Words and Photos
by Roderick Eime.
I had already dubbed myself the world’s most inept volcano-chaser. I’d been to some of the most famous eruption sites in the world, yet seen little more than enough steam to make a cup of tea.
Admittedly my spectacularly unsuccessful lava quests were usually a by-product of a journey for some other purpose. I did manage to broil my buttocks in the steamy flooded caldera of Deception Island down near the Antarctic Peninsula and spy the ominous cone of Krakatoa before a rising storm blew our tiny boat back to port on the western coast of Java. But what I really wanted to see was the pure unbridled fury of our planet in formation and witness the irrepressible torrent of a ravenous lava stream consuming all before it. So I set my sights on the glittering jewel set in the middle of the Ring of Fire – the mighty Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawai'i.
Of the four hundred or so active volcanoes currently smoking and venting around the Pacific Rim, the Big Island of Hawai'i contains both Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the most continuously active eruptions around.
From the moment my Aloha Airlines flight touches down at Kona on the western shore, I am filled with anticipation. As I wait patiently in the rental car queue, moving at about the speed of the continental drift, I envision myself peering into molten turmoil of the superheated cauldron, shielding my vulnerable flesh from the blistering radiation straight from hell’s kitchen. The daydream continues as I drive around the precipitous highway ringing the largest of the Hawai'ian Islands en route to the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Volcanoes National Park, one hundred miles hence.
Before checking into my hastily arranged accommodation, I check out the Park’s Visitor Centre perched within ‘cooee’ of the quietly snoozing Kilauea Caldera at the heart of the park. Shrouded by heavy mist and drizzling rain, I catch up with Ranger Adrian who looks at me with carefully contrived discouragement when I share with him my plan to see the lava. He directs me consolingly to a large tattered and finger-worn map nailed to the wall.
“We’re here,” he says authoritatively, finger jabbing at the smear on the map marked ‘You Are Here’. “The lava’s currently flowing here, and you have to walk from here.” The look on his face says it all, namely “forget it!” The problem was that the previously vigorous river of lava plunging into the steaming Pacific Ocean had all but dried up to a smouldering trickle, retreating some five miles up the precarious hillside in the process.
Somewhat dejected, but undeterred, I make my way to My Island B&B in the nearby Volcano Village. The quaint, picturesque 19th century cottage set on seven acres of superb gardens is owned by Gordon and Joann Morse. Gordon meets me at the door and shows me to my bed in the spacious loft. Unlike many seen-but-not-heard B&B hosts, Gordon is a jolly, voluminous mine of volcanic information and island history and we share several entertaining discussions during my short stay.
At dawn, and following Gordon’s emphatic instructions, I tour the crater rim and nearby steam and sulphur vents before the morning mists set in. I try to imagine the enormous crater alive with bubbling molten magma, spraying occasional blasts of lava high into the air. In 1866, the American novelist Mark Twain was struck with awe at this view and described it as “a yawning pit upon whose floor the armies of Russia could camp, and have room to spare.”
Unlike Twain’s outlook, my view is of the long-solidified pot. The contents now form a huge, flat basaltic plain interspersed with pock-like, porridge-textured blisters. Again I try to visualise Twain’s view, but I don’t have to. Here is what he wrote;
“Jets of lava sprung hundreds of feet into the air and burst into rocket-sprays that returned to the earth in a crimson rain: and all the while the laboring mountain shook with Nature’s great palsy, and voiced its distress in moaning and the muffled booming of subterranean thunders.” Heady stuff!
Stopping at the Jaggar Museum a mile or so around the crater, I get an interpretive lesson in the ways of Pele, the Hawai'ian Goddess of fire who dwells beneath the delicate crust of Kilauea. I follow the road down into the crater itself and stand next to numerous steaming cracks in the surface, a sensation similar to standing near a pot of boiling pasta. The terrain, however, is a fearful mess of lumps of rock not unlike crumbled, burnt pastry. Still, I can’t escape the feeling of having missed the main show; like looking into an empty stadium, strewn with paper and discarded drink cups, where an AFL Grand Final has just taken place.
My self-guided exploration continues to all the must-see dots on my fold-out guide; Lua Manu Crater, the Thurston Lava Tube, Puhimau Crater and the ominously named Devastation Trail only serve to whet my appetite for the real ‘diabolic’ action.
It’s after lunchtime before I arrive at the abrupt end to Chain of Craters Road on the eastern shore. In 1986 the road was closed for good by an enormous lava flow that spilled out into the Pacific. Speed Limit and No Parking signs poke forlornly out of the mass, a testament to the indiscretion of molten lava on the march.
Ranger Kathy Hollingworth is only a little more encouraging when I canvass her for an assessment of my chances. “… if you REALLY want to go,” she implores, and leads me to her telescope set up nearby. “See that clump of trees?” Uh-huh “See that patch to the left?” Uh-huh “Well that’s where lava was flowing this morning.”
That “clump of trees”, a patch of greenery high on the ridge line, carefully avoided by previous lava flows, was at least five miles away across a turmoil of snap-frozen lava waves jutting out in all directions like a poorly iced layer cake. I ponder a further half-hour, assessing my meagre resources for the arduous trek ahead. Sturdy shoes, water, snacks, hat, sunscreen, flashlight and a trimmed-down camera kit – damn it, I’m going! At this proclamation, Ranger Kathy proffers me a pair of leather gloves and some final advice, “See that sheer cliff about half way– you’ll have to climb that too.” Undeterred, I tramp off across the glistening surface, each step crunching like broken glass underfoot. Up. Down. Over. Across. Between. Around. On and on it goes, hour after hour, a kindly spray of light rain luckily dulling the effects of the fierce tropical sun overhead. A clumsy tumble onto this material would easily deliver horrific wounds, so I tread very carefully.
The lava formations beneath my feet take on bizarre shapes, and I concoct crazy descriptions for the weird forms as I pass them by. Fat tubers become “beche de magma” and lumpy sausages are “lavawurst” while twists of coiled magma the size of bowlines lay out before me in a charcoal macramé carpet.
Finally I am almost in the long shadows of the ‘clump’ as the sun begins to retreat to the ridge line to the west. My water is dangerously low, yet there is no sign of the wretched lava. Then, just as I contemplate the indignity of an empty-handed trudge back, it stood out like a beacon. About one hundred metres away, atop an untidy hummock is my Holy Grail. About the size of a hurricane lamp, it beckons me on and, aided by the falling light, I soon see reefs of glowing lava between the cracks in what looks like badly laid, oversized patio tiles.
I quickly unpack my cameras and began snapping the faint, shimmering glow. The feeble heat reaches me only after I venture to within a metre or so, but hey, it’s real live lava – and I have earned this moment! Just as I was lamenting the paucity of the spectacle, the hair on my calves begins to singe. “Damned mosquitoes,” I curse, trying to hold the camera steady, but as I rub the exposed flesh, my hand quickly warms. I turn around to see a vividly glowing extrusion of lava flowing from under a large rock I was sitting on only a moment before. About three metres across, it spills out like an over-sauced hamburger, forming a wide tongue, crackling and hissing slightly in the cooler air.
I spend a further twenty minutes photographing the scale-model eruption before packing up and beginning the four hour trek back – only this time I’m guided by just my flashlight and the distant glow of the lone streetlight in the far-off carpark. Despite the grim, treacherous hike back to my waiting hire car, feet throbbing in protest, I carry with me, like a medal, the realisation that now someone else must bear the title of World’s Worst Volcano-Chaser.
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