Footage taken by a Brazilian tourist Allessandro Kauffmann minutes before the White Island volcano erupted. Picture: Youtube
Footage taken by a Brazilian tourist Allessandro Kauffmann minutes before the White Island volcano erupted. Picture: Youtube

The problem with taking advice from adventure guides

There is a stunningly beautiful beach on the NSW South Coast where stingrays swirl just beyond the shallows.

Real stingrays. With poisonous barbs on their tails. Like the one that killed Steve Irwin.

Standing a few inches away are families, including children and toddlers, taking photos, shrieking with laughter and chucking bits of octopus for the rays to eat.

"Ah wow," I said the first time I saw this phenomenon, from the safety of the sand.

"Yeah," said a lady in a bikini, scattering morning tea for the rays. "Amazing hey?"

Me: "Yeah … what about Steve Irwin?"

Her: "That's what I said! But the guy at the fish shop who sold me this stuff said it would be fine. They're not dangerous."

When we got home that afternoon, I read with some delight a news story about NSW Ambulance paramedics saying they'd treated three people on the south coast "in extreme pain" after stingray attacks.

Maybe the rays don't like octopus.

Brazilian tourist Allessandro Kauffmann on White Island minutes before the volcano erupted. Source: YouTube
Brazilian tourist Allessandro Kauffmann on White Island minutes before the volcano erupted. Source: YouTube

Or maybe they're wild animals who just want to be left alone, and who have absolutely no reasoned thought and are more than happy to chuck their barbs into any annoying tourist invading their personal space, even if said tourist has thoughtfully spent $6.50 on a bag of offcuts from the fisho.

This is Australia, where we like to present ourselves as freethinking, rugged individualists, but where in fact we'll accept the word of any authority figure - even if it is just some bloke in an apron - before doing something objectively quite foolish.

We love an experience that feels wild and dangerous and authentic.

Like, say, peering into the crater of an active volcano.

Now I've done my share of ill-advised tourism. I've climbed up rickety medieval stairwells and trip-trapped across narrow rock bridges with nothing but wild surf below me. I've ingested plenty of stuff I shouldn't have, and prayed to God to preserve me while aboard a dodgy Asian ferry or horrifyingly fast bus on a Croatian clifftop road. A while ago I day-tripped to another one of New Zealand's active volcanoes: the wild Rangitoto Island in Auckland's harbour, where fresh black pumice stones clink underfoot. Scientists say Rangitoto could blow again any time.

Mountain climbing in Nepal … another one of those risky travel moments. Picture: Soren Kruse Ledet
Mountain climbing in Nepal … another one of those risky travel moments. Picture: Soren Kruse Ledet

There's something about being on holiday, I think, that smooths a beach-towel over levels of risk that normally would terrify us. In our everyday lives, we don't tend to see the appeal of dicing with death. That's why you don't see many Sydneysiders Instagramming themselves at the cliff-edges in Vaucluse where a woman died in August, or hopping over the fence to get closer to the whales at Kurnell, where two tourists died last year while posing for selfies.

For the same reason, you don't see Nepalese people climbing Everest, unless they're being paid to do so by rich westerners who don't mind stepping over dead bodies on their ascent.

Likewise, the only Zambians prepared to swim to the very edge of the 330-metre chasm of Victoria Falls to swim in the so-called Devil's Pool are being paid to do so.

Until this week, I might have thought a trip to White Island seemed safe enough if everyone else was doing it. If the tour operators thought it was OK, surely that's good enough?

Actually, the answer is obvious: the last person who should be advising on the safety of an adventure is the person making money from it.

Claire Harvey is the Deputy Editor of the Sunday Telegraph.



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