Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Starry, starry night

The thick dense cloud cover along Saddle road drive wasn't looking optimistic. Where is the silver lining, there always is one! We didn't come this far to not be able to observe THE PHENOMENON. Every other minute we kept popping our heads up and outwards towards the sky for a starry glimmer of hope, a likely sighting of patchy clearing, we were yet only at an elevation of some 4000 ft. 

It was way past night fall, probably not the best time to traverse across the island, especially along this foggy stretch of desolate road. Saddle road is completely void of any gas stations, stores, or anywhere manned to get help. With no cell service and limited lights to illuminate the road, it is advisable to make sure you have the number of an island tow company before you begin your journey...yes! But weren't we here for an adventure, an incredible experience waiting to happen. 

The long drive from Hilo towards Kona gave us the opportunity to exchange thoughts, ponder on the wondrous beauty of the island, recollect its myriad experiences and hopefully add one more to our repertoire! And yes, also to basically stay awake at the wheel! We were gaining in elevation every few miles…and all of a sudden, it happened! The joy of spotting the first star in the sky was child-like exuberance and delight. It meant that the sky indeed was clearing, that there yet might be hope for us to witness what we had only read and heard about. First there was one, then 100, then a few hundred thousand …more than enough to give us the sign we needed to make that turn off Saddle road towards Mauna kea Observatory and visitor center. 

Stargazing unlike any other – that’s what we were going for! The visitor information center is located at 9200 ft elevation and offers a nightly free stargazing program held every night of the year from 6pm to 10pm. You can come any time, and stay as long as you like (provided you get to park).  After the introductory video, telescopes are set up for viewing, operated by the staff and volunteers. As soon as it's dark enough, the star tour begins, and you find yourself gazing into the darkest, deepest most brilliant star studded sky ever. 

Under a dark sky, a steamy Milky Way billows upwards from the Teapot’s spout to form a band that passes over your shoulders and into the north. When I gazed at what looked like smoke or a line of puffy clouds, I was told, I was looking straight through the thickest, starriest part of our galaxy’s flattened disk. Stars pile up over hundreds and thousands of light years into a narrow hazy band forming the Milky Way. Could this be true, that place, that precise moment took my breath away. It was as if I as glued to the earth beneath me; I froze in awe of the spectacle that revealed itself all around me. I was speechless along with the other 50-100 odd folks who were brave enough to make it out there - way above the cloud cover at nearly 10000 ft above sea level to stargaze like one can only dream about. 

The star gazing program begins at the telescope patio outside with knowledgeable staff stating the reasons as to why Mauna Kea. Geography and location allows seeing 85% of all the stars visible from earth here. For an hour using a power laser beam pointer, we were shown every visible planet (Venus, Mars), dozens of notable stars, zodiac constellations, even other galaxies! Power telescopes placed out on the patio gave you glimpses into this vast celestial unknown. It was a cool but beautiful night with no wind. Every second spent here was timeless. A memory etched forever. I was lost in the stars for another hour before heading down the mountain.  

My first time witnessing such a grand canopy of trillion twinkling stars was indescribable. Never in my life have I seen a sky so magnificent. Its as if the whole universe unraveled itself in front of you in order to share with you all its dark deep boundless secrets. Its where for me, scientific discovery and spirituality melded into one astonishing and unforgettable human experience.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Scenic Drives on the Big Island

To put it bluntly, the Big Island is BIG! Most people visiting are somewhat unprepared and baffled by the sheer size of it. Of-course if your idea of a holiday is to stay for the entire duration at one of the plush Kohala resorts on one end, then size really doesn't matter does it! 

However and sadly, you would be missing out on so much that this island has to offer - from pristine rain forests, to lava deserts to world-class beaches, to snow covered mountains, an active volcano, dazzling sunsets...and the list goes on and on. My point being, rent a car and get out there to experience it. 

I am of the firm belief that doing out of the ordinary things, makes extraordinary happen!

In the 5 days that we spent on the island, we crisscrossed every major road or freeway, from one end to the other, from the north to the south or east to west. And keep in mind that there are humongous volcanoes and tall tall mountains that force you to circle-around in order to get from point to point. Yes, so distances are huge and as most of the roads are single lane, the commute times are long. When did that ever stop us though? 

In fact, one of the prettiest and surprising drives ended up happening by chance (when we missed a turn) and oh what a pleasant drive it was. Probably one of my favorites. Its the Akoni Pule highway (#270) north of Kawaihae and towards the sleepy town of Hawi. For one its past all the extravagant and manicured mega-resort area where ensconced in the desolate sea of lava and scrub, multi-million dollar resorts dot the coastline offering the luxury and amenities that have made this region famous.

This is probably the most overlooked and driest part of the island as it falls in the rain shadow area of the Kohala mountain. We hardly came across cars on the road or people at the pull outs! Although the coastline here is mostly rocky and unprotected with few beaches to swim in, its beauty lies in its ruggedness. The land is harsh and the winds here are unforgiving...but that is exactly what makes the drive unforgettable. A cute little hidden park with exceptional clear waters is Kapa'a Beach park. Its one place where you could take out a permit to camp overnight. If quiet and solitude is what you seek, then this is one place that answers your call. 

The end of the highway leads to the scenic Polulu Valley lookout. This outstanding vista displays the raw, untamed side of the Big Island. 400 feet below is the Polulu valley beach accessed via a 20-30 minute trail on uneven terrain (good walking shoes needed here). The view's of the valley are much nicer half way down the trail. 

We saw some backpackers climbing their way up after having spent the night on the beach below! Polulu connects to Waipio via 7 valleys along the Kohala mountain! However, you have to drive around the mountain to get to Waipio on the other side. Read more on Waipio Valley here. My suggestion would be to take the beautiful Kohala Mountain Road (#250) towards Waimea and then head east on the Mamalahoa Highway (#19) towards Honoka'a. Enjoy the drive! 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Waipio Valley should be named WipeOut Valley!

Its lure is in its appeal...lush verdant green, ethereal, dream-like escape. Definitely off-the-beaten-path and secluded, do not fool yourselves though, even if you're the footloose and fancy free types, hiking down to the valley floor and back is not for the fainthearted. You have been warned! 

But what tropical paradise aptly named 'Valley of Kings' wouldn't one want to hike down to? Waipi’o Valley is arguably the most magical place on the Big Island. Always listed among the most beautiful spots in the State of Hawai’i, this valley is as hauntingly lovely as it is distressingly difficult to see in its entirety.

There is a 4WD (only) road down into the valley from the lookout but you really (and I mean REALLY) do not want to drive it, even in a four-wheel drive vehicle. The road is incredibly steep (25 - 40% grade!!), poorly paved, always narrow and winding, unbelievably hazardous and tricky and populated by local drivers who really do not want you on their road. And as you get to the bottom, the muddy, puddle-strewn unpaved road is a quagmire during rain.
Perhaps the most satisfying way to see Waipi’o Valley, however, is the way the ancient Hawai’ians did, by walking forthrightly down into it and then crawling, wheezily, back up inch by inch. However, if you attempt this hike, don’t be deceived by the numbers. The hike may entail less than a thousand foot elevation loss (and subsequent gain to climb out) and fewer than 2-3 miles actual walking, but it feels much longer; it is hard, hot, muddy, steep and, oh yes, did I mention hard and steep? But the views and the experience to be had by making this difficult hike are well worth the price of sweat and time. So you might be WIPED OUT at Waipi’o, however, you’ve earned your bragging rights to some great story-telling from the trip.

You start from the lookout point or as I like to call it: succumb-to-temptation point! The panorama that unveils in front of you is unsurpassable. Take your mandatory ‘before’ picture here! Those who are on a time crunch or decide to skip going down into the valley have only visually treated their eyes to a tantalizing dessert laid out artistically on a platter before them. Alas, their palettes are denied the sinful and oh-so fruitful temptation to taste. 
The hike down into the valley takes about ½ an hour with beautiful panoramic vistas to admire at every turn and bend. Plan twice that for exploration of the valley floor and beach and at least an hour to walk back up. Be ever vigilant when walking on the road; local drivers will not deign to give you right of way and tourist drivers are notoriously at the very edge of losing control. Uphill always has the right of way. 

To reach the beach, simply stroll down the road; near where the road hits the valley floor, there is an intersection where you will need to take the road to your right (toward the ocean) which goes along public access to the beach and a spectacular 300 foot waterfall. Once the Waipi'o Valley Road reaches the valley floor, it becomes a mystical, marvelous tree-tunnel through the jungle. The weather could be cloudy, wet, drizzly, cool, sunny, hot and everything in between. That’s the climate forecast for the Big Island in a nutshell. Also, this section tends to be the muddiest with large pools of water covering most of the path which made it fun trekking through thick forests in order to avoid the muddy waters. 

Waipi’o valley is stunning, dramatic and breathtaking. The first view of the beach is a divine sight to behold. Having never stepped foot on a black sand beach before, its uniqueness is a gift in itself. Soft to the touch, fine sand and rock line its shores. We were very lucky to also see the Kaluahine Falls on our right hand (east) side once you get to the beach. These falls only exist when it is raining a LOT. The beach is split in two by the river coming out of the valley, and depending on the amount of water it could be difficult to cross. 

Yet it is marvelous. Take a moment to absorb what surrounds you. 

It is pristine nature in all its glory. It is the mighty ocean in all its supremacy. It is a blessed land that we mustn’t take for granted. 

Waipi’o Valley is a mystical place that defies the powers of written description and although you cannot help going on picture-taking binge, photographs hardly do it adequate justice. This beach is known for its rip currents and high surf, making it a dangerous place to go swimming especially during the winter months.

And then comes the return trip! All the best. It takes grit, muscle and sheer determination to power your way back up the steep gradient. Unless you are in top physical condition, you will need to take a few breaks on your way out to catch your breath.Trust me, you will be wiped out by the time all is said and done. Our comic relief was watching visitors tra-la-la-ing their way down. We now know what lies in store for them. And don't forget to get your 'after' picture to brag...that is if you still have the inclination (pun very much intended)!! Regardless, it’s an unforgettable experience to be had and a place worth the visit. You will cherish it for many years later. 

TIP: Take plenty of water with you as no fresh drinking water is available. If the parking lot near the Information Booth is full, park along the road leading there. Lock your car. 

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Chain of Craters drive into No man's land

It is one of the absolute must-dos inside the National Park. The road is very accessible, drive able with several pull-outs to step out and walk short distances to view points and magnificent vistas. It may very well be one of the most unique driving experiences you have on the Big Island, although after staying there for 5 more days, it gets increasingly difficult to pick this one as your only favorite! 

Stretching approximately 18 miles and going from 4,000 ft. elevation to sea level, the Chain of Craters scenic drive along the East Rift Zone of the volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is pock marked with craters of varying shapes and sizes, lava flows, petroglyphs, and much more. 
If your ultimate goal is night time lava watching, you may want to start out on Chain of Craters several hours before sunset in order to reach the end of the road with enough time to get out to the lava before dark. Add extra time (2-3 hours) if you plan on doing any of the hikes along the road or if you plan on picture taking! 

One of the stops along the road is the Lua Manu Crater - the first of several marked craters along this road. Lua Manu is a pit crater which is formed when magma below the earth's surface drains, causing the earth to collapse. The 1974 flow sent lava pouring into Lua Manu's basin which is 109 yards in diameter. 

Further down the road, you will see a small pullout on the left which leads to another pit crater, Puhimau Crater. Its fascinating and a surreal feeling to be viewing craters so up front, and those that erupted not more than 30-40 years ago! 

Thurston Lava Tube - don't miss it. What is a Lava Tube? As magma moves underground it flows through tubes. The main magma chamber will have side tubes which are fairly large... these will splinter off into smaller and smaller tubes just like the veins in your body.

The larger tubes can be quite big. They can have ceilings that are 30 to 50 feet tall. Typically the magma that normally flows through a tube fills it about 2/3 of the way up. The heat and pressure will sometimes cause portions of the roof of the tube to collapse, exposing the interior of the tube to the outside through the collapsed roof, called a skylight.
Thurston Lava Tube is an excellent example of a large feeder tube. 

Hilina Pali Road The 8.2 mile trip down narrow Hilina Pali Road has its own rustic and raw appeal in terms of gorgeous scenery. Beauty as always lies in the eye of the beholder here. The barren desolate hardened ground speak of tumultuous times when lava erupted or earthquakes rattled at its very core breaking new ground, engulfing all that came in its wake. It is a story of death, devastation but also one of resilience, regeneration and power. 

Although it is so desirable and alluring to trek for miles into this barren unobstructed underworld...the strong straight line winds whip you around testing your balance. Getting a picture here calls for some serious skills...where the camera, the subject, the surroundings and God forbid YOU all have to make it into one frame! Good luck. 

However, the awe-inspiring views at the end of this road are worth the effort if you have the time. The road continues to twist and turn over the bumpy and rutted pavement until you finally reach the Holei Sea Arch. Sea arches are formed when lava is continuously pounded by the surf until it is undercut in the shape of an arch.In a park where the main attraction is an ever-changing force of nature, there is no telling how the landscape could change. Since 1983 Kilauea has been eating portions of the Chain of Craters Road and covering the villages on it with its lava flows. 

Never-the-less its lure is in its drama. In experiencing the true youth of the Big Island and the reality that it is still being born. 

Currently the park allows visitors to walk 5 miles (one-way) down Chain of Craters Road to where the lava begins. This is rough terrain walking. If you plan on hiking beyond where the lava meets the road please take a few precautions. Bring plenty of water, approximately three quarts for the entire hike. Carry rain gear, sun block, and flashlights. The temperature drops with the sun, so carry a lightweight jacket or sweatshirt just in case. There is another option of viewing the active lava flowing into the ocean. See Kalapana Lava Hike 

Rocky Ride into the orange glow

No one is entitled to see the lava on the Big Island, its ebb and flow is very dynamic, ever changing. We were lucky to be visiting at a time when in the recent past 13 year history, the lava out pour into the ocean has been a phenomenal sight to behold. 

There are very few places on earth where you can see lava in person. And even fewer where you can walk right up to it. Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii is the safest and easiest access to see actual lava flow. The added bonus here was that there was an option to rent bikes to get to the fiery spout approximately 4-5 miles away. 

Although it is a long and circuitous route to the south eastern tip of the island by car it is definitely an experience to be had and one not to the missed! 
Renting bikes was a very easy process, the vendors are right around the car park area. Make sure to test ride the bike and adjust seats etc before riding into a magnificent sunset. 

And what a bike ride it was! While going in, the wind is at your back...making it an easy exhilarating one. As you bike (or hike which is also an option) across the fields of lava its difficult to imagine that Kalapana used to be home to a fishing village. In 1986, lava started flowing out of the Kīlauea volcano toward the town and ended up destroying it. The lava continues to flow to this day and the town is now completely buried. So although it was a thrill ride across unimaginable landscape and a chance to marvel the unstoppable force of nature, a point to remember is that it is a historical site and reverence should be had for the residents that lost their homes. 

Someone described the surreal landscape as the crust of a freshly baked brownie...burnt to some extent and magnified thousand fold. 

The molten lava hardens so fast that the rock still looks like its in motion. With bumps and cracks, swivels and spirals, deep crevices , its tricky to walk on them..and headlights or flashlights are necessary if you're attempting to hike it after dark. Bear in mind, this isn't an easy hike and definitely leave your fuzzy slippers and flip flops behind. Here you experience the untamed side of the ever-changing Big Island with new land forming right beneath your feet! 

At end of the 4.5 miles gravel bike path, you abandon your bike to walk by foot another half mile over the crusty uneven terrain to get to the edge of the ocean cliff. Lo and behold what words cannot describe, it is a sensation, a reawakening of sorts, a wondrous phenomenon to watch. From here you can witness a torrent of lava gushing into the Pacific almost in a perfect waterfall like pattern. It is one of the most amazing events we have witnessed. 

What was spectacular was the rate at which the hot magma, seen as a strong flow of bright orange molten rock, was hitting the sea. At Kīlauea's ocean entry, the interaction of molten lava flowing into cool seawater caused pulsating littoral explosions that threw spatter (fragments of molten lava) high into the air along with clouds of bellowing dense steam. It was indeed a 'Fire-hose' of molten lava plummeting into the deep sea.

There are hot and deep earth cracks running parallel to the sea cliff around the entry point and it’s a very unstable and hazardous area! The park staff has cordoned off sections and determined the safe zone from where the viewing is spectacular. Pay heed to this! The views from here are breathtaking and you find yourself just standing in awe and appreciation of the sheer force and power of mother nature. A definite must see and must do experience on the Big Island. One that will take your breath away and leave you with a lasting impression deep within. 

Tip: Carry water, headlights or flashlights. Wear sturdy shoes and heed the caution signs. The last thing you want to leave behind is a part of your melted foot! 

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Crater within the Caldera

Without a doubt, the star attraction on the Big Island is the youngest yet very much alive Kilauea volcano which has been constantly erupting from vents either on its summit (caldera) or on the rift zones since 1983! Yes...for more than 30 years, its considered to be one of the most active volcanoes in the world! Needless to say it was the first thing we wanted to see and experience first-hand.

Bless the patient park rangers at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park who see thousands of visitors daily and field the number one 'burning' question on everyone's mind....'where can I see the lava flow from'! Because the flow of lava is so dynamic, the access to view it also follows suit. Best advise is to start at the visitor center and get the latest maps, view points and guide before you set out. It helps you plan your day(s) as well. 

The Jagger Museum overlook off the crater rim drive has an uninterrupted view of Halemaʻumaʻu Crater which is a pit crater located within the much larger summit caldera of Kīlauea (see note below on the difference between a crater and a caldera) This crater is currently active containing a lava lake from where the near-permanent gas plume rises. 

How does one describe watching a crater billow with smoke and glow from a lava lake that’s hundreds of feet below the surface? Somehow the words amazing and incredible just don’t do enough to adequately describe this sight.

Ideal times to see Halemaʻumaʻu's eruptive activity is around dusk and dawn where you have an opportunity to see both the red glow from the lava lake as well as the plume.

Note: Volcanic craters and calderas differ mainly in the way they are formed. Craters tend to be more nearly circular than calderas, and they are often, though not always, smaller than calderas. Craters are the vents through which gas and magma are ejected, while calderas form as a result of local collapse of the surrounding rock.

What to know when you go:
Since Halemaʻumaʻu is located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you must pay a $10 fee for park entry. This fee allows you entry in to the park for 7 days. There is plenty to see and do inside the park besides Halemaʻumaʻu. If you have the time, you could easily spend 2-3 days here. 

The Gift

With incredible adventure at every bend and turn, our first-time Hawaiian vacation to Big Island and Oahu was by far our most physically challenging vacation yet! 
The Islands offer an astonishing array of topography and an undoubtedly wild ride passing through rain, clouds, sun, shade, winds and did I mention winds! 

Yet nowhere else have we been so confronted by the power and stark beauty of nature; wonder struck by the brilliance of a stellar star-studded sky; overwhelmed by the combined forces of elements; loudly reminded of how alive and powerful this earth is. 

The Big Island lives and breathes like nowhere we’ve been before — perhaps because it’s still being formed beneath our very flip-flops, with lava constantly creating new landmass.

Here, the ‘Aloha’ spirit which is a well-known reference to the attitude of friendly acceptance also refers to a symbiotic relationship and an acknowledgement of that relationship with everything in the universe around you, and recognizing exactly what your space within that is.

In the Hawaiian language, aloha stands for much more than just “hello” or “goodbye” or “love.” Its deeper meaning is “the joyful (oha) sharing (alo) of life’s energy (ha) in the present (alo).” And THAT was Hawaii’s gift to us, the monumental power of ‘now’, which pretty much sums up our experience!