July 5: Day 9

We woke up knowing that a long day lied ahead. Today our focus would be the sole reason we ventured to the Big Island—the volcano!

After a tasty complimentary breakfast in the same dining room we ate dinner last night (no Higgins sightings), we drove back to Hilo for our helicopter ride over the volcano. Hilo seems to be one of those places where the weather is NEVER nice. Despite the sunny skies in Volcano Village, fog and rain started to dominate by the time we got back to the coast.

Liz had been visibly nervous about the whole thing from the second we booked the trip, and yesterday’s miniature plane ride didn’t help matters. We got to the small terminal and had to immediately weigh in so that we could be assigned seats that would weight balance the chopper. We also had to put on a life preserver vest in case the chopper crashed into the ocean (as if we’d live from the impact). As it turned out three other people would be joining us and we went through the safety speech while the pilot decided if the weather would allow us to still fly.

After the safety speech we got our boarding numbers. Out of 5, Liz was given number 4 and I was given 5. The woman told us that the back seat would board first—so I knew something Liz wouldn’t like—that she’d be sitting next to the pilot. This only made her more nervous.

So we got the word that we’d be taking off and went outside to lineup by the chopper. The three people from the other family loaded in and Liz clenched my hand. I think she said something to me but it was so loud I couldn’t hear her. Then we were called over she got in first—sitting next to the pilot as I thought—and I followed with the door closing behind me. We were given BOSE noise canceling headphones to hear the pilot and suddenly the loud noise was gone (those things really DO work!)

After a brief introduction we were off, swooping over the Hilo airport like a carnival ride. After we got into the air, Liz seemed less tense. She later said that the little tiny chopper, felt like it was in more control than the plane. It took us about 20 minutes to get to the volcano and the clouds and rain blocked most of the view along the way. But once we got there, it was spectacular.

The conditions at the volcano change daily. In fact, lava hadn’t been visible from the sky or ground for at least six months prior to our trip. But on our trip we had lava! By the excitement in the pilot’s voice, we were really lucky since there had been nothing visible for so long. (A later investigation of the USGA Volcano Observatory website would confirm that he wasn’t saying that just to make the trip seem better)

Here’s a few pictures of breakouts and the point where the lava enters the ocean…

Seeing the sheer magnitude of devastation from the sky was awe inspiring. An entire town was destroyed by the lava in the early 90s—but amongst the destruction there would be a house or structure or tree that had been spared for reasons that defy logic.

The chopper ride ended with a flyby of rainbow falls (still saw no rainbow) and we headed back to Hilo. Liz had a huge grin on her face when we got off. It wasn’t THAT bad!

On our way back to Volcano Village, we stopped at the Mona Loa macadamian factory expecting it to be a real factory tour like you find at a brewery or coca cola or, well anything that has a billion advertisements urging you to go. WRONG. The “tour” was an extremely cheesy video with a window into only one part of the factory. And the only real thing to visit was the store that sells the nuts. They did sell some decent macadamian nut ice cream though.

Back at Volcano Village we grabbed some lunch and headed into the national park. Once we accepted the fact that there would be tourbuses everywhere carrying inappropriately dressed tourists from the resorts and cruiseships, we allowed ourself to fully take in the awesomely stark, harsh, and mostly dead landscape that is Kilauea Volcano. Pictures really don’t capture it well because it’s just so vast.

Crater as seen from Volcano House:

Steam Vents:

The crater:

About 50 years ago, this entire crater was filled with a lake of lava--complete with waves that have since frozen into rock. There’s a picture of a 90-year old man smoking a cigar from the porch of the Volcano House hotel as the world is being built violently in front of him.

Despite seeing the sign below, we saw countless people getting off tourbuses with very young babies in their arms. I had trouble breathing by the crater and it would only get worse at the coast.

Don't feed nene!

After circling and exploring the entire crater, we began the drive down to the coast to explore the same area that we had flown over hours earlier. Since the lava is currently several miles from the point where the road ends, visiting at night is the only way to really see it. Of course, this involves challenges. The first being the need to scramble over several miles of lava rock formed less than five years ago—meaning that it’s sharp, uneven, and difficult. The second is the gas that forms where the lava enters the ocean. It’s similar to the gas we had been warned about at the crater but this is of a much thicker consistency. The ranger who was working at the nearby station wore a full facial gas mask to protect herself. A signed warned us that the conditions were “extremely unhealthy”. She told us that it’s basically a combination of hydrochloric acid and glass particles. Lovely.

So we began hiking out—carrying a few bottles of water and ponchos incase the rains returned. I couldn’t imagine trying to do it in the hot sun since the black rock and the hot sun were an extreme combination even at 5PM as we set out.

The journey begins by walking down the last bit of exposed roadway before the point where lava destroyed it a few years ago. (Why couldn’t we visit then—when it was EASY to see the stuff!?).

Then, you continue by scrambling over 2/3 mile of lava on a trail marked with little white reflectors attached to the rock.

A road sign on the destroyed road:

Then the trail ends and for the next three miles until the point where the lava enters the ocean, there’s a beacon light every 1/3 mile. The warnings were no joke—this is tough. It wasn’t our plan to go all the way to the lava as it was far too distant for a round trip. But we did venture nearly two miles out and found a nice spot to sit and watch it all.

The combination of the volcanic fumes and threatening rain clouds made for a spectacular sunset.

sunset by a beacon light:

The experience is quite different from the ground, but it’s no less amazing. Unfortunately, our camera isn’t really great enough to accurately capture the red distant glow. Even from a distance, seeing a river of lava flowing down a hill is like nothing I’d ever seen before.

So we eventually headed back in the darkness—praying that we wouldn’t be one of the countless people that twists an ankle here every day. Our eyes adjusted to the dark and we never really needed the flashlights loaned to us from the lodge.

Of course, to bring a perfect end to the night, the skies decided to open up and the rain started to pour when we were still about a mile from the car.

Back at the Village Liz picked up some food at a diner and I got take out from this Thai restaurant that despite the unexpected location, lived up to the best Thai I’d had elsewhere. We lit the fire in the room, opened some wine, and fell asleep exhausted from our long, long day at the Volcano.

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