Volcanoes are monuments to Earth’s origin, evidence that its primordial forces are still at work. So read the opening lines of the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park website. And, if you know your volcanoes, you’d know that
unlike the explosive continental volcanoes, the more fluid and less gaseous eruptions of Kīlauea and Mauna Loa produce fiery fountains and rivers of molten lava.
As you drive in to the park, the first hint you get of some volcanic activity is the myriad steam vents. It’s like a low-hanging fog, but it’s coming up from the ground rather than dropping down from the air.
From the distance, just before dark, you can see the plumes of smoke coming from the Halema’uma’u crater in the Kīlauea volcano. The crater became active again in March 2008 and now is a regular stopping point on the Big Island tourist trail.
The crater can best be seen from the Jaggar Museum overlook, although you can’t get too close – for obvious reasons. Sometimes, the lava is close enough to the rim to see it bubble. But not today. Sulphur ratings show how dangerous it is to breathe (or not). Over on the other side of the mountain, a good few years ago now, I got to see the lava flowing off the mountain right into the ocean. As it began to get dark, trails of molten lava flowed down the side of the mountain, inching their way to the sea. It was like being on the set of a SciFi movie. This time though, the glow came from the crater itself. Pretty amazing stuff.
The park is about 30 miles from Hilo on Highway 11 (a 45-minute drive); and from Kailua-Kona: 96 miles on the same highway (2 to 2 1/2 hour drive). Worth a stop. Get there about an hour before nightfall to see it in both its glories.
When Mark Twain visited the island back in 1866, he had this to say:
At four o’clock in the afternoon we were winding down a mountain of dreary and desolate lava to the sea, and closing our pleasant land journey. This lava is the accumulation of ages; one torrent of fire after another has rolled down here in old times, and built up the island structure higher and higher. Underneath, it is honey combed with caves; it would be of no use to dig wells in such a place; they would not hold water – you would not find any for them to hold, for that matter. Consequently, the planters depend upon cisterns.
The last lava flow occurred here so long ago that there are none now living who witnessed it. In one place it inclosed and burned down a grove of cocoa-nut trees, and the holes in the lava where the trunks stood are still visible; their sides retain the impression of the bark; the trees fell upon the burning river, and becoming partly submerged, left in it the perfect counterfeit of every knot and branch and leaf, and even nut, for curiosity seekers of a long distant day to gaze upon and wonder at.
There were doubtless plenty of Kanaka sentinels on guard hereabouts at that time, but they did not leave casts of their figures in the lava as the Roman sentinels at Herculaneum and Pompeii did. It is a pity it is so, because such things are so interesting, but so it is. They probably went away. They went away early, perhaps. It was very bad. However, they had their merits – the Romans exhibited the higher pluck, but the Kanakas showed the sounder judgment.
As usual, Brown loaded his unhappy horse with fifteen or twenty pounds of “specimens,” to be cursed and worried over for a time, and then discarded for new toys of a similar nature. He is like most people who visit these Is lands; they are always collecting specimens, with a wild enthusiasm, but they never get home with any of them.
Today, people taking home pieces of lava rock as souvenirs end up mailing them back to Hawaii. Bad luck follows. It’s a little like reports of tourists taking rock from the Rock of Cashel, in Ireland, being beset by bad luck once they arrived home, and the posting back the rocks. I’ve better things to be doing with my 23kg baggage allowance.