Great falls of fire

CATHERINE BEST
Last updated 11:27 18/06/2013
Hawaii Big Island

ROCK SHOW: Plumes of flame and smoke rise from Kilauea.

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It's 3am when the alarm wrenches me from my slumber. I slink out of bed like a cat burglar, dress by osmosis and grab some protection. I have a date with Pele, the volcano goddess of Hawaii; she's an unpredictable minx and I want to make sure I'm adequately prepared.

With a warm jacket and wet bag safely stashed in my backpack, I start the difficult task of driving myself from the Big Island's windward city of Hilo to Isaac Hale Beach Park. It's difficult because it's dark and drizzling, I'm alone driving on the wrong side of the road, and I'm jet-lagged.

With my body clock in effect calibrated at midnight, I feel like I've woken up before I even went to bed. It doesn't help that the road signs don't correspond with the directions I hastily scribbled from my email booking the night before.

"Take Highway 130 east to Pahoa." There is no highway marked 130 so I miss the first turnoff. Good start. I perform an awkward reverse U-turn, backtrack and turn right onto the road I now see is marked "Pahoa".

I overshoot the next turnoff (Hawaiian laws ban commercial road signage) and find myself hurtling down a spindly, lonesome road in the middle of nowhere, with the clock ticking. There's a faint glow in the distance and I'm unnerved.

I know that eventually this road would take me somewhere near the town of Kalapana, which was buried by lava in 1990 and is today still the epicentre of live lava activity. I'm meant to be viewing the lava flows from the sea, not through the cabin floor as they sizzle and gobble through the underbelly of my hire car, so I turn around, channelling an aggro contestant from The Amazing Race, as I attempt to put myself back on course.

A right turn takes me deep into dense forest that squeezes the road tighter and tighter. It feels like I've been swallowed by a boa constrictor and just when it seems I might never escape, the serpent's digestive tract dilates, spitting me out into a car park.

I'm relieved to find half a dozen cars idling in the lamplight and a handful of people pulling on waterproofs and jackets. About 15 minutes later, a beanie-clad man clasping a clipboard emerges. He's the boat captain and a bit gruff.

We're required to sign a waiver and the captain makes no bones about the fact there may be "unanticipated risks", whose consequences include "death" and "emotional distress".

"This is an open-ocean boat ride," Captain Shane says with an American drawl. "We're not going to be sniffing wine and having snacks out there." I'm starting to wonder whether we'll be chugging into the molten belly of the volcano itself, not viewing the lava flows from the relative safety of the sea.

Then I remember I'm in the US - the lawsuit capital of the world - whose youngest state just happens to be a Polynesian outpost in the Pacific.

We board Shane's 10-metre aluminium boat via a ladder on land and are driven a short way to the ramp, where the vessel gently slides into the water. The engines roar to life and we plunge into the darkness, bioluminescent organisms shooting from the wake like sparks as sea spray lashes our faces.

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In the darkness I can just trace the outline of the coast as we head west. After 20 minutes, a faint red glow intrudes on the monotone landscape, growing in wattage as we draw closer, until everything is engulfed in a crimon haze that is broken only by fierce plumes of steam.

There are three main lava-entry points into the ocean, spread over a few hundred metres. They appear like giant weeping lesions bleeding from an other-worldly beast. Some ooze slowly into the water like congealing egg yolk, others dribble and spit in an inverted pyrotechnics display, while another gushes molten magma with the ferocity of a fireman's hose. Each bubbles and hisses as it hits the water at a blistering 1000 degrees - marking the end of its 12-kilometre journey from Kilauea volcano's Pu'u 'O'o vent - and turning the water into a scalding bath.

It's like a primordial battle between the forces of fire and water that the latter, by virtue of its sheer volume, wins, but not before spewing out a defiant cloud of steam. The boat edges so close to the action I can feel the steam on my forehead and hear the thump of "lava bombs" (floating clumps of hardening lava) hitting the hull. They're the building blocks of Pele - the volcano goddess - who gave birth to the Hawaiian Islands and whose volatile antics continue to mould the diverse landscapes of the Big Island.

The Big Island - also known as Hawaii Island - is the youngest in the Hawaiian chain, thrust up out of the ocean by a volcanic hot spot about half a million years ago. Today the island is home to the newest, and most active, volcano on the planet. Kilauea volcano has been erupting almost continuously from the east rift zone since 1983, haemorrhaging 800 tonnes of lava every day - enough to pave a footpath across the US mainland. In the process, the volcano has added about 200 hectares to the Big Island's ever-expanding coastline, inundated towns and turned beaches into jagged lava fields.

At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, visitors can stand on the precipice of the Kilauea caldera and peer into Halema'uma'u crater - a giant meteor-like pock-mark scorched into the earth and which belches gases across the horizon. The park is a molten Disneyland of volcanic activity, which is safely accessible to the public, although roads and walking trails are liable to close without notice.

At Kilauea Iki crater I descend to its floor, walking across a lunar landscape of hardened lava that little more than 50 years ago was a bubbling lava lake. While the surface is solid, the core is still red-hot and rainwater seeping through the rocks can emit wisps of steam. The national park is not the sort of place where you want to wander off the trail. Steam vents and sulfur banks seep from the earth, creating a cocktail of toxic gases and scalding emissions. Signs tell of reckless sightseers who were seriously burnt when they strayed from the designated path, stepping through the brittle crust and into a 100-degree pocket of steam.

On a guided walk I clamber across deserted lava fields, stepping over blackened folds of molten rock rippled like the skin of a wrinkly pup. Jagged shards poke out of the earth like decorative chocolate on a mud cake, in turn giving way to uneven slabs of rock and "lava trees" - pillars that formed when lava coated vegetation and then solidified. Each landmark is a unique footprint signifying the directional flow and force of the lava. But none is more impressive than the Thurston lava tube, a cavernous, 135-metre-long shaft the size of a rail tunnel, which formed as the outer crust of the lava flow hardened, creating a funnel of running molten magma.

The Big Island's contrasting landscapes are a constant source of wonder as I drive around the vast land mass, which encompasses 11 of the world's 13 climate zones - from the verdant rainforests of the east coast and the vast valleys of the north, to the dry sea cliffs and powdery beaches of the west. Then there are the volcanic alpine peaks of the interior. Mauna Loa - the active volcano west of Kilauea - is the granddaddy of them all but it's Mauna Kea that wows the crowds.

Forget Everest; Mauna Kea is, in fact, the tallest mountain in the world from seabed to summit, standing almost 10 kilometres tall. Some of the world's most powerful telescopes are stationed on Mauna Kea's summit, which is often blanketed in snow, and stargazers who brave the frigid conditions are treated to a dazzling nightly star show high above the clouds.

Before I leave Hawaii I visit Kealakekua Bay. It was here, at this rocky cove beside the Pacific Ocean, that Captain Cook was stabbed and clubbed to death on February 14, 1779. His body was dismembered and some of his remains were never recovered. It seems an incongruous place for such brutality - the waters are so clear and peaceful (you can only get here by boat or on foot), and the snorkelling is superb. A modest monument to Cook is on the rocky lava shoreline.

I'm not sure what would be worse: getting hacked to pieces by enraged locals, or being burnt to a cinder by Pele's caustic stomach juices.

The writer was a guest of Hawaii Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Hawaiian Airlines flies to Kona on the west coast of the Big Island from Honolulu (44min); see hawaiianairlines.com.

Staying there Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay is set on lush grounds overlooking the ocean. Rooms cost from NZ$198; see sheratonkona.com. Hilo, on the east coast, is an ideal base for exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The Shipman House Bed & Breakfast is a striking Victorian property on Reeds Island, accessible by a wooden bridge from downtown Hilo. Rooms cost from $235; see hilo-hawaii.com. For some R&R, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel has arguably the greatest stretch of white sand on the Big Island and is the original grand dame of the Kohala Coast. Rooms from $195; see princeresortshawaii.com/mauna-kea-beach-hotel.

Touring there Lava Ocean Tours operates boat trips to view lava flowing into the sea. Tours cost from $175 an adult; see seelava.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald