Hawaii

Freezing in Hawaii While Chasing the Milky Way

Yes, yes, it’s wonderfully warm and tropical here all the time… at sea level. The Big Island is built out of 5 volcanoes: 3 active (Kilauea, Hualalai, and Mauna Loa), one extinct (Kohala), and one dormant (Mauna Kea, recently compressed into a single word, Maunakea). The two “Maunas” are nearly identical in height:13,800′ or 4200 m. That’s a fine altitude at which to build observatories, above 40% of the atmosphere and almost all of the water vapor. (Water is great for taking showers but a major impediment to infrared- and millimeter-wavelength astronomy). Since Mauna Loa is an active volcano, it would be a little foolhardy to build a telescope there, leaving Maunkea as the premier astronomical observing site on the planet. Observatories have sprouted there like mushrooms, to the increasing distress of the local population who see them as desecrating the mountain.

All of which is a lead-in to the fact that Maunakea is a great place for stargazing… the very greatest, in fact, at least to a professional astronomer. (I did my postdoc there in the early 1980’s.) For the more casual observer, it can be challenging: winds can be high, and the higher you go, the colder you get. Fun fact: on average, temperature decreases by 6 degrees Celsius per kilometer in height, which for the non-metric among you translates into 1 degree Fahrenheit per 300′ in height. So you expect the summit to be about 50 degrees F colder than the beach, and trust me, it is.

And that is why at 4 AM today I was freezing my okole (the Hawaiian word for butt) in order to get these two photos of the Milky Way.

I hired local photographer Don Slocum, whom I’ve known for a couple of years and who for my money is the best photographer on the Big Island. (See his website: http://www.donslocum.com/) He’s got a four wheel drive pickup truck and knows several good off-road spots on the slope of Maunkea, at an elevation of about 9000′ (2700 m) to get shots like these. (The road to the 4200 m summit is closed off after sunset so that visitors do not interfere with the telescopes.) We set up our respective gear in the wee hours in temperatures that were slightly above freezing, in a 20 mph wind, and miserably enjoyed ourselves for about an hour and a half to get these shots.

The bright object just above the edge of the foreground hill is Jupiter. The dark clouds adjacent to the brightest part of the Milky Way are not earthly clouds but actually clouds of interstellar dust that obscure the central, star-dense core of our Galaxy. Many of them are stellar nurseries, hotbeds of star formation. I have spent literally years of my life peering into them with radio and infrared telescopes, and seeing them in a photo like this — especially one that I shot — still gives me a thrill.

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Down in the Valley, Big Island Style

We’re back in Hawaii for our annual escape-the-winter sojourn, and we returned today to one of our regular stops on our “ferry around our visitors” circuit.

One of the iconic images of the Big Island is the overlook at Waipi’o Valley (the name means “curved water”) near the northern end of the island. You’ve seen it on any number of postcards, and here’s how it looked today.

Those cliffs across the way rise to 2000′ (600 m) above the valley floor and its black sand beach; you can hike the ridiculously steep road down to the bottom but unless you’re a fitness freak or a masochist you will hitchhike back to the top. (In my salad days, 35 years ago, I walked that road up and down a number of times. Not the craziest thing I’ve ever done but it’s definitely on the list.) More about the road shortly.

Waipi’o was the capital and residence of many of the early Hawaiian chiefs for the first few centuries after the islands were settled from Polynesia. It became less central in the 15th century but has always been an important farming area for the locals: avocado, guava, and most importantly taro. Here’s a taro farm in the valley.

When I lived in on the island in the early 1980’s there were — and still are — only a few dozen residents in the valley, almost all living without electricity. At the time you could divide most of them into three categories: farmers (mostly taro), marijuana growers (the Hawaiian word is pakololo), and crazy-eyed Vietnam veterans retreating from the world. There aren’t any Vietnam veterans left, but the taro farmers are going great guns; I don’t know about the pakololo growers. (Hawaii has a medical marijuana law.) But farming can be a risky business: although the valley is ridiculously fertile, a tsunami sends a (literal) wave of ocean (i.e. salt) water up along the length, essentially poisoning the soil for ten years at a time. This has happened in 1946 and 1960.

There is also a lot more tourism into the valley than there was 35 years ago; there are a couple of companies operating four wheel drive tours of the place, which is how we got down here today. That is far and away the best way to see it, since half the land is private and the road down is a recipe for disaster for the inexperienced 4WD driver. Take a look at this picture from the valley floor, looking up towards the hillside:

Look at that seeming slash in the hillside, pointing to the upper left from about one-quarter of the way up the middle palm tree. That’s the road, the steepest public road in the United States. It has an average grade of 25%, and the steepest part is 33%. From inside a vehicle, a 33% downhill grade looks like you’re driving straight down a cliff, which you more or less are. The road is only about 1 1/2 vehicles wide, very poorly paved, and sporting a guardrail that is best described as decorative. Uphill vehicles have the right of way, and an elaborate vehicular minuet ensues when a descending vehicle meets an ascending one. The real fun happens — and we actually saw this — when a naive first-timer in a rented Jeep gets halfway down the road, realizes belatedly that he has bitten off way more than he can chew…. and tries do to a U-turn to get back up. That is to say, he tries to turn around on a road whose width is more or less equal to the length of his vehicle, with a vertical wall on one side and 500 foot drop on the other, waiting for him to make a mistake.

We, happily, made it to the bottom without incident thanks to our very experienced tour guide, and we repeatedly forded the Wailoa river as we made our way towards the back of the valley. Here are a couple of scenes for context.

 

The tree in the upper photo is a monkeypod, which is actually of African origin. But see the waterfall in the distance at the far left of the panorama? Here’s a better view:

That is Hiilawe Falls, at about 1200 ft (350 m) the tallest waterfall in the state of Hawaii. (There is some dispute about its height, with some claiming something like 1500 feet.) The flow used to be bigger but has been reduced due to some upstream irrigation.

If you’re inclined to rough it, you could live pretty well and far off the grid down here. The Wailoa river has fish — in particular tilapia, which are not native to Hawaii but which escaped into the wild and are now plentiful. There are a number of underground springs providing fresh water, though you’d have to know which ones are infected with leptospirosis, which is a bacterium found in infected animal urine. And of course there is an abundance of fruit and taro. So your daily routine would involve scenes like the ones above and this one.

It’s all very idyllic-seeming, and back in the 1980’s I actually knew a pair of biologists (graduate students) who lived here, and whom I occasionally stayed with. They loved it down there, occasionally venturing up the cliff side into town in a rusted-out 1961 Jeep that didn’t have a second gear. When they left the island to finish their degrees they sold me the Jeep. A year or two later when I left the island, I in turn sold it to a local stoner who was altogether unsure what day of the week it was but was quite certain that it would serve him well in his own pakololo-related adventures. He offered to trade a kilo of local weed for it, which was more than fair, but I took $300 in cash instead and avoided eventual arrest.

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Things Are Looking Down: The Show

The title could well be a comment on the current state of American and international affairs, but — accurate though it may be — is in this case the title of my first solo photography show at an actual art gallery.  I first posted about it here almost exactly a year ago (on January 19, 2019 to be exact) shortly after I was offered the show, and now it has come to pass.

Readers of this blog come from over a dozen countries; realistically, only readers local to me (near Annapolis, Maryland) might visit the exhibit, so I am hereby saving you enormous expense and inconvenience by posting the photos here.

The title of the show comes from the fact that it comprises entirely drone photos, a medium I’ve gotten heavily into over the past two years and which now heavily influences my travel photography. You’ve seen quite a few of these already in previous blog posts. So here I am with my ego on full display:

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…and here is a panorama of part of the gallery, shortly after we finished hanging the photos. (You can see some debris on the left, plus a glimpse through the doorway of more photos hanging out in the hallway.) At the right hand edge of the panorama you can see a blue video screen; it plays a continuous 8-minute loop of short video clips from some of my drone flights.

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And here is a 4 1/2-minute video walkthrough of the show itself:

There are 29 images in all, all printed on metal (aluminum with a semi-gloss finish): 10 from the local area, 8 from Hawaii, and 11 from Iceland. And here they are, in convenient scroll-able form:

Hawaii

EotW Aerial 3

Big Island: “End of the World” near Kona

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Big Island kayakers

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A raft of kayaks

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Upolu Point windmill, northernmost point of the Big Island

Waipio Pano

Waipi’o Valley, Big Island

Kealakekua Pano

Kealakekua Bay Marine Reserve and Captain Cook Memorial, Big Island

Hapuna Beach Pano

Hapuna Beach on the Kona coast of the Big Island

Koko Head Drone 2019-24-Edit

Hanauma Bay, most popular snorkeling spot on Oahu, not far from Honolulu

Iceland

092-Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-017-Edit

Unusual clear skies on the northeast part of the Ring Road

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Nearby snowcapped hills in September

Blue River Iceland

A river blue with suspended silica. This photo won an Honorable Mention in the Washington Post 2019 Travel Photography Contest

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Same river, looking downstream towards the Arctic Ocean

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Same river, looking upstream and catching the glint form the sun

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Fjords at low tide at Borgarnes

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Highway crossing the Borgarnes fjord

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The Hverfjall cinder cone, nearly 400 m (1300′) high

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“Pseudocraters”, actually huge popped lava bubbles, at Lake Myvatn

Iceland Vatanjokull Glacier Drone 01

Face and tongue of icemelt of the Vatnajokull Glacier

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A lonely road in eastern Iceland

Annapolis and Environs

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Downtown Annapolis, looking west. The complex on the right is the US Naval Academy.

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Downtown Annapolis, looking east towards the Chesapeake Bay

Vertical Marina

One of the many marinas in or near downtown Annapolis

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Snowy farm near sunset, about 5 km from home

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Snowy farmhouse

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Snow-covered field, with a little Impressionism applied

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Beverly Triton Beach, on the Chesapeake Bay

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An ice-clogged estuary at Kent Narrows, at the northern end of the Chesapeake

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More ice at Kent Narrows

Kent Island Snooze

Southern end of Kent Island near the northern end of the Chesapeake, an area called “Hollicut’s Snooze” for some odd historical reason having nothing to do with taking a nap

That’s the entire show, in digital form. Our next outing will be a tornado-chasing expedition will be to the Texas-Oklahoma border in mid-May. Our hope is to find a twister and get close enough for some exciting photography while remaining far enough away to avoid too much excitement. If we’re successful you’ll see the results here.

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Here She Blows

There are two major factors that afford Hawaii its famously congenial climate: that big, fat temperature moderator known as the Pacific Ocean, and the trade winds. The trades blow from the northeast, though big storm systems can disrupt or even reverse that flow as we saw a week or two ago. But on a typical day the winds around the Big Island appear as they do on this screen snap from a weather app on my phone, taken earlier today:

SmartSelect_20190225-141109_Windy

You might expect from this image that you’d get the strongest and most constant winds at the three vertices where they whip around the edges of the island: the eastern-, northern- and southernmost points. And you’d be right. Today the winds there appear to be blowing at about 15 mph (25 kph), which is somewhat milder than usual. This worked to my advantage yesterday, as you’ll see in a moment.

You might also reason that those would be good places to build wind farms to get some renewable energy action going, and you’d be mostly right about that too. They’ve never done it at the eastern edge, an area called Pahoa that is most famously on the eastern slope of Kilauea volcano. Building a wind farm on the slopes of an active volcano is probably not the best idea, so it hasn’t happened. (That hasn’t stopped people from building homes there though, more than a few of which are currently underneath tens of meters of lava.)

But they have built wind farms at South Point, the southernmost point of the island, and at its mirror image at Upolu Point up at the very north. The South Point installation was an economic failure and was shut down in 2012, though the Mad Max-ish rusting towers, several with missing blades, stand there to this day, as you can see.38446415390_e2610fb019_hBut the Upolu installation near the town of Hawi has been operational since 2006 and generates over 10 MW of power, enough to power a few thousand homes. It has had some hiccups, including a couple of occasions when it had to be shut down when the winds were too strong.

But the winds were mild enough yesterday for me to achieve a goal I’ve sought for the past year, namely flying my drone over the windmills. So here are a few drone photos of the towers. To give you an idea of scale, each blade is about 75′ (23 m) long.

Upolu Point 0977-Edit

Upolu Point 0973

And here’s a 3-minute video flyover, with a guest appearance of the island of Maui on the horizon at about the 0:55 second mark.

You’ll also notice a small runway. Upolu Airport is a very small general aviation airport that, having little infrastructure and being in relatively remote area of the island, does not see a lot of traffic. When we lived here in the 1980’s it was a favorite place of mine to practice my touch-and-go landings, usually landing towards the northeast into the reliable trade winds.

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Hip, Hip, Hula

On the third Sunday of every month — which was yesterday — part of the waterfront main drag of downtown Kailua-Kona is closed off to auto traffic in favor of the “Kona Sunday Street Stroll”, which is pretty much exactly what you are picturing. About 100 local vendors set up tents, and it’s worth an easy hour or so to stroll among them. Some of these are for food, including that Hawaiian perennial, shave ice, and — our personal favorite — a local lady who makes popsicles out of fresh-pressed local fruits. Trust me, you want a lilikoi (passion fruit)-banana popsicle. I also tried a rather bizarre mixture: a pineapple-papaya-chili pepper popsicle. The chili peppers were in little chunks, scattered dangerously throughout. I came to think of it as a Menopause Popsicle: you’re happily working your way through the sweet refreshing fruity ice, when POW! Hot flash!

The non-food vendors: jewelry, tee shirts, photographers (you have no idea how many metal-printed photos of lava and sea turtles are out there), and herbal panaceas. The latter are usually advertised as having been extracted from some species of flora that no one has ever heard of, but which can nonetheless provide relief from pretty much everything.

Certainly the highlight of our walk — besides the popsicles and shave ice — was the hula demo on the grounds of the Hulihe’e Palace, the former Kona waterfront vacation home of Hawaiian royalty, built in the early 1800’s. Here was the scene yesterday at about 4:30 PM:

Hulihee Hula 02172019-060-Edit

Hula — especially Hawaiian hula – is a complicated and subtle art form. Many mainland hula demonstrations include an admixture of Tahitian hula, which is the one with the very rapid tempo drumming. the tall headdresses, and the women with the inhumanly fast hips. Traditional Hawaiian hula is different: the pre-Western kind, called hula kahiko, is a story-telling medium centered on the arms, hands, and face. It’s performed to a song and accompanied only by a percussive double gourd. Here’s what I mean by it being gestural:

I like to think that the pose on the left means, “Please silence your cell phones.” Other examples from yesterday:

Hulihee Hula 02172019-043

Hulihee Hula 02172019-006

At this point, someone out there who is reading this post is thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s with the 19th century prom dresses? Where are the grass skirts?” Here’s where it gets complicated.

First of all, the original Hawaiian female hula dancers never wore grass skirts. They wore very elaborate, multi-square-yard skirts made of kapa cloth, which is a fiber made from a certain pressed tree bark. And they did not wear coconut-shell bras. (No sane woman anywhere ever has; they’re some late 19th century guy’s fantasy, which I’ll get to in a moment.) They did not wear any tops at all.

The whole topless women thing did not sit well with late 18th century missionaries, or at least with their wives. It became necessary to cover the immodest heathen, and so they did. To keep the missionaries placated the hula halaus (schools) adopted the grandmotherly garb that you see above, and much of both modern day (‘auana) and traditional (kahiko) hula are performed that way. Men’s hula, on the other hand — much more stylistically aggressive and less subtle than the women’s dance — was and still is performed in loincloths and maile leaf adornments.

So where did the whole grass-skirt-and-coconut-bra shtick come from? The answer, believe it or not, is vaudeville. Vaudeville got its start in the 1880’s about a century after Cook’s arrival and eventual death in the islands. Knowledge of Hawaii’s existence had seeped into popular knowledge by then, and theater producers were always on the lookout for exotic material for their productions. “Girls from a tropical island” was bound to occur to somebody sooner or later. But the topless thing clearly wasn’t gonna fly, and the authentic kapa skirts weren’t going to work either: they were expensive, labor-intensive to maintain, and, well, insufficiently sexy for their intended purpose. Enter the grass skirt: cheap, easy to fix or replace, and just a bit suggestive. Ditto the coconut bras. The skirts also had a certain historical precedent in that they did somewhat resemble Tahitian hula skirts, which are indeed made from grasses and leaves but are ankle-length and thick.

This dress scheme was wildly successful, and soon every vaudeville act with a Hawaiian number was dressing their dancers in grass skirts, to the point that it eventually became everyone’s default mental image for Hawaiian hula. It was, in its way, one of the first viral memes. And of course, it filtered all the way back to its point of origin: if you plunk for the $49.95 Colorful Hawaiian Luau at whatever hotel you’re staying at, odds are good that you’ll see a hula dancer in a not-particularly-Hawaiian grass skirt.

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Coral at Kealakekua Bay

Here’s the promised one-minute drone video from yesterday’s visit to the Captain Cook memorial.

If you think that that Fair Wind tour looks like a lot of fun, you’re right. (No, they are not paying me for the plug. In fact, the crew were not altogether happy to see the drone hovering nearby.) A couple of things are worth noting, notably the proliferation of coral and the stunning clarity of the water. The imagery is not enhanced: it really looks like that. But I have already noticed in increase in the amount of coral bleaching over the years; it is due to both rising water ocean temperatures and some of the ingredients in many sunscreen lotions. Those would be oxybenzone and octinoxate, which interfere with coral reproduction and cause bleaching, and butylparaben, a preservative that may also  cause bleaching. Hawaii has banned the first two, starting in 2021. Interestingly, a lot of dermatologists were opposed to the ban, fearing that it would discourage people from using any sunscreen at all. But in fact the transition has already begun, and the stores are full of reef-safe sunscreens. Their active ingredients are those old standbys, zinc and titanium oxides.

I would also like to bring to your attention one other Captain Cook-related fact that I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post, namely that in addition to his human crew Cook had on board what may be the most well-traveled goat in history.  In 1766, two years before Cook’s first voyage (he reached Hawaii on his second), the HMS Dolphin circumnavigated the globe under the command of Capt. Samuel Wallis. On board was the biologist Joseph Banks, who had brought along his goat to provide milk for the crew. If this were to happen today, Banks would have to pay a $25 Goat Surcharge and store the beast underneath the seat in front of him. But in this case no surcharge was applied and the goat became the first caprine to sail around the world. (It is also the reason that you are now looking up the word “caprine” in the dictionary.)

Two years later, Cook invited Banks on his voyage as well. Banks accepted… and brought along the same goat, which consequently circumnavigated the globe again, this time on the HMS Endeavour. Cook brought the animal home to his farm in England after this voyage, where she lived out her days in unheralded peace. According to Cook’s diary she died on March 28, 1772. Nobody knows the goat’s name. Today she would have an Instagram account.

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So Long, Jim

I’m writing this blog post on February 16, two days later than I ought to, because Valentine’s Day was the 240th anniversary of the death of Captain James Cook, whose third exploration voyage on the HMS Resolution brought him to Hawaii in January of 1778 and made him the first European to see these islands.

Cook initially spent about a month around Kauai and then headed north to explore what is now northern California, Oregon, Vancouver, and southern Alaska. Astutely noticing that those places were cold, he eventually made his way back to Hawaii, cruising around the archipelago before making landfall on the west coast of the Big Island near the village of Kealakekua. (If you’ve ever heard the song “Little Grass Shack” you know how to pronounce it.) He stuck around for about a month, then set sail again, at which point things began to go to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

Shortly after getting underway, the Resolution’s mast broke, and the ship was forced to return to  Kealakekua Bay. A quarrel broke out between the crew and the locals, however, and in the melee a number of men from the village stole one of the Resolution’s cutters, which were small auxiliary boats. Vowing not to negotiate with terrorists, Capt. Cook decided to overreact by attempting to kidnap the king, an effort that ended about as well as you’d expect. Cook was clubbed down, then stabbed to death along with four other crewman. It would be left to future generations to revisit the island and develop the first timeshare condos.

Now Kealakekua Bay is a beautiful marine reserve with crystal waters and abundant fish and coral, marked with a monument to Cook on the shoreline. Here was the scene today, captured by my trusty drone.

Kealakekua Bay 0950-Edit

You can see the monument at left. The boat at right is the Fair Wind II, a local tour operation that brings snorkelers to the otherwise nearly inaccessible bay.  (It’s quite a fun outing: I recommend it if you’re here.) Here are some closer shots of each.

Kealakekua Bay 0949

Kealakekua Bay 0943

The inscription at the base of the obelisk reads, “In memory of the great circumnavigator Captain James Cook, R.N. who discovered these islands on the 18th of January, 1778, and fell near this spot on the 14th of February, 1779.” The Hawaiians, needless to say, take issue with the word “discovered” since, having lived here for several hundred years, they knew where it was all along.

(And as for the Fair Wind II, those two long skinny things at the front of the boat are exactly what they look like: water slides. I’ll post some video later showing them in action.)

One of the interesting sidelights to Kealakekua Bay is one that most tourists miss, since it is at the opposite side of the mile-wide bay (and, as it happens, exactly where I launched the drone from). Capt. Cook was brought here to a temple, known in Hawaiian as a heiau. The Hikiau heiau is a solid rectangular stone structure, originally nearly the size of a football field but smaller today. Here’s a view of it from the air:

Kealakekua Bay 0965

The smaller structure at the lower right end is believed to be the lele, the altar. This particular temple is called a luakini, which is a type used for human sacrifices. Sacrifice victims were usually war captives, though sometimes slaves were used. If this practice were followed today I suppose they could grab tourists, but it’s probably a gamble since I imagine that the gods have very mixed feelings about them.

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Back on Top

I’ve rarely felt more like an astronomer than I did during my postdoc in Hawaii in the early 1980’s, freezing my butt off and oxygen-starving my brain atop Mauna Kea at 13,800 ft (4200 m) above the Big Island’s tropical beaches. Its resident telescopes — six at the time, something like 14 now, depending on how you count — have always evoked a strong emotional resonance in me. I’ve written about it before (click here) but MK is always worth a revisit.

Our motivation this time was a visit from Laura and Brian, our old friends from Honolulu, who despite their decades in the islands had somehow never made it to the summit. Fortunately our Lincoln Behemoth Navigator has four wheel drive, so up we went, not without a little wariness: conditions at the summit were reported as below freezing temperatures and nearly 50 mph (80 kph) winds. We did have the good sense to bring along long pants and assorted sweaters and jackets.

Our first stop was the visitor center at Hale Pohaku at 9200 ft (2800 m) altitude. That site was chosen carefully: it is just below the elevation at which altitude sickness sets in for those who are susceptible to it. We stayed long enough to put on warm clothes, use the facilities, and — in my case — purchase my new favorite teeshirt and cap:

Maunakea 2019-025

I worked at the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), whose name you can see on the cap and whose relative telescope mirror size you can at the upper right on the shirt. (Imparting this fact to the cashier got me a 10% discount on my purchase, which pleased me no end.) At the time I worked here, UKIRT’s 3.8 m mirror was the largest on the mountain; now it is not even close. Here is what it looks like from the outside.

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I spent some 200 nights inside that dome.

The view at the summit is spectacular and rather Martian-looking, an expanse of lifeless rusty volcanic rubble and cinder cones.

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But we couldn’t linger; the weather wouldn’t allow it. Here is a worker chipping ice off one of the domes:

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…and here are some icy stalactites hanging off another:

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And if you want to get up close and personal with the weather, here is what the guardrail of the summit road looked like as we parked in the lee of one of the domes:

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As I said, we could not linger.

There is a lot of controversy at the moment surrounding Mauna Kea’s astronomy enterprise. There are very advanced plans to build the largest telescope of them all, the Thirty Meter Telescope, known as the TMT. For my non-metric readers, that is a mirror nearly 100 feet across, a truly giant and enormously capable instrument that would break new astronomical ground but take up a very visible spot on the mountain. But the island hosts a vocal minority of activists who view all of the telescopes — and certainly this planned one — as a desecration of a sacred place: Mauna Kea reaches to the sky, close to the gods. Their view is certainly not universal: there are many Hawaiian traditionalists who feel that since their ancestors were voyagers, the telescopes on the mountain are another form of voyage, honoring the ancient tradition by sending our eyes and minds to the stars. Needless to say, I subscribe pretty strongly to this view. But as a result of the uproar there is a real question as to whether the TMT will be built here; the planners are seriously consider siting the telescope in the Canary Islands (where there are already several other observatories) to avoid the controversy.

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Strumming

There are a number of places on Earth that you can identify solely from a traditional musical instrument: bagpipes, didgeridoo, shamisen, banjo . Hawaii is on the list, and the instrument is of course the ukulele.

Ukulele Sam 2019-006

The name translates literally as “jumping flea”, though no one is completely sure why. One theory is that it simply refers to the way a player’s fingers jump around on the frets. Another is that refers to an individual, Englishman Edward William Purvis, an officer under Hawaiian King David Kalakaua in the 1880’s, who was an expert in the instrument but was said to be rather flea-like himself, i.e. small in stature and rather twitchy. Take your pick. In either case, it’s known to be a fairly recent instrument, developed in the 1880’s by hybridizing a few Portuguese stringed instruments brought to the islands by immigrants, brought from Madeira and the Azores to work in the sugar cane fields.

If you’re in the market for a uke in the Kona area, or are just looking for lessons or a dollop of local lore, your go-to place is the Holualoa Ukulele Gallery, which is something of a local institution, occupying a former post office dating from the early 20th century. Holualoa itself is a pleasantly seedy hillside village reminiscent of what an Old West town might look like if the sheriff’s office and saloons were replaced by art galleries.  There are quite a few of the latter, some of very high quality. There is a lot of beautiful art to be found there, much of it created with local woods, e.g. koa and Cook pine. You can count some of the ukuleles among these.

The owner of the gallery is Sam Rosen, himself something of a local institution.

Sam is a ukulele maker, the term for which is a luthier. (Though a lute is a very old instrument, the word luthier itself dates from about 1850 and technically refers to any maker of stringed instruments.) Sam is full of history, a genial raconteur of such gentle persuasion that Alice has felt forced to warn me that she will not tolerate my taking ukulele lessons. Well, boo.

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Uninvited Guests

If you were to travel back in time to the 5th century AD and accompany the first Polynesians to settle Hawaii, upon arrival you would be (a) really, really seasick, and (b) very surprised at how different the islands appear from what you see today. Practically the only land animal life were birds and one species of bat. There were no coconut palms, no banana or candlenut (kukui) trees, no taro plants, no breadfruit… all things that are inextricably identified with Hawaii today.

This was driven home to me yesterday while we were touring Kohala, the peninsula at the northern end of the Big Island that is essentially a million year old extinct volcano. We were taking a break in the town of Kapa’au, a sleepy hamlet best known as the birthplace of Kamehameha I, unifer of the islands, and a statue commemorating same. I was lounging outside a small restaurant across the street from the statue while Alice was inside buying a drink, and my reverie was interrupted by a young couple querying me in an English accent:

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Uh, yes?”

“Are you OK with lizards?”

I was unsure where this line of inquiry was going, and decided to play it safe.

“Um, yes. Is there some reason I shouldn’t be?”

“Well, there’s one a few inches from your head.”

This was quite true, more than one in fact. I turned my head to the bamboo fence over my left shoulder and came eye to eye with this guy, about twice the length of my pinky finger and accompanied by several of his friends:

I was surprised to see him. Geckos are very common in Hawaii; there are at least nine species of them, all of them introduced. But despite having lived on the Big Island for three years in the early 1980’s, I did not recall ever seeing one that looked like an acid trip with scales.

It turns out that there is a very good reason for this. A little Googling reveals that this is a “gold dust day gecko” — that would be Phelsuma laticauda for you taxonomy lovers — and that it is native to northern Madagascar. That is nearly as far from Hawaii as it is possible to be and still be on this planet, so what is it doing here?

The answer, of course, is “people”. A student at the University of Hawaii main campus on Oahu smuggled eight of these geckos from Madagascar and deliberately released them in 1974. (Why?) They were first sighted on Maui — about halfway between Oahu and the Big Island — 20 years later. By extrapolation we can estimate with some confidence that they made it to the Big Island some time within the past ten years. So I would not have seen them 35+ years ago.

So the moral of the story is that change is continuous even in a place that we think of as being isolated. When I eat local fruits or witness an old Hawaiian craft demonstration I like everyone else like to luxuriate in the satisfying illusion that I am beholding the island in some Edenic antediluvian state. But in fact the islands lost that particular innocence as soon as the very first settlers stepped out of their canoes, and the process never stopped.

Categories: Hawaii, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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