Eruptions of color, senses, and wonder – exploring Mount Tarawera and White Island

Another holiday weekend was upon us and we were road tripping volcano style, exploring Mount Taraweara and Whakaari White Island.  On our way north, we made a pit stop to admire Mount Ruapehu (last eruption 2007), it was our volcanic warmup. It was early June and the volcano was already covered in snow.  In a few months skiers would fill these volcanic slopes, carving through its icy snowfields.  Today, we would only admire this beauty from afar.

Mount Tarawera

The 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera is one NZ’s largest, creating Waimangu, the world’s youngest geothermal valley.  As the rhyolitic lava domes fissured it created a 17 km long rift through the volcano, killing 120 people and destroying the Pink and White Terraces, world’s eighth wonder of the world.

The only way to walk the Mount Taraweara crater is to book a guided tour with Kaitiaki Adventures. Although we typically steer clear from tours, this one is fairly small and the guides are incredibly knowledgable. The tour company also works with local hapu Ngāti Rangitihi to ensure that the tour respects the Wairua (spirit) and Mana of the Tangata Whenua and their Tupuna (ancestors).

The tour begins with a long and sometimes rough ride through managed forest and regenerating bush, before arriving at the edge of the crater.  Here, the climb leads along red volcanic soils and rocks covered in early successional moss and lichens with views down into the crater.

When reaching the highest point, we were treated with 360 views that extend over Lake Tarawera in the distance and the crater below.

Now the fun really begins with a run down the soft volcanic ash of the crater. The slope is so steep, it feels as though you are falling down on one big slide.  Even if you stumble, the ash is so soft, its like falling onto a stack of pillows.

Looking back after a quick climb out of the crater, the view along the fissure exposes the power of the explosion.


Whakaari White Island

Whakaari White Island is an active andesite stratovolcano in the Bay of Plenty. Whakaari means ‘that which can be made visible’, referring to how the island disappears and reappears from behind the smoke and steam.  Minor eruptions occur frequently and smoke can often be seen from the shores along the bay. Although these eruptions are unpredictable, rising temperatures in the vent are a good indication of serious activity to come.

There was a time when people lived on the island to mine sulphur.  In 1914 10 miners were killed when a collapsed crater wall caused a landslide.  Mining operations ceased two decades later when the mineral content was not high enough quality to sell.  The abandoned mining machinery remain on island today, corroding from the sulphuric gases of the island.

You can reach the island by boat or helicopter.  The boat leaves Whakatāne from where it is a 50 km journey across the bay to the island. Larger boats can’t access the small dock so we jumped into a small zodiac to reach the shore.

We were instantly greeted by the noxious odor and eye stinging sulfuric gasses walking along bubbling fumaroles (mud pools), steaming and hissing vents, acidic cut drainage channels, and yellow and white sulfuric crystals.  It feels like we were walking on the moon.


As we ventured closer to the large lake in the center of the crater, the gases are so strong we had to wear masks to keep us from choking on the lung burning steam.

The lake temperatures generally range between 40-50 Celsius.  These temperatures would rise to nearly 295 Celsius when a small eruption occurred only one week after our visit.

thumb_IMG_2928_1024 copyWhile there is virtually no vegetation on this part of the island, further from the crater trees have reestablished, attracting large communities of birdlife. You would hardly know the of the dangerous activity just on the other side of this thriving cliffside.

Returning to the mainland, it wasn’t long before the sun was setting on Wairaka. Wairaka is a woman who steered a drifting waka filled with women back to shore.  At the time, women were forbade to handle the wakas.  However, Wairaka took the paddle yelling Kia Whakatane au i ahau meaning ‘I will act the part of man’ as she led the women to shore.  This cry is the origin of Whakatāne’s name.


We traveled just over the hill to Ohope, a tiny little beach community, to watch the final moments of sun fill the sky with color.


We spent our last evening enjoying a cultural home stay at Moanarua Beach Cottage. Miria and Taroi, the owners of the main house on the property, are descendants of the Ngati Awa and Tuhoe Tribes.  They shared stories of their life growing up in this region with a rich Māori history and heritage that is strongly evident today.


What an amazing weekend of powerful volcanos, natural scenery, and cultural learning!

Categories: New Zealand, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , ,

angie campbell

I am an immigrant from the United States living in Wellington, New Zealand. My love affair with landscape, culture, and learning has led to a life filled with travel and academic institutions. Endowed with endless curiosity, I spend a great deal of time philosophizing about anything and everything, but very often pertaining to environmental issues. I should note that I am not formally trained in environmental philosophy, nor do I have the vocabulary competency to pass for someone who has. My writing is a somewhat tongue and cheek.

I am using this blog as a means to work through some of this thinking and to follow my own pathway of inquiry, while providing (hopefully) some meaningful insight of what it is like to live as an American in Aotearoa New Zealand. I am sure at some point there will be some interesting travel photos once I make the leap from iphone to fancy camera.

There is a secondary tab to the this blog spot. Reflections of the Watering Hole is an old blog I started during one of my academic stints studying the social and environmental impacts of oil and natural gas development in the Denver Julesburg Basin in the United States. While some of the information is a bit 'dated' (I started it in 2013), many of the conundrums remain relevant today.

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