All the Hawaiian islands are the peaks of submarine volcanoes. Only one island, however, is still volcanically active — the aptly named Big Island, largest in the 2,400-km-long archipelago and unquestionably the wildest of them all.
Dominating Big Island, at least from the volcanologist’s perspective, is what my guidebook describes as “the most dynamic and unpredictable place you’ll ever visit”: the 975-sq.-km Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Here, the cliche has it, you are guaranteed a particularly warm Hawaiian welcome.
The park’s heart is Kilauea (literally “much spewing”), a 1,242-meter shield volcano traditionally revered by Hawaii’s Polynesian settlers as home to the fire goddess, Pele.
Pele, it is claimed, still prowls Kilauea in the guise of a beautiful maiden or a hideous crone. If you encounter either, standard operating procedure is to pelt her with offerings of red ohelo berries. Should you have come unequipped with the fruit of this small Hawaiian shrub (a member of the cranberry family) then you can expect to be cursed and suffer a hideous death.
But I digress. Kilauea is not the largest of Big Island’s fire-breathers. Mauna Loa, the aptly named “long mountain,” is touted as the most massive single object on earth, with a volume of 40,000 cubic km. Mauna Kea, at 4,194 meters, is the island’s highest. For 17 years, though, Kilauea has been providing the most consistent action.
Although Kilauea is known as the “drive-in volcano” because it boasts an 18-km loop road that circles the rim of the caldera (the summit crater), the best way to experience the park is on foot. Before setting off on any of the park’s 240 km of trails, incidentally, check that your chosen trail has not been obliterated. “Destroyed by lava” is a common sign on the island. Trails are no exception.
One trail still intact at time of writing is the Halemaumau trail across the floor of Kilauea’s caldera. Agoraphobics shouldn’t even contemplate this excursion. One feels awfully small down there, and the caldera awfully big. People who don’t like the idea of having perhaps 10 cm of rock crust between them and boiling magma might also reconsider the jaunt. It only takes a couple of hours, but time, as Einstein remarked, is relative. Most folk cross the caldera on a slightly slower version of Dentist’s Waiting Room time. The reward for traversing the barren intimidating waste is an eggy lungful of the hydrogen sulphide that belches out of the dramatic Halemaumau Fire Pit.
Kilauea puts out a generous 2,500 tons of the gas per day, sufficient to fill 100 Goodyear blimps.
And no, if you suddenly bump into something that looks like a Canada goose with particularly leathery feet, you aren’t hallucinating. This inimical area is one of the few remaining homes to the nene, the endangered Hawaiian goose.
Delightful pockets of rain forest dot the park, but 6,500 hectares of lowland and rain forest have been consumed by fire since 1983, much to the detriment of resident honey-creepers, happy-face spiders and Hawaii’s only endemic mammal, the hoary bat.
Suddenly encountering lush, moist greenery echoing with bird song is particularly refreshing after one’s senses have become accustomed to the cheerless grays and blacks of the lava wilderness. Particularly good forest with towering 10-meter tree ferns can be explored around the Thurston Lava Tube and observed in the Huluhulu (meaning “big hairy”) cinder cone.
All life on Hawaii originally arrived from elsewhere, with one species successfully settling, on average, every 50,000 to 100,000 years. Isolated and without competition, many dropped their defenses. Here one can find nettles with no sting and mint with no smell.
Rapid human occupation and introduction of foreign species has overwhelmed many of the islands’ original settlers and sadly some of the birds that one sees have been classed by biologists as the “living dead” — birds that simply cannot be saved and will soon be gone.
The Desolation Trail offers a more optimistic education into nature’s regenerative powers. Here native forest all but obliterated by the ash from a 1959 eruption is vigorously recolonizing lost ground. Two curious phenomena can also be observed here — “Pele’s hair” (whiskery filaments of volcanic stone) and “Pele’s tears” (shiny little tear-shaped stones). Look. Don’t pocket.
Thieves depress the park staff but more importantly bring down Pele’s curse. There have been several instances of tourists mailing illicitly obtained rock souvenirs back to the Big Island after suffering ghastly misfortunes. Chemicals from Kilauea’s emissions form acid rain that scours virtually all life from the bleak south and west of the region known as the Kau Desert. The Footprints Trail into the Kau culminates in a series of depressions that are all that is left of a Hawaiian army overwhelmed by an eruption in 1790. Or so the story goes.
Given the unpredictability of volcanics there is no one place where fireworks are guaranteed but, a strong contender lies at the end of the Chain of Craters Road, where lava routinely pours out of a 10-km lava tube into the sea at a daily average rate of 400,000 cubic meters. Night views vary between muted glows and hell on earth. By day, on good days, one can enjoy the sight of the Pacific exploding into clouds of deadly hydrochloric acid steam.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park shouldn’t be done in a day although most visitors to the Big Island seem to try. It is not particularly close to the two main resort towns of Hilo and Kailua. It’s also very big.
Local accommodations include Volcano House, perched precariously on the caldera’s lip. Interestingly, the fire in Volcano House’s hearth has burned constantly since 1877, earning it an entry in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” Believe it or not, this loyally tended fire on one occasion ungraciously spread beyond the hearth and consumed the entire hotel.
Cheaper and more comfortable bed-and-breakfast accommodations are located in the nearby village of Volcano. Don’t expect night life. Volcano is dormant.
Just outside the park en route from Kailua is the Punalulu Black Sand Beach Park. Don’t miss it. Here, 180-kg green sea turtles display behavior unique to Hawaii. They haul up and bask oblivious to the tourists, who share the beach.
Less of a thrill awaits at the nearby Green Sand Beach, noteworthy for having sand that isn’t very green at all.