Whangamata to Whakatane Road Trip

white island

After a light continental breakfast in-house, we depart and drive to Waihi, an old mining town where gold bearing quartz was discovered in 1878. There are many quaint buildings lining Waihi’s main street, including several old miners’ cottages. We stop for lattés at an antiquated coffee shop and discover that gold and silver production continues at the Martha Mine, but it’s hidden well from view.

Interest piqued, we explore the town’s colourful past at the Waihi Gold Mining Museum and Arts Centre, then climb aboard a vintage train which puffs its way along these historic tracks to Waikino station, where the Victoria Battery began its ear-splitting work in 1896.

Returning to Waihi we leave town and travel south on SH2 to Katikati, driving alongside the harbour to Tauranga. Here we order a delicious wood-fired pizza for lunch at Mills Reef Winery before continuing south on SH2 to Te Puke, where the NZ kiwifruit industry had its beginnings.

Outside Longridge Park we debate whether to take a guided tour of a working kiwifruit farm. We choose instead to continue to Whakatane and join a tour to White Island, an active volcano that puffs and splutters endless tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, some 49 kilometres off the coast.

On the wharf we join 16 others and board Pee Jay, a luxury launch purpose-built for the journey. We’re thrilled when hundreds of bottlenose dolphins join us for the ride, merrily ducking and dancing on the bow waves.

Under the charred silhouette of White Island we don hard hats and - gas masks swinging at the ready - board the inflatable and disembark on White Island’s formidable terrain.

Many visitors turn back on arrival and Bob is in awe as we trek past the grotesque blistered remains of the old sulphur mine rising from the ashes.

The ground shudders beneath our feet, groaning as we follow our guide across a stony, lunar-like landscape. Jagged red ridges rise above vivid coppery-yellow fumaroles that discharge gas under such pressure that it roars through holes in the ground like a squadron of B52 bombers, its choking emissions surging in cumulus formations across the barren wasteland.

Cautiously we peer into a blackened crater. Inside, the milky lime-green crater-lake is peacefully sublime in comparison with the highly active vent, which spews forth a constant torrent of burnt black ash and billowing gaseous vapours.

“It’s as though the earth is alive,” says Bob, looking around in horror as the ground shakes and a deep rumbling sound comes from beneath our feet.

By the time we return to Whakatane and check into our motel the sun has set. We have takeaways for dinner and with the thunderous roar of the island’s gassy belches still ringing in our ears, discuss the powerful forces of nature that we’ve witnessed.

Bob is absolutely stunned by the experience. “I just can’t believe it” he repeats over and over again when I tell him that there’s nowhere else in the world where you can experience a live marine volcano at such close proximity. “Can we go again tomorrow?”

PLEASE NOTE: On 9 December 2019, at 14:11 NZDT (01:11 UTC), the volcanic island Whakaari / White Island in New Zealand's north-eastern Bay of Plenty region erupted. Tragically, this resulted in the death of 22 people and impacted many people from New Zealand and internationally. Our condolences go out to the families and loved ones of those who passed away and the injured and their families as they recover. As a result of the eruption event, there are currently no on-land tours of the island in operation.