Big Island, HI, 2017

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Of all the wonderful natural phenomena, few are as simultaneously romantic and lethal as a live volcano – imagine the fiery content from the heart of the planet erupting through the frailest of confinements, raging through the land, ravaging everything on its path, and rebuilding a new world. It may not feel like it, but there’re some 1,500 potentially active volcanoes around the world today, mostly gathering around the Pacific Rim that is commonly known as the “Ring of Fire.” Owing to their mercurial temperament, very few volcanoes allow we mortals to admire their mightiness from a close distance. Occasionally, however, there are volcanoes with relatively mild eruptions can fill the crater up with lava to create a “Lava Lake,” a rare phenomenon that provides visitors with a glimpse to the flaming interior of our mother planet.

The most famous lava lake of all, is Kilauea volcano in the Big Island of Hawaii. Once a while, we would be reminded by the news that Kilauea volcano has lost its temper again, and the locals woke up to find lava flowing through their bedroom and had to flee for their lives. You couldn’t help but wonder, why living by a volcano in the first place? That would be the right question to ask, as our bouncy little airplane landing on Hilo Airport on Big Island, Hawaii, in April of 2017.


The Hawaii Island, or the Big Island, does live up to its name – at 4,028 square miles, it’s the largest island in the country. However, the population at 185,079 (2010) is considerably less than the nearby Oahu island (953,207 on 596.7 square miles). The main reason, besides lacking an excellent deep-water lagoon like Pearl Harbor, is volcanoes. The island itself is virtually a cluster of five shield volcanoes: one extinct, one in dormant, and three active. The most active of the volcanoes, Mount Kilauea, probably have long been in the nightmare of the Hawaiian locals – as I write, Big Islanders are still dealing with the aftermath of its latest eruption in May 3rd this year (2018), which demolished some 700 properties and evicted over 2,000 people.


But I’m ahead of myself. When we arrived in April 2017, it was to the warm embrace of the Hawaiian sun, palmy beaches, and the hypnotic Pacific blue. The resort (Hilton Waikoloa Village), with expansive green, rocky coastline, cozy coves, and roaming exotic animals, was picturesque beyond description. What’s more important, at the northwest corner of the island, it was as far away as possible from the moody Mt. Kilauea at the southeast.


We fell in love with the tide pools along the rocky coastline immediately. All these years, we’ve frequented the famed California golden coast and its tidepools, but we’ve never seen puddles with such richness and vitality. The coarse and porous igneous rocks appeared to be the perfect breeding ground for microbes and small creatures. Besides the commonly found shore crabs, hermit crabs, anemones, sea urchins, snails, blennies, gobies, sea cucumbers, I was excited to find creatures that were rarely found in tide pools.


There were colorful tropical fishes and eels.


Even wicked-looking Brittle Sea Stars (Ophiocoma erinaceus). Turning over a large rock, chances were, I would find half a dozen of these dark creatures curling together, slowly wiggling their spiky arms. It was quite a grotesque sight. If you’re looking for a prototype for horrifying sea monsters or sinister aliens, bet you can’t do much better than these creatures.


Occasionally we would meet a couple divers with body-length harpoons, showing off their catches.


It was such a self-sufficient promised land inside the resort, with indolent atmosphere, convenient facilities, pompous shows, hearty feasts, and splendid sunset. It took us a while to muster the will power to venture out of it.


And what a different world out there. The whole island was a dark ruin of igneous rocks, with scattered patches of green and a belt of pale highway running through it. Reality check – yes, we were living on a volcanic island; among live volanoes too.


The first destination was Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, a Polynesian village not unlike that of Moana’s (as in the 2016 Disney film). What’s special about the village, however, was that it functioned as a refuge, where the priests had the power to pardon and protect any fugitives of law who were able to elude their pursuers, if you could make it to the sactuary. It was a peculiar judicial system that existed two centuries ago, when a tedious and harsh set of “kapu”, or Hawaiian laws, was established mainly to restrict the liberty of women and commoners. Anyone who broke the kapu was punishable by death, unless you’re swift enough to run from the law and to cross that 10-ft high stonewall that defines the sanctuary. I personally failed to grasp the significance of such an irrational judicial system. By giving out the offenders a running chance, it apparently rewarded the desperados but weeded out the weak and meek. Now if you’re in the ruling class, who would you prefer in your chiefdom?


The natives attributed the “kapu” to the whims of the Hawaiian Gods, who were a bunch of licentious brutes, if you ask me. Take for instance Wakea, the Sky God and allegedly the ancestor of Hawaiian royalties. Legend has it, he coveted his daughter so much (what the….?), that he established the kapu that men and women must eat separately. This allowed him to consort with the daughter during meal times without alerting the wife. What a story. The tale not only legitimized gender inequality as a divine mandate, but also hinted at the common practice of incest in Hawaiian royal families (to maintain the purity of the bloodlines and to preserve their royal assets). It took western missionaries quite some effort to persuade the royalties out of such practice in the early 17th century.

With that in the background, when we walked past the guardian statues and entered the village, it was more curiosity than awe that occupied my thought. What greeted us first was the fenced Hale o Keawe temple, the burial ground of Hawaiian nobilities that date back to 1475. A typical antique Hawaiian structure, it was a large but rather simple thatched hut. A structure like that wouldn’t last very long, so what stood there today was a replica. In the fenced yard a few more grotesque statues of Hawaiian Gods, facing each other with menacing expressions, as if having a huge argument.


Further into the park was a royal fishpond and couple of larger open-air sheds that appeared to be the royal workshops, in which a half-naked native was toiling.


I had to say that these Hawaiian Chiefs were very keen at choosing the location. The Hale o Keawe temple was literally just a couple steps away from the shallow and tranquil water of the Honaunau Bay. Stretching afar was that unmistakable crystal Hawaiian blue that was oh so inviting that you always would itch to dive in.


The rocky shore not only nourished a plethora of small creatures, but also the graceful Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas).


The bay doesn’t have long stretch of sandy beaches, but the shoreline was decorated with dynamic sculptures of rapidly-quenched igneous rocks. So liquid was the texture, it looked like a mud field; except that it was rock-solid when I step on it.


Speaking of sandy beaches, it is a feature in the Big Island that is often overlooked (under the shadow of the live volcanoes). For instance, Hapuna Beach, which we were heading the next day, is relative inconspicuous compared to Waikiki or Honaunau Bay. However, the half-mile stretch is as gorgeous as any of them, because it is constantly rated among the best beaches in the world.


On that I could offer my personal testament, as we were there the following day. Hapuna Beach had everything you want from a Hawaiian beach: fine sand, calm and shallow water with subtle gradient of hues, tree lines that sheltered the swimmers from the perpetual sun, and surrounding volcanic rock that one could climb up for a panoramic view.


In addition, it had something that we didn’t expect: unexploded ordnance from WWII. Back in those days, beach storming exercise were constantly held on Hapuna Beach, leaving hazardous souvenir that have been sporadically discovered from time to time, till today.


If a treasure hunt for unexploded military munition wasn’t exciting enough, you can consider visiting Jurassic Park. Or at least where the movie The Lost World -- Jurassic Park (1997) was filmed. I’m referring to the Pololu Valley in the northern tip of the island. We drove along the scenic Highway 270 until it ended at the edge of the Pololu Valley, where it met the Pacific Ocean. The valley was created by the Pololu stream, which made a deep cut in the Kohala Volcano through eons of erosion.


The Kohala Volcano was the oldest of the five volcanoes (erupted about 1 million year ago) that made up the Big Island. Then some 250,000 to 300,000 years ago, a massive land slide shed part of the volcano into the ocean, leaving the majestic sea cliffs along the coast in front of us today. Over time, streams of rain water carved out gulches, gorges, and valleys along the coast, and the Pololu Valley is the northmost and most assessible of them all.

The view from the Pololu Valley overlook at the end of the highway was breathtaking. On the left was the restless Pacific, perpetually brushing the black sand beach with creamy waves at the valley floor; on the right, flanked between two lush ridges was a marshy green valley, where herds of sauropod dinosaurs would roam and graze. We were about to trudge into the lost world.


There was a trail down to the valley floor, but it turned quite muddy after heavy rain. As we were all wearing slippers for the rain, the hike down was a lot more challenging that we anticipated.


But at the end it was well worth the effort when we were greeted by splashing creamy wave on a black pebble beach, with a backdrop of towering sea cliffs. From the estuary of the Pololu stream, we could trace the water back to the heavily vegetated valley, which resembled the warm and humid jungles of the Jurassic period. I had to mentally picture the sauropods wading the stream and munching on the treetop; while other distinguished species featured in the movie such as T. Rex, Velociraptors, and Triceratops have not arrived in the scene yet. Not until tens of million years later, in the Cretaceous period.


On the other side of those sea cliffs was the Waipi’o Valley, another vibrant green valley featured in one of the most lavish blockbuster film ever made (and an unfortunate box office flop), Waterwolrd (1999). In the last scenes of the post-apocalypse sci-fi movie, when Kevin Costner and Jeanne Tripplehorn finally find the last piece of dryland in a water-covered world, they were sailing towards the crescent coastline of the Waipi’o Valley.


So we ventured deep into the towering palms, draping ferns, and wild orchids. In the back of the valley, rainwater dropped from a steep 442 feet cliff to form an airy ribbon known as the Akaka Fall. I imagined this could make quite an agreeable final terrestrial refuge for humanity.


The 40-mile stretch between Waipi’o Valley and the town of Hilo, known as the Hamakua Coast, was a pleasant scenic drive. We meandered through tropical jungles and cruised along the rocky Pacific shore, stopping frequently. Any random spot could be a vista point; any quick turn could shift the sceneries drastically from a eucalyptus forest to a hidden black pebble beach.


One of the must-visit stop was the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden. Located in a valley facing the Onomea Bay, the garden was more a natural reserve than an artificial arboretum. Through charming rainforest trails, we walked pass streams and waterfalls, and some 2,000 species of tropical plants from all around the world, all seamlessly integrated into the natural surroundings.


Its orchid collection was the best I’ve ever seen, by far.


And here are the wildlifes we encountered, mostly along the coast. The Gold dust day gecko (Phelsuma laticauda, 2 pix), though ubiquitous in Hawaii nowadays, was a native of Madagascar. Similarly, Mongoose (Herpestes javanicus) and Grey francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus) were guests from India;

BothRed-crested Cardinal (Paroaria coronata) and Saffron finch (Sicalis flaveola) were immigrant from South America. Of course, there were native species. The Nene, or Hawaiian goose (Branta sandvicensis, last pic) is the office state bird of Hawaii.


Another Eight and a half miles down the road brought us to Hilo, a sleepy little town with a population of 43,263 (2010). It was the first proper local settlement we came across on the island. The simple and well-aged buildings looked lived-in and homey. The restaurants were better than I anticipated, considering the small size of the town. My crab cake salad was garnished with bright edible orchid flowers, which I thought was kind of cute. On the street there were locals selling lovely handcrafted items freshly made from palm leaves.


The charming little farmer’s market had all kinds of exotic local produce: taro flowers, fern burgeon, sweetsops, and wax apples… I was particularly excited to find locally-grown lychee and longyan in the market, which brought me a fresh taste of nostalgia for my hometown far far away.


While we’re on the topic, I should mention that Hawaiian cuisine was not all about BBQ, Luau, and poi, though they are an important part of it. With ever growing diversity and a thriving of the tourism industry, Hawaiian cuisine has absorbed various Asian, European, and American cuisine. The dishes we sampled in this trip really reflect such diversity. The best example, and the best dish I had in the trip, was the colorful “Sansei’s Award-winning Shrimp Cake” (1st pic), which artfully blended Chinese (crisp noodle), Japanese (shrimp cake), and European (sauce) elements together. And yes, it was palatable.


The last and the thematic destination for the trip was Mount Kilauea, the afore mentioned live volcano in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, now an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best of days for an outing, as the morning drizzle gradually turned into pouring rain when we approached the park. Unable to stop by any vista point, we had to take refuge in the Jaggar museum, spending almost an hour studying the anatomy of volcanos and portraits of Pele the Goddess of volcanos, usually with a tropical flower crown signifies the flaming lava, and her curly black hair artistically morphing into dark igneous rocks. Romantic yet lethal, like I said.


When the rain receded a bit, I went out to the lookout point for a view of the volcano, but failed to make out anything through the mist. Disappointed, we pressed on. Fortunately, there was one perfect attraction ahead that would shelter us from the elements, the Thurston lava tubes. Hiding behind the dense vegetation of Hawaiian rain forest, these peculiar natural tunnels were formed when lava surface solidified into harden outer crust, while the fluid interior still flow through the channel like water underneath a frozen river. Gradually the lava melted its way deeper below, leaving a hollow channel of heated gases. As everything cooled off, we were left with a neat and uniform tubular structure, not unlike the tunnels of a mine.


As we drove toward the volcano, the rainforest turned into bushes and meadow, then the vegetation cleared away altogether. From a distance we could see a column of milky smoke rising and melting into the cloud in the sky. It was a column of steam created by the re-hot lava that poured into the ocean.


Examine carefully, we could find a steam trail, marking the stream of lava flowing down from the caldron. Looking down the rocky sea cliff, the crackly igneous rock was eroded into an enormous natural arch (Holei Sea Arch). Under our feet, the dark rocky floor resembled a mushy muddy field that has just been heavily plowed. This was a snapshot of the violent process when lava was quickly solidified into igneous rock. It was frozen time. The rotten egg sulfur smell, which had not been very noticeable so far, intensified. Apparently, we’re very close to the real volcanic action now.


It was the end of the road as it would have been too dangerous to drive any nearer the volcano. To take a closer look to the caldron, we had to approach it from the air. We drove back the Hilo Airport, where we boarded a helicopter.


The visibility in the bubble-like cockpit of the Airbus EC130 chopper was quite good, but the roaring of engine above was deafening, and everyone had to communicate through headphones. We flew through the picturesque Hilo Bay and the lush Hilo suburb, towards the smoky volcano.


To my surprise, the residence area extended quite far towards the danger zone, and some of the houses appeared to be alarmingly close. There were people in the world who chose to risk their lives living above an inferno, weathering the raining ashes, breathing in all the toxic fumes every day, and once a while wake up to find lava running through their bedrooms. It made me wonder.


The smoke column was right ahead of us now. A dragon-like trail of steam marking the lava stream spilling from the top of the caldron. Where the lava stream met the water front, red-hot lava quenched violently into the turquoise Pacific Ocean, sending billows of thick steam up the sky. I could almost hear the intense hissing of rapid heat exchange as sea water boiling on the solidifying lava. It was one of the most captivating scenes I’ve ever seen. This, I thought excitedly, is how the Hawaiian Islands were born, and apparently it’s still growing yet. The solidified lava created a lower plateau at sea level below the sea cliff, and presumably will extend its territory further and further into the ocean.


The pilot circled around the enormous smoke column for us to observer it from every angle and trace the steaming lava stream back to its source, the top of the caldron. There we were able to take a close look at one of the more extraordinary phenomena of nature, a lava lake contained inside a crater, the home of Pele the volcano goddess in Hawaiian myth. It wasn’t an easy task, as puffs of smoke / steam were constantly blown out of the crater, shrouding it with a milky cloak. Only in seconds between the puffs could we catch a quick glimpse of the re-hot molten content cooking in the caldron. That mysterious red-glowing fringe of the liquid lava, delicate yet intense, seemed to hide behind it all the secrets from the heart of the planet. It was not a sight one could easily forget.


While we’re still immersed in the kind of astonishment after witnessing the spectacle of a lifetime, the pilot pulled away and headed back. When we were over an open conifer forest, he pointed at a large bald patch, indicated that it was the work of lava flow. Spread around the dark igneous rock floor were stems of fallen and unburnt trees, like a box of scattered match sticks. Apparently, when Mt. Kilauea loses its temper, the consequence is severe.


In fact, Mt. Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. One year after our visit, in May 4 of 2018, Mt. Kilauea would have a spectacular outburst, squirting lava up to 300 feet in the air; the stream of lava would cut off an entire community (Vacationland Hawaii) from the rest of the island. As mentioned, some 700 houses went up in flames and over 2,000 residents were evicted. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

The news awoke my unanswered question from the trip: why people chose to live under this leaky, 4,190-ft-high caldron that’s about to explode at any time? It was an obvious question for the reporters too when interviewing the victims. The interviewees naturally referred to their love of nature, the geothermal resource for electricity, as well as the fertile soil brought by the volcanic ashes. For the Hawaiian natives, there could be an extra cultural and religious layer in their choice, as Mt. Kilauea is the body and home of Pele the goddess of fire and creator of Hawaiian Islands. Of course, what they didn’t mention is that the real estate cost is much more reasonable in the hazard zone than anywhere else in the state of Hawaii. In mid-2018, an acre of lot in Lava Zone 1 was as low as $4-5K, and a two-bedroom home could be had for some $75K, a ridiculously low price compared with the median single-family home price of $790K in Oahu and $527K in Maui.

As it happens, people around the world are already under all kinds of risks of natural disasters – earth quakes, tornados, floods, tsunami, wildfires, even sink holes, meteors. In comparison, living under Mt. Kilauea isn’t particularly lethal. For one thing, the volcano tends to give out warnings when an outburst is about to happen – small quakes, increasing amount of lava, sometimes even a change in the slope of the crater. As long as you’re on top of things, the odds of you buried in a modern Pompei is probably not very high. Besides, with a sparse population, the evacuation won’t be as chaotic compared to, say after an earthquake in Tokyo or a hurricane in New Orleans.

For the locals, as well as the two million annual visitors to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this view is well worth the risk.

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