't worry," she cheerfully replied, "there haven't been any eruptions on White Island for three months."  Jeez, that was reassuring.

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Above:  As we stood on the edge of the crater, I could taste the sulfur building up on my lips (larger/clickable version is below). 

About an hour later, around noon, about 30 of us boarded the 60-foot boat, PeeJay, then we rode for two hours across the warm and sunny Bay of Plenty until we reached the island.  During the pleasant, bouncy ride, I became a bit more apprehensive when our guides handed out hard hats and gas masks. I  was really starting to wonder about this trip.  Finally we approached the island and the PeeJay dropped anchor in a protected cove a few hundred yards offshore.  Soon afterwards our group took a Zodiac raft ashore, where we spent a few hours hiking around.

White Island is about two miles across and is totally uninhabited -- indeed, it's a hostile place for any living creature.  A small volcano in the middle of the island constantly belches clouds of sulfur making it pretty difficult to breathe. Oh yeah, it smells pretty bad, too.

Although the fumes were intense at times, I fortunately didn't need to use my gas mask.  However, after walking around the island for an hour and strolling up to the edge of the crater, I could taste a sulfuric crust building up on my lips, which reminded me of my homemade pizza.  (Here's a tip:  don't ever eat my homemade pizza).  On the way back to the beach, we passed several steaming vents and walked through a warm, acidic stream a few inches deep which, as the friendly tour guide cheerfully pointed out after we crossed it, will eat the rubber off your boots.  As utterly fascinating as the island was, it was good to get back on the PeeJay again.

On the boat ride back to Whakatane, I was thinking about the health of the young tour guides, because they come out here twice each day.  When I asked one of the young women guides about it, she said that she wasn't bothered at all by the sulfurous fumes.  However, after I thought about it, I figured maybe that's not a good sign.  I just hope they're making good money, because I definitely wouldn't want to visit White Island every day.

In any event, White Island is one of the most fascinating places I've ever been to in my entire life and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who's interested in volcanoes.  Or losing their lungs.

My Visit to White Island, New Zealand (December 2001)

 

 
 
 
 

 

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