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Hacktreks in Hawaii

Hawaii’s Volcano National Park
Ian Middleton

Was I mad enough to go walking across an active volcano at night? This was the question that had plagued my mind since arriving at Arnott’s Lodge in Hilo. But this was exactly the reason I came to Hawaii’s Big Island in the first place.


I wanted more than anything to see a volcano. However, upon arrival at the lodge I learned about a tour that took us on a hike across the lava fields to where the lava was still currently flowing into the sea. We would hike out at sundown and watch the flow at night, then hike back in the dark. Didn’t sound too bad, I thought. But when I was given the Liability Waiver form to sign, what I read gave me second thoughts. This was the first time I had come across such a form and, if I had known then what I know now, wouldn’t have worried quite so much. These forms are basically designed to protect the company from being sued if anyone gets injured or dies. It literally covers every possible mishap from twisting your ankle to stepping in a pool of lava. It was a very scary document indeed.

However, after much deliberation, I finally decided to face my fear and go for it; after all we would have a professional guide, I hoped. The tour started at 2.00 pm. and in my nervousness I had forgotten to eat anything, so I ran around to the local shop and got something to take with me. There wasn’t much of a selection there so I ended up with a bottle of water, a packet of crisps and a couple of egg sandwiches; much to the concern of the other people in the group – the van was packed and there would be nowhere to run. My main concern was that my gases mixed with those of the volcano might prove highly volatile. This was a theory I really wasn’t all that keen to put to the test.

Our first stop was at the summit to view the crater. Our guide, Suzanne, told us that Mt. Kilauea had erupted back in 1983 and has been active ever since. Suzanne spoke with a distinct Californian surfer’s accent, and used words like: gnarly and awesome. The fact that a relative of Bill and Ted was about to take us on a night hike across an active volcano, didn’t exactly instil me with confidence. Suzanne went on to explain that Madame Pele, the Goddess of Fire, is believed by the Hawaiians to live in the crater and that quite often the locals come here to pay homage to her. I just hoped that Madame Pele wasn’t suffering from PMT, as it goes without saying that this was not the sort of woman you wanted to piss off at the wrong time of the month.

As we got out of the bus we were overwhelmed with the stench of rotten eggs. I assured the others that I hadn’t yet eaten my egg sandwiches. It turned out to be coming from inside the crater. It appears that Madame Pele has bad breath.

I stood at the edge of the crater and gazed in wonder at the size of it. The many still steaming vents were the only indication that a cauldron of molten lava was boiling underneath, and that possibly at any moment it could erupt and spew tons of boiling lava and rocks high up in the air. With that thought in mind, I made my way back to the van.

As we made our way to the starting point for the hike Suzanne explained to us the two different types of lava flow we would encounter. Pahoehoe is a river of lava that flows smooth and unbroken. When it hardens it twists into rope-like coils and swirls as the outer skin cools while the hotter lava underneath continues to move a little. The sort of thing you would want to avoid stepping on, I’m sure. The other type of lava flow is called Aa. No I haven’t just been hit over the head with a solid object, that’s what it’s called. Aa is rough and jumbled lava that moves so slowly that the tip of the flow hardens. The molten lava from behind pushes it to keep it moving. That was my kind of lava, slow moving. Pahoehoe and Aa are Hawaiian words that are now used worldwide to describe the two types of lava. I expect that Pahoehoe translates as, Oh shit that’s moving a bit fast! And Aa simply means, ah that’s nothing to worry about.
After a short stop to walk through an extinct lava tube, we went to the starting point for our hike. In the distance we could see the steam plume being created by fresh lava mixing with seawater. The entire coastline had been overflowed by lava, and all around us were warning signs of the dangers that lay ahead. The starting point for the hike was also where the coastal road ran out. From here on the road had been overflowed and was now an immense field of solid black lava. Apparently someone had been lost out there quite recently, and all they found was his torch and hat on the edge of a sheer drop into a pool of lava. So it goes without saying what happened to him. But maybe that wasn’t so? Maybe he had faked his own death? After all, what better way to do it. There would be no body to search for, now would there?

I made a final system check to be sure I had everything: torch, inhaler, walking stick – although this proved more of a hindrance than a help – cigarettes, water and egg sandwiches. With everything there I then set off for the incredibly difficult hike. Walking on lava was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, especially as bits break away under your feet and you cross huge cracks caused by seismic activity; slightly worrying, I might add. Also you walked in fear of even the slightest stumble. The ground was covered with tiny fragments of ash and lava that were like tiny fragments of glass, and equally as sharp.
It took about an hour and a half to get to the lava flow. Suzanne stopped just short of this and told us that officially she couldn’t take us any further. Well from where we were, we couldn’t see nothing. She said we could go on but at our own risk. So we did just that. I hadn’t come all this way just to get a closer look at the steam plume. I wanted to see the lava, and so did the others. So we trotted off down to the edge. Mad I know, but the problem is that you are gripped with fascination and just have to take that chance. My nerves had disappeared and my curiosity took over. As we reached the edge what awaited us was well worth that risk. The entire beach had been turned into streams of red hot lava that ran into the sea like rivers of blood. It was magnificent. A bit further on I spotted a group of people standing nearer the smoke plume, so I took the inland route – I had regained some sense – and followed by the rest, went to see what they were looking at.

They were standing right next to a lava flow. It was the most amazing thing. It was completely dark by this time and the lava was flowing over the edge of the cliff just like a waterfall, only a lot slower obviously. The flow to the edge had formed a crust on the surface and was therefore contained within that. The whole area resembled a huge barbecue, when the coals have turned grey and smoulder. You could see the red glow of the lava through the small cracks in the surface crust. I wandered over to the edge and poked it with my stick (at least it came in handy for something), but not too hard mind you, lest it split and molten lava spill out over my feet. Not an idea I was very keen on.

I then stood and watched in amazement, amid the gasps of the people around me, as the lava flow in the distance came into contact with the ocean waves and exploded on contact, throwing red sparks and seawater high in the air. It was like watching nature’s own firework display. I could have sat there all night and watched this. Before the hike I had wondered why people actually lived near a volcano. Since it first erupted back in 1983, Kilauea has destroyed many nearby towns and homes. So why live there? Well, after what I had just witnessed I can fully understand why. Imagine having this as the view from your back garden, especially when it becomes really active; right now she was just simmering.

Suzanne allowed us half an hour there before calling us back. Reluctantly we all went. It was pitch black by this time and so we had to put our faith in Suzanne to guide us back over the four miles of rocky lava back to the van. We each had a torch, but it wasn’t very powerful and only enabled us to see the ground in front of us which, considering the state of the surface, was a good thing. All had been going well and we had made good time. Halfway back Suzanne stopped, looked around and then told everyone to wait before wandering off into the darkness. Word came back through the group that she had lost her bearings. Oh great! I thought, it’s pitch black and we are stuck on an active volcano. The waiver form hadn’t said anything about the guide getting lost. In fact it had told us to place our full trust in her. It also stated that on a moonless and cloudy night they use satellite navigation to get back. Well it was both moonless and cloudy and I had seen no sign that Suzanne was carrying any satellite equipment. In fact she wasn’t carrying anything. As I looked around me all I could see was blackness. And all I could hear was the sound of the ocean, but I had no idea how close to the edge we were. It was all quite unnerving. Then suddenly a thought popped into my head. Maybe I could sue the company for this. After all there had been no mention of such a problem in that carefully crafted liability waiver form. But as it happened, Suzanne reappeared shortly after and guided us to safety. Bang goes my chance of a million dollar lawsuit, I thought.
© Ian Middleton December 2003
you can read all about Ian's adventures at
© Ian Middleton 2006 update
Ian Middleton Travel Writer & Photographer
Check my new travel guide to ancient Ireland:
Tory Island

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