Hawai (The Big Island)

Look down on the clouds from the highest point in the islands and come face-to-face with an active volcano
IT’S A HOT DAY IN HILO, MADEa bit cooler thanks to a cone ofshave ice. The main city on theisland of Hawai‘i (often known asthe Big Island, to distinguish it from the wider state of Hawaii) is a picture of low-rise tropical ease. Beyond the early 20th century shopfronts, past the tin-roofed markets stocked with fruit and aloha shirts, the bay curves round to a park shaded by cathedral-like banyan trees. Everyone seems relaxed about the fact that just over 20 miles south of here lies an active volcano. To be fair to Kilauea, it has been erupting continuously since 1983. The typical Hawaiian eruption involves runny lava instead of cataclysmic ash clouds. It’s why the younger volcanoes here have such gentle slopes; only when the fre within dies can erosion really get to work, to scour down the kind of cliffs seen in Kaua‘i, and also along the Hamakua Coast – the most geologically mature part of the Big Island. Big it certainly is, larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined. It is also the only one that’s growing. Kilauea’s 33-year eruption has created some 500 acres of new land, and also covered over a fair amount of what existed already. It’s the undoubted star of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which marks its 100th birthday in 2016. For park ranger Rebecca Carvalho, born down the road in Hilo, it has been a blessing. ‘I had this big passion for protecting our native forest,’ she says, just returned from guiding a party of visitors. ‘But I was worried I wouldn’t be able to work close to home.’ The park is another puzzling patchwork of Hawaiian microclimates: barren, Mordor-like wastes give way in barely a mile to gullies flled with tall ferns and the sort of forest that looks like it should shelter giant insects as seen in B movies. Rebecca points out that some plant and animal species are dependent on the volcano, as they prefer to live on old lava felds. ‘I love working here, you’re always learning new things,’ she says. ‘It’s a dynamic volcano, always changing.’ In 2008, Halema‘uma‘u Crater, the largest of Kilauea’s multiple vents, rumbled back into life after more than two decades of slumber, forcing the closure of the downwind portion of the crater rim drive. Today, visitors gather at dusk on the terrace of the Jaggar Museum to look into this vast pit, which ancient Hawaiians believed was the home of the goddess Pele. As the light in the sky dwindles, the glow from the bowels of the Earth grows brighter, lighting up the plumes of steam and gases that escape from the crater; dusky pink at frst, then livid orange. It’s hard to imagine the volcano as anything other than a living presence. All of Hawaii’s volcanoes have been fuelled by the same hotspot, over which the Pacifc Plate has moved at fngernail-growth pace for at least 80 million years. The result is a chain of progressively worn-down islands, reefs and undersea pinnacles stretching over 3,700 miles as far as Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. In the brief 500,000 years the hotspot has been feeding the Big Island, it has created the tallest single mountain on Earth: Mauna Kea. Its summit lies 4,205 metres above sea level, but more than 9,000 metres removed from its seafoor base. The peak is also home to some of the world’s most important observatories. A solitary road snakes up through the clouds, past a desolate landscape of cinder cones dotted with rare silversword plants and patches of snow. The road surface cuts out for part of the drive, but returns near the top; stirring up dust is a bad idea when there are multi-million dollar optical instruments around. Sightseers shiver in their parkas while waiting to catch the sunset before heading halfway back down the mountain – as all but the scientists must do after dark – to watch the night sky sparkle into life. Mauna Kea hasn’t erupted in more than 4,000 years, and if it does again, all those instruments atop it should give plenty of warning. The future of the islands lies back in the national park, at the end of the Chain of Craters Road: a scenic drive to the coast that must be rebuilt every few decades after Kilauea dribbles fresh lava over it. Older lava fows are slowly being colonised by ‘ohi‘a lehua and other plants. Newer rock glistens in the sun with an oily, black sheen. A short path leads from the end of the road, past some enterprising naupaka plants, emerald green on the dark rock, to a sea arch jutting from the sheer lava cliffs. Just 20 miles further on, out into the ocean, an underwater volcano is slowly building towards the surface. It already has a name: Lo‘ihi. If it continues to grow, sometime in the next 10,000 to 100,000 years, the newest Hawaiian island will be born.