Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - RED HOT LAVA!

Long post today. It was a long adventure. But hopefully it will be worth it; our adventure certainly was. If you want, though, you can just skip to all the photos. Follow-up to yesterday's post.

The guide who was going to take us on the hike to see the hot lava was late. He was supposed to be there at 7 pm, but he didn't show until around 7:20 - 7:25. This gave me time to get a little more nervous about the expedition, and for the night to get a little darker. All the people going in our group (eight of us) followed the guide in our cars to another parking lot not in the National Park. Apparently this is where all the guides start their groups hiking out to see the lava, and there was a convenience store, an outdoor/window restaurant, and an outdoor bar with live band where people would come back from seeing the lava to celebrate. We got money from the ATM and water and flashlights from the convenience store (though we ended up using the extra flashlights the guide had, which were brighter). I used the convenience store's bathroom. We all gathered around the guide again as he gave us some last notes before going out. Turns out the hike would take more like one hour and fifteen minutes each way, plus we'd stay out at the lava maybe half an hour or so. So we'd be finishing up around 11 pm. With a two and a half hour drive to Kona after that. Fun.

We headed out away from the noise and the light of the bar, into the dark. The first couple minutes were on an even dirt path, but then we started out over the hardened lava fields. To get a sense of what it probably looked like (I couldn't get a good photo in the dark), see the terrain in the last two photos of yesterday's post. We noticed this tree mold just as we stepped off the path:

The lava cooled with a fallen tree in it, but that tree has since disintegrated, leaving the mold--like someone leaving their shoe print in cooling cement.

After that, it was a rough hike. At the beginning, I'd call out every time I stepped over a big crack--not the kind you'd fall into and get stuck inside, but the kind that could twist your leg pretty bad (if it was the kind of crack you could fall into, the guide would point it out himself, and that only happened once)--to warn the Housemate to watch his step. But after 10 minutes or so, they became commonplace enough that we knew we just had to watch our step all the time. The rocky land was not flat, but had sloped lumps that we were walking up and down and up and down. The top crust was crumbly, so we had to be careful not to slip on the loose bits on the slopes. And the pahoehoe folds were fragile, so the guide warned us not to step on their ridges, since they could break under us and twist our ankle.

I have little sense of how long we hiked over the hardened lava field, though I would estimate about half the hike was that segment, as we were making our way towards the coast. Finally, we made it to the coast, where we turned right to go south towards the lava flow. Here, we got some relief, as the path along the coast went over dirt (though sometimes through stands of trees with tricky roots, but that wasn't so bad). It seemed safe, as long as we didn't look to our left and see the rocky cliff right there leading straight down to the crashing waves. The shrubs and trees were nice to see--some sign of life--and the guide told us that if we heard anything rustling around out there, it was probably a wild boar.

For most of the hike, we'd been able to see the red-glowing plume of sulfur dioxide rising from the lava outflow. As we made our way down the coast, we finally got a sight of the lava. Very distant still--no more than a dot smeared on my camera screen--but distinctive. I snapped a couple pictures, but they would soon become obsolete.

As we got closer to the lava flow, the terrain changed back to rough lava rock. We climbed down a steep slope to a black-sand beach. The sand was very grainy because the land was so new, and the ocean hadn't had time yet to refine the grains. The guide told us that pretty soon, the rock we'd be walking over would be hot (bringing the temperature to over 100 F/38 C, I think he said), then it would get cool again, then it would get hot again as we made the last bit of the trek to where we'd view the lava. As promised, the rock did get hot. Luckily the ocean breeze was there to give us relief. The rocks got cool again, as we walked over older land. Then they got hot again. That could only mean we were getting close to where we'd view the lava.

And before long, there it was. It was spectacular.

I'm still kicking myself for not bringing my tripod on the hike, because I'd been using it earlier in the day. (Having not intended to go on such an arduous hike on that trip to the park, I hadn't brought a suitable hiking pack. When setting out on the night hike I took only my camera case, not thinking to take the little tripod out of my too-clunky purse.) So most of my photos are slightly blurry, since I was taking them in the dark, and the lumpy terrain prevented me from getting a good view with the camera resting on the ground. This was the sharpest photo I got.

Look at it drip! All the while, waves from the left were crashing onto the shore and the rocky ledge where the lava was flowing from, sometimes high enough to cover our view of the lava--just wait until you see the video I'll post next week (still editing...). The dangerous glow of the super hot lava, the slow rise of the illuminated smoke plume, mixed with the power and the sound of the ocean waves crashing onto the shore--it was a truly awesome, breath-taking sight.

This is a photo from the Housemate's camera, where you can see the lava glow reflected in the approaching breaking wave.

While we took photos of the lava flowing into the ocean, the guide scouted ahead to figure out how close we could safely get to some of the hot lava sitting at the surface. We walked just a minute inland where we lost sight of the waves but could see surface lava. This was fairly stationary, and thus relatively safe to get closer to (or so the guide believed). The plume of smoke prevented the guide from taking us to what I guess was a river of lava, which we couldn't see over the ridge, that was feeding the ocean outflow:

The guide took those of us who wanted to get a closer view of the surface lava right up to see it, but some of us chose to stay behind. The Housemate and I decided not to go any farther when we realized we were stepping over cracks that looked like this:

I have no idea what those little orange dots are. I couldn't see them in the dark or under the flashlight.

Besides, we had a perfectly good view of the surface lava from where we were. It wasn't like we needed to touch it or anything.

Blow up that photo and it's like we were right there, right?

It was an amazing sight. While we were standing there, the Housemate said, "I'm really glad we did this." I responded, "I'll say that when we're back at the car."

We hiked back to lights and civilization quietly, everyone just thinking about what we had seen. The creation of new land. Pele (Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes) at work.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Unless we go again. We went at night because that's when we were there. The advantage of the nighttime hike was the extra-dramatic glow. The lava stood out so strongly against the darkness, and the huge sulfur dioxide plume caught the red glow as well (it looks gray/white in the day). I wonder if I would have noticed the glow between the rocks in the daylight. The advantage of daytime would be that we wouldn't need flashlights and the light would make it an easier hike, plus we could actually see the lava rock fields, the ocean, the black-sand beach, and the rocky cliffs as we walked by. If I go again, I'll do it during the day, so I can see everything that we walked by. That would mean a lot more photos, though.

The rest of the night was a little crazy. We got back to the parking lot around 11-11:15. Before we headed back to Kona (2.5 hr+ trip), we needed (in rough order of importance)

1. Bathroom stop
2. Gas
3. Coffee so the Housemate could stay awake driving (because of the rental car agreement, I couldn't share the burden there.)
4. Food (I hadn't eaten dinner, though luckily I'd eaten half of my large lunch sandwich around 4 pm, and the Housemate had eaten a bunch of sushi at sunset but having fasted all day he needed more.)

In the first tiny town we got to, we stopped for gas, but we got mad at the place because it declined my credit card (which totally had plenty of credit--the next gas station took it no problem) and they didn't have a bathroom. We went to the next town, slightly larger, and got gas there. Check off #2. But when we went to the gas station's convenience store, even they didn't have a bathroom for us to use. Fail.

We made our way up to Hilo, the largest town on the island. We figured we'd go to the McDonald's to use their bathroom and get some food. By then it was about 11:50, and their door said that they closed at midnight, but they'd already locked the doors and we could see them cleaning the floor inside. I suppose if we'd pounded on the door and demanded to be served, we might have had a chance to get in, but we didn't (and they'd probably closed those registers already). All the fast food places at that strip mall had closed by then, but most of them still had their drive-thrus open. Angry at McDonald's, we went to Taco Bell's drive-thru. Strangely I wasn't in the mood for any sort of food (maybe because it was so late, and my stomach had already given up on the prospect of dinner), so the Housemate ordered some tacos and we left. I ended up eating one of the tacos. Check off #4. But still no bathroom. It was getting a little desperate.

We found another gas station with a convenience store where we might find some bottles of Starbucks frappuccino and hopefully a bathroom, and pulled off the road there. We worried that the convenience store might not have a bathroom, but before we stopped the car we noticed a Walmart in the next parking lot. Open 24 hours and with reliable BATHROOMS! Never have I been so happy to see a Walmart. We went in and used the bathroom. Check off #1. *Sigh of relief.*

We went back to the convenience store gas station to get some Starbucks frappuccinos. The doors were locked because it was definitely after midnight by now (apparently they lock the doors at 10:30), but we could still make purchases from the cashier inside via intercom and a sliding drawer--like they use in prisons. I'd never seen one of those used for that reason, but I guess if makes sense to prevent robbery. So we bought two frappuccinos through the drawer, standing outside as it started to rain. Did you know that Hilo averages 126 inches of rain a year? Anyway, check off #3. It was now past 12:15. We briefly contemplated trying to find a room to stay at in Hilo, but then we'd just have to spend the next morning driving back, we had free beds waiting for us in Kona, and we had caffeine, so we figured we'd tough it out.

Finally we were on the road. Because we'd come all the way north to Hilo, my GPS told us that it would now be faster to take the more northern route between the volcanoes than to go back around the south point, the way we had come that morning. So we headed back to Kona, in the dark and rain, on a little two-lane highway we hadn't driven before, with almost no one else on the road, and practically nothing but volcano on either side. The Housemate was a little wary of the GPS's directions, because it was sending us on such small roads, but that's the only road there. At one point, we kept going up and down these little hills, and each time we got to the top of one there would be an alarmingly thick fog. We gave up on the radio and I sang songs to help keep the Housemate awake. We made better time than the GPS expected, getting back at 2:15 rather than 2:45. Brush teeth, shower, bed. That bed felt so good. It had been a crazy day, but also an exciting, awe-inspiring, memorable adventure.

Tomorrow I'll share the photos from our last--and best--snorkeling expedition. Be sure to check back next week when I post the video I took at the volcano. The stills don't really do the lava flowing into the ocean justice--you need the movement and the sound to appreciate the moment.


Vanessita said...

The journey back had a bit of tension to add to the emotions of the day. A remarkable trip, glad it went all well and now you have some cool photos and memories to keep :)

Hezabelle said...

The lava is so amazing! It's so great that you got to see it!

Eleni said...

Vanessa - It was pretty crazy. But we got off with priceless memories and a good story to tell, so it was worth it.

Hez - It was pretty mind-blowing watching it there. I can't wait to post the video here.

Sebastian said...

One does not simply walk into Mordor!

Now I really want to visit Hawaii (for that volcano crater, too).

Eleni said...

The Housemate and I were making references to LotR on the hike. The setting was more like Mordor, but what came to mind at the time was the Dead Marshes, because we had our guide leading us along a seemingly non-existent path... "Don't. Follow. The lights!"

You should come! You could take some really killer photos at the volcanoes.