Our Tourist Experience
Hawaii (the big Island)
We began our visit on the island of Hawaii, the big island. Beyond the descriptions in our Lonely Planet guidebook we had only a vague idea of what to expect. Few of the people we knew had been here. But we knew in advance that to see anything of this we would need to rent a car.
We soon discovered that 'big island' is formed by five volcanos, merged together by the lava and ejected materials - pumice and entrained rocks. The two largest of these: Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea dominate the island.
Where the volcanic rock has been eroded to soil plants thrive on the mineral rich loam. Elsewhere great grey sterile slabs of lava dominate the countryside..
The mountainous volcanoes also produce several microclimates by capturing or shadowing rain as weather sweeps across the Pacific for thousands of kilometres, unimpeded until it encounters the Hawaiian archipelago. Thus in places rich rainforest thrives and elsewhere the landscape is barren and wind-swept.
This island is very young in geological terms, rising out of the sea, and all the fauna and flora, before humans arrived, came as birds, seeds in the guts of birds or as flotsam, like coconuts, and windblown spores from the older islands. These then evolved to fill the various opportunistic niches filled by other species elsewhere. For example the largest foraging animal was a flightless bird.
We decided that the location of our hotel would be less important than convenient free car parking. Yet the Reeds Bay Hotel was on the water, within half an hour of the airport. It looked OK in photos and in Google Street View. The reviews in Trip Adviser, and so on, were good and it seemed to be very good value for money. But it's not five star. There's no restaurant, or even a breakfast room, and it's not air-conditioned. There's no lift (elevator) so probably in view of our age they'd put us on the ground floor. We asked to change. The new room on the third floor was much brighter with a view overlooking the bay and the hotel swimming pool.
Across the bay the cruise ships come and go daily, their passengers flocking the local craft market or making a quick dash to the volcano.
On the plus side the rooms have a private balcony and are adequately large with a very serviceable kitchenette. Ours had a king size bed, good quality linen and ample hot water in the bathroom and kitchen. What else can you ask for? There was also a large screen TV and free Wi-Fi. The room was airy with insect screens for night-time. It also had both ceiling pedestal fans but the temperature by the water hovered around 21 degrees so we didn't use them nor did we miss the A/C. A large supermarket, fifteen minutes by car, provided all the food we needed for breakfast and for one or two other meals as well. We also patronised one of the local restaurants within walking distance and a couple of others, not so good, that required the car.
Most days we were out in the car anyway, often going somewhere via down-town Hilo that also boasts a couple of the island's museums.
Driving around Hilo it's obvious that many people are not financially well off. Downtown there are a number of men living on the street and many other residents are shabbily dressed with unkempt hair and look like escapees from a commune. Indeed the whole place has a slightly 'hippie' feel. There are a lot of alternative products on sale and 'organic' is a universal adjective. You can even buy 'organic' milk with a price to match.
But down the main street pay day loan businesses and a Salvation Army op-shop jostle with the souvenir shops. And in the side streets shopfronts are empty and empty lots mark ancient demolitions. Many of the cars have seen better days too. But then the climate is generally great, so who needs clothes anyway?
Wendy suggested that if we were to do it again we might spend part of out time in a more up-market hotel on the west coast where more tourists go. Yet there's more to see in Hilo and it's better located to visit the volcano.
The Pacific Tsunami Museum
Hilo bay is particularly vulnerable to tsunami due to the shape of the coastline, that has the effect of concentrating the wave. In the main strip in Hilo is an old bank building that is one of the more robust survivors of several tsunami, including the 1946 disaster and one in 1960 that took most of the port and rail infrastructure and most buildings on the opposite side of the road. This is now the Pacific Tsunami Museum.
As I suppose everyone now knows tsunami, once called tidal waves, are very long period relatively low waves that embody huge energy. They were known as tidal waves because when they encounter a coast they are first evident when the sea runs out like a very low tide, due to the trough ahead of the wave, then by the wave crest sweeping inland and inundating low areas. A second low tide follows and the water inundating the land rushes back. The volume of water can be vast and buildings; vehicles; vegetation; and people are swept into the sea. Sometimes there are several such waves of increasing then diminishing magnitude so that people can be deceived into thinking that the first one is relatively trivial or even fun. There were seven such waves in Hilo in 1960 and after the first wave a number of those killed had run down to pick up stranded fish.
The afore mentioned local restaurant at Reeds Bay has the heights of the water during the last three tsunami marked on a window. The highest is close to the ceiling. But this part of the building was swept away so we were quite pleased that we had moved to the third floor of our hotel.
The waves can be caused by a number of coastal or undersea events like: landslides; earthquakes; and undersea eruptions; but by far the largest have been as a result of meteor impacts. Those caused by earthquakes might have a tidal range of say two meters and yet cause very serious damage like the 1960 tsunami in Hilo. It's thought that prehistoric meteor impacts have resulted in long waves over ten times this magnitude, sweeping over entire islands.
Unfortunately for Hawaii it lies almost at the centre of the Pacific 'ring of fire' surrounded by tectonic faults with frequent earthquakes and volcanoes and in addition has its own very active volcanos. It's therefore potentially hit from three sides. Thus Hawaii is the natural location for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center located on Ford Island at Pearl Harbour, Oahu, of previous fame (see above).
This museum is one of the most interesting on the big island. In addition to a film about tsunami and the fortunate survivors (the ones God chose to save) it also provides insight to the movement of the Earth's tectonic plates.
A fun computer model allows visitors to create an earthquake to simulate a tsunami and decide if a warning needs to be generated, taking into account the financial and psychological cost of a false alarm. I wondered about the cost of other recent false alarms like a supposed North Korean missile attack that caused panic less than a month earlier.
In Hilo there are clearly marked places to run from a tsunami but where does one shelter from an H Bomb?
Warnings of various kinds seem quite frequent
One night a weather warning for high wind hail and snow interrupted our TV viewing. We decided it was not for us
Who might now claim compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder?
Mokupapapa Discovery Center
A few doors down the road is the more relaxing Mokupapapa Discovery Center, an educational centre provided by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) focussing on Hawaii's remote coral reef ecosystem and featuring a compact aquarium pictures and descriptions.
Mokupapapa Discovery Center
A nice man went out of his way to find a poster about the battle of Midway after I noted that Midway was part of the archipelago covered by the conservation initiative.
It's possible to drive right around the island. But from Hilo the populated towns on the western shore are best reached over the saddle road between the two largest volcanoes or around the north coast. We went around the coast and came back over the saddle. The coast road runs through lush countryside reminiscent of the Queensland coast. Once out of Hilo more typically American ranch style houses begin to shoulder out the cheap-looking boxlike single-storey dwellings lived in by many Hawaiians in town, presumably because of the cost of building materials and the risk of earthquakes.
Yet the flora is strikingly unusual, a mix of the unique Hawaiian rainforest and more familiar introduced species. Traffic was not heavy but the road is often just two undulating and twisting lanes so I generally kept to the speed limit. On several occasions this was enforced by slow vehicles and the limited opportunities to overtake. This made it quite a long, attention demanding, drive. At different places the traveller is rewarded with views out over the Pacific. To this end we'd decided to go to the Lapakahi State Historical Park, recommended by our guide book.
To celebrate our arrival the heavens opened and my mood sank. All that driving for this! And now I'd have to drive all the way back in the rain. Wendy was not be disheartened. She had a raincoat so off she went in the downpour to explore.
Lapakahi State Historical Park and Rain-pixie
Then the rain abruptly stopped. I walked down to the beach and felt a lot better.
Afterwards we searched in vain for an elusive shopping mall that took us around some of the more up-market suburbs over there, where it's more touristy. Coming up blank, we set out up the, much better, saddle-road back to Hilo.
This made everything worthwhile. The scenery is spectacular: the scarred countryside, covered in pumice and lava flows is wonderful. There are hundreds of square kilometres of the stuff, interrupted here and there with upthrust hills or pumice mounds(?) like pimples.
Except for traffic on the road it's virtually uninhabited. Where it has been crumbled (how?) into huge chunks the pumice is obviously very difficult for a human to walk across (not human friendly). Yet it's already being colonised by all sorts of plants, in particular a long hairlike grass that in places is so dense that makes the landscape look smooth, like pasture.
We were thankful for the car's climate-control because as the road ascends the temperature falls each time we used this road the weather closed in with fog and once with pelting rain or sleet.
The Maunakea Observatories
On the summit of the tallest, fortunately dormant, volcano, Mauna Kea, is a cluster of the world's largest and most modern optical telescopes, including the famous Keck telescopes that have vastly increased our knowledge of the Universe. In addition to the W. M. Keck Observatory there's Japan's Subaru Telescope a new 8.3-meter diameter optical/IR telescope operated by Japan; the UK's James Clerk Maxwell Telescope; the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope; and the NASA Infrared Telescope; in addition to a number of smaller optical and radio telescopes.
This was an big attraction for me so we set out with high hopes and as recommended in the guide books stopped at the Visitor Information Station, at 9,200 ft, to get a weather update and to adjust to the change in altitude.
Ay the Maunakea Visitor Information Station
Here we learned that: 'Maunakea is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about 2 hours, so altitude sickness is a high possibility. At 14,000 feet, there is 40% less oxygen than at sea level, so visitors should acclimatize to the altitude before proceeding further up the mountain.' This would be an interesting trial for my new heart valve I thought.
I asked the information desk about road conditions to the top and which telescopes are open to the public. "What sort of car do you have," I was asked.
I've long been used to driving on the other side of the road so I was quite confident. As it turned out Hertz had allocated us a VW Tiguan SUV with a nice high road clearance and good tyres.
"Read this," I was told.
|Visitors are advised that only TRUE 4-wheel drive vehicles with LOW range travel above the VIS. About 200 yards beyond the station, the pavement ends and the next five miles are a steep graded-gravel road.
Before proceeding visitors should consult their rental vehicle company or review their contract concerning visiting the summit of Maunakea. Many rental companies do not allow their vehicles on the summit even if they are 4-wheel drive, and if anything were to happen to your vehicle you would potentially be responsible for all towing charges and repairs, which can be thousands of dollars.
If your vehicle becomes disabled, immediately inform the Maunakea Rangers at (808) 961 2180. You will be required to make arrangements for immediate removal or repair. If the vehicle is a hazard to drivers and repair or towing arrangements are not immediately arranged, it will be towed at your (or the rental company's) expense.
There was also a warning that people with heart 'conditions' should not go to the summit.
I was so disappointed that despite the warnings I was tempted to take the risk. Sure there was snow at the top and more was forecast. But wasn't I an experienced enough driver on unmade mountain roads in Australia to go just five miles up and back.
Wendy was grandkid shopping in the gift shop so hadn't seen or heard this dire warning.
I sat down to see the movie. Slowly and sadly common sense took hold. My experience skiing told me never to drive into the snow without a full tank, in case one needs to keep the engine running to keep warm; chains and a shovel. We were showing less than half full and had neither chains nor a shovel. What if I did need to push or shove or use the jack at 14,000 feet? Was there a jack? How would my heart cope? And what about Wendy - how would she cope?
The clincher came when I learned from the presentation that only small telescopes are available to the public for star-gazing. I didn't want to see the local stars. I wanted to see the telescopes. But I wouldn't be able to go into any of the large working facilities.
Reality set in. It would be foolish to attempt it for so little. So I was not going to drive to the top of the highest mountain on earth (when measured from its base below sea level). I had to be content with the very informative movie and other material at the Visitor Information Station.
As it turned out it was probably a wise decision. The weather closed in and there were spectacular thunderstorms on the drive back. As I drove through the sleet and driving rain, then fog, I regretted my lack of courage. I was so disappointed.
As we returned the weather closed in - again
The following day I heard on National Public Radio, in the car, that local indigenous people consider the mountain to be sacred and are in dispute with the astronomers about appropriate financial compensation. On-line I discovered that this particularly affects a new 30 meter optical telescope that has been in legal limbo since 2014, due to the mountain's sacred status as well as the project's environmental and cultural impacts. A recent proposal to relocate it to the Canary Islands seems to have unblocked the local environmental and cultural objections - now it's just about money.
I suddenly understood why it's important to assert that native Hawaiians have been here for thousands of years longer than the more recent Asian and European interlopers (see Settlement and European Discovery - above).
Lyman Museum & Mission House
We still had time to go a short distance out of Hilo to the Lyman Museum & Mission House historic site. There are set tours of the house. We had arrived too late for the last of the day and got a rain check for a mid-morning tour tomorrow. Meanwhile we had a look at the mineral collection of Orlando Lyman and the associated natural history museum (as far as I could discover the only natural history museum in Hawaii).
Lyman Museum - the formation of the archipelago and the unique plants and animals that evolved in isolation
Again we learned of plants and animals evolving in isolation to fill environmental niches that are the province of other species elsewhere. These include flightless birds and sea snails that have moved ashore to do the duty of land based gastropods of which there were none.
Sightseers need to be aware that Kilauea is quite high, over 4,000 feet, nowhere near as high as Mauna Kea, that's often snow-capped, but quite a bit colder than Hilo. Like many tourists I was hoping to see red-hot spurty or runny stuff. But even the most active of the island's volcanoes, have been fairly quiet since 2015 when flowing larva threatened the town of Pahoa. Quel dommage!
Yet Kilauea was not entirely uncooperative. It continuously emits steam and gasses and is hot underfoot in places. Even without the spectacle of actual flowing rock it's a 'must see'.
Kilauea - steam vents
Kilauea is on the eastern flank of Mauna Loa, the world's largest active shield volcano. Mauna Loa looms low hung in the distance but is presently less exciting than Kilauea as it last erupted in 1984. A the Kilauea Visitor Center there's a movie of recent eruptions and a lot of photos, books and other information and heading around Crater Rim Drive there's a lookout point at the Jaggar Museum across to the continuously smoking Kilauea crater.
Kilauea - looking over to the Caldera - and Jaggar Museum
The Crater Rim Drive once circled the Caldera, but is presently impassable past this point so we circled back in the other direction to the Nāhuku - Thurston Lava Tube a six to twenty foot high tunnel through which it is possible to walk.
Lava tubes are formed when very hot material is surrounded by a bed of cooling rock so that a kind of drain forms through which molten rock continues to flow. Provided the downhill end is not blocked, when the source stops flowing, the tunnel drains like a stormwater pipe and the lava tube is left empty. The 500 year old Nāhuku - Thurston Lava Tube is one of the most accessible examples in the world so it has been somewhat vandalised by lava-stalactite collectors.
This tube has the added bonus that it is set in an area of tropical rain forest with some extraordinary local plants like: Hapu'u ferns and Ohia Lehua trees; that have evolved in isolation here for several hundred millennia.
Nāhuku - Thurston Lava Tube & Hapu'u ferns and Ohia Lehua trees
Continuing around Crater Rim Drive we got to a car park overlooking the Iki Crater lava lake, that formed during the huge eruption of Kīlauea Iki in 1959. During this eruption lava fountains sprayed rock fragments over a thousand feet into the air. From one fountain a stream of small lumps fell nearby, devastating the forest and creating a large cinder mound - a sizable hill. There's now a walking path through this area known as the Devastation Trail.
From about half way along the trail we headed up the rise of cinders to get a panoramic view over to the main crater, opposite the Jaggar Museum, and noticed that the ground was very hot underfoot. Is it about to erupt again?
Only after we'd retuned to the formal path did we see a faded sign bearing a dire warning of unspecified hazards to hikers. We consoled ourselves that: the sign was obviously very old; we'd returned apparently unharmed; and we had no backpacks or hiking sticks - so the graphic obviously didn't apply to us.
Back at the car park we took a closer look at the unusual flora. Odd tree ferns and feather-like ferns were colonising trees like mistletoe, again the outcome of several hundred millennia of isolated evolution. Very interesting.
The lava lake, filling the Kilauea Iki crater, is vast and more intrepid hikers, with three hours on their hands, can climb down 400 feet; cross it; and then climb up the other side. Kilauea's still very active so it might be time to run then climb very fast if, as in 1950, a series of earthquakes heralds another eruption.
The lava lake in the Iki crater
When we returned the car, before catching our flight to Oahu the following day, the odometer readings indicated we'd travelled well over 400 miles. Yet there were still places unseen on the west coast. Perhaps another day?
May 2018 Addendum
It certainly was hot underfoot on Kilauea.
Less that 100 days later, on May 3, a 6.9 level earthquake shook the Island, damaging buildings we had stood in in downtown Hilo, including the Post Office. Several lava vents simultaneously opened downrift of the summit and 2,000 people had to be quickly evacuated as poisonous gasses belched out.
Then on May 17, 2018 at 4:17 AM, the volcano erupted explosively throwing ash 30,000 feet into the air. Further eruptions followed ejecting dense clouds of ash. Magma is draining from the lava lake at Kilauea’s summit which is sinking. It's flowing east, underground for about about 40km (25 miles), before emerging from fissures (lava vents), to flow overland for just over five kilometres (3 miles) to the Pacific Ocean. Rivers of lava are finding the route of least resistance, like roads, down the slope and to date (May 26) 83 homes have been destroyed. Another 37 are 'lava locked' or inaccessible due to surrounding fields of lava. Residents have been warned to leave immediately. So far an estimated 5,000 people have been displaced.
Although the present lava destruction is confined to a roughly 10-square-mile (26 sq km) area, ash fall and volcanic smog have resulted in a fall in tourist enthusiasm, resulting in the cancelation of port visits by a number of cruise ships. Meanwhile the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park has been closed. And I was disappointed by the lack of: 'red-hot spurty or runny stuff' when we visited.
According to Ross Birch, head of the island’s tourism board this is expected to have a $3m impact on the island’s tourist-driven economy.