There are two main cities on the Big Island of Hawaii, the old town of Hilo and the pretender of Kono which sprung up when poor Hilo was devastated by a tsunami not once but twice. Hilo is the more traditional old town, whereas Kono is the tourism centre. I flew into Hilo, which is closer to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where I was staying. On arrival round noon, I was told that my hire car and GPS were at Kono, which is more than two hours away. I was told I could have a car but no GPS. This caused me a small wobbly moment, because I was born without an internal compass and am quite capable of getting lost on a trip to the toilets, let alone exploring a new island by car. However, I was told that even an idiot could not fail to find the park, as all I had to do was leave the airport, turn left, and turn left again when I saw the park after 45 minutes or so. And indeed the route did prove idiot proof. I just had to drive steadily uphill towards the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I paid my $10 and entered the park. I immediately pulled into the Visitor’s Centre to ask for directions to the hotel, which I then realised I could see across the road!
I checked in to Volcano House, the only hotel in the park. It has recently been refurbished, and is very nice, particularly if you have a view of the steaming Kilauea caldera. Sadly I had a view of the car park, which was the only drawback of the hotel. It is a bit noisy. I was running low on essential toiletries like deodorant, so for the sake of those around me I drove to the tiny town of Volcano outside the park to find the quixotic general store and was fortunately able to find what I needed. However, there was not a lot in the way of food which could be turned into a meal without the aid of a kitchen, so I had a snack at the hotel before setting out to explore. Unfortunately by this time it was about 4 pm, so there was not a lot of day left. I had a look at the steam vents, where warm steam rises out of the ground. This is the result of rainwater making its way into the ground where it is heated into steam by the hot rocks below. It was chilly in the evening at that elevation, and many people were wearing just shorts and tee shirts as it had been a warm and sunny day. They stood in the steam for warmth, before realising that once they were wet with steam they were even colder when they left the warmth of the vent!
The steam rises all along the rim of the crater at steaming bluff, making it look like the setting for a rock concert. Like dry ice, it hangs in the air above the ground, but other than above the centre of the crater does not rise very high in the air. Unfortunately I began to feel the effects of the altitude, probably as a result of a very early start that morning to fly to Honolulu and then to Hilo, and after a brief exploration I returned to the hotel. I felt much better after relaxing for an hour or two, and suddenly realised I was missing a glorious sunset. I grabbed my camera equipment and rushed for my car. I contemplated taking a picture from the car park with a view of the road but a gorgeous sky, but decided to go immediately to find a nice view of the crater. In retrospect I should have just gone to the front of the hotel, and of course as soon as I got in the car the beautiful colours vanished and I missed the sunset. Undeterred, I set off for the Jagger museum (nothing to do with Mick, this Jagger was a volcanologist) where there is a crater (Halema’uma’u) within the Kilauea caldera which glows at night. This is an awesome sight, with steam rising from a glowing red hole in the ground into the inky purple sky. The best pictures were just before it got completely dark. I did feel smug with my tripod. I was the only person to have one and was able to get much better pictures than those around me as a result. I eventually took pity on a couple next to me who were trying to balance their cameras on the low wall next to me to get the shot, and let them borrow my tripod. Halema’uma’u is a crater within a crater, where a huge section of the vast Kilauea crater dropped down into the earth below. It is where the goddess Pele lives, and seeing that glow against the night sky one can almost feel her presence.
Pele is still very much making her presence felt, and big sections of the park are closed due to eruptions, noxious gases or other activity.
The next day I set off early to do the Kilauea Iki trail. The trail starts on the edge of the caldera. In 1959 a huge lake of lava collected in what was once a very deep crater. It provided an incredible spectacle which was closely observed by scientists. The lava bubbled in a vortex in the crater before hardening over the years into the black lake you can see today. The hike starts through the forest which remains above the devastated area. At first I had the forest to myself, and was accompanied by nothing but the sound of birdsong as I hiked slowly down towards the crater. Unfortunately I lingered too long looking for the birds I could hear in the canopy, and soon guided groups start to catch me. One polite group waited while I captured a shot of the beautiful apapane which I saw land in a tree above me. I let them pass and suddenly heard loud shouting behind me as someone tried to get an echo going across the crater. To my horror I realised that this loutish behaviour was from a guide. I could hear him coming from a long way off as he told his group about his high school career as a wide end receiver. “Good story” said a member of his group. That must mean something different in America as the story could not have been less interesting. I hung around to let him pass with his group, as otherwise I am afraid I would not be able to resist the temptation to toss him into the crater!
The forest itself is fascinating. Filled with beautiful and slow-growing hapu’u tree ferns, which become top heavy and fall over, only to put down new roots and shoot up from where they have fallen.
The poisonous akia berries look very similar to the edible ohelo berries – I decided not to test my ability to distinguish them. The forest is full of invasive ginger, which is pretty but impedes the growth of endemic species. It is dangerous work trying to clear it in this volatile area.
Once down onto the lava lake, it was hot and windy as I carefully made my way across the surface. The lava rocks are black, dusty, and very light. From above the surface of the lava lake looks smooth, but it is far from it when you get down there. In places there are deep fissures, and in other places great rafts of lava sit like black icebergs above the surface. What is really interesting is seeing how life is beginning to take root in the lava, as the ohia grows on the rock. Over time, it is clear that the forest will reclaim the lake of lava which covered the forest 55 years ago.
On the other side of the lake there is a steep 400 foot climb along switchbacks in the forest before emerging in the car park for the Thurston lava tube. This is the busiest attraction in the park, and I confess to being underwhelmed. There is a short hike through an ohia forest, which would be very pleasant if one could hear the birdsong over the chattering of the masses. Then there is a walk through a lava tube. It is a tunnel of lava about ten feet high and wide. The walkable section extends for about 100 metres and is lit along the way. Although the lava tube does extend a long way beyond this, it is not safe for the public. It is interesting enough, but I am not sure it is deserving of the mayhem. There are more exciting things to do in and around the park.
The lava tube is the home of the happy face spider. I did not see one, and despite my fear of spiders I am quite sorry I did not, as they are a cool insect. Look them up and you will see what I mean!
Another short hike through the trees took me back to my car. I had to return to the hotel for some food before going further along the Chain of Craters Road. I decided to try the restaurant, as it is hard to get a dinner booking there. It was a disaster. First there was no tofu in my tofu stir fry, then no goats’ cheese in my goats’ cheese salad and when I found plastic in the stir fry, I gave up. Still, at least they did not charge me for it! The restaurant must be famous for the view, is all I can say!
I headed further down the Chain of Craters Road. The series of deep craters shows you the extent of the volcanic activity in the area, as do the lava flows which the road crosses. Each huge crater looks like the scene of a massive meteor strike. The lava has been flowing down to the sea for centuries in this area, and in 2003 obliterated part of the road. You can still see lava flowing into the sea, but to do so you have to hike 11 miles across the lava, so I decided not to attempt it. I satisfied myself with the shot of the road closed sign buried in lava. To get to the point where the lava has flowed across the road, there is an easy, if hot and boring, mile or so trek along the road from the car park. I scrambled for a few hundred metres over rocks that until about 10 years ago were molten and buried in the earth. It is horrible and beautiful all at the same time. I felt like I was in a Tolkien novel.
Near the end of the road, there is a mile and a half out and back hike to some petroglyphs. It is an easy hike, mostly flat, into a strong headwind which provided much needed air conditioning. I practically flew on the way back! I could not discern the meaning of most of them, but one makes me think the carver was keen on cycling! The holes were to contain the umbilical cords of babies. Parents would place the cord in a hole and cover it with a rock to bring good health and long life to the baby.
Finally the road reaches the sea. As I went to look at the Holei sea arch, located just where the road ends, I spotted a turtle about 30 metres out. I tried to get a decent shot of him, but in strong winds and choppy seas, I was not able to do so. I decided not to try to photograph the petrels I saw flying around because of the high winds, and later saw a sign saying they were rare to see, being critically endangered! I had another look for them after my hike to the end of the road, but of course there were none to be seen!
All the the hiking has obviously tired me out, because on the road back I give a tour bus a huge fright as I find myself driving on the left! I forgot my mantra and obviously have left leaning tendencies! They probably thought I was Australian, as very few Brits make it out here. Fortunately I was going slowly and saw them in plenty of time, but I reminded myself to repeat the stay on the right mantra every time I got into the car.
However, I did manage to track down some nene, Hawaii’s endangered national bird, grazing on the lawn of the army camp in the park. Having seen signs on each island warning me of nene crossing the road, and having obediently slowed down each time (apparently they are not very good at evading cars) and not seen a single one, I was delighted I would not be leaving the islands without seeing some of these handsome geese.
The next morning I went to find the area known as the Bird Park. Kipukapuaulu is an area of forest which has survived amongst the lava which, after extensive work by conservationists, has been denuded of invader species and replanted with native Hawaiian trees. An island of forest amongst the lava like this is a kipuka in Hawaiian. Being outside the park, it seems to be largely ignored by tourists, and I had the forest to myself. I wandered delightedly through the woods along the gently rising trail, craning my neck to look for the birds I could hear all around me. Almost immediately I saw a bright red bird, but he flew away as soon as he saw me. The beautiful song of the lark surrounded me. I could see them all around me, but they are busy little birds and I was not quick enough to photograph them. Overhead I could hear the whirring of the wings of the apapane as it fed on the bright red ohia flowers high in the canopy. I saw brilliant yellow saffron finches, a gorgeous olive green Hawaii amakihi and green and yellow red-billed leiothrix and got my shot of the crimson bird, which turned out to be a northern cardinal which has a loud a melodic chirp. I could have spent all day there, but sadly had to head back to the hotel to pack. This was my favourite bit of the Big Island. Volcanos are all very well, but you cannot beat something with a heartbeat! Make time for it if you are ever here. It is only a gentle one mile or so hike, and about 10 or 15 minutes by car from the park gate but so peaceful and filled with such pretty birds. In addition to the birds, I saw lots of Kamehameha butterflies, one of only two species endemic to Hawaii, as well as morning glory and gorgeous trees.
There was just time to check out the tree moulds on the way back. These are tubes which show where ancient lava flows have overrun the rain forest. The lava surrounds the tree, leaving a hollow where the tree was.
Before I headed back to the airport, I discovered something I wish I had found the day before. Behind the general store in Volcano is Cafe O’hia. They make huge and delicious sandwiches. Enough for two, or two meals, and they also sell trail mix and snacks. I suggest stocking up here before hitting the trails in the park.
I am writing this in Hilo airport, which is a delightful building. Really just a large shed, it is decorated with sofas and arm chairs which remind me of my grandmother’s furniture. It is so delightfully old-fashioned I do not even mind that the sofa on which I am sitting is rather soggy and uncomfortable! It is a shame I did not have more time here on the Big Island, as I would have liked to dive with the manta rays at Kono. This for me, is aloha to Hawaii, as I now head off to spend the night on Oahu before heading to Sydney first thing tomorrow. Hopefully I will have a final treat and see lava glowing out the plane window.
No such luck, but I do see Maunu Loa rising majestically above the clouds.