THE KONA SIDE
Julie and I awoke at 6:15am and when we looked out the back window of our unit at Uncle Billy’s, it was strange to see hints of clear skies as the sun continued to rise. We knew Hilo was usually a very rainy city, but so far we were getting strangely sunny skies because the trade winds were noticeably absent.
Today, we were supposed to catch a helicopter flight that left from Waikoloa and head to the Hamakua Coast to see waterfalls. But for some reason, that flight wasn’t until noon, which I thought was rather late – especially since I knew that conditions tended to deteriorate as you get later in the day. But either way, we were booked on this first available tour and made our way out of town.
Julie and I had some concerns about flying helicopters when we had heard on the evening news last night that a Heli USA chopper went down at the Princeville Airport in Kaua’i. It killed four people and critically injured three. So now Julie was very curious about the safety record at Blue Hawaiian (who we were about to tour with) and pondered whether she should ask them about the uncomfortable issue upon our arrival.
When we started to head out of Hilo, we debated whether we should take the Saddle Road or go the long way around the north side of Mauna Kea towards the Kailua-Kona area. We knew the Saddle Road was way shorter than the route around the north of Mauna Kea, but it was also twistier and not necessarily faster. Julie talked me out of this option because the Saddle Road wasn’t covered in our rental agreement.
So as we started to drive north on Hwy 19, we could see the summit of Mauna Kea looming large behind Hilo. We knew it was Mauna Kea and not Mauna Loa because we could see the small silvery domes of the Keck Telescope and Observatory on the summit. It was quite an awesome sight, but it’s too bad we were zooming along in the car and didn’t have the opportunity to pull over to take a meaningful photo of the scene.
Even though it was early in the morning, Hilo was already active with a farmers market happening in the downtown section. But we were determined to head over to the Kona side and check out the scene over there before scurrying over to our helicopter tour in Waikoloa.
Zooming north on Hwy 19 and trying not to hold up traffic behind me, it was difficult to suddenly stop and pull over on the limited number of pullouts near the bridges where we had seen waterfalls yesterday. I regretted not making a U-turn and pulling over at one of the bridges where we could see a waterfall tumbling in the gulch while Mauna Loa loomed large on the horizon.
At 8am, we returned to Honoka’a Town. We made a quick stop over at Tex’s for some malasadas that Julie had read about. After indulging our sweet tooth once again, we continued to head west on Hwy 19 towards Waimea. All the while, we were now able to see Mauna Kea to our left and some of the Kohala Mountains to our right.
Taking the inland route towards the Kailua-Kona area along Hwy 190, we could see that the clouds were definitely parked over this side of the island. Once again, this was unusual because Kona’s usually the sunnier leeward side of the Big Island.
Anyways, we managed to get into Kona town at around 9:30am. And as we slowly drove along Ali’i drive, the scene immediately reminded us of Front Street in Lahaina with all the touristy shops as well as accommodations lining the nearly ocean-front road. They even had a section of road that lined the waterfront with a retaining wall just like on Front Street in Lahaina.
Of course the thought on both of our minds was how touristy the Kona side was. It was a far cry from the relatively peaceful charm of the Hilo side. Clearly, this was where just about all the tourists stayed. And unlike Hilo, we saw more tourists than Hawaiians here.
Since we still had an hour to kill, we decided to pay the rip-off $7 for parking and briefly take a stroll along Ali’i Drive just to get a flavor of what it would be like had we joined the crowd and stayed in Kona.
There were the usual restaurants like Hooters and Bubba Gump Shrimp as well many other Americanized chain-type restaurants. There were also the ever-present Kona Coffee signs and cafes proving that the coffee made here was extremely popular amongst not only Hawaiians but even tourists.
But having been to Waikiki Beach and Lahaina, I think Julie and I had enough of the contrived touristy scene and didn’t see a need to spend much more time in Kona. Perhaps on a future trip to Big Island, we’ll probably spend a night here just to get a better feel for the area, but since the focus of our trips were on nature, clearly the Kona side didn’t offer much except for those looking for resort-type pleasures.
ANOTHER BLUE HAWAIIAN CANCELLATION
We managed to drive to the Blue Hawaiian heliport at Waikoloa at 10:15am. Along the way, we were intrigued by the white rocks placed on the black lava fields spelling out various messages. However, there were the odd graffiti of the spraypaint variety undoubtedly perpetrated by thugs.
It was still a bit early for our tour so we just chilled out on the outdoor porch surveying who else who would be flying with us (also in part because we wanted to get a feel for what our chances would be to get a front seat of their A-star, which is allocated by weight). Julie took this opportunity to ask about their safety record as we checked in. She seemed to have made the receptionist nervous with her questioning and she got a response to the effect that the previous flights in the morning arrived safely…
As people started to trickle in, we could see that there were heaps of people (at least a dozen couples) and that not all of them would fly on the Hamakua Coast Waterfalls tour that we signed up for. It was also around this time that the winds started to kick up. This started to place some doubt in our minds as to whether this tour would take off or not.
Eventually, the safety briefing was shown on the screen in the outdoor patio area. Then, people starting to receive and don their life jackets. But that was when one of the Blue Hawaiian employees came out and said the conditions were no good for helicopter touring.
“That’s two in a row,” Julie said to me; referring to the tour cancellation for the East Maui/Haleakala Tour with Blue Hawaiian Maui just two weeks ago.
Of course this news didn’t surprise Julie and myself one bit, but we started to get the sense that we wasted our time driving over two hours from Hilo to get here and killing time waiting for the tour and getting ripped off parking in Kona. I also started having regrets about not taking a tour directly from the airport in Hilo to see both the Hamakua Coast and the Volcanoes. I probably made a mistake of thinking that we’d stand a better chance of seeing waterfalls in Waimanu Valley in a dedicated Hamakua/Kohala Coast tour as opposed to the two-in-one that was offered at Hilo. Oh well, you live and learn I guess.
Besides, given the helicopter crash in Princeville, Kaua’i, this probably helped Julie’s piece of mind in that we weren’t taking our chances with the seemingly bad karma that was in the air.
HIKING IN THE DARK
Anyways, it was about 12:15pm when we left Waikoloa and headed south towards Kailua-Kona again. The winds were definitely howling at this point and I wondered if this was the Kona wind I had heard about when the trades aren’t blowing. Nonetheless, we were determined to make the long drive around the southern side of Mauna Loa and tour the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park late in the afternoon.
The rain started to fall as we went south beyond the Kailua-Kona area. But the rain fell only as a drizzle or as mist. None of it was heavy rain. Still, the clouds swirling about Mauna Loa ensured that we wouldn’t be getting any views of the summit of this shield volcano.
As we swung past Na’alehu on the southern part of the island, the clouds hung so low that we started driving through them. Essentially, the visibility was low as we drove through the drizzling fog. This kind of diminished the experience of driving through the black lava fields from the lava flows of the past. I’m sure it would’ve been quite some sight had the clouds been lifted and the true scale of the volcanic moonscape around us would’ve become apparent.
At 3pm, we finally made it to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was still drizzling, misty, and foggy. Given these conditions, we didn’t bother with anything pertaining to overlooks knowing we wouldn’t see much besides clouds except for a brief stop at the Kilauea Iki Crater (which was whited out as expected).
We did make brief stops at the Steam Vents and at the fascinating Thurston Lava Tube. This popular attraction was loaded with vehicles and people when we got to the car park area so it was a no-brainer for us to stop here.
Walking through the native rainforest before descending into the lava tube, we gazed in wonder as we walked through the artificially lit tunnel which was dripping with water from the porous lava letting the rain water seep through.
Even with the lighting, it was difficult to take photos due to the low-lit conditions. When we got to the other side of the main lava tube, the stairs took us back into the rainforest. There was a gate that allowed access further into the lava tube, but that part required flashlights since it wasn’t lit up like the main part. We didn’t bother with that and returned to the car after 4pm.
Continuing along our mini-tour of the park, we headed down the Chain of Craters Road. The fog was still relentless as well as the drizzle so we drove through more interesting lava moonscapes. But the lava flows here seemed more dramatic than what we saw on Hwy 11. We noticed that some of the lava flows were as recent as the 1970s, which kind of illustrates the ever-changing nature of volcanic activity on the Big Island.
When we finally got to the bottom of the descent along the Chain of Craters Road, Julie and I were appalled at how many cars were parked along the end of the road. As we continued to drive towards the end of the road, we knew right away that we would have to walk an additional half-mile or so from our parking spot just to start the walk from the end of the road. I guess this is the price you pay for partaking in the Big Island’s most popular activity – lava viewing.
We were also a bit annoyed at some people who were standing in some spaces obviously trying to save a spot. This pissed off Julie to the point that she told me I should’ve backed into the people saving spots or at least start a confrontation. But I thought we had better take the high road and not induce any unnecessary drama. Besides, the extra walking was probably good for us anyways even though it might come back to haunt us later in the day when we would have to return to the car.
Once we walked to the makeshift visitor center at the end of the road, there was signposted path near the 19-mile post indicating the Holei Sea Arch. Since we were also fans of natural arches, we obviously had to take some time to check it out.
So we scrambled over the hardened black lava towards the obvious rockwall fronting the sea cliffs. And sure enough, a glance to our lower right revealed the impressive sea arch. But the pounding waves were so violent that Julie swore she felt the ground tremble beneath us. And that made us hastily take our photos and then get back onto the Chain of Craters Road to continue walking towards the lava fields.
Finally after another half-mile of walking on the black asphault, we could see where the lava flow of 2003 went right over the road. At this point, yellow reflectors were placed on the hardened lava so you could follow the “trail.” After a few more minutes of walking on the black lava, we reached a junction where a sign indicated that the lava steam viewing area was to our right. We proceeded to go right.
It was only 200 yards from the junction, and it wasn’t long before we got there, but we were quite disappointed with the view as it was way too distant. All you could see was just the steam from the hot lava cooling off immediately from the violently pounding surf. So we were faced with the decision of whether to do the difficult trek right up to the lava flow or returning to the car wondering what if. It was now 5:30pm and the daylight was fading fast.
Given the lack of scenery and disappointments of the day, I was wanted to salvage something out of today and go right up to the lava flow. We saw lots of other people continuing onwards knowing that night-hiking on the rough lava surface would be required.
I could sense Julie’s hesitation as such an excursion would bring us out of our comfort zone. The round trip distance for such a hike was 7 miles and we were told by the rangers that it would require four hours at least. But the disappointing steam viewing made Julie consider doing the longer walk when in most circumstances she would’ve said no.
Since I had in my backpack a head lamp, a CMG Reactor Flashlight, spare AA batteries, and both of us had two full bottles of water, we had what we needed to do the hike. We just needed the willpower to hike in the dark on the uneven and potentially dangerous black lava.
Eventually, Julie reluctantly pressed forward and we headed deeper into the lava field searching for a more satisfying experience. I too was a little worried about spending too much time in the lava field in the darkness (especially since I was carrying a tripod) and I tried to reassure Julie that we would only walk until we got satisfying views of the lava flow going into the ocean. I had no intention for us to hike the whole seven miles out-and-back. It was about 5:30pm when we made our move.
So onwards we went in the fading light. We first followed yellow reflectors but eventually we reached a point where a sign indicated the end of the trail. At this point, the reassuring yellow reflectors were gone.
Where were we supposed to go next?
Comfortingly, we saw dozens of other people pushing forward ahead of us. At least they helped us walk in the general direction of where we were supposed to go. In one instance, a kid and his worried father passed by us with the father urging his son not to go too far ahead of him. There was still enough light to watch where we were going without flashlights.
But as we went deeper and deeper amongst the desolate black lava field, the light of the day continued to fade, and it eventually got to a point where we finally had to start using our flashlights. Fortunately, the park service put up poles with flashing lights on them spaced about a half-mile apart to help guide us if there were no people around.
But the uneven terrain on the lava field became more of an issue since our visibility was limited and we had to be careful not to suddenly fall into a crevice or fall into a dropoff from a ridge.
Yet despite the immediate dangers of this adventure, the fading light started to bring into light lava flows further up the mauka (mountain). Having never seen lava in person before (even if they were far away), this excited both of us.
As we started to look towards the makai (ocean), we got much closer looks at the lava flowing into the ocean than the disappointing viewpoint way at the start. In fact, we could start to see the red piercing through some of the shrouding steam as the molten rock immediately hardened upon contact with the churning seas.
By this time, both Julie and I were determined to get to right up to the lava flow that everyone else was heading to. We had already gone this far, we mind as well carpe diem and take what comes in this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Eventually, the skies were completely dark and we could only rely on our flashlights for visibility. We would get worried when we would blindly proceed forward while the flashing beacons were nowhere in sight. But we would mentally celebrate mini victories with each beacon we got up to or with each hiker we’d meet going the other way.
When we could, we would stop to briefly chat with the hikers going the other way asking how much further we had to go. I was surprised the range of peoples who partook in this adventure. Sure there were the usual young risk-taking folks, but there were also older folks, somewhat out-of-shape folks, kids, etc. This kind of showed to me that this excursion wasn’t exclusive to just those in tip-top shape like what I had witnessed on the Kalalau Trail on the Na Pali Coast in Kaua’i.
We eventually made it beyond the beacons and towards a roped-off area. At each point where the ropes were suppored by poles, there were signs repeatedly urging people not to go past the ropes. We didn’t go past the ropes but we certainly used them for guidance to lead us closer to the lava flow.
Towards the very end of the ropes and poles, we could finally see the live lava. The lava wasn’t flowing like a river like you see in the movies, post cards, or on TV. Instead, it flowed really slowly. You could hear the lava sizzling and crackling as it inched its way towards the ocean.
Madame Pele was the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire, and we were very familiar with her after having been to numerous lu’aus and hearing about the tributes to her in each lu’au. But after this up-close-and-personal experience, it was kind of easy to see why the Hawaiians revered Madame Pele, and now it’s our turn to fall under her spell.
By now, we had hiked for at least two hours and about four miles from our car. There were dozens of people spread around the lava flow, but there were especially a fairly large group of people silently observing a particularly bright lava area beyond the rope.
So Julie and I went over to them to join their silent viewing. Once there, we wasted no time taking photographs. At first, my camera timer broke the silence by beeping, but I eventually figured out how to turn it off so everyone could watch in silence.
We’d linger here for a few more minutes before some inconsiderate punk decided to walk in front of us and several other people to get closer to the lava while ruining our views. Oh well, at least that kind of signaled to us to get going. It was easy to just stay here for a very long time and lose track of time were it not for that guy.
It was a little past 7:30pm when Julie and I started to head back. The weather started to produce a light drizzle which started to make some of the smooth lava surfaces dangerously slippery. This was certainly not a place to take a bad tumble and lose the flashlight (at least Julie didn’t have to worry about this as much with her headlamp).
So we began our walk in the dark by following the ropes. The terrain around the ropes was rough to begin with and you couldn’t really use them for leverage. We’d eventually get to the start of the ropes where there was a blinking pole. This would signal the start of the next phase of our lava scramble – following the widely spaced beacons.
This part of the walk was particularly challenging as the drizzle got heavier and started to sprinkle. Whenever we would walk into a depression in the lava, the next beacon seemed like it was nowhere to be seen. Each time we finally spotted on in the distance, it mentally kept us sane. And yet despite the difficulties of hiking on lava in the dark, we couldn’t believe there were still people going the other way towards the lava! Both of us thought they must be willing to pull all-nighters or something.
Since this particularly challenging part of the hike was very lengthy, I tried to keep myself and Julie entertained. Whenever we’d finally spot a beacon or a better way to walk in a particular direction, I’d take a bite out of Beyonce’s song and sing out loud “To the left, to the left” or even “To the right, to the right” depending on whether we’d be going left or right.
By now, the tripod was really feeling heavy and the relentless drizzle kind of made night-time photography not feasible (due to likelihood of waterspots on the lens). The drizzle was going horizontally in all directions due to the infrequent breezes from time to time. I did slip a few times, but managed not to take a bad tumble. The same could be said for Julie though it was frightening to hear her gasp aloud when she nearly fell.
Each beacon we managed to reach was like a miniature goal. We would briefly celebrate with a water break when we reached one, but then get right back to business when we saw the next beacon way out in the distance. After nearly an hour and a half in the eerie darkness, we finally found the yellow reflectors on the ground. We knew we would be almost home free at this point.
Eventually, the yellow reflectors gave way to the pavement. We passed by a Japanese couple who just started their walk towards the lava. Both our knees were sore but we still had to walk a half-mile just to get to the makeshift visitor center at the end of the road.
Once we got there, both of us could finally use the toilet. It was kind of eerie to hear the looping television display that the National Park Center had set up here. To hear it talk to no one in particular in the still of the night, it was kind of reminiscent of a scene I remembered from Jurassic Park when the terrifying silence was broken by an automated audio-visual display.
After we heeded nature’s call, we still had to walk the last half-mile up the Chain of Craters Road to finally reach our car. Again, I was still amazed at how many cars were still left here even though it was past 9pm.
We finally reached the car at around 9:30pm. Finally, we could relieve our hot, smelly, and sweaty bodies with the air-conditioning of the car. Our legs could finally take a break from the pounding we put them through hiking on both asphault and lava.
The drizzling weather still remained, and now we had to look forward to driving in the dark from here to Hilo. We still had a little over a quarter-tank of gas though it did cross our minds that perhaps we didn’t have enough to make it back to town.
The night driving was made easier by the numerous reflectors on the road. Even though it was drizzling hard, it wasn’t as foggy as it was earlier this afternoon. We’d eventually make it back to Hilo at around 10:30pm but we were both hungry from our unexpected adventure and had to settle for Jack-in-the-Box food since nothing decent was open at this hour.
I wasn’t looking forward to finding parking for the Uncle Billy’s Resort since that facility had way too few parking spaces for the number of guests they could accommodate. But fortunately for us, someone pulled out in front of us right across the street from the resort, and we quickly took their spot.
Soon thereafter, we took our long-awaited shower and ate our fast-food. We had no trouble sleeping this night and resting our tired bodies knowing that we had successfully completed a very unique adventure. When I closed my eyes, I could still see Pele’s afterglow high up on the mountains and down by the sea.