Dropped into the cauldron

Keith Austin feels the heat as he explores the inner reaches of a hissing, bubbling volcano.

First, a few statistics: White Island is New Zealand's most active volcano, 49 kilometres north of Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty. Ten sulphur miners were killed in 1914 when the western rim collapsed and unleashed a volcanic landslide. It last erupted in 2000; parts of the brittle crust hide pits of scalding water and mud; and the central crater is a hissing, bubbling acid lake.

And we're going to land there in a helicopter?

Twice-weekly Air New Zealand flights to Rotorua from Sydney, which started in 2009, have put this stunning section of the Bay of Plenty within easy reach. After a scenic 90-minute drive from Rotorua, I have time to settle into my hotel in Whakatane, take a walk around the small town and have dinner. Now I've taken possession of a gas mask at the architectural oddity - a sort of early neoclassical Lego - that is the Whakatane airport and we're heading to the helicopters that will take us across 49 kilometres of sea to an island that could blow up any second. How cool is that?

Very cool, say the group who have just returned from the island. They are bright-eyed, goofy-grinned and flushed with astonishment. "Worth every penny," says one as they pass and give the thumbs up.

We have perfect weather for the trip out and from the first aerial glimpse of the island, it's one of those surely-not-once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Because you just know you'll be back.

This is one of those spots on the Earth's crust where its innards - the really hot bits - poke through. It's 2.4 kilometres long, two kilometres wide, reaches 321 metres above sea level and continuously lets off steam. The actual volcano is 760 metres tall, with an underwater base measuring about 16 kilometres by 18 kilometres.

After the 20-minute helicopter ride, the first aerial impression is of a volcano from a movie, albeit with one side completely, awesomely, blown out. The steam rising from the greenish lake in the middle accentuates that impression. It's a smouldering giant, all right.

A simple circuit of the island reveals that while no animals live here (though the pilot did once see a skinny and doomed rat), it's a haven for seabirds - mostly gannets (about 10,000) and muttonbirds (60,000) - that nest on the cliffs away from the direction of the 1914 eruption.

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Once on land and equipped with orange hard hats and lightweight respirators, we set off towards the lake. Off to the left dozens of volcanic fissures, or fumaroles, constantly vent gases into the air in the form of great billowing clouds of steam that hiss and rumble and bellow. Never before has the Earth's crust seemed so thin or fragile - or so exhilarating.

It's usual to describe such landscapes as lunar but this is so different from our monochromatic moon. Forget Mars or Venus, this is Alpha Centauri or the Klingon home world. You half expect Star Trek's Captain Kirk to stagger over the next rise with a hapless, doomed crewman in tow.

There's a red-pink autumn tinge in the rock faces all around us and every hue of sulphur yellow - from soft pastels to the intense sienna that's almost brown - is evident in the ground rock. Grey, magma-heated mud pools plop and bubble and belch and steaming acid brooks don't so much babble as hiss a stern warning.

Our pilot guides are careful to keep us together on the worn track and away from the more brittle bits of crust. The last thing they need is a foot breaking through a fragile pressure mound into a superheated pool of acid water or boiling mud.

Surprisingly, the place doesn't smell too bad. There is a slight sulphurous odour but nothing like the bad-egg smell I expected. This is because the magma here emits sulphur dioxide and not hydrogen sulphide, the usual culprit where rotten eggs are concerned.

As we approach the crater in the middle of the island, the masks - superfluous until now - are pulled on as quickly as the cameras are pulled out. The steam from the pale-green acid lake is acrid and makes it hard to breathe without them. To be this close to the middle of a live volcano, to see the Earth fuming and muttering, is exciting and humbling. It's like watching a very old, very grumpy old man gathering strength for yet another tirade against, well, you name it, sonny.

As we descend from the lake side and head down the right side of the crater the masks come off and I ask one of the pilots if this ever gets mundane. He looks around at the crater and shakes his head. "Nah, not really."

At the "harbour" entrance, where the acid water runoff hits the sea, are the remains of the abandoned sulphur mine that closed in 1933. Broken walls, crumbling beams and cogs rusted amber are all that remain. A large anchor sits picturesque and lopsided at one end of the site, overlooking the jetty that once served the boats taking sulphur to the mainland and is now used by the cruisers that bring tourists across in a leisurely 80 minutes.

The pilots gradually peel us away from the beautifully decaying remnants of the mine and lead their reluctant passengers back to the helicopters. On a solitary rock at the entrance to Whakatane harbour is a statue of Wairaka, an ancient chieftainess.

According to legend, the name Whakatane (pronounced Fakatane) comes from an incident in which a drifting canoe was rescued by Wairaka. Although women were forbidden to paddle, she said "Kia Whakatāne au i ahau" (I will act like a man) and saved the boat.

Today, her statue guards the harbour like some escaped ship's figurehead, arms akimbo, head thrust forward. Once every few years, a ship's captain told me earlier in the day, someone gets over there and paints a bikini on her.

You can see Wairaka from the long, large windows of the Indian Aroma restaurant, at the end of Muriwai Drive, where we eat that evening. In fact, you can see the harbour, Whale Island and a large part of the Bay of Plenty from what has to be one of the best-situated Indian restaurants in the world.

We sit over excellent and well-priced food and watch as the light fades. Darkness falls and with it a sense of returning to reality.

And that's very much how it feels: a return to reality. Helicopters, to me, are other-worldly machines made of spit and wire and glue that shouldn't be able to get off the ground but do.

And I remember that, as we swooped back towards the mainland, searching in vain for whales or the massive dolphin pods that sometimes patrol these seas, it seemed this impossible machine had taken us on a short, fantastical trip through some geological looking glass and we'd returned to tell the tale. This tale.

Follow the kiwi trail

THERE isn't much Bridget Evans doesn't know about kiwis.

We're in the Ohope Scenic Reserve above Whakatane, preparing to head into the bush to listen to and, if we're lucky enough, see some of the kiwis that have been raised by members of the Whakatane Kiwi Trust.

Established in 2006, the trust aims to protect the area's kiwis from predators such as stoats, weasels, cats and dogs. Only 5 per cent of kiwi chicks in the wild reach adulthood.

Protection involves removing eggs from kiwi nests and transferring them to Rotorua, where they are hatched and cared for until they are old enough to look after themselves and can be returned to the wild.

Tonight we're meeting at dusk for one of the trust's kiwi-listening walks. Just as the last of the day's light disappears, so do we, up a long incline and then off the track into the forest.

We have torches but it's still dark and we move cautiously. Soon we're deep in an ancient forest and sitting quietly, listening for the calls of the kiwis.

There are a few calls here and there — the male sounds like an annoying child blowing a high-pitched, single-note whistle over and over again, while the female's call is deeper and sounds as if the same child has swallowed the whistle and is trying to cough it up — but it is on our way out that we have our close encounter. Somewhere ahead of us, a male kiwi is calling and, to my ears, rushing through the undergrowth pushing a wheelbarrow. How big do these things get?

Evans is full of kiwi knowledge. Fully grown, they are about the size of a chicken. They're also endangered due to deforestation and human encroachment into their habitats. Various groups and protection programs such as the Whakatane Trust have been set up to protect them from predators. Estimates vary but there are said to be 35,000-50,000 kiwis left in New Zealand — not many compared with the millions that existed before humans arrived on the islands.

Our encounter, sadly, is confined to noises and calls; we never see what I will always think of as the velociraptor-kiwi of Whakatane.

Which is probably why they're called listening walks.

The nocturnal kiwi listening walks run by the Whakatane Kiwi Trust are held every few days, subject to weather conditions. It costs $NZ15 ($11) for adults and $NZ10 for children aged 8-17 (no children under eight). See whakatanekiwi.org.nz for more information on the trust and dates of the walks.

Keith Austin travelled courtesy of Tourism New Zealand.

Fast Facts

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies to Rotorua from Sydney non-stop (3hr 15min) on Tuesdays and Saturdays for $287 return, or via Auckland (about 6hr including transit time) on other days for about $530. The fare from Melbourne via Auckland is about $600. Fares include tax.

Vulcan Helicopters fly to White Island several times a day depending on the weather and volcanic activity. The flight takes about 20 minutes and the island tour lasts about an hour. It costs $NZ550 ($405) for adults, with a two-passenger minimum. See vulcanheli.co.nz.

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