The accidental holiday
Matt Bowen heads to the Bay of Plenty and has a good time, eventually.
Life was good. It was a warm Sunday afternoon, the sky was blue and we were eating the most delicious fruit ice cream after a journey to the heart of New Zealand's most active volcano.
Strange to think the weekend in Whakatane started with anxiety, redundancy and negative feelings.
Although omens aren't something I buy into, my first junket had seemed sure to fall through my fingers like the ashen sands that clothe this sun-blessed piece of the eastern Bay of Plenty coastline.
The pitch was simple: go for a weekend of free accommodation and activities and write a story based on your experience.
Why not? I thought.
My contact at Whakatane District Council was initially helpful, but unbeknown to me, she was going through a "restructuring" process.
She seemed preoccupied. And the week of the trip she called to apologise for her preoccupation - her job had been "disestablished" and she was redundant.
Nothing had been booked except accommodation at Thornton Beach Holiday Park, which was a 10-minute drive from Whakatane. We were left, instead, in the hands of its owner, Dave Edwards.
Darkness was falling as we parked outside his office on Friday night, following a week of work and a 2 -hour drive.
Mr Edwards gave us a key, an entry swipe card and said he had some activities in mind to keep us occupied.
Perhaps that creeping anxiety was misplaced and the trip would turn out OK.
We moved into Tourist Flat Two. We opened beer, wine and laughed at a classic 7 Days episode on the flat-screen TV.
Next morning, the sun was shining. You could smell the ocean and see a wisp of cloud capping Whale Island from the doorway.
We walked barefoot along the empty surf beach out front.
After a shower, Mr Edwards offered to take us on an afternoon fishing jaunt, (involving a boat ride up the river) and pointed us to Kawerau's Tarawera Falls, an hour's drive inland.
My typing fingers turned cold. Although Mr Edwards was a friendly host and his offer genuine, I hadn't signed up for an intimate weekend away with him or a trip to Kawerau.
Anxiety set in. Thoughts of flushing the whole shambolic mess down the toilet flashed across my mind.
Then The Sage said: "Let's just go to a cafe, have breakfast, and think about it."
Deep breath . . . OK.
At Fig cafe on the town's main street, over a middle-of-the-road spread of pesto pile up, eggs benedict, a long black and a trim flat white, we plotted a salvage mission. After all, we had cards to play.
Like all lost tourists, our mission started at the information centre.
Staff said the must-do and most popular attraction was Pee Jay's White Island Tours. After an explanation of our situation, Pee Jay staff offered to host us the following day.
Things were looking up.
To burn off breakfast and fill what remained of Saturday, we opted to trek the Footprints of Toi walkway. Trekked is probably an exaggeration. We went with two middle-aged women and two 12-year-old girls, and while it was a bit up and down and sweaty in parts, the 3 -hour journey was manageable for everyone.
Information centre and Pee Jay staff had raved about it; evidently, they were far from mad. Nga Tapuwae o Toi Walkways, as they are officially known, cover a 16-kilometre loop and claim to capture the essence of the district.
We parked on Seaview Road, a short drive from town, and set off around the Kohi Point section of the track toward Ohope.
After passing Kapu-te-rangi pa - one of New Zealand's oldest known pa sites - the views began.
Initially, they were obscured with branches and leaves, but as the track wound farther along the cliff, the regenerating bush faded into low scrub and expansive views. To the west you could see the cone of Mt Edgecumbe and behind it the distant plateau of Mt Tarawera. Below was Whakatane, wedged snugly between the blue-green river and the bush-clad cliff. Look north and the beach disappeared into the salt haze toward Tauranga. At sea was Whale Island and in the distance, White Island sat puffing out its constant plume.
We walked on.
After two hours on-trail, we clambered down wooden steps into Otarawairere Bay and an almost deserted white sand beach. It was one of those classic semi-sheltered east coast beaches with native bush, streams and driftwood at your back; in front was sand, sea and the horizon - there wasn't a house in sight.
Over the hill at Ohope's West End, it felt like summer. Surfers were scrambling in the friendly waves. A couple fished and gulls circled. John and Chris Versey, from Napier, were on the sand, too, trying to keep their $10 rainbow kite flying in the soft sea breeze. To keep the girls smiling, we aimed for Pohutukawa Avenue and ice cream.
Later that afternoon and a few kilometres down the coast, I dived into the tide off Ohiwa Harbour's wharf to wash the dried sweat away. The water was crisp and refreshing. Swimming to the ladder and climbing the rungs, the experience reminded me of summers growing up in the Far North, where our world revolved around the ocean. It seemed this was that kind of place.
Sunday morning, and there wasn't a wisp of cloud capping Whale Island, just crisp blue above. Farther out was our destination: White Island. We checked out, signed in at Pee Jay's and were soon motoring seaward in a luxury launch full of tourists and tour guides. It took an hour and a half of staring at the volcano's ever growing cone before we pulled into Crater Bay and got a closer look. Steam was billowing from the volcano's mouth about 500 metres away. A typical, albeit daunting, sight. Tourists fastened their helmets; I gripped my gas mask.
Safety was a priority for the guides. After all, the place could blow at any time. The most recent eruption was in August and Tongariro had just flipped its lid again. There were two guides for every 10-12 tourists. We had James Cory, who was learning the ropes, and the more experienced Matt Adamson.
Mr Cory ran us through the safety spiel on shore. We paid close attention.
"There are two ways to use a gas mask," he said.
"Hold it up to your nose, press the nose piece and take some breaths. Or, pull the nose strap up and over your helmet and it stays on.
"In the unlikely event of an eruption . . .", gulp, "we need to put our gas masks on and seek shelter behind rocks or the [mining] ruins and after it stops, Matt and I will come around and get everyone together."
Perhaps piece by piece, I thought.
During the last major eruptive period, in 2000, the volcano was throwing rocks - ranging from grenade size to "very large" - up to 150 metres high.
This being an andesite volcano, an eruption would be extremely aggressive and violent - rocks would fly in all directions at high speed.
Mr Cory continued. "If there's a landslide, we need to move to the left or right of it and seek shelter."
We would later learn that 10 sulphur miners didn't get that chance while living on the crater valley floor in September of 1914. While they were sleeping, part of the western crater rim collapsed and tore through their campsite.
Eight days later a rescue team arrived. They dug holes and trenches but found no sign of the miners or their lodgings. Only Peter the camp cat survived.
So with the safety brief done, we set off up the crater's southern wall.
A few steps later and it felt like we were walking on a different planet. We wound through mounds of scraggy pink rock and sulphur-encrusted domes beneath the crater rim.
The pretty domes were actually nasty. Mr Adamson said if you stood on one, you would fall through the crust and find yourself knee deep in hot mud and gas of up to 110 degrees Celsius.
We stopped now and then to hear about crater floor deformation, gas emission testing and hazards.
It was at one of these stops, at a fumarole, that we tasted gas.
Mr Adamson had warned us. "When you get up there, if the steam was to change direction and come straight on to you, please do not panic. Put your gas mask on and it will pass as quickly as it arrives."
We walked toward the bright yellow vent and, person by person, the coughing began.
Then it was my turn.
The involuntary coughing fit was impossible to avoid. I could only cough; I couldn't breathe.
Panic rose. Stop, remember the gas mask. Put it to your nose, squeeze, and breathe. The mixture of carbon dioxide, acid and sulphur dioxide wasn't harmful, apparently, but highly irritating.
Yet Mr Adamson was used to it and continued to regale us with facts and stories.
After half an hour, our group stepped on to a lip overlooking an awesome, hellish stadium that stretched 400 metres across. Three metres below was the 1976 to 1990s crater complex.
Everyone stared, awestruck.
Only Mr Adamson spoke - it was just another day at work for him.
"The lake has changed colour many times," he said.
"It has been aqua blue, maroon red, dull green and bright highlighter green.
"On the pH scale - at the extreme ends, zero is acid and 14 alkaline - the lake has constant negative readings. It's tough to get them, but the last recorded reading was -0.5. It's estimated to be 50 times stronger than battery acid - definitely not the place for a swim."
It was humbling standing there. It reminded me of staring into the stars from an isolated hilltop on a clear night. I felt insignificant, like a momentary blip of life. My problems, minute.
We walked on and the day blew by: the mining ruins, diving off the launch, the words, the faces - lunch.
It seemed mere moments before we had ice creams in hand under the afternoon sunshine at Blueberry Corner, thinking, life is pretty damn good.