What it's really like to walk on an active volcano

The moonscape of White Island in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty is an incredible sight to behold – even more so when you approach the active volcano that created it.

A man near a crater of a volacano
  • Words: Kirstie Bedford
  • June 2018

Walking on an active volcano may not be on every traveller’s bucket list, but White Island, in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, offers a hard-to-resist opportunity to get close to one of nature’s most volatile wonders.

A picture of Whakaari vulcano releasing gas in the bay of Plenty, New Zealand
Approaching White Island by boat

Skim across the waters of the Pacific Ocean on 60-foot purpose-built boat PeeJay V to this awe-inspiring active marine volcano, just 49 kilometres off the coast from Whakatane.

About 15,000 people make the 80-minute trip each year to see one of the world’s most accessible volcanoes. White Island Tours takes the ever-present risk of an eruption seriously and briefs tourists on board about safety on the island.

Although there’s no flowing lava and spewing magma rocks (the last eruption was in 2013), the 200,000-year-old island certainly puts on a show, with bubbling mud pools and geothermal steam vents.

The most surprising aspect of the island, and one which makes this volcanic experience completely unlike any other, is the lunar landscape. It’s such a space-like experience that White Island has been used many times as a stand-in moonscape for film and TV. Its biggest claim to fame is as a backdrop in the film adaption of the CS Lewis book, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of Dawn Treader.

Patrick O’Sullivan of White Island Tours, the only company licensed to visit the volcano by water, travels to the island every few months and says that although it is barren, the multi-coloured landscape is always changing.

A picture of Sulphur lake at Whakaari vulcano
Sulphur lake on White Island volcano in New Zealand

“It’s because it’s a living thing, with vibrant yellow, red and pink colours from the sulphur. Parts of the volcano literally move around. We had a walking path for tourists marked out on one visit, and the next, it had simply disappeared,” Patrick says.

There is just one lake on the island, but Patrick says that too can dry up and disappear overnight. And you don’t want to get too close: “It’s more acidic than battery acid,” he says.

There is absolutely no vegetation on the volcano except for the ice plant, which you will only ever see at the fringes of the crater.

Life did exist here once. Tourists are moved as they stand in front of the remnants of an ill-fated sulphur mining factory destroyed in 1914 by a landslide, claiming the lives of 10 miners whose remains were never found.

The only survivor was a cat, “Peter the Great”, which was re-homed on the mainland and went on to father kittens who were considered lucky charms by those who owned them.

Mining was attempted again in the 1930s, but the sulphur was too acidic, so the island was sold to businessman George Buttle after the mining company went bankrupt. The island remains in the family to this day and is managed by his grandsons. Patrick signed a formal agreement with the family, and has been taking tourists to the area for 26 years.

All tours land at the south-eastern end of the volcano and head west. Visitors spend almost two hours on the volcano, wearing hard hats and gas masks (due to the pungent and acidic sulphuric smell).

Surprisingly it’s not actually hot, although you can feel the heat through your feet in many parts of the crater floor, making the reality of being on an active volcano hit home.

Patrick says the island leaves a deep impression on many. “It’s the barren landscape, its history and the fact that it’s an active volcano. There are no barriers and what you see is as authentic as it gets. Most people find it a truly life-changing experience. They say it really puts things in perspective.”

The crater of Whakaari vulcano
Crater lake on White Island volcano in New Zealand

When to visit

White Island Tours opens in new window run daily (except Christmas Day). Summer is best if you want to see marine life and swim at the volcano. Tours are suitable for children over eight. Children under four are not permitted. Operators suggest you wear old clothing and good walking shoes.