Friday 13 December 2019

No actual decision here

It's being a long day in Whakatane for lots of people, one of them the Firstborn reporting on today's recovery mission to Whakaari White Island to retrieve the bodies of those who were killed during Monday afternoon's eruption. She was up at 4am to witness the blessing of a tour boat taking family members and elders out to the island to remove the rahui before the SAS team moved in later. Amongst all the weary horror of the details being revealed of the - so far - 16 victims and their hideous deaths, and the long, painful struggle ahead for those still in danger in hospital (all of it making it seem a fatuous exaggeration to label the currently still-emerging British election results 'a disaster'), I worried that the Firstborn wasn't looking after herself, and wanted at least to recommend somewhere nice to eat in Whakatane.

So, not wanting to walk the three metres to the drawer containing my notebooks, I did a search on this blog and look what I found, from September 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.

I wrote that five years before I visited myself, and found it, literally, a spectacularly memorable experience that I was pleased to have done. Already, people are talking about what this lethal eruption will mean to the future economy of Whakatane which, for the last 30 years, has hinged on White Island tourism - it's a nice little town with a good beach, but there are plenty like that in the country. Should people have been allowed to go out there to walk in the volcano's crater? Should they ever be allowed to go there again, now we know how violently, and suddenly, it can erupt when the activity level was only at 2 out of 5? It's easy, of course, to be wise after the event.

A huge part of New Zealand's tourism industry is the thrilling stuff people can do here - throwing themselves off high places in umpteen different ways, hurtling down steep slopes ditto, skimming along a shallow river in a high-speed jet boat just inches away from rocky cliffs, category 6 white-water rafting: all that, and much, much more. The reason such potentially life-threatening activities are offered so routinely is because of ACC. The Accident Compensation Corporation, established in 1974, provides no-fault insurance compensation for everyone in the country, resident or tourist. So nobody can sue anyone for millions - if they're injured, they get what it's officially calculated they need to cover their care, expenses and a percentage of lost income, if relevant. (Hospitals, of course, are free.) We pay for it all through our taxes. Naturally, the system has its drawbacks, and it's probably significant that no other country has copied it, but it does mean that it's possible to let people do all sorts of dangerous things, commercially, and that's a great attraction.

Which isn't to say you can't put your life in danger in other countries too, even in the US. There, naturally, you need to sign waivers that cover every minute variation of things going wrong - before even a tame a ride on a horse, for example, there's a form to sign that includes a veritable thesaurus of terms covering every sort of movement the horse might make. But, despite all that, you can still do dangerous things, commercially, all over the world: hurtle down the *cough* Death Road in Bolivia, take drugs in the jungle in Ecuador, swim with whales (and whale sharks) in all sorts of places, stare down a wild lion from two metres' distance in Africa and paddle past hippos, climb Everest, jump into the sea in the Antarctic, teeter along cliffs in China, bounce in a boat remarkably close to a fire-hose of magma in Hawaii.

I've done some of those things, and they were exciting and fun, and I'm still here. So is the vast majority of everybody else who's done them. If they'd gone wrong, it could have been every bit as bad - possibly even worse, longer-lasting, more violent and painful - than the hopefully almost instant deaths (though not the injuries) of the victims of White Island. But it didn't. Instead, I had a good time, made vivid memories, and lots of people made honest livings from that.

I've seen the photos of the White Island victims, read their biographies, heard their families and friends speak about what they were like, and of course none of them deserved to die, or have the rest of their lives wrecked like that. It's a tragedy of the most extreme sort, made even worse by their having chosen to do that tour, for fun. 

So, should they have been able to? Is there a line that should be drawn, allowing some things but not others? Who decides? Is that fair? Where would it all end? Big questions. 

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