When traveling much of the experience for me is not only eating the food unique to that particular region, but also participating in those activities found nowhere else. On the Big Island of Hawaii, for most people that means a trip to Volcanoes National Park. For me it meant going one step further, seeking out the red-hot flowing lava. This lava hike and visiting Madame Pele, is thus far my most exciting adventure in four years of retirement…
….and also my most arduous hike. I was first to arrive at the makeshift wooden hut for my lava hike adventure. Above the porch frame were about ten pig skulls with huge lower incisors. I knew Hawaii had wild boars but had not envisioned the ferocity of the beasts. They could clearly do damage and, yes, lava hikers have met with pigs on the trail I would soon be hiking.
Being early, I had a bit of time to read the required waiver form. So I asked about the part where I may be subject to arrest and imprisonment. Apparently there are some finer points of the law to be worked out with law enforcement officials, but only guides had been arrested thus far, no hapless tourists. Good.
Driving the 90 minutes from our rented condo at Black Sand Beach to the check-in hut in Hilo, Hawaii the sky was unusually clear, which would be terrible for photographing glowing lava. So I hoped for some cloud cover or rain to make the red lava appear brighter and not washed out in the bright sunlight. My wish came true. Just after arriving at the trail-head ten miles outside of Hilo, the sky broke loose and answered my question if I should bring a raincoat. After walking barely 200 feet of the trail, we entered mud pools that would never end for the duration of the six-mile, round trip, hike. I was told not to step from grass pad to grass pad in a vain effort to stay out of the mud. “Embrace it,” I was told by our guide, Orion, as it will be with us for the entire rest of the hike, and it was. The deepest mud was mid-calf and not a single step was taken that was not in at least two inches of fine mud. No less than five hours would be spent in the slop. It is not unlike walking in sand in the extra effort required. I added an additional layer of discomfort by wearing the too tight and ill-fitting green pants bought out of necessity in Scotland. Lifting my leg up and over the logs became a real chore after a while. Add to this aggravation a large tripod and thirty pounds of camera gear and I was in for a long day. A pessimist might say there are a million mud holes on the path, but really there is only one, but it is over three miles long, each way.
If a tourist was given some advice at the beginning of the hike, they would most would likely argue or not listen anyway. Following the lead of our Hawaiian guide don’t wear rain gear, you are going to get wet anyway. The raincoat may keep rain out, but you will get soaked anyway from the heat and sweat. Big hats with brims to shield you from the sun do you little good in the shade of the rain forest and worse will cause you to bump into logs and overhead branches. Tripods are of minimal use, shoot freehand. So off I went, with a big rain jacket, big brimmed hat and tripod….and my too tight green leprechaun pants.
On those few occasions when it stopped raining, we still got drenched. Every time we grabbed a three-inch tree trunk for hiking stability, water still shook down on us from the leaves above. Having just finished reading the book “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer for the second time, I made some loose analogies. Similar to Mt. Everest expeditions, our guide was also leading a group of tourist hikers of unknown hiking ability. Both Mt. Everest and the volcano have god-like deities with powers over the sites. Eight inches of mud was the snow on Everest. I hoped not to step on the wrong part of the lava flow and fall through.
One smells the lava fields well before you arrive. This is caused by the lava engulfing the forest and the resulting methane gasses. There was no sulfur smell, just lava flowing around a defenseless forest. The lava will flow around a 12 inch tree and cool faster than the tree can burn. The lava will be cool on top, but be red-hot three feet below the tree trunk. So eventually the tree is consumed by fire, falls over and leaves a twelve-inch hole in the lava surface. Peering down this porthole you can see the red-hot lava, like nature’s pizza oven.
Upon our arrival, the heavy rain was causing intense steam clouds to rise from the hot lava flow, like spitting on a hot clothes iron. This sizzle and steam created whiteout conditions similar to an intense wind and snowstorm. We were told to stay where we were at the edge of the lava field and to keep moving our feet, or the soles of our tennis shoes could melt. Orion went in search of the lava flow since it changes daily. This was tricky business in whiteout conditions. If we heard him yell we were to yell back so he could find his way in the whiteout conditions. He also dropped way-points on his GPS. As the whiteout began to clear, the instruction became, “Walk only when you can see your feet. Can’t see your feet? Stop walking.” Conditions soon improved and Orion located the lava flow. Early attempts at photographing this surreal scene were fruitless as the lens immediately fogged up completely.
Once the lava flow was discovered, the chore at hand was to watch the bulges in the slow-moving lava and look for breakouts. Then I would approach the flow as close as I could, take a photo or two and dart back 15 feet to cool off, then do it again. The heat was quickly drying our wet clothes. The suggested long-sleeved shirt if for heat protection from lava, not the conditions while hiking. If there is no activity in the lava flow for fifteen or so minutes, keep looking for the eventual breakout creating another photo opportunity of the red-hot lava. We were taught lava etiquette. Wildly poking a stick in the lava is not appropriate behavior for Madame Pele. However, if you slide a stick into the red lava bulge only to feel and respect the power of Pele, then all is well.
I was very happy with the results of our trip to the lava fields and would certainly recommend this hike through Lava Ocean Tours to anyone. I got good photos of a live volcano which were obtained at quite a physical price, making them all the more special. If I am in Hawaii I would hope to be able to go on this trip again, but by the time I return I’m afraid I may be too old. Regardless, Pele will continue on as she has for many millions of years creating larger and eventually more Hawaiian Islands.
The video of us walking through the mud was just after leaving the lava field. The intense heat of the lava had dried our pants so we are not yet wet up past our knees.