An exotic Christmas Eve
The highlight of our day today was supposed to be a sunset tour of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on earth when using the height of the mountain from the seafloor up (rather than from sea level). However, the rain that we encountered yesterday had apparently continued on today on the mountain, and the road between the Visitor station (at ~9000 ft) and the summit (~14000 ft) was closed. Our tour company graciously offered to still try to take us up there today and give us 50% back if the road to the summit was still closed, or reschedule our tour for tomorrow (Wed, Dec 25). We opted for rescheduling for the next day, which freed up just about our entire afternoon. Alas, there was plenty to do in Hilo and the surroundings, so we didn’t skip a beat.
Our first stop of the day was Akaka Falls State Park. This little park offers a concrete path that loops around the lush cliffs above a river and eventually leads up to the 442-ft Akaka Falls. This was our first exposure to the tropical rain forests that are common on this side of the island. We saw lots of interesting plants and trees, and the waterfall was nice too. The state park was a good 1500 ft above sea level – elevation here changes so fast that your ears keep popping all the time. Getting to the park was beautiful too – the landscape here is so green, and views abound anywhere you turn.
On the way back down, we stopped at a little stand on the side of the road where one could buy get a pineapple or a coconut, both cut in front of you. Lena enjoyed the pineapple while I happily drank my coconut juice out of the husk, after which the guy manning the stand cut it up for me and got the meat out. He had been born and brought up in the area – I couldn’t help but wonder what spending your entire life here and manning a fruit stand for a living must be like. The simplicity of it seemed strangely alluring!
Our next stop was the Hawaii Tropical Botanical garden. Our GPS took us on a little half-mile detour on a dirt road to get there, which was kind of fun. We enjoyed some of the 2000 species of tropical plants set amid streams and waterfalls. Part of the garden trial goes all the way up to the ocean, where we enjoyed seeing the waves crashing against the lava rock once again. We even saw some people who had ventured so far out on the cliffs with their baby in tow that we got a bit concerned. Lena surprised me with her familiarity with quite a few of the plants in the garden because of a previous job at a landscaping company. We enjoyed the macaws in the aviary as well, although we were only allowed to watch them from behind the fencing.
After a quick sushi lunch that left us a bit disappointed (high bill, not enough food) and a quick stop at a local grocery for some snacks, we headed to the Imiloa Astronomy center. This $28-million dollar complex merges traditional myth and modern science beautifully. Inside, we learned about how Polynesians navigated through open waters – little did I know they traveled with their little wooden canoes for thousands of miles all over the Pacific – in fact, Polynesian artifacts are strewn as far out as California and New Zealand. In fact, Hawaii is the Northern tip of the Polynesian triangle, the other two points being Easter Island and New Zealand. Ancient Polynesians used East West as the anchor for their navigation system, which of course was because they could easily tell where the sun rose and set. North and South, then, were simply known as left and right. As Polynesians settled on land, they stopped traveling great distances and slowly lost their open water navigation skills. At the Astronomy center we also learned that Mauna Kea was considered a sacred site for Polynesians. who attribute volcanic activity to Pele, the goddess of volcanoes.
In terms of modern science, we learned a bit about the 13 telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea. The dry, smooth air means near perfect conditions for star-gazing. The inversion effect traps clouds at about 6000 ft, so the summit of Mauna Kea is free of clouds even when there is cloud cover at sea level. It also makes for a beautiful sunset on the mountain! Unfortunately, we missed the planetarium shows (they stopped them early because it was Christmas Eve), but because of that one of the ladies that works at the center waived the admission fee for us. I was starting the like this thing called the Aloha spirit!
By then it was late afternoon, so we decided to head to Hawaii Volcano National Park. Volcanic activity is the birth mother of the Hawaiian islands, and nowhere is this activity more pronounced than here, on the Big Island. Home of 5 volcanoes – 2 dormant and 3 active, the Big Island is continuously shaped and re-shaped by these forces. Volcanic activity adds land to the island – 500 acres had been added since the 1983 eruption of Kilauea. Lava flowing from the Pu’u O’o vent recently reached the town of Pahoa, about 5 miles from where we are staying in Keaau. Following a 2008 vent opening at the Kilauea caldera, a lava lake glows there every night and draws visitors here after sunset. The 11-mile Crater Rim drive skirts the rim of the caldera, but about 1/3 of it has been closed since the 2008 eruption. Still, the remaining portion took us through 3 of the major sites – the steam vents, the Thurston lava tube and the Halema’uma’u overlook at the Jagger museum.
We also did a very short 1-mile round-trip hike to the Kilauea Iki crater. That crater burst open in a fiery inferno in 1959 and turned the whole floor into a bubbling lake of molten lava. Some of its fountains reached record heights of 1900 ft, and 20,000 people a day flocked to the park to see this craziness, with cars sometimes backed up for 10 miles. What remains of that today is a huge black crater that is STILL steaming and cooling, some 50+ years after the eruption. The walk to the overlook was called Devastation Trail and we could easily see why – lava rain from the fountains had left the area around the crater desolate.
We got to Jagger museum right at sunset – behind the museum is the best currently accessible viewpoint of the Kilauea crater. We saw the volcano spew its column of ash during the day from the steam vent, and we had to return after dark to see it lit by the lava lake below. We were a bit disappointed as the ash that the volcano keeps spewing makes for hazy conditions on many days, and today was no exception. Still, the light show was worth the trip and was definitely an unforgettable experience.
We capped off our day with an attempt to visit the lava flowing in the town of Pahoa, but learned that we’d have to return on Friday due to the holidays. The lava flow at that particular location (Apaa Street) had slowed to a halt and the lava had hardened although one could still see it steaming. Lava flowing from the Pu’u O’o vent is still threatening other parts of Pahoa and is expected to cross over Highway 130 in the next 10 days, essentially cutting Pahoa off from the rest of the island. For that reason, crews had closed off another former lava flow site on the other side of town that had cut off access to Pahoa from the West, and were building an emergency road there so that citizens of the little town weren’t completely cut off from both sides in case of a, well, emergency. We were also told that a clothing store in town was offering a huge sale because the lava flow was predicted to pas through the store. All this is crazy, right? I am still shaking my head.
We returned home tired and hungry. Paula, our AirBnB hostess sent down Christmas dinner for us, so we enjoyed a little feast, which was nice seeing that we were both so far away from our hometowns, families and loved ones. To all of you reading this, Merry Christmas!