I’ve always been fascinated with volcanoes. I suppose that’s to be expected, growing up as I did in the southeast part of the Serengeti, within view of Ngorongoro and the Crater Highlands (a story told in the first Jaspa’s Journey book, The Great Migration).
Hawaii entices people for all sorts of reasons. The climate, the beaches, the laidback atmosphere. But for me, the biggest draw was the islands themselves. And the volcanoes that created them.
The island of Hawai’i, or the ‘Big Island’, is the southernmost and youngest of the Hawaiian chain. And at the southern end of Hawai’i is Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on Earth.
I have a bucket list as big as a supertanker, but seeing actual molten lava was right up at the top. Over the last few years I’ve visited no end of volcanoes. Some dead and some dormant. I’ve seen the wreckage of Mount St Helens and wisps of steam issuing from fumaroles within the crater of Vesuvius. In Yellowstone and on Iceland, I gawped at bubbling geothermal mud pits, marvelled at geysers and wrinkled my nose at the smell of sulphur.
Yet until I visited Hawai’i, I’d never seen actual molten rock. That dream came true in the most spectacular fashion, when I witnessed lava slowly oozing across the landscape, devouring trees, from a helicopter with the doors off (see Hot Helicopters Over Hawai’i). We were so close I could smell the wood burning and feel the heat. But incredible as it was, I still wanted more. Something more dramatic.
We’ve all seen the photographs: the surface of the sea giving off great plumes of white steam in protest of the orange rock flowing into it. On the southern flanks of Kilauea it had been going on, virtually uninterrupted, since 1983. But in the autumn of 2013, just a few weeks before we arrived, the lava flowing into the sea tricked to a halt. I was so disappointed!
But even without banks of billowing steam issuing off the ocean, there’s still loads to see at Volcanoes National Park, in which Kilauea is situated. From the main visitor centre you can follow a footpath through an alien landscape of sulphur and steam vents right to the rim of Kilauea’s jaw-dropping, two-mile-wide caldera. There you stand awestruck at the vastness of the caldera itself and at the large cloud of steam and gasses issuing from Halema’uma’u Crater within it.
Chain of Craters Road, which winds down the southern flank of Kilauea to the sea, certainly lives up to its name. I lost count of the volcanic mounds, craters and vents we saw as we drove across the monstrous patchwork of black lava flows, lain one beside and over another.
The road used to link around to Hawaii Route 130, but now ends abruptly at a lava flow after roughly 20 miles. This particular flow dates from 2003, but is just the latest to have interfered with Chain of Craters Road over the years. It was really weird to see lava sitting directly on top of seemingly undamaged asphalt.
We paused several times on the way back up Chain of Craters Road. We hiked the mile or so out to the Pu’u Loa petroglyphs and later walked through the 600-foot-long Thurston Lava Tube.
For me, the best stop along Chain of Craters Road was at the ominously named Devil’s Throat, which doesn’t even get a signpost, so astonishing is the terrain here on the slopes of Kilauea. In fact, we wouldn’t have known anything about it, if not for a geocache. But let me tell you, we all had quite the shock when, less than 100 yards from the road, we stumbled out of the bush right at the edge of this sheer-sided pit crater that’s over 150 feet deep and the same distance across.
Yet, the highlight of our day at Volcanoes National Park unquestionably came at sunset, when we made our way to the Jagger Museum overlooking Kilauea’s caldera. At that point, we were as close as it’s currently possible to get to Halema’uma’u Crater. And as the bright orange sun sank below the horizon off to our right, a matching orange glow emanated from the crater directly in front of us.
As the light of day faded, the intensity of the glow from the crater continued to intensify. It was one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen.
Now I’ve seen lava oozing across the landscape and the hell-like glow of an active volcano’s crater at night. But witnessing an actual volcanic eruption remains right up at the top of my bucket list. I want to watch rivers of lava flowing into the sea. I want to gaze at molten rock spewing into the air!
So I guess I still have unfinished business with Hawai’i and Kilauea.
And if that’s not enough for you, there are now three Jaspa’s Journey novels to enjoy as ebooks! Perfect for Kids 8 – 80!