Hawaii: Melting moments of creation

By Jim Eagles

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Suddenly a great gout of orange and gold flame seemed to burst from the surface of the ocean, the watching crowd uttered a collective awestruck "Aaah" and the seawater boiled into a huge mass of steam.

A few seconds later an even bigger flame erupted, so bright it lit up the great column of vapour rising into the sky, and the sea bubbled so violently we briefly feared for the safety of a small boat carrying a party of volcano watchers just offshore.

"Oooh," we sighed together. "Aaah."

A couple of hundred of us, intrepid sightseers all, were gathered to watch the unique sight of a molten lava running into the sea after flowing through a lava tube from a vent on Hawaii's mighty Kilauea volcano.

It's a fascinating experience, though not without its risks. Locals are full of horror stories about foolhardy visitors getting shoes set on fire from walking across fresh lava, being injured by exploding chunks of red hot rock or nearly asphyxiated by toxic volcanic gases.

But the Hawaiian authorities do impose strict controls on trips to the lava flow to minimise the danger. The area from which the public is allowed to watch has been moved several times as the lava flow itself has moved across different parts of the island.

When conditions are considered unsafe, access is prohibited. In fact, for the two days before our visit the area was closed because the wind was blowing noxious volcanic gases back on to the viewing location.

And even when viewing is permitted spectators are only allowed in between 5-10pm, kept within a tightly restricted area, required to dress sensibly and bring water and flashlights, and watched over closely by uniformed officials equipped with megaphones.

Happily, on the one day we had available for a visit, a call to the lava hot line revealed that access was open again so we stuffed our backpack with water, torches and some old towels for sitting on and made the 50km drive from the city of Hilo to the viewing area at Kalapana. We went early because we wanted to see the effect of an earlier lava flow on to the famous Kalapana Beach, a black sand paradise lined with coconut palms, once rated among the great beaches of the world.

What we found is that the lava flow completely covered the beach and most of the adjacent fields, gardens and homes but - as a local recounted with relish - "it flowed right around a dreadful neighbourhood greasy spoon called Vernon's. As my husband commented, 'What kind of volcano god would wipe out the black sand beach and leave Vernon's untouched?"'

I think the answer is that the Pele, Hawaii's female volcano god, may well have repented her action because if you walk across the lava field to where the coast is now the black sand beach is being reformed in all its beauty. Locals have even been taking germinating coconuts and planting them round the fringe of the beach to recreate the row of palms.

And, perhaps best of all, the greasy spoon has been reborn under new ownership as the Kalapana Beach Cafe where we were able to enjoy a couple of very tasty hamburgers and some excellent coffee.

By then it was 5pm and the gates to the lava flow were open, so we drove the final stretch of road to the viewing area.

That was an intriguing experience in itself. Most of it was over a narrow, newly bulldozed track over the lava flow, but some stretches were down the old coastal highway which, like Vernon's, had been mysteriously left untouched.

Now and then we passed newly built homes sprouting out of the fields of black rock where families dispossessed by the volcanic activity were trying to re-establish themselves.

At the end of the road a rudimentary parking area had been established and - rather incongruously - alongside was a temporary commercial area of stalls, tents and caravans, offering coffee and sandwiches, photographs and paintings of volcanic activity, glass balls and coloured hats to the passing sightseers.

The pathway to the viewing area followed a 2km trail across the raw lava field, signposted with yellow paint, reflective stickers and marker poles, leading to the coast where two plumes of steam showed where the lava and the sea were colliding.

In broad daylight there wasn't much more than the steam to see but as it grew darker we began to see the glow of the red hot lava oozing out of its tube and the ooohs and aaahs started.

A couple of boats arrived to join the party and we watched as they edged towards the steam and then backed away nervously whenever there was a surge in activity.

Occasionally we could see large black chunks of rock tossed in the air by the power of the steam generated by the lava.

By the time it was fully dark it was like viewing a sort of combination bonfire and fireworks display formed by the glow of the lava and the cascade of sparks from its collision with the sea.

But what we were actually seeing was no mere entertainment but the process of new land being formed.

This was a rare opportunity to watch the volcanic forces which have already formed other islands in the Hawaiian chain, like Kauai, Oahu, Molokai and Maui, is still extending the Big Island of Hawaii on which we were standing, and is already in the process of creating the newest island, to be called Loihi, about 20km off the coast. It was creation in action.

As we walked back down the path with the aid of our torches I recalled a joke by Bob Fewell, from Hawaii Forest & Trail, who the previous day had guided us round the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

"This," he said, gesturing at one of the massive lava fields, "is one place where it's okay to be told you're as old as the hills. Round here I am as old as the hills. In fact I'm older than these hills because they were created only a few years ago."

For someone my age it was a comforting thought.


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Honolulu up to three times a week. Long-term airfares in Pacific Economy class are from $1500 return (plus charges).

Where to stay: Shipman House in Hilo is a great basis for exploring the volcanic attractions.

What to do: A couple of good websites for checking up on volcanic activity are volcanoes.usgs.gov and lavainfo.us.

Hawaii Forest & Trail's volcanic tours are on the web at hawaii-forest.com. You can find out about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at

Further information: See discoverhawaii.com/nz/

Jim Eagles visited Hawaii as guest of Air New Zealand and Hawaii Tourism Oceania.

- NZ Herald

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