Tuesday 14 August 2012


Tongariro hasn't spat the dummy again - yet; but White Island has been having hissy fits for months, and is particularly unwelcoming at the moment, with ash now featuring in the constant billowing clouds of sulphurous steam. Also, there are rafts of pumice stones floating downstream of the Kermadecs, so they've stirred into underwater activity too. These volcanoes are all on a line, along the edge of the same plate that our Volcanic Plateau sits on. Nothing to worry about, say the scientists airily.

You can go out to White Island - it takes about an hour and a half by launch from Whakatane - and do a tour, kitted up with hard hat and, yes, gas mask. They're even running the tours right now: "It's a great time to see White Island at a higher level of activity," the website claims cheerfully, but I don't know that I'd be keen. That place has killed people before now (not tourists - so far) and evidently you're told not to walk too close to the person in front, presumably so you don't break through the crust. I've been to Rotorua enough times to be aware of how thin the layer can be between us and the boiling water or mud - but to risk dropping into a volcano? Not so appealing, really.

When I was on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, our guide took us to the site of a lava flow from 2007: a kilometre-wide swathe of black basalt cutting dramatically through the jungle, all the way from the volcano right down to the sea, where it was apparently pretty spectacular when the lava hit the water. Philippe took us up onto the lava-flow and even through my shoes I could feel the warmth, which was unnerving enough. Then he poked some dry sticks he'd brought into a hole and within a minute they'd caught fire - that was more than four years after the eruption. Liz and I skedaddled out of there pretty fast then, despite the Gallic mockery.

In the nearby village there was a very striking sight: a church on the edge of the lava flow. It had come to the back of the building, but then stopped, cupped right around the church but without doing any worse damage than blackening the window sills. Notre Dame des Laves, it's called now - also, a miracle. Almost enough to make you believe in God.

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