“Before you see anything, you’re hit by a blast of baking heat that dries your eyeballs. As you step back from the searing heat, a tongue of red lava slides out into the open. The oxygen hits it, the red glow becomes intense and tiny flames lick up the surface.”
I always thought Hawai’i was a long way to go to sit on a beach. That was before I visited the island with no sand and had the time of my life!
Hawai’i’s Big Island has no sand, because it’s actually five volcanoes rising out of the Pacific – two of them still live. As a result, the island’s still growing and is a great place to go lava hunting.
This is why you come here. Base yourself at Hilo and you can easily sort a couple of things we recommend.
First of all, get a bus to Volcano National Park. You can easily spend a day just wandering around this alien landscape of rock, steam and ‘Pāhoehoe’ (pronounced pa-hoy-hoy).
Pāhoehoe is a Hawaian word for the smooth rolls and humps of black rock created when slow moving lava cools into rock. It looks like a giant sheep has passed by.
You roll off the bus at possibly one of the most impressive sights in the park, the Caldera of Mount Kiluea, too big to be called a crater.
Yes, you can get a bus right to the summit. This is because the flow here creates a ‘shield’ volcano. It’s wide, low and convex, so you can get to the top with relative ease.
But as much fun as wandering around Kiluea and its big sister, Mauna Loa is, it just leaves you wanting more, and for that, you need a guide. Time to find some lava!
“Put your hand on it and you’ll see lots of tiny specks of blood. Fall on it and it’ll shred you. On the upside, your boots get great traction!”
There are two reasons why you need a guide. Firstly, the point at which Kiluea’s lava flow breaks through can move overnight, so you need someone who can, effectively, track it.
Secondly, you’ll be climbing up rock that, two weeks ago was in the centre of the Earth, so if you stand in the wrong place you can fall through into red stuff at 2000C. Furthermore, you’re climbing in a shadeless wilderness under the Hawaian sun.
In short, if you chance it on your own, you’re an idiot and probably won’t find the best lava, so there!
A lot of the guides are both geologists and surfers. It’s worth the money, just to hear so much Latin being used with liberal additions of the word ‘stoked’.
Watch yourself on the Pāhoehoe here. You’ll notice the black rock has a silver sheen. That’s because it has an unusually high silicon content. Those are tiny glass crystals.
Put your hand on it and you’ll see lots of tiny specks of blood. Fall on it and it’ll shred you. On the upside, your boots get great traction!
Oh, on the subject of boots, wear a decent pair of walking boots – it gets hot underfoot. One of the folks we climbed with had to turn back when his soles melted.
You don’t want to be stuck on hot Pāhoehoe, miles from home with slowly disintegrating footwear.
When you find the outflow, it’s worth the sweat (take at least 2 litres of water and lay on the Factor 50 until you look like Casper the friendly ghost – seriously!).
There’s not always a red river to see, but lots of sludging streams. In front of you, you see the earth swell like a great belly, then the rock begins to split before your very eyes.
Before you see anything, you’re hit by a blast of baking heat that dries your eyeballs.
As you step back from the searing heat, a tongue of red lava slides out into the open. The oxygen hits it, the red glow becomes intense and tiny flames lick up the surface.
Prepare to feel insignificant. It’s just marvellous!
Unsurprisingly, Hawai’I has a fire god. The story goes, she was thrown into the sea by her sister, the sea god, for seducing her husband.
Pele arrived at Hawai’I and made the northernmost island, but her sister sent the sea to put her fire out, so Pele made the next island. Her sister did the same again.
This went on until Pele made the Big Island, too high for her sister to extinguish and where she still lives.
Strangely, the legend has got precisely right the order in which the islands were created by volcanic eruption and subsequently became extinct.
Guides and locals will tell you what bad luck it is to remove a piece of Pele’s creation from the island and how the National Park Authority gets tonnes of small pieces of rock sent back by people who took a souvenir and then suffered terrible misfortune.
Really, they’re saying don’t be a jerk. Leave the volcanic rock where it is for others to enjoy.
Other things to see
Stargazing at Muana Kea
“It’s amazing how silent everyone goes. There wasn’t a word for about ten solid minutes.”
From Hilo, you can also get a ride up Muana Kea, an extinct volcano, but with an attraction of its own.
The top is crammed with observatories and in fact is home to the largest collection of astronomical instruments and telescopes in the world.
Better than that, at 13,796 feet, it gives you the most amazing view I’ve ever seen. The 360 degree panorama stretches to the Pacific on all sides. You suddenly become aware that you’re on a tiny island in the middle of a vast ocean.
We then got to watch the sun set into the clouds. It’s amazing how silent everyone goes. There wasn’t a word for about ten solid minutes.
Also, since this mountain starts 19,000 feet under the ocean, you can correctly say you’ve been to the top of the world’s tallest mountain. Not bad for a six to eight hour climb from the visitors’ station (about 4,500 feet below the summit)!
In fact, you can get a 4×4 to the top, but if you do, because of the value of the information from the observatories, you must be off the summit by dark, as even dipped headlights on the road will interfere with their picture quality.
“On the doorstep of hippy heaven, the wealthy have bought up access to the sea.”
Head south into Puna and you’ll find yourself going from parched drylands into rainforest. Because it’s so small and steep, the climate and landscape of Hawai’i can change in just a few miles.
Here, you’ll find the town of Pahoa. A lot of hippies came here in the 60s and they’ve never left. It’s a few streets of wooden buildings, dreadlocks and tie-died t-shirts.
It’s just a great place to rock up and spend a couple of days chilling out.
Of course, they’re not alone. The coastline along here, while devoid of sand, is beautiful.
The air comes to you after passing over nothing by the Pacific for hundreds upon hundreds of miles. Turtles play along a shoreline that is mile upon mile of secluded, sheltered, rocky bays.
As a result, it’s lined with big houses, whose back gardens run down to the sea and every road that you think will get you to the sea ends in a sign saying, ‘private property – no entry’.
On the doorstep of hippy heaven, the wealthy have bought up access to the sea.
The rainforest is also, supposedly, home to an unspecified number of Vietnam veterans who lost the plot on getting home, couldn’t leave the jungle behind and moved to Puna.
You hear the odd story about some hippy going into the bush to harvest his – er- herbs (there’s stacks of it growing out here) and finding himself face-to-face with some crazed war veteran with a knife in his teeth.
How much truth there is in it, I don’t know, but I love the mental image!=
Hawai’i's Big Island is also home to one of the most bizzare petroglyph sites I’ve ever seen! You get petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings – usually of human forms) all over the world, but in the North west of the Big Island, you emerge from a wooded area into a great field of cracked stone.
In each section of the crack-crossed surface is a different figure, carved into the stone. Almost all are carved with their head pointing in the direction of the volcano’s summit; almost, but inexplicably not all.
Why are just a few facing the other way? What would motivate someone to come all the way out here under this sun to carve them? Why are some figures carved differently than others of the same period?
Let’s be honest, if we had the answers, it wouldn’t be half as interesting!