In Hawaiian snow

By Prue Scott

Prue Scott watches the fiery sunset from the peak of Honolulu's White Mountain.

Astronomers love the clean, moisture-free air at the summit of Mauna Kea, which provides 300 days a year of clear views. Photo / Prue Scott
Astronomers love the clean, moisture-free air at the summit of Mauna Kea, which provides 300 days a year of clear views. Photo / Prue Scott

A climber planning to ascend Aoraki/Mt Cook will spend months in training. My holiday preparation amounted to a few mouse clicks and a very comfortable bus ride, with a heavy down jacket and flip-top mittens included in the price.

I am going up Mauna Kea, the White Mountain, on Hawaii's Big Island. When I stand on her 4205m summit, I will be 451m higher than the summit of Mt Cook. I am doing it the lazy way - with Hawaii Forest & Trail - and I am going for one reason: to watch the sun sink below the cloud layer in a flaming ball of orange.

The Big Island is full of surprises. The eastern side is rather wet, the western side a desert of bitter chocolate lava flows. I'm joining the tour at the Waikaloa shopping centre with its spotless outdoor malls, gourmet food, mother-and-daughter shops, platinum-card brands and the inevitable koi pond.

Our driver, Craig, does the trip several times a week but he's got that happy knack of making it all sound fresh.

Mauna Kea sits over and under the famous Parker Ranch, once America's largest at 202,342ha. It is home to the paniolo, the local Hawaiian cowboys who began life in the 1830s as Mexican vaquero.

John Palmer Parker brought these expert horsemen - with their boots, saddles, language, guitars and ukeleles - to the island to train the local men.

Today the Parker Ranch is a mere 40,500ha, only a handful of paniolo remain and the animals are shipped off to the mainland for fattening in feedlots.

Mauna Kea is a mountain of micro-climates, east and west.

"It is said the ladies like the wet side because one can grow a very nice garden there. The cowboys like the dry side for the cactus and gravel. It keeps the sexes apart, except for Saturday nights," says Craig.

The Saddle Road was built during World War II to link the northern port at Kohala with the deep-water port at Hilo on the eastern side. It has two lanes and is sealed, but rental-car companies won't allow you to drive on it. Clearly, their collective memory of a gravel road remains.

The facts and anecdotes come thick and fast: areas with 6000 to 9000 frogs per hectare, deafening anyone within distance with 95-decibel songs; fireweed that is poisonous to horses and cows; coal-black wild goats; fences to stop nene birds becoming road kill; and red flag territory.

The United States Army trains out here at a windswept base of Jeeps, trucks, old Quonset huts, a flagpole and buildings behind wire.

"They have the Pacific's largest live-firing exercises here," Craig tells us.

"They realigned the Saddle Road so they didn't have to fire at each other across the road, which caused the traffic to veer suddenly to one side to avoid the shells."

Cinder cones the size of houses appear, and we clamber into our padded jackets and flip-top mittens.

The old paniolo camp, where we stop for hot stew and cornbread muffins, is bitingly cold and damp. This is the third highest road in the US, and the sign saying, "Keep hands and feet inside" is not an invitation to try the opposite: the cold will freeze them in moments.

On the summit above the cloud line, the clean, moisture-free air sends astronomers into raptures. On Mauna Kea they go to extremes to keep that air clean. There is no up-lighting and the road is sealed for the last 6.5km to reduce the chance of road dust interfering with the signals.

The island's low-pressure sodium vapour lights help provide 300 days a year of clear views to 13 billion light years away, with nebulae, new stars, 40 per cent of the North Hemisphere's sky and 80 per cent of the Southern's.

The largest telescope, Subaru, belongs to the Japanese. Subaru is their word for the Pleiades star cluster. Its single piece of glass, 20.3cm thick, took eight years to grind. My 10-megapixel camera takes a decent photo, but just behind me is the world's second-largest fixed digital camera at 340 megapixels. We stop to marvel at the Keck 1 and Keck 2 dishes, each 10m across.

The big names are here - Nasa, JPL, NSF, Caltech and the Smithsonian. The astronomers are not. They're spread worldwide, linked to Mauna Kea by the internet.

The people here are the operational crews, managers and maintenance teams who live in a communal building at 2700m where they spend 10 days acclimatising in the thin air before shifts of three days on, four days off.

Climbing higher, there are red cones that could double for Mars. Oh, they did: they tested the Mars Rover here and astronauts come to test their survival skills.

At 4205m, I am in a carpark full of tour buses, cars, SUVs and one hardy soul in a soft-top Jeep Wrangler. Snow and ice crunch underfoot.

Mauna Kea's normally clear summit is beset with racing strands and billows of cloud, and we'll be lucky to see anything good. But there it is: the flaming orange sun sinking against an azure sky, clouds swirling.

I get my awe moment and photographers get their "ahh" shots.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines and Air NZ fly daily to Honolulu.

Go star-gazing: See Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure.

Further information: See hawaii-forest.com and DiscoverAmerica.com.

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