palm trees against blue sky in Hawaii

Volcano, Hawai`i

After spending a couple of days in Kailua-Kona, we set off on our road trip in my Hoss. After our stop-off at the black sand beach, I drove to the south-east side of the Big Island, arriving at Volcano in the afternoon. Volcano is named Volcano because of the nearby volcano. You can visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which we were keen to do, having not had enough of volcanoes in Iceland.

We were staying in an AirBnB which was a bit tricky to find if you went by the house numbering. The house numbering was not in any sort of incremental order. In fact, it seemed completely random. Luckily, our host had provided us with directions that included watching out for a driveway with a surfboard at the entrance. Our place was just beyond that. How the postman finds his way, I’ll never know.

Ma Hoss and ma house

The cottage was nearly 4000′ (1219 m) above sea-level. My lungs did not thank me when we went out running at that altitude. My legs didn’t thank me either because it was so very steep. The first morning, I could only manage 2 miles.

The cottage was surrounded by rainforest, in which black, red and white birds flew and sang. I found out that they were called `apanane, a kind of honeycreeper. I liked to sit out on the lanai in the morning, with my Kona coffee and watch the birds flitting about. Their wings made a kind of purring sound as they flew from one tree to another.

Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park

In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we explored what we could of Kīlauea Volcano. This one we couldn’t go down, of course, what with it being active and everything. In fact, there was a whole area of Kīlauea Caldera closed off to the public because of high levels of sulphur dioxide from the eruptions of 2011–2013. They call the air pollution from volcanoes vog, a portmanteau of fog and smog, where smog is a portmanteau of smoke and fog. They even talk about vog on the weather forecast. They were hoping the Trade Winds would blow the vog away because it was getting quite bad.

The Sulphur Banks

Sulphur banks

There was plenty of sulphur and sulphur dioxide around where we were allowed to go, but a sign warned us of what can happen to anyone who strays off the path through the Sulphur Banks.

One ten-year-old boy strayed from the path in 1996. He slipped into a crack billowing with steam right up to his chest. He was soon pulled out, but he suffered scalding burns on 10 % of his body. The steam was later measured to be at 60 ºC (150 ºF). He was lucky it wasn’t hotter.

In 2000, someone else strayed from the path and stepped onto a thin crust of ash. He broke through into a hole filled with steam at 96 ºC (205 ºF), which caused severe burns to his leg. He was lucky it was only steam.

The holes under the crust are caused by volcanic gases coming to the surface. They dissolve in groundwater to give sulphuric acid and hydrofluoric acid. Sulphuric acid dissolves you from the outside in; hydrofluoric acid dissolves you from the inside out.

We did not stray off the path.

Thurston lava tube

Thurston lava tube

We went through a lava tube. It was strange to think that when the volcano was erupting, the temperature of the flowing lava was above 1090 ºC (2000 ºF), whereas at the surface, the lava was cool enough to solidify, thus forming the roof of the tube. Once all the lava drained away, the tube was left behind.

Kīlauea Iki Crater

bubbly lava

There was one crater, Kīlauea Iki, you could cross; we thought we would just pop down for a look. We underestimated the height of the inner rim of the crater somewhat. There was a path, which took us down lots of steps, then round hairpin bend after hairpin bend. Then it levelled out a bit, and we thought we were nearly there, but then it went down and down and down. The view to the crater was blocked by the ferns and trees growing all around us. Their roots provided stability and steps for the paths and their canopies provided shelter from the sun. When we did finally reach the floor of the crater, a 400′ (122 m) descent, we thought we’d come so far, we might as well cross it.

  • olivine crystals

The crater was vast. The sun was blasting and the black rock was absorbing its heat, making it warm to the touch. Kīlauea Iki Trail was marked by ahu, cairn-like piles of rock. The landscape wasn’t as barren as you might think: little plants were growing everywhere, with shrubs and trees growing at the edges.

It took two or three hours to cross the crater, partly because it was so big, partly because we kept stopping and partly because the terrain wasn’t always smooth and flat.

huge hole in crater
Huge hole in Kīlauea Iki Crater

One thing we stopped to look at was a patch of rock with a coating of opal. Opal is one of the minerals deposited by escaping volcanic gases. Others are sulphur and iron oxide. The opal surrounded a crack in the black rock. As we crouched down for a closer look, we heard fizzing. Rock is not supposed to fizz. When we touched the rock, it was hot. Not just sun-warmed, like the rest of the rock, but hot, as if it were being heated by some sort of heat emanating from the core of the Earth. We would have taken a photo, but we didn’t want to linger too long, after having read about what can happen if you get too close.

We followed the tourist trail, until we got to the point where the road had been abruptly blocked off by a huge cinder cone. Instead of continuing along Crater Rim Drive as tourists might have done before the 37-day long eruption of Kīlauea Iki Crater in 1959, we walked the Devastation Trail. The devastation to the landscape was caused by cinder from the eruption pouring down onto the ground. Birds and insects fled, while the trees were either buried alive or burnt, leaving skeletal remains of bare trunks and branches. The forest now shows signs of recovery, with trees and plants growing in patches.

  • Cinder cone blockage

We drove north-westwards from the crater past lots of volcanic scenery, including Lua Manu and Pu`uloa ‘long/large hill’. The Pu`uloa site is sacred to many native Hawaiians and has the largest collection of petroglyphs in Hawaii with over 23,000 symbols and images carved into a 400–700 year old lava flow.

There are many circular holes carved in the rock. Each hole is a piko puka, and were made by people with ancestry on Hawaii. Into each puka ‘hole’ a family member would place the piko ‘umbilical cord’ of their child. The idea was that the child would live a long and prosperous life, and they’d be tied to their ancestral lands. About 70% of the petroglyphs at Pu`uloa are piko-related.

  • road with volcanic landscape
  • Lua Manu
  • petroglyphs
  • looking across the Pacific Ocean towards Lō`ihi
lava arch

We ended up at the coast; about 28 miles (45 km) out, at the horizon, is Lō`ihi, the newest volcano in the chain. It’s not very big yet, only coming to 3,180′ (969 m) below sea level. It’s dark down there. Following the pattern of its elder siblings, it will form the next few islands, then drift north-westwards on the oceanic plate, become extinct and then erode into the ocean from whence it came to become atolls, lagoons and coral reefs.

We drove back to the main part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see the volcano in the dark. In daylight, you can see smoke and steam emanating from the caldera, but in the dark, you can see the glow of the molten lava inside.


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