A Visit to the Volcano

To keep my super-molybdenum status, I gotta keep up my mileage. At $300 from Jacksonville to Hawaii, I can't say no. It's on Delta, my least favorite airline, but I'll live. Nine hours from Atlantic in the back proves better than feared. The entertainment was worthless, but the food edible, and I had two seats to stretchout/scrunchup.

Arrival in Honolulu Saturday night is just too late to connect to the last flight to the Big Island. I have seen Oahu; I want to see the Big Island. I overnight near the airport, the six hour time difference easing the early bedtime and early wakeup.

Sunday AM. The check-in machine offers me an upgrade for $25. I bite. What, no Froot Loops in the lounge? At least the flight in a new 717 offers spectacular views of several of the islands.

downtown Honolulu
Waikiki and Diamond Head
Pearl Harbor

I pick up a car and proceed south through Kona past Kailua, its principal city. Kona is a region (think Kona coffee), not a place, although the post office calls it Kailua-Kona to distinguish it from the Kailuas on Oahu and Maui. Got it?

My first stop, of sorts, is Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook got brained by the natives. He was initially greeted as a god, but his poll numbers fell faster than Nixon's. (See, R. Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King.) The road ends at the south end of the bay; Cook's monument is on the north end, a boat ride or long jungle hike away.

The area used to be one of dense population so it attracted early missionary efforts. A number of churches date from 1820-1840, the earliest days of white settlement. The most touristic, the painted church, a latecomer, was not built until 1902.

The next stop is Punaluu, noted for its black sand beach. Very photogenic, and would be more so but for the many Sunday beachgoers. Black sand is created when hot lava hits the sea and explodes. It is transitory in that is only build up in a protected cove and only lasts until washed away by the sea.

I have been making my way clockwise on the belt road around the Big Island. Near the bottom, it turns inland to go past the rim of Kilauea. The island was formed by five volcanoes. Kileauea is on the southern slope of Mauna Loa and is currently the most active. There are occasional giant blasts of glowing red lava, but lately there has been a steady stream, some 175,000 cubic yards daily, from the Puuoo vent flowing seven miles to the sea.

The main crater, or caldera, is a moonscape with several subcraters therein. There is an eleven mile rim road, along which are the Visitors Center, Volcano House Inn, and an observatory. There is not much to observe these days. The boiling pools and lakes of fire seen by Mark Twain have moved on. They could return at any time, but right now, except for some steam vents, the caldera is dormant.

To see the volcanic activity one must follow the Chain of Craters Road. You descend 4000 feet past small(er) craters created by various eruptions and lava fields with date signs (e.g., September, 1974; January, 1983; July, 1990, etc.) until you come to the dead halt where the current flow has blocked the road.

About two miles further a large plume of steam rises where the lava flow reaches the sea. It is possible to make the two hour (each way) hike across the fresh lava for a closer view, but I am ill-equipped and under-motivated. Instead, I drive back up, check in at the Volcano Bed and Breakfast (located in Volcano Village, two miles from the park entrance), have dinner, and head back down at dusk to see some red lava.

I'm not the only one with this plan. I have to park a long way down the road. The reward is a view of glowing areas on the hillside, punctuated by a burst of flame when the lava reaches a tree. A park ranger has set up a spotting scope focused on the spot where the slow river of lava pours over the lip. Reminds me of the gold pour at the Perth mint.

Media secret revealed: I asked where the spectacular eruptions seen periodically on the news occur. The ranger said she used to wonder the same thing until she realized that the media usually use stock footage that was shot in 1983.

Monday. Down the road to Hilo. Not much here, except is an (the only?) Hawaiian city "unspoiled" by prosperity. Development has taken place on the sunnier, Kona coast. This side is rainy and subject to tsunamis, the most recent biggie having hit in 1960. Some interesting older buildings survive, but there's no reason to get out of the car.

Then, north by a scenic route to the waterfalls at Akaka. These are the biggest falls on the island. Very pretty, about as expected.

The circuit continues westward and upwards into cattle country. This is the home of the famed Parker Ranch, the largest in the United States, and its paniolos, Hawaiian cowboys. I see plenty of cows and mounted tourists, but no real cowboys.

Along the way, there are signs warning of nene (Hawaiian goose) and donkey (feral) crossings. I don't see any of them but so see plenty of mongooses (mongeese?) darting across the roadway. They must be fast, because I don't see any squished ones.

The road goes to (and ends at) the top of the Kohala peninsula. Maui lies just across the channel. Not much here but views, so it's back south to Kailua, where I spent the night.

Tuesday. What to do? My plane doesn't leave until 4 PM. Kailua is a historic place: this was King Kamehameha's retirement home (he was born in Kohala); and the oldest church is Hawaii is here. The sightseeing takes all of 15 minutes. I shop for great art and find it in a bronze hula girl lamp (with motorized hips). As the saleslady notes, a future heirloom. Too bad it costs $1000. Maybe The Donald or some other rich vulgarian will buy it for me as belated bar mitzvah present.

The first day I passed by (the easy to remember and pronounce) Puuhonua O Honalaunau, a city of refuge. Today I go back. It's a genuine, historic site, but also genuinely boring. The Hawaiians piled lava rock to make walls and platforms. Atop these they put thatched huts with tikis out front. That's it. One picture and you're done.

And so am I. I fly back to Honolulu. More great views from the plane. At the lounge the helpful agent finds me two seats so I can cop some zeds. Another tick mark on the Big List of Places.

Trip date: May, 2005