The world's most active volcano thrills and terrifies, writes Helen van Berkel.
Death was only minutes away. It would require a pretty determined descent into the crater, across the crater floor, and a leap into the lava lake but still: I stood on the edge of the edge of the abyss. Kilauea Volcano's Halemaumau crater was spitting lava that was popping above the surface of the lake and setting the surrounding cliffs aglow. From the Jaggar Museum lookout, it looked like a demented demon was throwing its red-hot toys out of the cot. It's an astounding and terrible glimpse into the beating heart of our planet, the home of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes.
We'd come to Hawaii's Big Island specifically to see the volcanoes. My dream was to see lava spewing into the ocean, and we booked into Volcano House because you couldn't get much closer than that: it's on the rim of the Kilauea caldera within the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Outside our window was Halemaumau, a column of smoke by day and a glowing pit by night. We were tired after our early-morning hour-long flight from Honolulu and the drive from Hilo but we couldn't waste time: there is a VOLCANO outside our window. I nudged my sleepy daughter awake: "That is a volcano outside our window!"
Numerous walks snake through the hotel's grounds, either following the 5km rim of the crater or, hundreds of metres below, meandering across the crater floor towards Halemaumau. We followed an old road; vegetation was quietly swallowing old road signs, and the cracking tarmac showed erosion was widening the caldera. Huge boulders beside and below the path were testament to the shaky landscape. Kilauea is not only Hawaii's but the world's most active volcano, having been quietly erupting since the 80s, producing a slow ooze of lava that is turning Big Island into Bigger Island.
It sits on the flank of the huge Mauna Loa volcano and periodically leaks lava from a number of vents, including Halemaumau and, in the rift zone closer to the sea, Pu'u O'o, where most is happening these days.
That evening we went for a drive towards the nearby bluffs that were quietly burping clouds of steam. And suddenly the deepening darkness revealed the flaming glow of the volcano's pulsing red crater. We swerved down an unmarked roadside lane and gained an unexpectedly clear view of the boiling lava. Walking along a lighted path, we ended up at the Jaggar Museum, which offered an uninterrupted view of the eerie glow.
An educational display explains the Pacific Ring of Fire and the implications of living on a thin plate floating on a pool of magma. A printed report of the day's activity in the crater recorded lava levels rose several metres overnight. I'm puzzled: don't big changes in the lake suggest an eruption is imminent ? But no, that is how Kilauea rolls.
Signs of Kilauea's activity are everywhere; we found a lava tube in the tropical rainforest on our early morning walk. Too early for the lights to have switched, we used our cellphone torches to guide us through the 180m tunnel, the remains of an old lava flow that boiled through here then subsided.
But still seeking the visual thrill of lava spitting into the sea we followed Line of Craters Rd through bleakly beautiful lava fields of eruptions past. We marvelled at the cow-pat look of the hardened magma and the twisted and gnarled shapes of the rock. We marvelled at the thought of the temperatures it takes to melt basalt rock into liquid. We crossed lava fields, the rock warm under our feet, wary of wide crevasses that could easily break a leg or an ankle. Historic lava flows crusted mountain sides like old stab wounds.
It was a surprise to find ourselves suddenly standing on the rocky clifftop: the warm rock vibrating beneath our feet as wild ocean boomed and thrashed against the unyielding rock. Sometimes the billows won; sometimes the molten rock triumphed.
Sadly, it was an eight-hour walk to see the lava flowing into the ocean and we had a plane to catch.
But Kilauea gave us the wonderful gift of promised magic to return for. And I hope Pele will welcome my return.
In the days since I visited, Pele has again awoken in the caverns beneath Kilauea. The Pu'u O'o crater — not Halemaumau — is again venting and many of the places we trod are now closed to tourists: the Volcano House, the Jaggar Museum, the national park itself.
Fissures have opened on ground I confidently navigated, child in tow, down to the coast.
This is an active landscape, blessed by but also at the mercy of an active, slow-moving volcano and its numerous vents.
From a landscape riven by an active volcano and craters all you can expect is the unexpected.
At the time of going to print, the Hawaiian Tourism Authority is advising it is still safe to travel to Hawaii — including the Big Island — stating there is "no reason at this time for travellers to change or alter their leisure or business plans". The Hawaii County Civil Defence Agency is warning against travel to an area of about 26sq km in the Puna region, which borders the volcanic national park. Other islands, including Oahu and Maui, are not affected. Updates can be found on safetravel.govt.nz and hawaiicounty.gov/active-alerts.
Hawaiian Airlines flies to Hilo and Kona on Hawaii Island, via Honolulu, with one-way Economy Class fares from $649.