Temperamental Pele, the Hawaiian fire goddess, simmers in the Kilauea volcano near the south shore of Hawaii, the Big Island. Since 1983, molten lava has often trickled down the slopes of Kilauea in a thirst-quenching quest for water, reaching the ocean, and birthing new land in a billow of steam. The lava still smolders and glows underwater as it adheres itself to the island base, a process that has grown Hawaii by more than 500 acres. A lava flow is both an act of destruction and creation.
As a “young” island, the terrain of Hawaii is constantly changing. All but two of the major climate zones are found here, from the desert plains of Kau to the rainforests above Hilo. You could circumnavigate the globe and not see as much ecological diversity; or, like us, you could simply rent a car and experience it all on Hawaii, the Big Island.
Twin volcanic peaks, each nearly 14,000 feet high, are the keys to the numerous climate zones. Maunakea and Maunaloa together form a massive wall, disrupting the trade winds that race across the Pacific and forcing moist air up where it cools, condenses, and falls over the east side of the island. In fact, some parts of the island receive more than 300 inches of rain per year, while other areas receive virtually none.
Driving north from the Historic Kailua Village (Kailua-Kona), the highway is surrounded by wastelands. Lava rock blankets the ground from up high in the east down to the shoreline west of the road. But in just a short distance, the island ages quickly. The black lava rock begins to gray and shrubs and grasses begin to grow where we would have sworn they could not. Almost regularly, we pass state park signs pointing toward the coast. Short winding drives amid strewn lava rock invariably give way to secluded coves of turquoise blue water and crystal white sand beach, though some more famous beaches feature coarse black sand and even green sand.
In North Kohala, dramatic cliffs overlook the ocean below. Kohala is also famous as the boyhood home of King Kamehameha I, the unifier of the Hawaiian Islands. A statue of Kamehameha that stands in front of the Kohala Civic Center in Kapaau is adorned with floral lei every June 11. A parade with representatives from each island follows.
Just a short drive south of Hilo and we’re in the very dry part of the island, Pele’s domain, Volcanoes National Park.
A park like none other
The park is one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Hawaii. With points of interest all along the 10.6-mile Crater Rim Drive, there are many areas to explore.
Near the visitors’ center, rangers lead walking tours to view the smoldering Halemaumau crater inside Kilauea. At night, we’re told a red glow can be seen from above the crater, as a pool of lava lies about 170 feet below the rim.
One of the most popular sights is the Thurston Lava Tube. Lava tubes are figuratively (and perhaps literally) the veins of a volcano. Hot magma tunnels through rock and earth in search of a crack from which to burst. When the activity passes, long tunnels, or tubes, are all that remain. The Thurston Lava Tube, a 500-year-old lava cave–is one such example, and is open for visitors to walk through. The tube is huge, perhaps 20 feet in diameter, and trying to visualize the amount of magma that might have once flowed through it boggles the mind.
While volcanic eruptions can occur at any time, there are currently two active eruption locations: the Halemaumau Crater and Puu Oo vent. At press time, lava flows on the coastal plain have stopped. The national park has regular updates on the volcano at www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/lava2.htm.
But during our visit, the lava was flowing to the sea. To safely (and easily) view the flow, we joined Lava Ocean Adventures, known for ferrying passengers to within just yards of the event. The voyage began in the wee hours of morning so that the bright yellows, oranges, and reds of the lava can be viewed against a pre-dawn sky. With a slow, thick consistency, similar to the flow of candle wax, the lava dripped into the ocean. We immersed our hands in a bucket of drawn seawater. It was hot; closer to the lava, and it would scald us.
The boat turns back to shore as dawn breaks over the island, pinks and yellows of the sky briefly complementing the hues of the lava. Eventually, this new land will transform from barren black rock to lush tropical greenery, and the cycle of destruction and creation will continue for generations to come. Mahalo, Pele.
Stephen M. Wheeler is senior editor of AAA Going Places magazine. He is based in Tampa, Fla.
Jan/Feb 2014 Issue
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