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Journeying to the volcanoes of North Island, New Zealand

If you want to pinpoint the very heart of New Zealand start by walking into one of the many volcanoes on the North Island, where you’ll discover mud pools within coiling vapours, wineries and a rich Maori history.

Published 3 May 2019, 12:19 BST
New Zealand

Most of New Zealand’s volcanoes are dormant, but White Island is the real thing, the island nation’s most active vent.

Photograph by Getty Images

“There’s been a minor eruption,” says helicopter pilot Tarren Schneller as we crunch across the floor of the volcano. We’re heading towards a black lake that’s sending up roiling clouds of steam. It’s spooky inside the vast, windless cone. The size of the thing is overwhelming.

The walls rise up to 1,050ft; its warm floor of ash is a kilometre across. It’s so big, we entered the volcano using a Robinson R44 chopper that we’ve abandoned half a kilometre away; a glossy red speck in a blackened crater.

As we get closer to the lake, alien sounds emanate from underfoot. Delicate yellow flowers of sulphur hiss and spit, ferrous pools chatter like lidded kettles and a fumarole blows a jet of stinking gas like a well gushes oil.

“Can you hear it?” asks Tarren. The noise is coming from the bilious lake, a body 50 metres across. It’s a sound of liquid turmoil.

I’ve spent seven days in the North Island climbing cones, peering into craters and gazing over calderas. Most of New Zealand’s volcanoes are dormant, their power living on in story, their future menace merely implied. But this is the real thing. This is White Island, New Zealand’s most active vent. And it’s clearing its throat.

Beside the cauldron’s edge, we press rubber masks to our faces and squint into clouds that boil off a lake with the same pH as battery acid. Suddenly, there’s an urgent roar as a fat column of mud shoots 100ft into the air. It collapses, splattering and sighing, then gushes again and again. It’s unnerving — and transfixing. “I can’t stop looking,” I murmur. “Neither can I,” says the chopper pilot. “I’ve flown tourists into this thing for six months. But I never get tired of it.”

Early settlers

A few days earlier I’m on the rim of Rangitoto. It’s green and lush, feathered with fresh-smelling ferns and a forest of evergreen pohutukawa trees — home to tiny birds called silvereyes. When I hold out my hand, one lands, balancing on spidery claws.

Rising 850ft from broad basaltic skirts, the sleeping volcano appears menacing or magnificent, depending on your state of mind. But it’s easily the largest of the 53 volcanoes in this, the world’s youngest volcanic field. From Rangitoto’s rim, I count nine other cones amid a panorama of blue waters, emerald islands and dark ranges. So where exactly is this geological freak in this phantasmagorical volcanic field? Well, it’s Auckland. From the rim of Rangitoto, we’re looking down on New Zealand’s largest city, home to 1.4 million people.

“Vulcanologists say Rangitoto erupted 600 years ago,” says James Brown, a Maori elder of the Ngai Tai tribe. “But working through our ancestral genealogy, we believe it was more likely 700 to 750.” I don’t argue. James has the body of an All Blacks scrum-half and the mind of a lawyer. His male friend is the equally large — and improbably named — Tracy Davis, who points out the cone of Maungawhau, where his 4,000-strong Ngati Whatua tribe once lived in a village. “Our lot fought with James’ lot,” he grins.

They were among a dozen Maori tribes that arrived on these shores in canoes in the 14th century, seeking territory to farm and fish. The volcanic soils they discovered put an end to their search. “The volcanoes gave us elevation, so we could see our enemies, and fertile soils to grow our kumara [sweet potatoes],” says James. “We’d found the Garden of Eden, why would you leave?”

The Ngai Tai settled the island of Motutapu. Then the sea began to boil and a massive sub-sea eruption blew half a cubic mile of rock into the sky. Rangitoto piled up next to Motutapu in days. The Ngai Tai fled Motutapu, returning after the eruption to find their island had a new neighbour: an 850ft cone of basalt sticking out of the sea. Today, geologists regard this as one of New Zealand’s prize curiosities: one of the oldest pieces of New Zealand (Motutapu island) is joined to the youngest piece of New Zealand (the Rangitoto volcano) by a narrow neck of land.

For James and Tracy, the future is bright. Until recently, the Maori story was one of displacement, dishonoured treaties and the decline of tribal culture; now the government is honouring settlements to return control of native lands to Maori peoples. Including Rangitoto.

Into Auckland

Baz Howie is half-Maori and all Harley-Davidson lover. He hands me a helmet and a leather jacket emblazoned with ‘Bularangi Motorbikes’ and rips me through Auckland on his 1700cc Heritage Softail Classic.

The engine crackles and blats as we cross the Harbour Bridge and flash past Viaduct Basin, with its squadrons of yachts. Then, inside hilly suburbs of weatherboard houses, we spiral noisily up things that few metropolises can boast: inner-city volcanoes.

Mount Victoria has its own 13-ton gun; in the 1890s, the hydraulically operated barrel rose slowly out of the 278ft summit to ward off Russian invaders, although it was only ever test-fired. One Tree Hill is terraced with remains of a Maori village thought to be the world’s largest prehistoric earthwork fortification; now it’s grazed by sheep and — bizarrely, given traffic circles below — smells a little like the Derbyshire Dales. Mt Eden, Tracy’s volcano, looks over the neoclassical form of Auckland’s superb museum.

In the 1840s, New Zealand’s colonisers included canny Scottish agriculturalists, used to more meagre soils back home. They too recognised a Garden of Eden. “The Maori had a pretty good hold on the place,” says Baz, “but the Europeans knew how to get onside.” In 1841, the ‘Protector of Aborigines’ bought Mt Eden in a 3,000-acre parcel from the Maori for £340. After six months, 44 acres were sold on for £24,000.

Baz has one more Auckland volcano he says I should see — it’s close to the airport and little more than a circular bund enclosing 20 acres. At its centre is the Villa Maria winery.

“Single vineyard wine, grown right here,” says director Fabian Yukich, pouring the 2010 Ihumatao Chardonnay. He gestures through the winery restaurant window at trellised vines. They’re a genteel sight in what was a bowl of fire 20,000 years ago. “We’ve also built the winery using volcanic aggregate — you can see it in the black walls. We wanted to reflect the landscape.”

An equally good reflection is the lunch menu, loaded with Kiwi export successes raised on rich North Island soil. I have grain-fed sirloin, pumpkin puree and a fruit dessert lavished with cream. The steak is matched with a 2010 Syrah, which has a delicious peppery taste — a quality you’d perhaps expect from a volcanic terroir.

Sulphurous stench

I travel next to the town of Rotorua, a geothermal hotspot amid volcanic lakes and forested ranges. In 2010, three million people visited, and every one of them said the same thing on their arrival: ‘Poooooh!’ I love its sulphur stink — primeval and visceral, the guts of the earth. At Hells Gate, one of several geothermal parks located around the city, I take a night-time soak in mud pools. Sitting in viscous 40C water, I butter myself with silky, grey mud as lights cast Jurassic shadows among the tree ferns and coiling vapours.

Like the Auckland volcanic field, Rotorua is fired up by the Pacific Plate slipping beneath the Indo-Australian Plate. It’s a long, slow drama — centuries of dormancy and moments of extreme violence — but it’s one that’s long fascinated international tourists. Hells Gate has been catering to visitors for 170 years, including one George Bernard Shaw, who named the place.

More famous still is Te Wairoa, more commonly known as the Buried Village. It was once the lakeside home of the Tuhourangi people. In the 1860s, it was a tourist gateway to the Pink and White Terraces — dubbed ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ by Europeans. Photos and paintings suggest the 130ft-high silica staircases of steaming pools were equal to the hyperbole.

“The Tuhourangi were all over the tourism potential; they were great entrepreneurs,” says Pam McGrath, owner of the Buried Village interpretive centre. “Tuhourangi guides would take tourists on a two-day trip by canoe into Lake Rotomahana. When they reached the Pink and White Terraces, the visitors would bathe and have a traditional Maori lunch.” Brooding over all this was the thumping bulk of Mt Tarawera.

By 1886, up to 5,000 visitors a year were paying 10 guineas for the package and the village had become a two-hotel town, although its decadence (and taste for grog) caused the local shaman to predict calamity. On 10 June, Mt Tarawera ruptured, filling the night sky with fire. Tourists and Maori began their evacuation. “If it’d just been Tarawera, it would’ve made for a fantastic light show,” Pam says. “But there was a second event — a massive eruption from under Lake Rotomahana.”

Pam leads me into a peaceful garden of ponga trees and pines to show me the remains of the village. There are foundations and relics excavated from beneath a 5ft-high blanket of beige mud. Up to 150 people died, Pam tells me. Remarkably, survivors included the doom-saying shaman, who lay buried for four days.

And what of the fabled Terraces? South of Rotorua is an eco-centre called Waimangu Volcanic Valley, from which you can see along the length of a nine-mile geothermic rift opened by the Tarawera/Rotomahana eruptions. The mountain looks sweetly implacable again, graced by the vastly enlarged lake.

The centre’s CEO, Harvey James, leads me deep into the rift, stopping at hotspots as ominous as the shaman’s warnings. “This is pure geothermal fluid,” he says at Inferno Crater, a forest-shrouded 80C pool of the most unnatural ice-blue. “It’s like looking into the underworld,” says Harvey. “We do some fairly intense monitoring here.” At the end of the tour, we board a boat to circle the rim of Lake Rotomahana. Harvey kills the engine beside a small geyser which gushes obligingly. “The Pink Terraces are believed to be below us,” he says. “They’re 130ft beneath the water buried in thick mud.” He smiles ruefully. “I don’t think we’ll be getting them back.”

Hazardous hikes

A few days later, I’m sitting in the elegant lounge of the 1929 Chateau Tongariro Hotel, listening to a piano and the click-click of billiard balls. From windows leaded with art nouveau designs I can see three famous volcanoes. Mount Ruapehu is behind the hotel. The Chateau is immortalised in a 1985 photo by Tim Whittaker; it looks insignificant yet stoic as the mountain blows its stack. ‘Next door’ is Ngauruhoe, so perfect it was digitally re-engineered as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. And a little further away is Tongariro, which punched a hole in its own side last year. We’re in the Taupo Volcanic Zone, where the big cones live. Tongariro is nearly 2km high; Ruapehu nearer to three. Up the road is massive Lake Taupo — the flooded hole left by the Hatepe eruption: the event, in AD180, excavated 40 cubic miles of debris in minutes.

One of New Zealand’s premier walking tracks is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a demanding eight-hour hike over the Tongariro volcano. After three hours, I’m above wet forest and into rugged valleys of sub-Alpine grasses where snow falls lightly. I can see dead trees — brown, bowled over — and New Zealand’s newest crater, Te Maari. Just a kilometre from the track, we can smell its belching vent — a great column of steam amassed into a writhing thunderhead.

Stewart Barclay, owner of adventure company Adrift Outdoor Guided Adventures, leads me to a lonely Alpine hut that looks down over lakes, mountains and silver plains. A small rock is parked in a 16ft-wide crater. “Lava bomb,” says Stewart. “Some rocks are the size of cars.” The hut has been shelled twice; cleanly punctured.

We hear a helicopter far below us, gingerly nosing up to the steaming Te Maari crater. “Probably GNS,” says Stewart, referring to the government monitoring agency. “Measuring gas, taking temperatures, watching lake levels.”

“How much warning can they give?”

“Well, if certain things change, they know an event is about to happen. But Te Maari was off the radar — dormant for 100 years. Eight hours before it went off, I was sitting in this hut. There were no signs it was going to blow.”

One sign is explicit: ‘You are entering an ACTIVE VOLCANIC HAZARD ZONE. Move quickly through the next 4.2km’.

“OK,” says Stewart, embarking on a well-rehearsed patter. “In the event of an eruption…”

I’m slightly alarmed to learn that if the bombs rain down, I’m to stand still, look up — and dodge from side to side.

Dramatic entrance

Thirty miles off the east coast, the Helipro chopper wheels into the mouth of White Island, a volcano rising out of the Pacific. It’s one of the most dramatic entrances to one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had in 25 years of travelling.

Walking up to the cauldron, the wind changes and acid steam stings my face as though a cloud of midges has descended. A huge fumarole — a roaring vat of crystalline sulphur — momentarily lights up as sun penetrates the steam.

And there’s the cauldron. It’s a defining moment. After seven days, I realise I’ve spoken with some two dozen New Zealanders who work or live alongside volcanic lands and they’ve all said the same thing. They never tire of it.

I recall the start of my trip, looking over Auckland with Maori elder James Brown. “You ask me about the volcanic fields and Maoridom,” James had said. “Well, I am a Rangitoto boy — my sacred environment is here, that’s what makes me up. But I’m not the guardian of the volcano. The volcano is the guardian of me.”


Getting there
Air New Zealand flies from Heathrow via Los Angeles to 22 New Zealand destinations. Emirates flies to Auckland and Christchurch daily from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Newcastle (via Dubai).

Average flight time: 24-28h.

Getting around
The country is easy to explore by hire car (a UK driver’s license is accepted). Air New Zealand flies frequently from Auckland to Rotorua and Taupo. If you’re travelling to Rangitoto Island from Auckland, a ferry leaves twice daily Monday-Friday, with three crossings on Saturday. 

When to go
Volcanoes are moody and magnificent in all seasons and Rotorua’s geothermal sites are gorgeous in the snow. That said, summer (November to February) in New Zealand is pleasantly warm.

Where to stay
The Hermitage (Auckland)
Sudima Lake Rotorua
Chateau Tongariro Hotel (Tongariro National Park)

Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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