Volcanoes have always fascinated me. Always! I don’t remember my first encounter with them, probably watching lava spew from a thundering mountain top on the evening news. What I do remember is being spellbound, and just a little scared, of them as a young child. Somehow, I knew there was no risk to us at our home in southeast England but I watched the powerful volcanic eruptions from afar with awe-inspiring curiosity. As I grew up I always wanted to visit an active volcano, but despite living within an aeronautical stone’s throw of many reliably lively volcanoes, I didn’t actually get around to it until our honeymoon in 2016. And so, when planning our month long island hopping adventure through the Hawaiian Islands, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was top of my list.
We had arrived in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii just as a hurricane was due to hit town and spent the first two days holed-up in our Airbnb, eating the storm supplies we stocked up on and watching the terrible b-grade DVDs. There was no television signal but this was not a bad thing, we were on honeymoon after all.
On the first reasonable day, we ventured out to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We had a truly unforgettable day exploring the vents, craters, past lava flows and the star of the show, watching the bubbling caldera of Kilauea glow as the sun goes down. As luck would have it, the level of the lava was higher than it had been in months and that night was the first night you could actually see red splashes of lava from the viewing platform. I stood mesmerised, fixing my binoculars on the crater for hours, quite literally. While chatting to the HVNP Park Rangers we learned that you could hike up to the lava flow, erupting from a smaller vent to the northwest called Pu’u O’o. We were told we could park in Kalapana (conveniently, exactly where we were staying) and walk 4miles up the emergency road, and then trek up the historic lava flows to find the active lava. It was around a further 4 miles walk inland from the road so a potential 16 miles all up, but the lava was advancing quickly towards the ocean so it may be less.
The next morning we set off for our prearranged door-off chopper ride over the national park. We flew low over lava flows of various ages, several within the past few decades. It was surreal to see stark, black lava intertwined between the contrasting lush, tropical gardens of suburbia. This was like nothing I’d ever seen and really brought home the hazards these communities face. Thankfully, the residents receive fair warning if their properties are under immediate threat and are able to escape but their homes and belongings don’t. Every so often we would fly over a solitary roof jutting out of the dark rock, once a loved home but now part of the geological record.
As we approached the lava flow our pilot, an excited ex-military guy, informed us that he’d heard rumours lava had crossed the access road and was close to the ocean. It had been several years since lava had flowed into the ocean in Hawaii and if it were happening, it would be a first for all of us. We circled over the simmering caldera of Pu’u O’o and could see the bright red lava spewing from within. A lava tunnel roof had collapsed offering a window into the inferno below.
Lava is a bright reddish-orange when it is fresh but in a matter of seconds, the outside hardens to a dark silver shell. The entire landscape was covered in these interweaving silver rivers. Over time, as the rock shell cools it turns black, but the centre can still be red hot and flowing.
As we approached the active front of the flows we could see that it had crossed the road and was flowing over the cliff and into the ocean. The flume of steam could be seen from kilometres out. We circled many times, the first flight of the day to arrive. Can you believe the luck we had? For several years the lava had been miles in land and only accessible by chopper or a really, really long hike, then the morning of our chopper flight, it crosses the road and spills into the Pacific. And we had booked the earliest chopper too! Jed, myself, and our excitable pilot were amongst the first to see this event in years.
We had planned to hike out to the lava that afternoon so headed home to get ready, full of anticipation and raring to go.
The route out to view the lava is less of a hike and more a long walk. There used to be a highway through this part of the national park, connecting Kalapana to Chain Of Craters Road but it was covered by lava in the 2008 eruption. In 2014, work started on an emergency access road, at a cost of eight million US dollars. It had only been open a matter of months when this new flow from the Pu’u O’o crater threatened the route again. It was this road of rough aggregate that we would walk along in our search for flowing lava.
By now the clouds and rain of the hurricane had given way to clear skies and hot winds. And it was hot! There was no shelter from the prevailing winds but Jed, as always, was very prepared with plenty of water and snacks. I was just under four months pregnant at the time and had been suffering near-constant nausea and tiredness, but mercifully, was feeling quite good that afternoon. Probably from all the adrenaline! We drove as far as we could to a little place aptly called the End Of The Road (the road just runs into a 5ft wall of lava, seriously), parked up and set off. The road only opened at around 3pm, which I found odd at the time but the reason became apparent later in the day.
Some crazy folk have set up home out there on the new lava and build the most incredible little huts on stilts. They live completely off the grid in this volatile and unpredictable land. We wondered who might want to live out here (me!) and what made them feel so drawn to such an environment. After walking about a kilometre or so, and working up quite a sweat, we came across a couple selling shave ice from a tiny shed beside their hut home. Never before has anything been as refreshing as a fresh-flavoured shave ice on hot wind blasted, shade-lacking lava flow. Believe me. We stopped to chat to this couple for a while, enjoying more than one shave ice, fascinated by their stories and how they came to live in such an exotic place.
The four-mile walk seemed to pass quickly and it wasn’t long before we could see a small gathering of people in the distance. I had expected lots of fencing and rangers warning you to stay on some kind of viewing platform but there was nothing of the sort. People were standing beside a tall wall of lava, which we knew to have crossed the road in only the last twenty four hours, and, to my absolute astonishment, were climbing on it! But that’s not all. As we approached, now probably a few dozen metres away, a blackened lobe slowly swelled, stretching and tearing its exterior to reveal still red hot rock beneath, until it splits and a new blob of viscous, simmering lava squirts out.
“Holy shit, its freaking lava!” I blurt out, or something similar but more sweary.
Giggling with excitement we walk towards the new blob but stop a few metres back because the heat radiating from the rock is incredible. Being several metres away you still feel like you have just opened an oven door. But we must get a picture with the lava. Must! So Jed and I took it in turns. One of us would run up, pose as ‘normally’ as possible whilst the other took the shot, then make a hasty retreat before combusting. A kind onlooker offered to take a photo of the both of us which was great until she insisted she take a few from different angles, taking a few moments and costing Jed the hair down one side of this leg.
Some wonderfully foresighted person turned up with a stick and had begun prodding at the glowing blob, trying to pry out a fresh souvenir. Why didn’t we think of that? I expected her to unpack marshmallows and cook us up a treat. I wanted to burn something! Jed and I had a think about it and, not having carried something suitably poignant with us, we settled on attempting to burn the edge of a piece of cardboard packaging I found in my camera bag.
Jed did the honours, leaning in for a few moments, just enough to blacken the edge of the packet, and burning off his knuckle hairs too.
Jed moved on, smelling slightly of singed hair, and made his way towards the older lava that people were climbing around. I hesitated. I knew from my studies that the shell hardens quickly but the interior remains very hot, several hundred degrees, for a long time. I envisaged us walking along, the shell collapsing and jamming a foot straight down into the lava, horror movie-style. No thank you.
But the allure was too much and after watching fifty or so people test it out, we ventured off the road and towards the ocean cliffs. We were not disappointed. At the ocean’s edge the lava just spurts out of the cliff like water from a hose. It glows hotter and runs faster and less viscous here. What a sight!
Dusk was fast approaching now and as we turned back towards the road the reason for encouraging people to visit in the afternoon/evening became apparent. For as far as the eye could see, across the foreground and up the hills in the far distance, the land was glowing. As the daylight faded the land came alive in a patchwork of glowing mounds and blazing crevasses. It was everywhere. That’s when we realised that this was not one stream of swelling and flowing molten rock, it was countless, covering an area maybe a kilometre wide end extending up and over the distant ridge.
“Holy Shit, its freaking lava!” called Jed, or to something to that effect. Again, with more swearing. “Check this out”. The crack in the rock that Jed was standing on was now glowing. You could see maybe two foot down into a hollow, with lava flowing through. The ground felt solid but we did move on, just in case.
As darkness fell more and more of this living landscape came alive. We stayed to explore for several hours, sitting to enjoy a romantic, star-lit, lava-warmed dinner, before starting the long hike back to Kalapana.
What a day! It is very humbling to be present for the creation of new land. To observe earth’s natural processes in action reminds me how unimportant us and our trivial worries are. It is exactly these lava flows that have created the Hawaiian Island Chain over the past ten or so million years. When we talk of geological time scales we often talk in ages such as the Jurassic or Cretaceous, eras and eons. Mountain chains are thrust up and then eroded and species come and go in that time.
But that night, we watched land be created. We saw land change shape in the time it took us to eat a sandwich. In a month – or a year – this place will have a completely different geometry. In a few years the first plants will grow and in not too long they will turn this land green again. Some intrepid souls may build a hut on stilts and sell shave ice to extremely grateful tourists.
All I know is that was easily one of the best days of my life. It was freaking LAVA!
Read more of our #TeamJones adventures.