Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
I can finally attest to the fact that lava is indeed hot. Considering the fact that it is melted rock, this shouldn’t come as a surprise and indeed the temperature of your average Hawaiian lava is in the region of 480˚C.
What was surprising was the speed of the lava flow that I was busy having my photo taken next to – it was creeping along at an inordinately slow pace and not in the manner of the speeding rivers of fire depicted in various appalling Hollywood movies (you know, the ones where you wish the main protagonist would succumb to the burning flames, although they never do).
Indeed as the sun set and the full extent of the lava flow that we were standing next to became apparent in a multitude of fiery red glows, I decided that it was a good thing that it was inching its way along the landscape. Otherwise, there would have been many a crispy tourist igniting merrily across the blackened ground, myself included.
If you want to see lava in action, then there is no better place than Big Island, the youngest (and most temperamental) of the Hawaiian Islands.
Depending on the status of volcanic eruptions and the latest lava flows, one can witness lava streaming into the sea or creeping rivers of molten rock engulfing roads and (occasionally) towns.
While our visit didn’t coincide with any major volcanic events, the island was still replete with reminders of its often precarious nature. Towering over proceedings were the imposing bulks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, both gigantic dormant volcanoes (although Mauna Loa is apparently long overdue an eruption).
Our airplane landed on a runway hacked out of a lava plain, and miles of blackened, twisted rock stretched away into the distance. A haze enveloped the island sky – the drifting vog (volcanic fog) that occasionally wreaths Big Island’s western shores.
One can see evidence of volcanoes and lava flows pretty much anywhere on Big Island, but by the far the best place to view the true nature of Hawaii’s volcanic heritage is Volcanoes National Park situated in the south of the island and home to several active craters. Here, vast sections of the park were blocked off to visitors due to poisonous clouds of sulphur dioxide, but there was still more than enough to do.
First stop was the Kilauea Visitor Centre, replete with well-designed interpretation boards and displays. As well as providing us with a wealth of information, the centre was situated adjacent to the Sulphur Banks (rocky vents stained white and yellow by the tons of sulphuric gases emitted from below every day), a series of steam vents (great rents in the jungle from which super-heated air poured forth), and the famous Thurston Lava Tube (a huge tunnel formed by an ancientlava river).
All of this was situated amid damp native rainforests, filled with gigantic tree ferns and the melodious tinkles of bright red ‘Apapane’, one of Hawaii’s beleaguered native forest birds.
Now feeling adventurous (despite our small children in tow) we made our way to the Kilauea Iki Crater. In the background, the Halema’uma’u Crater smoked ominously away, while we followed a winding trail around the rim and descended to the crater’s floor.
In November 1959, Kilauea Iki erupted in a fiery inferno – gushing 2 million tons of lava per hour at its peak and sending scarlet fountains up to 580 metres high. Now (luckily for us) quiet again, the floor consists of a jumbled, broken pile of black rock – complete with a rainbow forming in the background to give it that final picture-perfect effect.
However, the star of the show was the awesome Halema’uma’u Crater. Nestled within the gigantic Kilauea Caldera, Halema’uma’u has been busy erupting and bubbling away for centuries, with 18 eruptions since 1924 alone. We viewed it from afar as it sent huge plumes of smoke wafting away into the air.
The main viewing platform sits adjacent to the Jaggar Museum, whose excellent visitor centre belies its true nature as an important monitoring station for Halema’uma’u and the Big Island’s other rumbling giants.
While watching Halema’uma’u during the day was impressive, seeing it at night was like visiting a dragon’s lair. Wreathed in dense fog, the crater initially appeared as a dull red glow that flickered in the night sky.
An abrupt gust of wind whipped the fog away and, as if from behind a magician’s cape the crater appeared, its core flickering with a deep red glow. Deep within the crater’s depths, a vast lake of molten fire bubbled and writhed, filling the dark skies with its heat and light. Its powerful presence made it very clear to me why Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanos, was such a prominent feature of ancient Hawaiian legends.
The next day we drove the Chain of Craters Road, which twists and turns through the south of the park, sending us through a tableau of ancient lava fields, remnants of forest that had narrowly avoided being burnt (so far) and sporadic look-outs over yet more dormant volcanic craters.
And then, after 37 kilometres, the road ended. I don’t mean in an urban-planning sort of way – rather, the remaining sections of the road are now buried by hardened lava that issued forth from the Puu Oo vent in recent decades. A rather amusing traffic sign, sitting at a jaunty angle amid a jumbled expanse of previously molten rock, said ‘Road Closed’.
While our visit to the park had produced a wealth of volcanic sights and sounds, I still hadn’t seen lava up close and personal. To do that, we travelled east, to Puna and the village of Kalapana. Well, where the village of Kalapana once stood.
As with Chain of Craters Road, Highway 137 also comes to a rather abrupt end in a field of lava. Here, over 100 homes were obliterated by lava flows – although some enterprising (or insane, depending on your point of view) individuals had built new homes directly on top of the now hardened lava flow.
In the distance, like a scene out of the Triassic period, smoke rose from an active lava flow thatwas busy burning up yet another patch of forest.
It was in that direction that we headed, walking for hours over a never-ending warped landscape of twisted, tortured rock.
Up ahead, a small tree suddenly burst into flame, burned briefly, and then collapsed into ashes.
A heat shimmer settled over the ground ahead, creating mirages. And then we could see that the black rock ahead of us was actually glowing from within.
At its edges, creeping ever onwards, the rock was an incandescent red.
Occasionally a section of the rock would bulge and expand, before opening up and spewing out a fresh stream of lava over the land.
Incredibly, this fiery landscape was populated by several small tourist groups, each wandering blithely along the edge of the flow poking sticks into it – sticks that were immediately engulfed in flame.
It was a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare, but hey, this is island-style, so relax.
I crouched next to my own little section of lava and watched it glimmer and rage. I could feel the sweat beading down from my forehead as the rock melted next to me.
Rebirth out of destruction, new land over old, the glow was strangely hypnotic.
Somewhere, out in the darkness of the night, Pele whispered and the lava flowed once more.