Gas Masks and Volcanoes

If you are ever near Whakatane, New Zealand and are looking for something to do, you must go on a tour of White Island located in the Bay of Plenty. White Island, also known as Whakaari, is NZ’s most active volcano! It sits 30 miles off the coast, and you can only access the island through a chartered tour. We did the White Island Tour aboard the cruiser, PeeJay.

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The night before we departed, we stayed in one of the homes associated with the tour company. Compared to the close quarters we had been sleeping in, this was like a mansion! In the morning, we prepared for the trip by making sure we had sturdy, close toed shoes, on and had removed all of our silver jewelry. This was actually no joke, they had warned us that the metal could become tarnished in the acidic environment on the island. In fact, I couldn’t remove one of my upper ear piercings, and it is slightly darker than it was before the adventure. We signed waivers before boarding, acknowledging the dangers of visiting this active volcano.

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The boat ride out there was a little rough. It was a tad bit rainy, but not bad enough for the tour to be cancelled. Kendra and I opted to sit out on the balcony instead of being cooped up inside with the all the other passengers. It was pretty foggy out, so we had a bit of a hard time seeing too far, but we laughed and swapped life stories during the hour boat ride. Right before we got to the island, the crew members handed out hard hats and gas masks, and instructed us on the dangers of entering the island. The volcano sits mostly under the sea, so when you step foot on White Island, you are stepping on to the crater complex. We were warned that on a volcanic activity scale of 1-5, this volcano usually sat around a 2. In case of an eruption, we were to run far away from the open crater and vents, and get behind something to avoid flying volcanic matter. We were also not to wander very far from where our tour leader was, as you could accidentally step on to a hidden hot spot.  Finally, we were provided the gas masks because of the sulfuric steam. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, but we were warned.

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We got on a dingy that took us to shore from the main vessel. Kendra and I were in awe, taking so many pictures. One of the guides laughed at us and told us to keep moving, as there were much better pictures to be taken ahead.  We walked across gray, ashen land tinted with streaks of yellow from sulfur, towards a steaming section of the island. These steaming fumaroles were bright yellow, and the gases they were emitting were intense! Even with the gas masks on, your throat was burning, nose was running, and your eyes were watering. The smell was a sharp, pungent odor of sulfur. Everyone started coughing, and the guides passed out hard candies for us to suck on. This actually helped a lot. I pressed my gas mask close to my face, and eagerly moved forward with the rest of the group.

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I can’t really describe the island as anything other than alien. I honestly felt like I had stepped on to another planet. It was incredible, I was filled with an alluring sense of danger mixed with a childish sense of awe and amazement. Walking around, there were chunks of scoria and bright yellow sulfur on the ground. There were pits of boiling mud scattered throughout the island. Towards the back end, there was one very large crater with a lake similar to those we came across while hiking the Tongariro Crossing.

image                         I mean does that not look just like an alien creature that would crawl out of a volcano??

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We started circling back to the front of the island. One of the guides told us about two fresh water streams on the island. He said we could taste test both, one was supposed to taste like iron and the other was to have a citrus taste. He was right! I touched my finger to the water in each stream, and timidly gave them a try. I was scared I might get some weird bacteria but it was cool to say I tasted volcano water.

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This is the stream that had the citrus taste.IMG_0843      This stream had the iron taste, it’s nifty how the colors align with the tastes.

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At the front of the island where we had docked, lies the remains of a sulfur mining settlement that had been destroyed in an eruption in 1914. The guides told us the story of how this lahar eruption killed 10 unfortunate souls, but left a surviving camp cat alive. People continued to mine the island, but eventually stopped as it wasn’t producing the amounts of sulfur wanted, not to mention the risks of being on the island were too high. As I explored the remains, I wondered if these men had been aware of the danger of working and living on the island.  I wondered if they knew what was happening when the volcano erupted. It’s crazy to think about because we could have reached the same fate, wandering about an active volcano with such leisure.

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Our two hours of exploration were up, and we scrubbed our boots to clean of the ash and chemicals before getting back on the ship. The crew passed out a packed lunch for everyone as we sailed around to the other side of the island. Here you could see a large gannet population and several fur seals lounging on the rocks. The fog had lifted at this point, and our trip back to the mainland was sunny and relaxing.

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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

This day is one I will never forget. It started out simply enough, Kendra and I were to catch our shuttle at 6:15 AM to make it to the crossing by 7:15 AM so that we had ample time to get back to the shuttle at the end of the day. We layered up and packed up a hearty lunch with several snacks, mentally preparing for what everyone kept telling us was one of the hardest hikes they had ever gone on. We walked out to meet the shuttle at 6:15 and there it was… anddd there it went. We looked at each other for a split second in sheer panic, breakfast bagels in hand, and started sprinting after our shuttle, screaming at them to stop. After about two blocks, we stopped, completely dumbfounded by what had just happened and decided to walk to the i-site to see what we could do. Well unfortunately the i-site didn’t open for another two hours and no one was answering the phone for the shuttle company. Kendra and I were pretty angry and had just added an extra 2 miles of running to our already lengthy 20 km trek that was ahead of us… if we made it there. We had to make a decision. And that decision was to hitchhike. After several failed attempts, we found a young couple in a camper van filling up at the local gas station. We asked where they were headed and wouldn’t you know! They were headed to the end point of the crossing! All we had to do from there was convince a shuttle to take us to the front, and wouldn’t you believe it! They were taking the same shuttle that had left us! This amazing couple took Kendra and I to the end of the crossing, we secured a spot on our original shuttle after guilting them about leaving us behind, and made it to the start of the crossing, only an hour and a half behind schedule. We couldn’t help but laugh at what had happened and we were so excited to get our hike started.

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At the start of the crossing, there were hundreds of people. It was slightly overwhelming. It was a pretty chilly, windy day so I couldn’t imagine what it was like crowd-wise on a nice, warm summer day. However, once we got started the crowd thinned out a bit and we got so hot! The first section of the trek started on  a boardwalk overlooking a field of lava rock. We arrived at the first pit stop, Soda Falls, in about an hour and had to strip down to our base layers. Ahead of us was a steep incline known as the “Devil’s Staircase.” Kendra and I handled it surprisingly well. We took a couple short breaks to drink water and eat a granola bar, but we couldn’t believe that was all the “Devil’s Staircase” had to offer. At one point, we even asked fellow hikers if that was really it or if there was another intense climb we hadn’t arrived at yet.

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At the top of the staircase, you had the option of hiking to the summit of Mt.Nguaruhoe (Mt. Doom from Lord of The Rings) or to continue on the alpine crossing. We chose to pass on the summit hike as we were already running behind and it looked like something that might be slightly out of our physical abilities for the day. (Neither of us had done a mountain hike of such length and caliber before, so we wanted to make sure we weren’t dying and rushing at the end of the day.) If I ever return to the North Island of New Zealand, it is definitely something I would like to accomplish. As we continued on the crossing hike, we walked across a nice flat segment in between the two volcanoes, Mt. Doom and Mt. Tongariro. It was spectacular. There was no plant life, just tan colored sediment and snowy leftovers from the winter season.

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Kendra and I arrived at the next incline, very steep, but not as lengthy as the last. One section offered a metal chain for you to grab on to in order to help you up the icy rocks.  The view from the top of this final climb was more than breathtaking. I can’t even describe the beauty of the volcanoes and the surrounding mountain ranges. To one side of this 360 degree lookout, you had this incredible view of Red Crater. If you scanned over a bit, to where the trail was headed, you saw the Emerald Lakes followed by Blue Lake. Further still, you saw the Tongariro Volcano summit, and completing the full circular view, was Mt. Doom and its respective lake. Pictures cannot portray the beauty of this place. We proceeded to take a few hundred pictures and adventured off the path to get up close and personal with some of the sights.

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Climbing back down the other side of what we had just climbed up proved to be difficult and hilarious. We sat just off the side of the trail and watched people slip and slide down the trail of volcanic ash. Some falls were easily predictable, and as long as no one got hurt, we let out a few giggles. It was all in good fun as I took a spill myself, quite gracefully I might add, while we were descendingthr steep slope trying to get a better view of the yellow and green sulfur lakes. Around the three lakes, there were pockets of steam billowing out from the ground. Each lake had its own vibrant color. The first one that we came to was the largest, filled with bright green water within its center that was surrounded by a thin yellow ring along the outer rim. The second was the smallest and more of a pastel aquamarine color that reminds me still of an Easter egg. The third lake was my favorite. Its water had a translucent turquoise color towards the center that darkened quite a bit on the edges. It was absolutely beautiful. We decided to eat our lunch here before continuing on across the valley to Blue Lake and beginning our descent down the mountainside.

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Blue Lake was incredible as well. It sits up alone after you cross the valley between the Red Crater, Emerald Lakes, and Mt. Tongariro. Kendra and I sat here for a bit as well since we had made decent time so far before we decided we had better get going. I didn’t want to leave but the shuttle would be waiting and we had taken enough pictures and mental snapshots that the views would last a lifetime in our memories.

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The descent, in my opinion, was the hardest part! My poor toes were constantly smashing into the front of my hiking boots and my knees, which are prone to soreness from IT band problems, began to send me little hints that they were not happy. There were a few more volcanic vents we passed by, including Te Maari Crater which had erupted most recently in 2012. Several signs warned us to keep moving quickly through this volcanic hazard area. After we were done hiking down the open volcano side, we entered a beechwood forest with more warnings to keep moving as we were in a lahar (lava flow) region. At this point we were more than ready to reach the end and when we finally saw the parking lot with all the shuttles we were relieved to be able to sit down and take off our packs. It had been quite a memorable day and we laughed as we thought back to our panic nearly 11 hours earlier when we thought we wouldn’t even make it to the start of our hike.

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Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park quickly became my favorite spot we traveled to on this trip. It was so incredible. The park consists of three active volcanoes that are clustered around each other. These volcanoes are surrounded by rain forest, scrubland, and gravel fields at different, respective altitudes. There are a number of different trail options and we decided to hike the 6km trek to Taranaki Falls first. The trail leads you through alpine grassland into a beechwood forest that winds alongside a river. There were several smaller waterfalls that we passed along the way to the larger, punch bowl waterfall that we were aching to see. It did not disappoint. Kendra and I sat beside the powerful waterfall for quite a while, laughing and taking in the views (and the mist, as it slowly started to soak us and our belongings.) You can get a view from every angle of this waterfall; we walked behind it, around it, and above it. Each spot being just as spectacular as the last. You could see amazing views of the three volcanoes, Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom for all you Lord of The Rings fans), and Mt. Tongariro, as well.

After we had completed the waterfall walk, we drove up to the top of the Whakapapa Village to see the ski field on Mt. Ruapehu. (Side note: “wh”in New Zealand is pronounced “fa”… we had a good chuckle over that one.) If you want to talk about incredible views, let’s talk! It was like stepping in to a volcanic battle zone. Mt. Ruapehu is composed of andesite, which is just old volcanic rock. I had never seen anything like it. There was still plenty of snow on the upper parts of the ski field, but it had mostly melted where we were exploring. We walked up to the famous Mead’s wall, from the LOTR movies, that overlooked a gorge of lava rock with a small flow of water drizzling through it. Mt. Doom was looming in the distance and the site was absolutely breathtaking. There was one more waterfall that we wanted to catch before it got too late, so we headed back down the volcano for our final mini trek of the day.

Tawhai Falls was our final exploration spot. It didn’t take very long to hike down to, thank goodness as it was starting to get a bit chilly. It was a beautiful little area, allowing Kendra and I a chance to practice messing around with our photography skills. This particular waterfall was also a part of the LOTR’s movies, featured as “Gollum’s pool.” It was actually pretty incredible seeing this beautiful waterfall in “real life” and seeing how the artists manipulated it to look so creepy in the movie.

I could have explored Tongariro for hours longer, it would honestly take a few days to see everything, but we had scheduled our alpine crossing hike for the following day at 6 AM, so we headed back to our lodge to get some rest and carb load on spaghetti to prepare for our 20 km hike.

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Turangi, NZ

I flew halfway across the world to travel around the North Island of New Zealand with a childhood friend of mine, Kendra. Her family lived across the street from mine in the small town of Ames, Iowa. The last time we saw each other was briefly a few years after my family left Iowa, at the age of 7. We had been AIM friends as little girls and once Facebook became a thing, we connected there and managed to stay in touch over the years. Kendra had been living in Auckland on a working-holiday visa and I offhandedly mentioned how I’d love to visit. The rest was history.

So here I was traveling to a foreign country with someone I hardly knew, but I couldn’t have been more excited. We instantly reconnected and started our adventure by heading towards Turangi, NZ with a pit stop at Huka Falls and Lake Taupo. It was incredibly rainy, but Huka Falls was gorgeous. The water was a cool blue, cobalt color and was crashing through the narrow Waikato River bed. Waikato River is New Zealand’s longest river and it drains Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake. Lake Taupo was an impressive site as well, although the cold wind and rain definitely weren’t fun to battle. So, we kept driving onward to Turangi.

Upon arriving in Turangi, we checked in to our lodge. Creel Lodge was a very comfortable and cozy place to stay. There were flowers blooming all around our cabin, and birds flying and chirping all over the property. We had chosen to stay in Turangi so that we could make it over to Tongariro National Park for the alpine crossing hike. After checking in at an “i-site” (an information hub) we discovered we would not be able to do the hike until a day after we had originally planned, due to poor weather conditions. This meant we had to stay an extra day in Turangi, which wound up being a massive blessing in disguise, as it gave us an opportunity to explore other areas of Tongariro we hadn’t originally planned on seeing.

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