Lava Trek

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

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Flag of United States  , Hawaii
Friday, August 15, 2008

Having decided that we would not take the lava trek we decided to take the lava trek.  Being averse to loss of sleep, we did not do it in the wee hours of the morning.  Instead we went with the hordes that go at sunset.  It was all good.  I think what decided us were the nice people at Volcano National Park ( who insisted that we had to go, it is a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, etc., etc.  But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit.

We were delighted to wake up to a sunny day, which allowed us to finally dry out a bit and to pack up without getting rained on.  I took some parting shots of the Inn and noticed, in the process, that Sunshine Helicopters really do fly over the Inn as part of their tour, so I probably have an aerial shot available somewhere.  This is certainly one of those places that it's hard to say goodbye to: both seeming far away and remote but, in reality, very close to people and amenities--the kind of place I'd love to live in myself.  I learned a lot about running a B&B from this place, too.  Really, it's the conversation between land, water and people that draws me, and I hope to continue this kind of conversation back in Ontario.

Once we got organized and headed out, we headed for Volcano National Park, just southwest of Hilo about 29 miles.  We saw the visit as a complement to our helicopter tour, but it became it's own adventure and, as I said at the opening, it became an inspiration for continuing to the lava viewing.  However, being us, we arrived in the afternoon to see a place that could easily have taken all day, but we did our best.

The current attraction of this part of Hawaii is, of course, the volcanoes.  Always fascinating, even when the activity is low or quiet, they are particularly interesting right now because the action is occuring in several places.  In fact, the Crater Rim Road ( is partially closed due to the venting of Halema'uma'u, a caldera within the larger caldera of Kilauea, the longest continuously erupting volcano in the world.  According to the park's web site: "Kilauea Volcano has erupted lava almost continuously from its east rift zone since 1983. These lava flows have added over 568 acres (230 hectares) of new land to the southern shore of Kilauea and covered 8.7 miles (14 km) of highway with lava as deep as 115 feet (35 m)."

We arrived at the visitor center just inside the gate in time for a guided tour of the sulfur and steam vents, so we joined in.  Although it's easy to forget you're driving and walking in an active volcano when you first arrive, a walk through any section of the park will bring you many reminders in the form of vents of various kinds.  The caldera of this volcano is huge.  HUGE!  It contains roads, visitor buildings, research labs, hiking trails and several microhabitats, from tropical forest to desert.  Right now, warnings are posted about the levels of sulfur dioxide in the park, so the smell of struck matches or rotten eggs (take your pick) wafts by the nose at frequent intervals.  The sulfur vents are particular exciting (and scary) because they are technically "fumeroles" and thus considered to be connected to the magma chamber underground.  The steam vents, while hot, are relatively innocuous because they simply represent ground water that has vaoporized and found an escape through cracks and rocks in the earth.  Standing downwind of the latter is pleasant, not unlike visiting a steam bath.  What surprised me is seeing how plant life has adapted to live cheek by jowl with these scalding hot and, in the case of the sulfur vents, noxious features.  Alas, many of the species present today--including an orchid and a ginger species--are invasive and are crowding out endemic species of plants and birds.  You hear a lot here about the (mostly unfavorable) interaction of native and introduced species of plants and animals.

After the hike to the sulfur and steam vents, we checked out the visitor center, where we were persuaded to go to the lava viewing after all.  Marv bought the requisite flashlights (for nighttime viewing) but we first drove to the Jagger center, which overlooks the venting Halema'uma'u crater.  This is the closest you can (safely) get to the action.  Until this year, you could actually walk on the floor of the crater and up to the hot spot.  Not any more.  Not even the scientists go there now, except suited and masked and carrying air with them to sample gases and other scientific parameters.  From the viewing area, with its interpretive signs and viewing telescopes, you look out over a landscape that is more desolate than the moon or any number of planetary surfaces I could imagine.  There is no soil, no green thing below.  Rocks, black and gray lava and rocks and deposits in various earth tones define the picture.  And, in the middle of it all is a belching hole about 150' feet across.  At night, the guides told us, the steam takes on a ruddy hue, but I could see a hint of this even in late afternoon.

Around the Kilauea crater you can see tropical rain forests, savanah and desert.  The weather on one side was clear and blue, on another, misty and dark, and inbetween the two, white and gray gases slowly turning into "vog" (volcanic smog) create a third, indefinable weather pattern.  You can see the process of the vog as it settles back to earth on nearby Mauna Loa like fog or, more descriptively, like DDT mists of the late 50's and just as toxic to local residents.  With the prevailing winds, the vog wraps itself around Mauna Loa and eventually finds its way to Kailua-Kona, where we first encountered it.

Because we wanted to get to the lava viewing area in time to get parking and make our way to the viewing platform before dark, we had to pass on the Thurston Lava Tube (, another "must see" feature of the park.  We'll have to see it another time. 

I have to admit to feeling a bit anxious about going to the lava viewing: lots of warnings--on signs, on the internet and in park brochure--certainly provide a deterent.  But Marv was inspired by all we'd seen and heard and enrolled me in the idea of seeing such a rare event.  So we gathered up all we needed and headed down. 

The lava viewing area isn't actually inside the park.  Instead, you have to head back almost to Hilo and take what used to be a shore road southwest.  The road was interrupted in the 1980s by the same lava flow that buried the town of Kalapana.  To get to the viewing area, you have to cross segments of technically closed highway, over jury-rigged (or jury-paved) car paths.  "Use at your own risk", of course.  But I give the locals credit for making lemonade out of lemons and for providing as much safety as is possible given the conditions.  The biggest problem is that you not only have to drive over several winding, bumpy temporary one-lane (barely) roads, you have to walk at least half a mile over unaltered lava flows, also.  The lava on the trail, though cool, is rough: hillocks, cracks, loose stones, pits and jagged edges are the norm.  Flashlights and running shoes are essential (at night) and lots of water and running shoes (and sunscreen) are essential during the day.  Even so, there's a first aid booth at the beginning of the trail and we saw at least one person being treated.  And given the festival atmosphere here, the locals have provided porta-luas (lua being the Hawaiian word for "loo"--don't confuse it with luau) and private enterpreneurs have set up booths with crafts, food and photos better than what any of us can get who follow the rules can take.

We bypassed all that (except for the porta-luas: my travel mantra is never forego a chance to use the facilities when they're available) and headed for the viewing platform.  The steam created by the fall of lava into the ocean seems very far away at the start of the walk and, in fact, you can't safely get really close at all (unless you take a lava viewing boat tour, but they sail dangerously close, it seems t me).  My camera wasn't really up to the conditions, which is why I have indifferent photos of the scene, but they will still give you the idea.  The lava oozes into the sea, casting a fiery glow on the steam and, every so often, the surf and lava interact to create something of an explosion.  The resulting flashes and sparks elicit "oohs" and "aahs" from the viewers (us and a few hundred of our closest fellow tourists) as if we were all watching a fireworks display.  It's spectacular!  And the moon was almost full, providing some soft light and additional safely for those who hike there as well as a magical mood.  Overhead were few clouds and many stars, adding to the viewing.  The night of August 15 didn't provide the most exciting lava viewing, but even so, the viewing is memorable for those who've never seen such a thing and worth the trek, if you take reasonable precautions.  Even Marv, who usually has many a pun available to describe anything, was left with nothing (worthwhile) to say.  (Okay, I promised him this much: he called the lava viewing a "rock concert" and he thinks the porta-luas should be called "lava-tories".  Get it?  You see, it's funny because...oh, never mind.)

After we left, just before 8pm, we made our way back to the car ahead of the hordes and hit the road.  Our destination: Kailua-Kona and the Castle Kona Bali Kai (again), almost three hours away.  On the way, we left clear pristine skies, passed through fog and rain (some of it torrential) and eventually returned to desert dryness again, although I slept through most of it.  And we arrived safely at Kona for our last night in Hawaii.  Tomorrow we plan to visit the seahorse ranch, er, farm, at NEHLA on our way to the airport. Final entry in a day or two, when I've had more time to reflect.
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