OK, I just found out about the 20sb blog carnival with the topic of Best Travel Adventures, and that it's not too late to sign up. Since I recently had a spectacular travel adventure, I couldn't resist posting. If you've read all the posts from my Big Island trip, then this will be repeat information. This is the abridged version of my RED HOT LAVA story.
My boyfriend and I took our first vacation together on the Big Island of Hawaii this past August. We were there for only four days, but seeing as we live in Honolulu, it was only a short flight away. He had never been there before, and I had never been there as an adult, i.e., without my parents. We stayed on the Kona (west) side of the island and spent most of the trip snorkeling the fabulous coral reefs full of fish and starfish and sea urchins and moray eels, but on one day of our trip we drove to the east side of the island to see Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
We spent most of the day taking short and easy hikes around the park. We drove around the Kilauea caldera, saw the big Halema'uma'u crater with the sulfur dioxide plume rising out of it, looked down some natural steam vents, and hiked through an old lava tube. Around sunset, we drove to the part of the park that we were told we might be able to see some real red hot flowing lava. But when we got there, we were told there was no visible lava from that point that evening. We'd be able to see the red glow of the lava illuminating the sulfur dioxide smoke coming up from it, but that wasn't nearly as exciting as the idea of seeing the lava itself. We were disappointed.
Ready to take advantage of our disappointment, some locals sitting at a table to the side of the parking lot caught our attention. They were selling lava tours, where an experienced guide leads us on a hike out to get a good view of the lava flow. You can't go out by yourself, because one: it's probably a bad idea, since it's rough and there are better paths to take than others, and two: it involves going over private property (illegal trespassing!), but the guides cut a deal with the property owners so they're allowed to take people through. They had a laptop showing very impressive video of flowing lava, which they said was taken the previous Sunday on one such hike. All this could be ours, with $40 and a 45 minute hike (each way).
I was a little wary of going anywhere not sanctioned by the National Park itself, but my boyfriend seemed very enthusiastic about the idea. There were some logistics issues, since we hadn't eaten dinner yet and it was 7:00 and this could take 3 hours, and we didn't have cash on us, but we decided we were OK in terms of food and water, we didn't mind driving back to Kona later at night, and there was an ATM at a convenience store right near where the hike to the lava flow would start. We decided to take the plunge.
As we talked to one of the other young couples (a nice Swiss pair) waiting for the guide to arrive, we decided this felt a little like the beginning of a horror movie: four young, international couples, all strangers, heading out with a mysterious guide over rough terrain well after dark, with the promise of a spectacular, if hazardous, sight. Yes, this was a great idea.
The guide who was going to take us on the hike to see the hot lava was late, allowing me to get a little more nervous about the expedition, and 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. 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. It was going to be a long night.
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 bumpy, hardened lava fields. We noticed this tree mold just as we stepped off the path:
The lava cooled with a fallen tree in it, but that tree had since disintegrated, leaving the mold. Kind of 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 to warn my boyfriend behind me 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. It sounded a lot like we were walking on broken glass as our shoes crunched over the loose crumbles of the lava rock.
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. We continued on, back over lava rock, but this time, the rock was hot (bringing the temperature to around 100 F/38 C). That could only mean we were getting close to where we'd view the lava.
And before long, there it was. It was spectacular.
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 (see it in the video at the end of the post). This is a photo from my boyfriend's camera, where you can see the lava glow reflected in the approaching breaking wave.
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.
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. My boyfriend and I decided not to go any farther when we realized we were stepping over cracks that looked like this:
Yes, there is a reason the rocks we were standing on felt hot. I don't know if they were actually over liquid lava, or if they were resting on mostly hardened but still glowing hot rocks. In either case, we decided 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, my boyfriend 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.
The rest of the night was pretty hectic. By the time we got back to our car, it was past 11 pm. We needed: 1) bathroom, 2) gas, 3) food, and 4) coffee to help us stay awake on our 2.5 hour drive back to Kona. Do you know how hard it is to find those things that late at night in small towns surrounding a volcano? After lots of driving, circling, and stops, we had finally achieved all four of those goals. It was now 12:15. We made good time, so we got to Kona at 2:15. Brush teeth, shower, bed. That bed felt so good. It had been a crazy day, but also an exciting, awe-inspiring, memorable adventure.
Here's the video from our trip that day. The beginning is just craters, but the red hot lava starts at 1:13.