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Notes from a Big Island

Hawaii Volcanoes National ParkSharon Brookshaw reveals another side to the beautiful islands of Hawaii… Hawaii, as travel agents and Hollywood like to remind us, is “paradise”. Mark Twain himself described it as “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean”. When we think of Hawaii we imagine beautiful beaches bordered by palm trees, hula dancers swaying gracefully in the sun and richly colourful tropical sunsets. Hawaii is spending days relaxing on near perfect beaches, before enjoying evenings sipping mai tais to the sound of slack-keyed guitar music as you bask in the last warm rays of the tropical sun. It is drinking gloriously fresh guava juice with flowers in your hair and garlanded round your neck, just because they are there. It is swimming in the warm Pacific Ocean and marvelling at the surfers, Pacific Rim cuisine, and the Aloha spirit. So what was I, a person easily bored by beaches going to do for fun?

Well, while O’ahu is the Hawaii of imagined paradise, it is not all this state has to offer; Big Island is an altogether different Hawaii. The largest of the Hawaiian islands, it is not called Big for nothing; it could hold all the other islands in the state with room to spare, yet only has a population of 150,000, and despite having the state’s second city in Hilo, has none of the big city edge of Honolulu. Visitation is low compared to the tourist meccas of O’ahu and Maui, and while the island does have tourist resorts (all clustered on a short stretch of the sunny Kona coast), it is mostly a series of rural communities that have been surprisingly untouched by the demands of tourism in comparison to the rest of the state.

Big Island is often described as Hawaii’s island of adventure, as the rugged landscape, abundance of space and sparse population lends itself more to activities such as hiking, camping, kayaking, horse riding, mountain biking and nature tours that the more crowded beach-orientated islands to the north do. If you are staying in one of the Waikiki or Maui resorts, then at least a day trip to the Big Island – easily possible and relatively inexpensive on one of Hawaii’s budget airlines – is highly recommended as a way to help experience the complexity of these islands and to really understand that each one is distinctive. Despite the wide selection of adventure activities available on Big Island, the key reason for visiting it for me was the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The United States has many National Parks that you can justifiably describe as “spectacular”: Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon would all easily fall into this category. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers something a bit more, however. As well as being spectacular, it offers nothing less than the miracle of creation as a daily attraction; Big Island is an incomplete island and evolving landscape, with 230 hectares of land being added to the south of the island over the past 25 years, courtesy of the active volcanoes that give the park its name. In the 19th century, before tourism became synonymous with Hawaii, the big attraction of the islands for visitors wasn’t the beach or the embarrassingly equitable climate as it is today, but rather these volcanoes. From the world over, curious travellers would gather around the highly active Kilauea to marvel at one of the great natural wonders of the planet. I find volcanoes to be endlessly fascinating phenomenon, and although I have seen volcanic landscapes in the past – I have hiked up Vesuvius in Naples and visited the volcanic rift zone of Iceland – I have never seen active volcanism. I hoped that the National Park would finally give me the opportunity to view lava for myself, as it has an enviable reputation for offering safe lava viewing to visitors.

Hawaii, Big IslandMy first view of the power of the volcano came at the National Park’s Jaggar Museum, home to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory (founded by Dr Thomas Jaggar in 1912). While the observatory itself is not open to the public, it was built here for the very good reason that this spot offers one of the best views over the Kilauea crater, and you can enjoy it both from the outside observation points and from inside the museum if the weather is inclement. From photographs I had seen prior to visiting, the views offered sweeping vistas over the enormous crater (which apparently was once home to an entire lake of lava) with Mauna Loa looming dramatically in the background. However, when I visited it seemed that Madame Pele (the local volcano goddess) was less than happy, as the volcano had started emitting copious amounts of volcanic gases a few days previously. While there was no evidence of this at the entrance to the park, as we drove further along the crater rim road we began to notice what looked like a light mist hanging over the landscape. The closer we got to the crater, the thicker the mist became, until we arrived at the Jaggar Museum to find a fog so thick that the road continuing around the rest of the rim drive had been closed off to traffic. Stepping outside quickly revealed this fog was in fact sulphurous gases (in other words, it smelt of rotten eggs); apparently this is what the locals call “vog”, short for volcanic smog. Every so often the vog would clear enough to allow us to catch glimpses of the lunar landscape of the crater below us with plumes of gases escaping from vents, but we couldn’t see anything beyond the crater – including Mauna Loa – at all.

Unable to continue around the rim drive to the far side of the crater, we instead retraced our route to the park entrance and began to follow the other side of the rim drive loop, which was still accessible. Situated on the North Eastern edge of the park, the Thurston lava tube shows the volcanic landscape in an altogether different light from the ruggedly barren crater of Kilauea. A lava tube is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a tube made by lava. They form in large, slow-moving flows of viscous lava, when the surface of the flow cools and hardens into a crust, but channels of lava continue to move underneath, effectively creating underground rivers of molten rock. Under the right circumstances, it is possible for these rivers to drain away, leaving their channels as tubes cutting though the surrounding volcanic rocks; if one end of the tube becomes exposed, the effect is like a cave system. Lava tubes are often quite small and narrow, so the Thurston lava tube stands out as impressively large, being 135m in length between the two access points and up to 3.5m high in places.

Hawaii Volcanoes National ParkThe lava viewing, as I have mentioned previously, should have been the highlight of our visit to the National Park. Unfortunately nature doesn’t work to order and the volcanic gases that has obscured the view at the Jaggar Museum were also at work in the areas of the park where lava was then erupting; we came up against another thick wall of vog, another roadblock and the advice that getting anywhere near the lava was far too dangerous, even if you could have seen anything though the gases. With great regret we had no choice but to turn around and abandon the chance to see lava – when it was me versus the volcano, the volcano won! Sharon Brookshaw

Useful information: Entrance is $10 per vehicle or $5 per person if you are on foot, bike or motorbike, and these passes are valid for 7 days. Children under 15 can enter the park free of charge. Once you are in the park, the visitor centre and museum have no further charges. The National Park is a good place to visit all year round, but do take a light jacket or sweater with you whenever you go, and always carry rain gear. Due to the elevation of the volcanoes and their position towards the windward side of Big Island, it will feel cooler than if you are in any of the tourist resorts such as Kona or Waikiki, and be more likely to rain.  Useful websites: http://www.nps.gov/havo/ and http://www.hawaii.volcanoes.national-park.com/


About Itchy Feet Magazine

Itchy Feet Magazine is an online travel magazine for independent and adventurous travellers. Our aims are to champion sustainable travel, provide a platform for new journalistic talent and last but not least provide a fresh and inspirational e-magazine covering all corners of the globe, from hidden gems to well-trodden paths.


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