The island of Hawaii, also known as “The Big Island”, is the youngest and largest of the island group with a total population of 185,000. We docked in Hilo, the largest town with a population of 43,000. There is no glitz and glamour here, making it very unlike Honolulu, and much better suited to our tastes.
The island was formed by five volcanos, two of which are still active. Mauna Loa is the world’s largest volcano at 13,677 feet. Kilauea is the world’s most active, and it’s lava flows have buried 3 towns and added 543 acres to the island since 1983.
The island has also suffered from massive tsunami damage. One in 1946 from an Alaskan earthquake and one in 1960 from a Chilean earthquake. Both sent waves over 60 feet tall barreling towards Hilo. Each time, the town was obliterated, and the waves sweep inland for several miles. More recently, a Japanese earthquake in 2011 sent a smaller tsunami to the island. I don’t think investing in oceanfront property is a wise idea.
First up on our itinerary today was a trip to the Hawaii Volcanos National Park, about 45 minutes southeast of Hilo, and home of Kilauea. On the way, we learned that in 2008, there was an unpredicted explosion in the main crater (Halemaumau), which led to the first eruption since 1982. The debris covered and permanently closed part of the Crater Rim Drive and severely damaged the overlook and museum. The explosion did not discharge any lava, which suggests it was driven by hydrothermal or gas sources. It did open a major sulphur dioxide gas vent, and dangerous fumes are now emitted at the crater. A new overlook was built much further away. You don’t want to breathe the stuff in. High levels can kill you.
We also learned that there is a “lava lake” underground that is constantly on the move. It rises and falls by over 1,000 feet depending on the amount of pressure deep inside the earth. Sometimes it reaches the surface which results in a dazzling display of bubbling lava. But, most of the time, this lake is simmering well out of sight. Our guide had not seen lava in weeks, and warned us not to get our hopes up.
We were subdued and dispirited for the rest of the ride… until we arrived, hopped out of the van and saw bright orange molten lava! Yippee!
This is the first time for us, and it was absolutely thrilling! There were two jagged fissures about 50 feet wide on the surface of the crater. The roiling lava was belched 30 feet in the air, which means that the pressure was really high today. Our guide was shocked. I told him I did my “molten lava dance” in honor of Pele before leaving the ship, and obviously, it worked. He begged me to teach him the routine.
We were pretty far away, but had a splendid view through the binoculars. The constant plumes of gas made the entire scene hazy, so photography was a challenge. My best shot is below, although it pales in comparison to seeing the live performance. We met two ladies who had been coming here every day for the past two weeks, waiting to see this spectacle. They were in tears. I was totally mesmerized and could have stayed all day. Steve had to drag me away. Thank you Pele! You rock!
We briefly explored the Chain of Craters Road to gawk at the older lava flows that had devoured everything in their path. It takes a very long time for “life” to grab hold again after a flow blankets an area, but it does.
The rest of the day was interesting, but anticlimactic, as you can imagine. We stopped at the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory and sampled 18 different flavors. The tour was interesting, and the processes are only partially automated, which means that many happy humans had jobs here The nut prices were no better then at home, so it was easy to resist the urge to load up. The Salted Caramel Macadamia Nut Ice Cream made on site was the creamiest concoction imaginable. No guilt either, since it doubled as lunch.
Our last stop was Rainbow Falls. It was impressive… but the real stunner was the colossal banyan tree close by. Check it out below, and notice how tiny the person looks on the right side. The massive root system to the right, is also part of the tree.
Back at the pier, we saw a modern version of the ancient Polynesian double hulled canoe which the local kids like to race. It seemed fittingly poetic, since most of the places we have been over the past 6 weeks were first populated by these amazing navigators, who had no instruments and simply used natural signs to find their way. Our Polynesian education started with Easter Island on February 20th, and ended here in Hawaii.
As we were leaving Hilo, the home below made us shutter. The cliff supporting it was carved away during the 2011 tsunami, but people are still living there. They must be chronically neurotic by now, wondering if they will wake up in the sea when they go to bed each night. That’s a bit to thrilling for me.
Next stop, San Francisco.