Posing for a picture on an active lava flow is an ill-advised practice. But our guide Steve demonstrated the art with a careful, brief clamber onto the quickly cooling pahoehoe.
Ten of us, five couples in our 50s (the Five-0s), had rented a charming three-floor oceanfront home in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Although we spent much of our two-week stay lazily floating in our private solar-heated pool watching humpback whales breach, spinner dolphins spin and surfers hang 10, we also took time to explore the many wonders of Hawaii’s largest, youngest chunk of land.
It is labelled the Big Island for cause. All the other islands of America’s 50th state could fit easily within its landmass.
Driving from Kona on the western leeward side to Hilo on the wet eastern side is a three-hour drive one-way.
But that’s where the lava is and it doesn’t flow uphill. So we hopped in the rental cars and made the overland foray.
There are few places on Earth where one can view lava freshly vented from a magma chamber, oozing inexorably toward the sea, creating new planet. The Big Island is one of those sacred spots.
Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of the volcano, is tempestuous and unpredictable. As placation, she insists on an offering of gardenia, plumeria or an equally entrancing native Hawaiian blossom.
So said Steve as we embarked at twilight on our trek across 20-year-old lava toward the fresh, gurgling stuff.
There are two types of lava, each easily recognized by its remnant trail. A’a’ flows are jagged and brittle, settling in an upright, dangerous posture.
Our path was over the more subtle, titanium-coloured pahoehoe lava, defined by its often ropy, luxuriant and more accessible texture. Pahoehoe wanders hot and plentiful, vented from deep in Mother Earth’s mantle. A’a’, pushed methodically downhill, builds like windrows of snow graded from a winter street.
I prefer pahoehoe.
Steve and his life partner Ken had purchased 23 acres of oceanfront Hawaiian land in April 2010. Recent transports from Montana, they intended to milk goats on their new abode. Lava had not invaded this parcel for 5,000 years.
But their goat-milking ambitions were destroyed within three months when in July 2010, Pele unleashed her fickle fury on their whole tract of Hawaiian soil.
So they gave up the goat and took up lava tours.
Their motto is “go with the flow” … so we did. They are a knowledgeable, informative and respectful team. Ken led. Steve took up the rear.
We dutifully followed our guides across terra incognita. Twilight in the tropics is brief. After an hour we stopped, in utter blackness. Then beneath us the darkness dissolved. We stood mesmerized, suddenly surrounded by molten flowing rock, glowing bright red.
I proffered my gift. The flower wilted beneath the hot rock’s onslaught. Nearby a piece of forest caught fire, exploding in light, whistling and popping like Canada Day fireworks as Pele did her work.
When Steve stepped up onto pahoehoe that, seconds earlier, had been a red-hot sinuous mass of 1,100°C flowing stone, we stood back, aghast. Fortunately Steve is light on his feet. After a moment atop the smouldering lava he hopped back to safety, the bottom of his boots smoking faintly. Goddess Pele loves to see soles burn.
Headlamps illuminated for the hike out, we carefully retraced our steps through the minefield of lava. In the night sky the island’s persistent fog had evaporated. The Milky Way lay crisp and clear above us. We were one with the universe. Well not actually one. But pretty darn close.
We spent the next day exploring quaint Hilo with its giant banyan trees and visited the caldera of nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park before driving back cross island via the curvy, southern coastal route. We stopped just once, so I could vomit on some of Kona’s world-famous coffee bushes. I am fatally susceptible to motion sickness.
Each morning, gazing from our second-floor window, we were entranced by the sound of crashing swells, the sight of agile (sometimes aging) surfers and the scent of fresh ripe papaya. Meanwhile, on the third floor, “Rapunzel” Schumacher sat for hours, patiently trapped. The home’s private elevator was fickle at best.
We rented two paddleboards — at a cost nearly equal to our rental cars … go figure. They were somewhat underutilized after two of our gals endured a near-death experience on the jagged rocks in front of the house. Fortunately, the ladies escaped the foaming brine unfazed (which is more than I can say for the boards).
I am a water baby, so we took every opportunity to snorkel Hawaii’s rocky reefs. My affordable new Olympus underwater camera recorded excellent footage of close encounters with green sea turtles, a cavorting metre-long spotted eel and — during a life-altering night dive — giant mantra rays. The proper term is manta but it was a near-religious experience.
Our crew consists of avid hikers. One morning we traversed a serpentine road to the island’s northeast corner where the famous Waipio valley gapes verdantly down onto a black sand beach 300 metres below. The view is jaw-dropping. The hike, entailing a 1.6-km trek down a four-wheel drive road at a 25 per cent grade, was shin-splinting.
The locals, who range from aging hippies to Vietnam War vets, all answer to the name Darrell. They share a disdain for government and modern comforts as well as a malady known as “stink eye.” This describes the look they present when asked politely by a tourist (such as I) for the easiest access to the nearby 450-metre Hi’ilawe waterfall.
It is difficult to differentiate between the beat-up trucks the Waipio locals drive and the demolished ruins lying in a heap beneath the cliff of their treacherous access road. The vehicles they employ to negotiate this insane trail are just marginally more roadworthy than the wrecks below.
My wife Florence’s nephew Marc is a big shot at the Canada-France-Hawaii (CFH) observatory atop Mauna Kea, the highest of all Hawaiian mountains.
It is winter atop this 4,206-metre-high peak even in the middle of a sultry tropical day. But the bitter cold and unsteadiness brought on by our rapid ascent from sea level were easily overshadowed by the wondrous spectacle of the sun’s orb setting majestically into a soft pillow of cloud thousands of feet below us.
Further offsetting the debilitating effect of altitude sickness was the personalized tour Marc gave us of the CFH telescope. But if there is one thing I detest it is deception. I had been led to believe he has a doctorate in astrophysics. Marc only has a BSc, MSc and PhD in physics.
Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com