We visit Mordor

Trip Start Aug 02, 2008
Trip End Aug 17, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Hawaii
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

We took off from the Hilo International Airport this morning at 11am in a helicopter operated by Sunshine Helicopters.  Listing off from the heliopad, we rose up over Hilo and then flew south, toward Volcano National Park.  In the park one finds Kilauea Volcano, active recently since 1983 and thus, the world's most active volcano.  At first we flew over suburbs and lush green forests, but in the distance brilliant white steam was rising up from the ocean where lava is flowing into the sea. 

Our first destination was the Pu'u O'o crater at the edge of the park.  As we circled it, we caught glimpses of the eerie caldera, not glowing but rimmed with yellow sulfur and other minerals and venting like an industrial furnace.  The thought of the mythical volcano in Mordor in Lord of the Rings entered my mind, especially when the smell of sulfurous gases seeped into the helicopter cockpit once or twice. Surrounding it is desolate, moon-like landscape--again like Mordor--black, rough, desolate and devoid of plants.  The welling lava has created cracks and rifts through which gases are seeping and from which, in a couple of places, lava is pouring.  Even in the daytime, lurid molten rock glows inside black pits and fissures. In one opening, we saw pahoehoe lava (at 2000C!) rushing furiously, but not onto the surface: it was gushing through a "lava tube" and disappearing from sight.  No doubt its final destination is the shore.

After circling Pu'u O'o and the rift field a few times, the pilot headed for the sea.  We passed over "rivers" of cool, black lava from the last couple of decades.  This area has been active since 1983, when an eruption of lava flowed from the mauna (mountain) to the sea and buried the village of Kalapana.  About 180 houses were buried.  As we flew, we could see the cooled lobes of lava like ragged highways below us.  Islands or oases of green survive on slight hills that deflected the flow, although the trees at the edge of the groves have turned brown.  How they managed to live through the heat I can't imagine.  In a few places, we saw where the lava had covered roads completely or partially and isolated intersections and even houses, some of which are now inhabited again.  Sadly, we also saw rooftops and burned shells of houses there weren't so lucky.  A local resident, Chris Arruda, tells me that his family cemetery lies under the lava near his home town of Kalapana.  Now they place leis on the lava above it.

The lava also cut off the Chain of Craters road at the coast but, from the north end, people can walk across cooled lava to see the current flow.  Sunset and nighttime are the most popular times to go, because the glow of the lava is more apparent, even through the steam and gases.  However, hundreds of people go at this time: parking is at a premium.  Arruda, who operates Big Island Outfitters, prefers to take people at sunrise: not onl do they get a private view of the lava, they can also see the sun rise out of the ocean.  Marv and I are tempted by this, but are not thrilled with the idea of getting up at 2:30 am to do it!  (You can see some amazing nighttime views of lava on his web site: www.bigislandoutfitters.com; click on Lava 1.)

Anyway, the steam rising from the ocean where the lava emerges from under the cooled lava and drips into the ocean is pretty impressive.  For many meters out, yellowish sediments stain the turquoise of the ocean and sulfur dioxide rises with the steam.  The lava is building new land here, but often the new land breaks off and collapses wholesale into the sea!  It's dangerous to walk on the lava for that reason, but also because it's hot!  And the terrain is rough and treacherous and can shatter beneath your foot if the layer is thin.  But as we fly over, we see tiny people below us, making the trek even during daylight hours, as close to the lava and shore as the state authorities will allow.  We also see other helicopters and even some small planes.  The lava is big business in Hawaii.  As one of the Sunrise staff said, "I don't know what we'd do without the volcano."

As we finished our tour of the lava fields, I noticed another volcano belching in the distance, at least a big and as furiously as Pu'u O'o.  This one was a bit difficult to see under the clouds coming in from the ocean as a weather front approached, but it was definitely another volcano.  I learned later that the distant eruption is coming from Halema'uma'u, within the caldera of Kilauea itself.  This is very recent activity, just since late July and early August this year!  (The activity in the entire area has picked up since early in 2008.)  Because of this unusual activity, part of the Crater Rim Road is closed: you can no longer drive completely around the caldera because of the fumes and ash.  Nor can you any longer hike up to the rim of the volcano or walk across it: the volcano has awoken!  Madame Pele is agitated!  Local geologists and vulcanologists are watching it carefully, lest the activity becomes violent and threatens visitor and nearby residents alike.  The activity has become unpredictable lately.  (I don't know why people have chosen to live so close to the volcano: perhaps they live the adrenaline rush or maybe they built when the volcano was quiescent or the land was cheap?  No doubt they are reconsidering right now!)

I snapped dozens of photos and even a couple of short videos but none of them do the experience justice.  The closest I could come was to buy a video of the flight taken by the cameras mounted on the helicopter!  The DVD is even now on its way to our house and we'll have a volcano trip viewing when we're back.  But even this can't convey the smells, the sounds and the physical movements of hovering over and soaring around an active volcano!

 The fifty-minute flight ended in a bit of anticlimax, with a pass over Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots.  The latter two features are not volcanoes but part of a the Wailuku River system flowing down from Mauna Kea over lava ravines.  They are beautiful, of course!  In fact, the river at the Inn where we're staying is part of that system.  We'll probably go visit them or similar ones in this area before we leave.

Eventually the helicopter returned to the airport and ground.  Autumn, the employee who had driven us out to the helicopter at the beginning, now returned to pick us up and snap our photo.  We returned to the staging area and found several of our friends from the TYS course: Tanya, Mark, Sylvie, Manon and Kristen, who'd driven down from the Kohala Coast.  It was thanks to Sylvie and Manon that we had signed up for this tour, half price, before we left the Hapuna Prince.  So, after their flight ended at 1pm, we went to lunch together.  And the Gods here must love us all, because the rain arrived just as their group returned to reception!
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