Hacktreks in Hawaii
Volcano National Park
I mad enough to go walking across an active volcano at night? This
was the question that had plagued my mind since arriving at Arnotts
Lodge in Hilo. But this was exactly the reason I came to Hawaiis
Big Island in the first place.
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. Didnt 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, wouldnt 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 wasnt 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 wasnt all that keen to put to the test.
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 surfers
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, didnt 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 wasnt 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.
we got out of the bus we were overwhelmed with the stench of rotten
eggs. I assured the others that I hadnt 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, Im sure. The other type of
lava flow is called Aa. No I havent just been hit over the head
with a solid object, thats what its 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 thats moving a bit fast! And Aa
simply means, ah thats 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 wasnt 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
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 couldnt take
us any further. Well from where we were, we couldnt see nothing.
She said we could go on but at our own risk. So we did just that. I
hadnt 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
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 natures 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 wasnt 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, its pitch black and we are stuck on an active
volcano. The waiver form hadnt 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
wasnt 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 www.ian-middleton.co.uk
© Ian Middleton 2006 update
Ian Middleton Travel Writer & Photographer http://www.ian-middleton.co.uk
Check my new travel guide to ancient Ireland: http://ireland.mysteriousworld.com
all rights reserved