Leilani Estates image

Chasing lava on the Big Island

Volcanoes are my thing.  If I hadn’t gone into advertising, I would have done my darndest to become a volcanologist. Both career paths are dangerous, however I think I picked the less deadly of the two.

Where the new lava met the surf on the coast near Pahoa

Murray and I booked five weeks in Hawaii long before the recent volcanic meltdown. Nine nights at Volcano Village on the Big Island was to be the star of the show, but then the fissures cracked open and the Volcanoes National Park closed. We ummed and ahhed about cancelling, changing our dates or generally trying to accommodate Mother Earth’s indigestion  to ensure we’d see some live lava, but in the end we kept our plans unchanged and let luck call the shots.

As it turned out, the Volcanoes National Park was still firmly closed during our September stay at Volcano Village (which is a lot like Titirangi in Auckland, only flatter and with whiffs of sulphur). However we were determined to see whatever we could, based on local rumours and advice from park rangers stationed at the Volcano Art Gallery.

Chain of Craters hike

While tucking into some excellent hibachi chicken at Kaleo’s Bar & Grill in Pahoa – the town closest to Leilani Estates, official home of Fissure 8 – we quizzed the fabulously-eyelashed waitress about what we could see nearby. She suggested we try to hike to Pohoiki Beach and MacKenzie State Recreation Area along the coast.

Smug-full with this local tip, we directed Google Maps to take us to a logical starting point, only to encounter a road block choked with guards who were adamant there would be no hiking to Pohoiki, MacKenzie or anywhere else near the recent lava flows.  They instead pointed us to the ocean end of the Chain of Craters Road, where lava wasn’t hot but sightseeing was definitely possible.

warning sign
Hiking with a dash of danger

The 31 km Chain of Craters Road has been a scenic highlight of the Big Island for years. It runs from Volcano Village to the ocean.  When the recent action started up, the magma plumbing configuration changed and the molten lava flow into the sea at the end of the Chain of Craters Road stopped. At the same time, explosive things happened further up the road, making the drive impossible. When we visited, only the lower portion was open to the public.  We drove as far as we could, then walked.

While the lava here is not fresh, it gets younger the further down the road you go. Inland there are ladder ferns sprouting here and there, reminding me of the more barren parts of Auckland’s volcanic Rangitoto Island. Closer to the ocean, where the lava is only a few months old, there’s no plant life – just pools, hillocks and mini valleys of solidified rock displaying the most amazing metallic finishes.  In many places the lava looks like elephant skin, all wrinkled and grey. This is pahoehoe, a type of lava that Hawaiian volcanoes are very good at producing.

Pahoehoe lava looks like a collapsed elephant

Lava aside, the landscape has another fascinating feature. Dwellings.  Some in bunches, some standing alone. Some on poles, some more like kitset garages.  Some set up as beach retreats, others as permanent accommodation. Instead of lawn, they have lava flow. It’s surreal, like a scene from a dystopian movie.

lava house
The latest seaside suburb on the Big Island; no need to worry about mowing the lawns

A feature of this walk I’ll never forget is the hairs of Pele everywhere.  These fine strands of green volcanic glass drifted here from the recent lava flows further down the coast. They’re beautiful, but fragile like volcano-made fairy floss.

MacKenzie State Recreation Area lava flow

We were stocking up at Volcano Store when I noticed a local newspaper proclaiming the re-opening of Mackenzie State Recreation Area to the public. This was great news for us, because by now we knew that this park was significantly changed as a result of the fissure activity. A day after the park re-opened, we were in like Flynn.

It all looked pretty normal at first. Locals picnicking, happy that their favourite weekend escape was once more open for business. Then we noticed a steady stream of walkers along the cliff’s edge. One of them told us they were all going to see the ‘new black sand’ beach that had been created by the lava flows. Rather than joining the parade, because beaching was not our mission, we decided to follow the coastal road through the park. It was blocked for cars, but open for walkers.

Easy walking. Birds singing. Casuarina pines whispering. Then…boom! A massive black wall of lava directly in our path – about six metres high and of a width impossible to gauge. Although fully-hardened and cold, this was the freshest lava we’d ever seen.  Excited beyond words, I started climbing.

climbing lava
Me climbing a very fresh lava flow in a sun dress. Bad decision.

I’ve staggered up Ruapehu and hiked the Tongariro Crossing (in NZ’s North Island), but never before have I climbed rock as new as this. It was like scrambling over-cooked fudge. Brittle and crumbly in some places, hard as hell in others. And iridescent with minerals.  But I was not dressed for the job; pretty soon there was blood running down my shins.

While this was going on, Murray stayed sensibly on the road. He’d rightly surmised that we were not prepared for this challenge.  If we’d arrived with overalls, gardening gloves and proper climbing boots, we might have had a shot at surmounting this leviathan. Still, we’d touched it, sniffed it and been generally amazed by it. That made the excursion worthwhile.

Seeing it all from the sky

To get the big picture of our lava encounters, we stressed our Visa card with a tour of Fissure 8 and all its buddies from the air. Our chosen provider, Air Safaris, only leaves the ground with a full load, so we had four young Danes for company.

Ready for some heli-lavaseeing

Hats off to the pilot who did a skilful job of weaving between the clouds to show us Leilani Estates in full detail, including infamous Fissure 8, which is now a respectable cinder cone. As an aside, how about a name for this new feature Hawaii?  You can’t keep calling it Fissure 8 forever.

Fissure 8
Fissure 8, the bad boy of the Kilauea fissure gang

What we saw from the copter was extraordinary. A vast plain of black lava with steam rising from several spots; Fissure 8 still spitting and hiccuping; islands of bright green grass with houses isolated by an ocean of black basalt; and beneath the basalt, more than 700 homes destroyed. The full enormity of the volcanic event was there before us, including the 585 acres of new land that eventuated. It puts the whole human condition into a new perspective. We are but a blip in the history of our planet.

Leilani Estates…islands of green surrounded by an ocean of black lava

As things stand now

Volcanoes National Park partially re-opened two weeks after we left the Big Island. There’s no molten lava on the island at present, or even the glow of molten lava, however there’s still a lot to see. It’s possible to access 14 roads and trails in the national park, as well as a few other tourism mainstays like the Kīlauea Visitor Centre and the park bookstore.