This short story is an excerpt from my book ‘Journeys of the Heart and Spirit’ written in 2015 and is shared to honour the brave souls who lost their lives on 9 December 2019 whilst visiting Whakaari/White Island. May we stand together as One people, united in our aroha and hearts, and may we find peace. Kia Kaha to All.
“We travel in search not of new sights,
but of new eyes with which to see everything,
old sights included.”
Each place takes us to new places within ourselves – perhaps it is a memory, a feeling or an awakening. Proust is so very right in his words that we travel not in search of new sights but with new eyes in which to see everything. Life is like a never-ending cycle of exploration and adventure into the depths of the mind, the heart, of life, of all life and the Earth.
I never know what’s next, when or to where – all I know is I’ll suddenly feel a pull in my heart to go somewhere. It just happens. Usually I wake up and know where I am to go next. The reason is not always obvious, but I have learned to trust my intuition and follow my heart. Whatever I need to know will be presented to me when I need it.
We live in a beautiful world, full of contrast and uniqueness. The more time I spend in nature or in ancient places like temples, the more I have discovered that the land speaks and calls me to it – like an irresistible love affair that I feel deep within my heart, drawn to heed its call to the beauty before me, around me and within me. Communing on many different levels, there is always much to understand, learn, remember or to awaken. In the end, I’ve learned that this journey of life is paved with treasures held deeply within, waiting to be discovered and that life is so much more than simply reaching a destination.
It was 23 December 2014 when I finally stepped foot on Whakaari/White Island. It began of course long before then, when last October I travelled to Rotorua for a break, following the death of my beloved Grandmother. It had been some time since I had set foot on this geothermal and volcanic land, and the trip brought back happy childhood memories of many holidays spent here and that sense of having no control over the ground moving beneath your feet. It is a subtle reminder that whilst man thinks he can control the Earth, the truth is that the Earth is alive and moves freely in her own unique way.
I had taken my daughter and her friend to the Waimangu Thermal Valley. As we walked the ancient trails there, I discovered Ruaumoko. In Maori myth, he was the God of Volcanoes. At first, he presented as a massive carving at the entrance-way, acting as a guardian to the land and I felt the strength of his presence as one to be revered. He commanded respect.
It was incredulous to walk the silent tracks that meandered up and down the valleys and through the lush green bush where ultimately, we saw new land being created. The bubbling waters simmered away as evidence of the subterranean fire below, and the mists that came and went spoke another language of the great mystery of what lay hidden within the depths of the Earth and what was being revealed moment by moment.
After an hour or so of walking, the girls had tired so I left them to rest as I continued on to Lake Rotomahana. Standing on the edge of the lake looking across to Mt Tarawera herself, I felt the energy lines that ran straight out to Whakatane and out to White Island and beyond. Behind me, I sensed the energy of the mountains Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu and how the energy flowed along here and ultimately out into the Kermadec trench, forming part of the grand Ring of Fire. It was here that I thought ‘lest we forget you, dear Ruaumoko – your presence is everywhere, unseen and mostly forgotten, yet you are not to be forgotten, you are to be revered as a guardian of Mother Earth’s creative force.’
Ruaumoko reminded me how we must honour our own inner fire and bring light to our own darkness. This was the moment that I felt the call to Whakaari/White Island, a call that I have felt many times before but not acted upon. But now, there was a sense of urgency and I knew that my next trip would take me there.
And so it was, on the 22nd of December 2014 I loaded the car and drove to Whakatane, which was about four hours away. I loved the long coastal drive with virtually no traffic which felt like I was in another world. That was when I noticed the presence of the ancestors who were watching me as I entered their sacred space. They looked out to sea reminding me that all is seen, all is heard, and all is remembered. These were the same guardians that had awaited the safe arrival of the ancient navigators. Long since carved into the rock face by the elements, these ancestors were supported by giant families of pohutukawa trees dressed up in full crimson blossom that had for aeons of time held the cliffs in place against the fierce ocean wind and turbulent storms. As much as I felt the raw, wild and untamed energy here, it too spoke of reverence and respect.
According to ancient history, Maori first settled here more than 1,000 years ago. In the last great migration Toroa, captain of the Mataatua waka (canoe) arrived in Whakatane. The canoe was moored near a place called Kakahoroa. The men left the waka and climbed the hillside to Kapu-te-rangi leaving behind a small group of women. With the outgoing tide, suddenly the waka was being taken back out to sea. Wairaka, Toroa’s daughter called out “E! Kia Whakatane au I ahau” meaning “let me act like a man!” and against all custom and tradition, she and the other women steered the canoe back to safety and thus Whakatane was named.
It had been so long since I had been to Whakatane that it was completely unfamiliar and felt like driving in a foreign land. I marvelled at the change and growth that had taken place. I also recognised how much of my own life had equally passed by. I wondered where the time went. I sifted my memory banks and could not recall when I was here last.
On the main road into Whakatane, I found the motel that I would be staying at for the next two nights. The motel owner was very friendly and enjoyed recommending me to a nearby Chinese restaurant with his descriptive “they do the best takeaways in Whakatane.”
He showed me to my unit which was delightfully spacious and very quiet and left me to unpack. It was late afternoon and I felt a little tired from the long drive, so I relaxed with a cup of Earl Grey tea while I perused the many tourist attractions in the Visitor Information folder.
With a renewed sense of energy, I decided to head into town and wander through the main shopping area, gazing at the shops filled with their Christmas glitter, well wishes and gifts. I stumbled across the Chinese restaurant that had been recommended to me, bought some takeaways and decided to have an early night. That night I slept deeply and profoundly, which often happens when I am attuning to the energy of a place. I felt like I was returning home after a long absence – that deep sense of comfort, familiarity and knowingness that you are home and you relax completely.
The next morning the sun kissed the sky and a gorgeous day beckoned – it was now the 23rd of December and the day of my tour to Whakaari/White Island. Excited, I rose early to prepare myself for the journey ahead, starting with a meditation to purify the body-mind-spirit, followed by a blessing to the guardian spirits and those in the unseen world who would join me. As I held my sacred pounamu stone in my hand, I was reminded to ‘walk in peace.’
I had come to walk the path of the ancestors and ancient ones, to follow the song of the sacred trails and to navigate these earthly waters filled with the ups and downs and currents of life. I felt Ngauruhoe in the distance calling to me and wondered why. I dwelled on the sight and remembrance of Pūtauaki/Mt Edgecumbe whose masculine presence dominated the horizon and surrounding area when I had driven into Whakatane.
Today marked the day that I would finally set foot on Whakaari/White Island. This journey had been a long time in the making and I was chomping at the bit to get going and get out on the water. But first, there were formalities – registration and a check-in process to complete, along with safety briefings and forms to be signed. To my surprise, I found myself surrounded by a raft of international tourists who chattered away incessantly and filled the room with a symphony of languages. We are but One I thought.
It was to be an exceptionally low tide that day so the boat was scheduled to leave later than usual so there would be sufficient water to safely cross the sand bar at the mouth of the Whakatane River. This meant that we would have a longer than normal tour, as effectively we’d have to align with the incoming tide to return.
The crew welcomed us aboard with mirth and warmth. Dressed as pirates, they were a sight to see and clearly wanted us to have a fun and enjoyable time. The captain started the engines and finally we were off, cruising quietly and slowly down the Whakatane River to cross the sand bar and then head out to sea. It was at this juncture that the rocky headlands have a formidable presence, a reminder that all is seen, all is heard, and all is remembered. We must but have respect for all life and the mighty ocean and seas that we are to journey upon.
Having safely crossed the sand bar, the engines roared into life and we picked up our cruising speed for the hour and a half journey across the infinite blueness of ocean that lay before us. The mainland slowly became a distant memory. We passed outcrops of smaller islands until they too blurred into insignificance. All the while ahead lay the faint outline of our final destination. Gentle puffs of white cloud filled the air, like veils blowing in the breeze, dancing on the horizon as she revealed to us her ever-present living nature.
Moutohora/Whale Island is a sister island to Whakaari/White Island, although they are physically some distance apart. A dormant volcano, Moutohora is owned by the Crown and is a wildlife sanctuary for many endangered species under the joint care of the Department of Conservation and the local Maori Ngati Awa tribe. Access is restricted in order to preserve and protect life; however, it was once home to Ngati Awa and Tuhoe tribes before European settlement in the 1930’s. With numerous archaeological sites, it too holds many secrets and stories of ancient times – a journey for another day!
As we passed Moutohora, up ahead splashing in the water were two large pods of dolphins. The boat slowed down so we could get up close and marvel over these beautiful marine creatures. Gasping with delight over their antics and sheer joy for life, we embraced their sense of wonder and playful spirit and I knew that their presence here signalled that they were both guardians and the opener of the unseen gateways.
Whakaari/White Island was no longer a distant land. We were close now and she rose from the sea to greet us in all of her magnificence as a strong and powerful woman. Here the Goddess dwells deep beneath her misty veils and her presence alone commanded respect in honour of the sheer power of her creative force.
We nestled in a bay close to the shore and dropped the anchor. We were all eager to get on land and patiently waited while small rubber dinghies ferried us across in groups of eight to the make-shift wharf. We clambered up the rusty metal stairs, a reminder of the harsh acidic environment, to finally step foot on our one and only active marine volcano.
At last, I thought, I am here! I discreetly moved away from the others to find a quiet space to offer my blessings and gratitude to Whakaari and all that dwell here. Tears filled my eyes as I felt her love reciprocated and a warm welcome from this beloved sister. I was deeply touched to have the honour and privilege to be here and to have this moment and I wished I had not left it so long. I knew straight away that I would find it hard to leave here when the time came – to feel a love so deep and so strong and to then be physically separated once more would feel like my heart was being ripped open – an all too familiar pain.
Our large group was broken into smaller more manageable groups of 10 which were led by two tour guides. Wearing our safety equipment which consisted of a banana yellow hard hat and gas mask, we were guided along an unseen path; reminded to leave only footprints which would be washed away in the rain erasing our presence – but not our memory. It was a surreal feeling to acknowledge walking on an active marine volcano and although this was not a new experience, it probably was the closest I have ever been to the raw energy of the creative force of the Earth Mother.
We navigated our way across the unforgiving terrain to learn about the sunshine yellow sulphur deposits and fumaroles which were an amazing sight to see. The wind constantly moved direction and changed its intensity, sending over highly toxic sulphur gas that burnt our eyes and lungs and caught in the back of the throat which made it difficult to breathe. The gas mask was not only a welcome relief but a much-needed necessity.
It didn’t take much to realise that this extremely acidic environment had no mercy and left us in no doubt that we were visitors – ‘Lest we forget the power of the Mother Earth’ for sadly, many have perished here.
We headed over to the crater which continuously bubbled and hissed away, creating great mists of vapour that occasionally cleared briefly to reveal the greenish waters contained within this fiery cauldron. Wafts of sulphur hung in the air and the liquid molten rock twisted and turned before cooling and shape-shifting into its final form, reminding us that nothing is set in stone, nothing is permanent – all can be changed and things can change in a second. The rising steam and mist spoke to me like smoke signals in another language.
We’d been on-site now for about an hour and a half when I looked up to the rock face and saw the goddess that dwelled here, with her long brown hair strewn across the mountain top. Yes, I thought, ‘all is seen, all is heard, and all is remembered.’ She is unto herself, mighty in holding her own power, owned by no-one. She commanded respect for she is fire, the daughter of Ra (the Egyptian Sun God) and the bringer of Life and Light. She reflected to me that we must own our power, claim it and use the power of our true creative force to manifest that which we desire into form.
Stunning in her beauty, her power and her strength, she is believed to be between 100,000 and 200,000 years old. I saw her as both the Ancient One and the Young One, as she continuously re-created herself into her next highest expression whilst still holding her innate wisdom.
Finally, the tour came to an end and our tour guides ushered us back to the wharf. Tears welled up in my eyes and I felt that familiar pain in my heart. I wanted to stay longer and continue to be in her almighty presence. But it ‘is as it is’ – and I could not stay. I offered her my love and my gratitude. And just like a mother, she comforted me by reminding me that she is forever in my heart and that the connection was now amplified by my physical presence here today. All I would need to do was go into my heart and I would re-connect with her for eternity, and so it was I boarded the boat and watched in awe as she waved goodbye to me through her misty veils. I hoped I would be able to return another time.
We motored around the corner of Whakaari to a sheltered deep-water anchorage for lunch where a few people braved the somewhat cool waters and went swimming.
We watched in awe the seal that had made its home on some nearby rocks and was having fun playing in the water, then basking in the sun.
The water which glistened like diamonds in the sunlight felt pure and abundant. A large school of fish called the Blue Moki swam around the boat providing us with a shimmering display of iridescent light as we watched them through the crystal-clear waters.
As I leaned over the side of the boat, my gaze softened and I found the waters speaking to me showing me the patterns of the past, opening a doorway into another world. They spoke of the great migrations, of ancient trails, of the fish swimming in unison and the birds flying in formation, gliding along the harmonious ocean currents and waves. This was a time of harmony and reverence for all life. And then, from this great sense of expansiveness and abundance in these beautiful sapphire blue waters, I saw too the times of great upheaval, of death and destruction as the earth rose from beneath, spewing out ash and rock and birthing the new. All must evolve and be brought into balance.
Coming back into the moment, I noticed the patch of dark grey oil floating on the surface of the water – a reminder of man’s impact on the earth. Ripples appeared on the water and then changed form creating a pattern and I glimpsed a beautiful blue feathered cloak in complete unity and harmony – the Oneness of All That Is. The ripples are a reminder that what we send out goes far and wide and not to underestimate the power of the water and its ability to transmit energy, just as what we ripple out into the world also has far-reaching consequences, both known and unknown.
The engines roared to life once more, our tour was complete and we headed back on what felt like a long voyage to Whakatane. This time the mood was different. A hushed silence had descended upon us and many dozed in the heat of the late afternoon sun. Deep in my own thoughts, I once more thanked Whakaari and farewelled her as I watched her slowly disappear into the distance and acknowledged that she was no longer the forgotten one.
A few days later a new island was birthed near Tonga. It rocketed up from the depths of the ocean to make landform. This occurred on what is known as the Kermadec Trench (of which Whakaari also aligns) and connects to the Pacific Ring of Fire. And in March 2015, another significant burst of volcanic activity has been recorded in the waters 100 kilometres beyond Whakaari/White Island signifying the ever-present subterranean energy that is in constant evolution.
Excerpt from Journeys of the Heart and Spirit by Joanne Hutchinson 2015
And so I finish this post by offering love and healing to the lives lost, the lives forever changed through the unexpected eruption on 9 December 2019 at 14.11 NZDT. May we stand together as One people, united in our aroha, our hearts and may we find peace. Kia kaha.
Arohanui to All,
Jo Hutchinson xxx
Copyright ©2019 by Joanne Hutchinson