Sunday, December 6, 2009

Whakaari / White Island

Saturday, 31 November 2009, I arrived at the Foodtown on Quay Street. This weekend, I am going on a trip to Whakaari, also known as White Island, with a total of seven Couchsurfers from Auckland. The plan is to couchsurf at Grant's place in Tirohanga, about seven kilometres east of the district centre of Opotiki, which is about 45 kilometres east of Whakatane. The original plan was to meet at 4:30am as we were originally going to visit the island on Saturday, but thankfully, due to a booking mix-up, we now have our trip booked for Sunday, which means that we can meet at 8:30am instead as we are spending the night in Tirohanga. I gathered the Couchsurfers to be picked up here, Alejandra from Mexico, and Mita from India, both temporarily living in Auckland. Eventually, Kirin, one of the Couchsurfing ambassadors for the city showed up and we were on our way.

We settled into a long drive, about 300 kilometres to Whakatane. With the small, single-lane Kiwi roads, this drive takes around four hours. About 40 kilometres outside of Auckland, I saw the Bombay Hills for the first time. These ranges, near the town of Pukekohe, mark the divide between Auckland Region and Wiakato Region. A bit further along, traffic got a bit heavier as we drove around the Hamilton area, but it was still pretty smooth sailing. As expected, traffic was light once outside of the Auckland region. We drove over the Kaimai Ranges, and although not very tall, the hills were very abrupt, making for some spectacular views down the edges of the road. After a brief stop at Te Puke to get some cash and to contact the other parties, we continued on. Apparently, this area is considered the kiwifruit capital of the world, with the countryside covered with orchards filled with kiwifruit vines.

Eventually, we made it to Whakatane after driving through an area where the road was sandwiched between the sea and some sandy-looking cliffs in which there were holes with birds flying in and out of them. The pōhutukawa trees, which are colloquially called Christmas trees as they bloom around Christmas time, were also starting to bloom. From this road, we could see the small hilly Motuhora Island and White Island in the distance, low in the water. Here, we met up with the other car from Auckland, with carried a Kiwi, a Frenchman and a Canadian. We also met with an American living out of his car in Whakatane, looking for a way to get a job and a work visa so that he can continue to stay in New Zealand. We all grabbed lunch together in Whakatane, where I realised that food prices here are much lower than they are in Auckland. After a long and disorganised shopping trip here, we headed off to Grant's place in Tirohanga, where Kirin organised a Couchsurfing BBQ. As the plan was to have nearly 20 Couchsurfers there, I joked that this must be the largest Couchsurfing invasion of a town in New Zealand by proportion, as Tirohanga is only home to 1,200 residents. On the way over, we drove through some beautiful fern covered gorges carved out by a surprisingly small river.

As we arrived at Grant's place, we found that he already had two Couchsurfers staying with him, one from the US, one from France. After a visit to the beach, which is just behind his house, we all worked together in the kitchen to prepare a large dinner. As the night went on, more Couchsurfers trickled in, and it grew to be quite a large party. We also enjoyed the company of Bruno, a black Labrador Retriever, who was very social and energetic. During the evening, Grant took us down the road to his avocado orchard, where he showed us his avocado trees and how he cared for them. He even brought out his Hydraladder cherry picker, showed us the controls, and allowed us to take turns trying to operate the machine! On the Hydraladder, I was able to see the ocean in the distance and have a great view of the surrounding orchards and mist-covered hills. We also toured the octagonal house he built there, one of the nearly ten houses that he designed and built himself. It was quite a nice living space, and I could see a family living here quite comfortably among the avocado trees and ocean views.

As dinner was ready, we gathered in the back yard out of the rain under a huge rain shelter made from four posts and some kind of fabric. It turns out that Grant was religious and decided that we should say grace. With his suggestion, we did it in as many languages as people knew, including English, French, Mandarin Chinese (in which I tried my best, and it turned out better than I thought), Spanish, Hindi, and Swedish. Although I am not religious, I found it was quite a rewarding experience, having so many cultures brought together in this tiny town in New Zealand. It was a great meal, with steak, chicken, sausages, salad, potatoes, a variety of roast vegetables, and a giant pot of steamed mussels, not to mention beer and wine. After dinner, I stood there talking with people while slowly picking at the mussels. These mussels were really tasty, large and fresh. This must be because New Zealand is a large producer of mussels so that the ones we get here are of very high quality, especially considering how unpolluted the local waters are. It also turns out that the mussels in New Zealand are of a local variety, the New Zealand Green-Lipped Mussel, which may account for the size and taste difference, although I would imagine that at this point, these should be cultured elsewhere as well.

I spent the rest of the time after dinner chatting with various Couchsurfers and hanging out. Some of the Couchsurfers were hanging out by the bathtub in the yard with a fire under it to heat the bath, which is apparently pretty common in these parts. It seems that life here is very simple, and there are uses for everything. Paper towels were thrown into the fire, the mussel shells went into the compost bin, and food scraps and bones became Bruno's dinner.

Inside, I got into a conversation with Katrina, or Kat, the Canadian Couchsurfer from the other car, and a Canadian neighbour who moved to New Zealand twenty years ago. We found out that all three of us were teachers, and Kat remarked that all the Canadians she met in New Zealand were teachers as well! I wonder if this was a coincidence, or if many Canadians come to New Zealand to teach. As it came time to sleep, everyone found a surface to sleep on. It turns out that Grant has two guest bedrooms available, with some Couchsurfers setting up tents outside. Although Grant offered the use of his farmhouse as well, everyone decided to stay around the house, which accommodated the large numbers surprisingly well. I slept on one of the small mattresses in the living room.

I woke up at around 7am to the sound of breakfast in the kitchen after a short night of sleep. Having toast with jam, I looked out the front door to see steep emerald green hills covered by mist near the top, just beyond some pastures filled with grazing cattle. On the other side of the house was the path leading down to the beach. As we had breakfast, Grant went for his morning run, so we said good-bye. I was very impressed that Grant would trust leaving his house to over a dozen Couchsurfers, but he seems like a very laid-back guy, and has let Couchsurfers use his house before even when he wasn't there!

After breakfast, the Couchsurfers who were going to White Island packed into the cars and started towards Whakatane, where we were catching our boat. Today, we tried a different route, Highway 2, instead of the coastal route we took last night. After a delay caused by a wrong turn down a narrow road into a park, we were quickly on our way. I was enthralled by the scenes of green hills filled with fern trees rising above peaceful farmland. I thought this would be a great area to live for someone looking for a quiet, peaceful life.

After a short wait, everything was sorted, and trading in our strange metallic cones we obtained from the tour company desk, we boarded the boat for White Island. Sitting at the back of the boat, I watched the boat pull out of the harbour at Whakatane, past the Wairaka statue, the symbol of the town. As we pulled out of the harbour, the boat became shaky amid breaking waves. I made sure to enjoy these waves as the boat rocked back and forth. Little did I know that this was only a taste of what is going to be the best boat ride of my life!

As we headed out to sea, a few Couchsurfers and I walked up to the bow. We sat by the windows of the cabin looking out at the bow, enjoying the view of the open ocean ahead. As the boat sped up, the waves also increased in size. Eventually it got to the point where I became concerned that my bag might fall overboard, so I walked back to check. Walking along the outside deck, I had to hang on tight with both hands to prevent myself from falling over. Whenever the boat struck a wave, a solid wall of water would shoot up beside me up to my head to curl away and fall back into the ocean. When I was satisfied that my bag was stored safely, I carefully made my way back to the bow, where my seat had been taken. No matter, I sat at the very tip of the bow, on the right side. Although I now have to turn a bit to look ahead, this turned out to be the best seat on the boat!

The waves kept getting bigger and bigger. Eventually, the spray from the waves washed over the entire front section of the bow, with the exception of the very tip! The right side was slightly drier than the left due to the wind direction. Almost everyone who stayed were soaked, except for me, who was nice and dry with my camera, having a blast! By this time, many of the Couchsurfers had gone back to the back of the boat, and at least one person even fell over on the deck even though she was holding on tight to the handrails. I watched as the spray off the bow became taller and more violent. Eventually, the spray would consistently soak even the second floor deck of the boat. I had a blast leaning out in front of the bow, watching as the bow bounced off the waves. It was like riding a roller coaster, complete with having my butt leave the seat with particularly large waves. This went on for one and a half hours. While I was having the best and most exciting experience since arriving in New Zealand, a few of the other Couchsurfers were sick, including one who threw up. It turns that he wasn't the only one who threw up on that boat.

White Island slowly rose out of the ocean as we approached. When we were close enough, we can see that the island was giving off periodic puffs of smoke, which drifted slowly away from the island to the east. Sailing past the gannett colonies on green slopes which lead into trecherous cliffs, we could suddenly see into the crater and the constant steam rising from it. As our boat anchored itself offshore, we were taken in groups to shore on an inflatable dinghy, with the seasick people getting offloaded first.

The crater is a completely different world. It looked devoid of life, reeked of sulphur, and steam was pouring out of the fumaroles all around the crater. The floor of the crater is criss-crossed by dozens of streams ranging from light turquoise to a dark maroon gushing out of openings in the rocks. Given a helmet and a gas mask, we followed our guides for a walking tour of the volcano. Apparently, the previous eruption had not been predicted successfully, but luckily it happened late in the day when the tour was not running. With this in mind, we were given the instructions to duck behind the steaming mounds of earth lying around and put on our gas masks in the case of an eruption.

The tour took us around the crater past various fumaroles and streams, some of which we were told to avoid touching due to high concentrations of sulphuric acid. One of the streams contained water which we could taste, although as I was far back in the line of people at that time, I didn't see the exact stream the guide was pointing to and didn't want to risk tasting the wrong stream! Supposedly it tastes kind of like blood due to the iron and various other elements, such as gold and arsenic, that it contained. The tour took us up to the main fumarole, which was surrounded by boiling mud. The sounds of the fumarole, with a large volume of gas coming out of it at high speeds, made a sound that reminded me of a jet engine. Luckily for us, the winds were kind that day so that the steam was blowing away from us, allowing us a clear view. However, I decided to keep my mask on most of the time as I was developing quite a sore throat even with the candies they gave us to promote salivation.

The tour continued to the edge of a cliff leading to a large lake at the back of the crater. The pale yellow-green water was churning and steaming so that the entire lake crater was spilling over with a white mist. Supposedly this was an extremely acidic lake, with a pH of less then one. We were also told about how the level and colour of the lake changed over time as well. Although the lake is currently yellow-green, it was light blue just a year or so ago, and was very low. At one point, the lake was so full that geologists were even concerned that the lake could overflow and cause a lahar of acid into the surrounding waters!

On our walk back to the old dock, we passed many other sights such steaming mounds, more pools of boiling mud, colourful streams, and a variety of different gas vents. I found a cute tiny gas vent on the path puffing out steam and creating a delicate tower of sulphur crystals around itself. The tour ended with a stop at the corroded mining facility which had been abandoned decades ago after an eruption killed the workers there. While the metal machinery there had been heavily corroded, the wood beams were surprisingly well-preserved, possibly due to the lack of microorganisms due to the toxic atmosphere. In fact, our guides tell us that they switched to polyester uniforms as the cotton ones would get corroded away very quickly.

We had lunch aboard the ship. Enjoying the outside deck on the second floor, I noticed a sharp delineation between the murky waters near the coast and the clear waters of the ocean. There were also bubbles all around the area, which I learned was due to underwater vents around the volcano. As we sailed back, the weather was much nicer, although I still got soaked by standing near the front of the second floor external deck. I also enjoyed watching the wildlife around the boat, which included seabirds skimming along the waves and giant jellyfish as we entered the harbour. We noticed that there are many people with snorkels in the water near buckets on shore, which we assumed must mean there is something tasty that can be collected here.

On the drive back, we stopped in Mount Manganui, a hip beach town located on a penninsula tipped by the dominating Mount Manganui, for dinner and to see the beach. Although we wanted to watch the sunset from the mountain, Kirin realised that he had a Couchsurfer waiting in Auckland, so we drove back right after dinner. It was quite a nice drive with a few more sights to see out the car along the way, including the large L&P bottle in Paeroa. All in all, quite a rewarding and exciting weekend.