Hawaii is one of the most exciting places I have ever been. The short story below is about the lava, but there are many more incredible things about those islands. Their raw beauty alone is delightful.
A Visit to Pu’u O’o
The Big Island of Hawaii is considered to have the most user-friendly volcano in the world, because the lava usually flows so slowly. There is no crater that throws red hot balls of rock at sightseers. In fact, most tourists never even see a crater, they just see glowing red fissures, usually from quite a distance away. But the vent from which the present flow originates can be visited—it’s just not in the National Park. It’s on the side of the volcano of Mauna Loa, which is the second highest mountain in Hawaii and hasn‘t erupted from its peak in a long time. If you want to go see the active caldera, you either have to know locals who know how to get there, or you have to read a book called Hawaii Revealed. Then you will find out which road to take, which milestone to stop at, and which path to follow.
The active vent—I heard it variously called a vent, a caldera and a crater, and wasn’t able to find anyone who could explain the difference—is known as Pu’u O’o. It’s a long walk through Hawaiian rainforest, winding up and down and round and round, through terrain that is muddy underfoot, with black outcrops and boulders peeping through thick grass and ferny plants, so I could imagine this as a field of lava not so long ago. Fern creepers twist around straight-trunked ohia trees, and fern trees with their great spreading heads of leaf were everywhere. The ohia form aerial roots that had occasionally grown right across the path at head height, with vertical branches growing out of them, shooting upwards towards the light. The forest gradually thinned as I approached its edge, and some of the trees were stark dead sticks. Then suddenly, I stepped out onto the bare lava, and saw some smoke or steam curling upwards ahead. Pu’u O’o.
From down there, I couldn’t see a clear edge to the caldera, just a couple of sharp-tipped cones on one side of a dip, and the mountain sloping up on both sides, not very steeply. In front of me a sign said:
Do not go further, active volcano ahead.
Either someone really thought it was unsafe to go on, or someone really wanted me to think that. I hesitated. My travels have taught me that an astounding number of people want you to believe that the world is a dangerous place, when it really isn’t. I couldn’t see anything glowing red. I walked on a little ways, and came to some very spiky, jagged, tumbled lava that was too difficult to negotiate. Just as I was about to give up, I spied another sign to my left, with more dire warnings. It even sported a skull and crossbones! But once I got close enough to read it, I saw that there was a path across the lava, marked with plastic flags tied to rocks. Well, where there’s a path, you’re meant to walk, right?
But I was a little un-nerved by the skull and crossbones. Then, looking up at the caldera ahead, I saw figures on its edge. With my binoculars, I was clearly able to make out that there were several people standing there. Hesitating no longer, I forged my way up the hill, along a lava path that had been reasonably flattened by previous walkers. I crossed a spot where there were some chunks of lava so full of air that it just turned to coarse dust under my feet. I picked up a few pieces that looked like dry sponges – they were very light, and crushed easily to nothing in my hand.
Generally, there are considered to be two kinds of lava in Hawaii – pahoehoe and a‘a. I was walking over pahoehoe which is relatively even and black, full of rainbows when it’s new, which this was. It’s quite eye-catching, glistening this way and that in the sun. I wended between cracked mounds with great ledges, six inches thick, narrow chasms stretching for yards, sometimes so deep I couldn’t see the bottom, and raised heaps that had been pushed up from underneath by another flow, and were flaking horizontally on top. There were many gaps and holes, that might lead down to lava tubes, which are tunnels left when the lava flows out, leaving a space behind it. There are several huge lava tubes on the Big Island. Occasionally a thin layer of shale gave way under my feet, making my heart jump although I only dropped an inch or two. A couple of times, I had to stop and empty pieces of loose shale from my shoes.
When I was close enough to say hallo to the figures I had seen, I realized that they were equipped with gasmasks and fancy instruments. They even had something that looked like a computer. They were geologists. I chatted with one of them, an Englishwoman who had a grant to be there for two years, monitoring the activity of the volcano and the gasses it was emitting. She told me that several instruments sit on the edge of the caldera all the time, including a camera that takes a constant 360 degree video (they got a picture of me peeing after they all left).
“We come here by helicopter every Friday to take readings,” she said. “There has been an increase in activity underground recently. Lots of people think that Mauna Loa itself will erupt in the next few months, because scientific measurements show that there is a lot of swelling going in its magma.” When she told me this, her eyes lit up and her tone became almost reverent. She added fervently, “I really hope so!”
Just then the helicopter arrived to take them all away, landing ponderously yet delicately on a flat area of lava. After they had gone, I went exploring. The bottom of the crater, which was only twelve feet or so down a sloping cliff below me, was dried black and solid. I couldn’t see the far wall, since it was sloping away from me, but to my left and to my right the walls were much higher: they consisted of big cinder mounds maybe two hundred feet high, a much lighter color than the black lava under my feet. Protruding from the crater, which was several hundred yards across, were a dozen or more irregularly shaped cones, and several of these had glowing holes in them, that changed size and shape slowly but constantly, sometimes spitting out little showers of red-hot lava, sometimes closing over. There was no sign of lava anywhere apart from these holes. There was a very constant sound, a hissing and muffled whistling, which the geologists told me was caused by gasses escaping. The smoke issuing from the cones was quite thick in places, and varied in color from dirty brown to blue. Around the edge of the caldera were steam vents. It was quite cool up there and I was happy to stand in the steam for awhile. The smoke was another story – it was really vile.
I tried walking round the crater one way and was stopped by steep piles of a’a, which is virtually impossible to walk over, because it consists of many small sharp chunks, all kinds of fantastical shapes, with scratchy points and edges, very unstable under your feet. This was what made up the lighter cinder mounds I had seen from a distance, though sometimes it is reddish.
I walked round the other way, where the smoke was blowing, and that was nasty – very acrid, much worse than sulfur; it burned my throat. So I went back to sit where I had a good view of a glowing hole, at what I figured to be a safe distance, and ate some cookies. I wished I’d had a thermos of tea so I could say I had tea and cookies on the edge of an active crater.
Then, abruptly, the wind changed, blowing the acrid smoke towards me, and I was running down that mountain at full speed, leaping over spots where the lava was uneven. I understood why the geologists had been carrying gas masks. No wonder the forest was thinning out where it was close to the fumes. When I finally got out of the line of fire and slowed down, I looked back: such a forbidding and desolate scene, yet in the process of creating the most fertile soil in the world. As soon as the eruption itself stopped, seeds would begin to sprout in the cracks, and in no time there would be ferns growing. I entered the rainforest again, wandering more slowly between the muddy puddles. Dusk was falling before I reached my car, and I fell exhausted into the driver’s seat. It had been a long day, but well worth it, to see Pele’s fiery forces at work.