Sorry in advance. This is a long one.
Saturday morning I headed out early from Kona, bound for Kilauea and Manua Loa, “only” about ninety miles away in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. The drive took two and a half hours, and there wasn’t even much traffic. The Hawai’i Belt Road, which (as the name implies) circles the island around its shoreline, is just narrow and winding as it passes through tiny towns and up and down several little mountains. It’s a scenic trip, although I had to be careful not to take my eyes off the road for too long.
I got to the park around one. It’s ten bucks for a week-long pass, which would have covered a whole carload of people, if I’d made any friends at the shitty Sheraton (or tried). Not a bad deal. I headed to the visitor center first, and was lucky enough to arrive just as a free ranger-led walk was about to depart. It was only a quarter-mile to the closest crater rim overlook, but the park ranger – actually a volunteer from Switzerland in Hawai’i on some sort of exchange program – taught us about the native plants along the way and the trouble they had with invasive species, almost all of which had been brought to Hawai’i to beautify gardens and had gotten out of control.
After the nature walk – and my first glimpse of the crater – I returned to the visitor center and set off on a forty-mile rountdrip down Chain of Craters Road. This scenic drive passes several small craters at the start, then makes a stop at the Thurston Lava Tube. This is a quarter-mile or so long tube – cave, really, but with openings on both ends – formed when a long-ago low-viscosity lava flow formed a crust on top while hotter lava continued to flow below. The temperature inside the tube is at least twenty degrees cooler than ambient, and it’s constantly seeping water.
The road didn’t used to be a dead end. A series of eruptions and lava flows from Kilauea have buried sections of the road at its southernmost point, most recently a 1986 flow that ended right in the middle of the road and mostly buried a “road closed” sign (now a great photo op). I admired the volcanic-rock cliffs for a while, then drove back up to the visitor center. I browsed the little museum and shop for a while before staking out a spot on the viewing deck for the six o’clock sunset.
What’s commonly called the “crater” is in fact the caldera of the Kilauea volcano. It’s about two miles across. Inside the caldera, several eruptions have occurred over the years. The current hotspot is Halemau’ma’u Crater. No lava is currently flowing, but there is a “magma lake” at the bottom of the crater, from which a constant cloud of sulphurous gas (called vog) has been emitting for a few years. At and after sunset, the orange-red glow of the magma lake becomes visible in the vog, making it look to untrained eyes as if there is a plume of lava pouring out of the crater. There isn’t, though there probably will be in the future. It’s still a spectacular sight and ample evidence of the power of nature. Sufficiently awed, I drove back to Kona, arriving late at night, exhausted.
I was at least able to sleep in a bit on Sunday. Around one, I drove into Kona Town to the offices of Hawaii Forest & Trail, for the start of their small-group Mauna Kea Summit Tour. After a couple of stops at nearby resorts to pick up guests, eight of us were loaded into a rugged, lifted Econoline van driven by Nate, our tour guide. The resorts were seaside, and thus zero feet above sea level. About an hour later, after a drive northeast, we stopped for a picnic dinner at an old Parker Ranch sheep station, at about seven thousand feet. The difference in temperature, and in everyone’s ability to breathe, was noticeable. After dinner, Nate handed out heavy parkas and gloves for the really cold stuff to come.
As we continued our ascent, we learned about the geological history of the island, and of Mauna Kea in particular. It was Nate who taught us about the deforestation caused by non-native grazing animals and plants, as mentioned above. The Parker Ranch, which until a sell-off a few years ago was the fifth-largest ranch in the United States, was the worst offender, running thousands of cattle and sheep for most of the twentieth century. The ranchland, both current and former (the government now owns most of what the ranch sold off), is featureless pasture, covered entirely by the non-native fountain grass, which came to Hawai’i as one plant intended for one garden. Now it covers hundreds of square miles.
Around 5:00 we drove past the Ellison Onizuka Observatory Visitor Center, named for the first Hawai’ian astronaut, who was killed in the ChLlenger explosion in 1986. The visitor center, to which we would return, is at about 9000 feet. We kept going, along a bumpy dirt track that suddenly changed to smooth Tarmac as we crossed about 11,000 feet (so that vehicle traffic wouldn’t kick up dust to interfere with the telescopes above), all the way to the summit at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. We’d ascended close to three miles in about three and a half hours. Everyone was lightheaded, and everyone was cold. The air temperature was a little below freezing, but there was an unusually strong wind which made it feel like about zero. Quite a change from the muggy day we’d left below.
The summit is a perfect place for an observatory for a few reasons: first, it’s close to the equator, so 100% of the northern sky and 80% of the southern sky are visible on any given night. Second, it’s dark. Hawai’i is the world’s most isolated landmass, and the Big island is pretty sparsely populated, so there’s very little light pollution. Third, it’s dry and clear, with very little chance of interference from the weather. As a result, most of the world’s biggest and most advanced telescopes are on top of Mauna Kea. The current record-holders are two truly giant scopes with nine-meter lenses. By comparison, the human eye’s lens is about an eighth of a millimeter. The difference is astounding.
After watching the sunset from the summit, we went back down to the visitor center, where Nate set up a telescope with a pretty robust twenty-eight inch lens. The star clusters around Orion’s Belt, visible only as faint smudges to the naked eye (from one of the most pristine viewing spots in the world), was revealed as thousands of distinguishable points of light. Jupiter was visible unaided as one of the brightest objects in the sky, but no more. Magnified, I could not only see the weather patterns on Jupiter but three of its moons (the others were out of sight behind the planet). Unless someone lets me in one of the biggies on the summit, it was probably the best stargazing I’ll ever do.
We had to leave eventually. By the time I got back to the hotel it was past eleven, and I crashed hard. Monday was my last day on the Big Island, and I spent it exploring some of the time north of Kona and relaxing on White (Magic) Sands Beach while watching daredevil surfers and bodyboarders attempt to ride some massive waves. Overall, I think I’d have Oahu over the Big Island for its greater diversity, both natural and man-made…but the volcanoes make it a close call. I’m very glad I got to explore them.