Due to the White Island eruption on 9 December 2019, tours of White Island are not running. It is important to remember that New Zealand is made up of active and dormant volcanoes, of which White Island is in the active category. Our thoughts are with everyone affected by the eruption.
Scott and I have been looking forward to taking the girls to White Island for years. He first took me way back in 2005 and I was hooked. White Island is New Zealand’s only active marine volcano (with emphasis on *active*) and you really need to experience it at least once. It is in a constant state of activity that is closely monitored–if an eruption looks likely to occur, tours will not run. White Island is a private scenic reserve and you can only visit through an authorized tour group. We decided that the older three girls were ready for their first White Island Tour on our recent trip home to New Zealand and it was a day I’ll never forget.
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The tours leave at 8am. We’ve always driven over from Tauranga, which means coffee and a sausage roll on the way with another coffee from White Island Cafe for the boat. Check-in for the tour is at the White Island Rendezvous and the cafe is in the rear. The Rendezvous is also a hotel, so if you don’t think you’re up for an early morning drive from a further destination, you can just roll out of bed and head downstairs. Tours run year-round, except on Christmas Day or if the weather is misbehaving.
After being checked in, you’ll head across the road to the boats.
The boat ride to the island is about 80 minutes. We found a nice corner inside the cabin, but it didn’t take long for the girls to want to go outside.
The tour guides are really good at giving you information about what you’re seeing without non-stop chatter.
The girls really took to the boat ride and we realized it was the first time they’d been on the water like this.
White Island Tours is really good about letting you dolphin (or whale!) watch if you see any. We came across a pod on our way to the island and spent a fantastic amount of time watching them. They let us go to the otherwise off-limits front of the boat to see them up close. The girls were awestruck and I will never forget their excitement.
Safety gear is super important on White Island. Everyone is fitted with a hard hat, gas mask, and a life jacket. The recommended age for the tour is 8. Alice was 7 for this trip, but you are able to make your own judgement call (within reason) and we felt that she could handle instructions and the terrain. The safety gear is limited in size, so I wouldn’t recommend taking a smaller child (we left Matilda at home for this trip). It is also firm that no child under 4 may go onto the island. There’s a good amount of sulphuric steam at times and younger kids may not be able to handle it. Pay close attention to the dress requirements for the tour–walking/tramping boots are recommended, or sneakers with a good grip for walking. Open toed shoes or sandals are not allowed and they won’t let you onto the island if that’s what you’re wearing. There was a woman in sandals on our boat and it was only because there was a spare pair of sneakers on board that they let her off the boat.
To get from the boat to the island, you have to ride a small-ish raft. The girls said this was the only scary part of the whole experience. The water can be a bit rough and I got positively soaked. It is important to note that there aren’t any bathrooms on the island, so make sure you are fully prepared for 1.5 hours of walking.
You’re let off at a small outcropping with a ladder to climb. Once you’re solidly on the island, the guides will collect your life jackets, but the hard hat and gas mask must stay on.
It’s very important to listen to your guide. Straying from the path that is set can be dangerous. You’ll notice that we’re almost always in single file.
I say that the White Island Tour is a once in a lifetime experience, but it’s amazing to have been able to see it more than once. Because it’s an active volcano, the landscape changes. You can see my original post to see some differences in the island between visits.
One major difference on this trip is that some helicopter tours have now been granted access to land and conduct tours. This wasn’t the case in 2005 and I’m going to put it out there that I’m not a fan. The boat ride is one of the things we love about the tour and I would recommend you taking in the nice view and possibility of seeing dolphins up close and skip the noise pollution by doing it that way.
The guides are really good at telling you information about where you are and how long you’ll be walking to get to the next information point. There are two guides per group–one takes lead and one brings up the rear.
The girls loved that there were times they could actually touch things. You can’t take rocks/items from the island (please just don’t be that person), but the guides will occasionally pass around a rock and explain its significance.
Before you head into the really steamy areas and to the crater lake, hard sweets are passed around. Sucking on the sweets helps you cope with the steam and smell. This is where you might need your gas mask. If someone in your party has asthma, bring their inhaler. Pippi does, so I kept her inhaler in my pocket.
The trek to the crater lake feel a bit like you’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with the opportunity for family pictures.
You could hear the mud boiling inside the holes and at times bubbles would pop to the surface.
It was fascinating to have the yellow sulphuric landscape in front of us, but to look behind and see the bright blue water.
I loved seeing the girls take everything in. At no time during the entire tour did they do anything but exactly what the guide said. They were by far the youngest in our group and behaved better than a couple of the adults (yes, the rules still apply to you even if you want a super awesome picture with your fancy camera).
I couldn’t wait to show the girls the crater lake. How many kids can say they’ve been to the mouth of a volcano?! When we arrived, though, it was more like a crater puddle.
They were still at the mouth of a volcano, though, and it was still pretty spectacular.
This is where you might want to consider multiple visits to White Island. Like I said, the landscape changes. For comparison purposes, this is the crater lake in January 2018.
The next two pictures are the crater lake in March 2005. It is amazing to see the difference. Who knows what it will look like the next time we go (after all, we still need to take Matilda!).
After seeing the crater lake, we started winding our way to the old sulphur factory.
There are streams running around the island and our guide had us stop and taste the water in a couple of spots. The taste was different depending on where the water came from and what it had run through. This water was super metallic-almost like blood.
The abandoned factory was a great place for the girls to explore. The ruins felt like they belonged under a stormy sky, not the bright blue we were enjoying (not that I’m complaining!).
It’s hard to imagine people actually living and working on White Island with its acidic air. Different attempts were made over the years, but mining activity on White Island was abandoned for good in the 1920s.
After a wander of the ruins, it was time to return to the boat. This meant getting our life jackets back on, climbing down the ladder onto the raft, and making our wet way back.
Once back on the boat, different things may happen. If there’s time, you might get a trip around the entire island. You may even be able to swim. Because we spent so much time playing with the dolphins on the way over, we didn’t have time for anything other than a straight trip back to Whakatane.
You’re given a light lunch for the ride back and it’s quite easy to let the boat lull you to sleep.
The girls, however, spent most of the ride back right where they wanted to be–outside and as close to the water as they could be.
As you arrive back in Whakatane, you’re greeted by The Lady on the Rock.
I will take the girls on another White Island Tour when Matilda is old enough and I am sure that there will be more tours after that. It is a very special way to spend a day in New Zealand and all five of us throughly enjoyed ourselves. Whether you’re treating it as a once in a lifetime experience or you go once a year to see how the landscape has changed, White Island is absolutely a New Zealand must.
If you are looking for more day trips from Tauranga, check out the Hobbiton Movie Set Tour! It is an easy drive or there are buses that go between Tauranga and Matamata.