Posts Tagged With: Hawaii

Whales, Kayaking, a Lighthouse, and Stuff

Kind of a grab bag of topics since I haven’t posted in a few days, in part because I’ve been tired in the evenings: there is a haze of “vog” (volcanic fog) on the island — it having made its way 500 km to Kauai all the way from the Big Island — which has given me a minor but enervating cough. But there is nonetheless lots to tell, and I want to get it down before we leave tomorrow for the penultimate leg of this trip, three days in Honolulu with our old friends Laura and Brian. (That will be followed by four days in Scottsdale, Arizona on our way home.)

At home we are avid if not particularly ambitious kayakers, and since Kauai is the only one of the Hawaiian islands with navigable rivers — six of them, supposedly — it seemed reasonable to find a riverside kayak rental outfit. Such a place existed, quite close to us in fact, and so we spent a pleasant three hours kayaking on the Hanalei River, beginning about a mile from Hanalei Bay and working our way upstream to a nature reserve a few miles away.

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The experience was, as I remarked in a Facebook post, just like kayaking at home except for the palm trees, the hibiscus blossoms floating on the water, and the whole laid-back tropical gestalt of it all. We did not see a lot of animal life in the nature reserve — a few fish, some turtles, a few egrets — but gliding among the palms and pandanus trees and spotting modest mini-waterfalls along the banks gave the whole experience a pleasantly dreamy ambience.

A few miles down the road from our house, east of Hanalei Bay, Kilauea Lighthouse perches on a dramatic promontory, overseeing a violent surf and a hillside heavily dotted with red-footed boobies. Here’s the scene:

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If the lighting looks a little unusual in this picture it is because it is actually a nighttime scene, a twelve-minute time exposure taken by moonlight… hence the creamy, blurred-looking surf. But back to the birds. The red-footed boobies, thousands of them, look like white confetti on the far hillside, but close up resemble ungainly seagulls with enormous red feet and blue bills. You can see them as white dots at upper right in the shot below. (You can also see that you would not want to swim here.) We have seen their more famous cousins, the blue-footed boobies, in the Galapagos.

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The lighthouse’s location is quite the quite the focus for local wildlife. There were some nenes (Hawaii’s state bird) walking around the parking lot, a pod of whales cavorting offshore, and the occasional Laysan albatross — an endangered species — gliding by on what could be a several thousand mile journey. They breed in Hawaii but may travel as far as Japan or the west coast of North America to feed. Here’s one that we saw:

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When we returned from the lighthouse our AirBnB hosts invited us to attend a bonfire and barbecue on the beach at Hanalei Bay at sunset that evening, a practice they happily indulge in every Friday night. We went, enjoying the sunset over the waves and silhouetted mountains along with about four other couples, all with interesting backgrounds. (You kind of have to have an interesting background if you’re living here.)

The next day (yesterday, Saturday Feb 4) was our opportunity to complete the geographical trifecta, as the day dawned clear and we got to see the Na Pali coast from the sea. (We had already seen it from the hiking trail lookout and via helicopter.) Our tour operator, Na Pali Riders, were quite the cowboys, leading about 20 of us into what was essentially a large Zodiac, a rubberized pontoon boat right at the water level, powered by twin 250 HP motors. That thing could move, and with the trade winds coming up and the surf high, the ride was anything but smooth. How bone-shatteringly bumpy was it? Well, in addition to a rope handhold running along the edge — and you sit on the edge — there was a rope foothold around the perimeter of the floor. You keep one foot slid underneath it to keep you from bouncing backwards into your own personal whale-watching adventure.

Speaking of which, en route to Na Pali we first encountered a large pod of spinner dolphins, maybe 100 in number all told, to set the stage for the excitement that would follow. Here are a few of them:

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(My photos from this boat trip, by the way, were taken with our “backup camera”, a nice waterproof point-and-shoot, since I did want to risk my nice SLR and expensive lenses ending up photographing the cetaceans from underneath. Picture quality is not as high, but the thing is indestructible, which is a big plus in this environment.)

Anyway, whales. We got lucky: we encountered a number of them, most thrillingly a mother and a juvenile. The latter was only a few weeks or a month old, “only” 10 ft long or so and just learning to breach:

na-pali-whales-kauai-021That’s Mom’s pectoral fin on the right, the baby breaching on the left. Notice that baby is flopping over on his back: that’s how whales actually do it. So here are two more shots, ’cause you can never have too many whales.

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The whales were clustered near the southwest corner of the island, a little south of Na Pali itself. So we motored up the coast to catch these striking scenes, which I promise will be the last ones I show you of Na Pali.

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We’ve already had the Jurassic Park discussion, but if it all looks a little “Skull Island”-ish to you, there’s a good reason for that too: the 1979 remake of King Kong was filmed here.

In addition to these A-list destinations, Kauai has its share of minor touristic oddities as well. We hit a couple of them on the way back from our Na Pali expedition. They include salt evaporation ponds, which are basically very shallow artificial lake beds next to the sea. Just add water and wait, and voila! Sea salt! (Add pink food coloring and you can pretend it’s from the Himalayas, a designation about which I have always been deeply suspicious.)

But probably the surrealistic best of the B-list sights is the “Russian Fort”, which we visited briefly. Very briefly. Still, its history is so weird that it is worth relating.

Kamehameha I unified the islands under his monarchy in 1810, but unsurprisingly not everybody got with the program immediately. Chief among these (hah! get it?) was Kaumuali’i, who ruled Kauai and much preferred doing his own thing. This included seizing a cargo ship belonging to the  Russian-American Trading Company in 1815. The Russians were none too pleased at this and dispatched an agent, a German physician named Georg Schäffer, to free the goods.

Schäffer figured his best play was to befriend Kamehameha and then convince the latter to pressure Kaumuali’i. The befriending part worked OK… the pressuring part, not so much; Kamehameha didn’t see much upside to antagonizing his disgruntled underling on behalf of a guy who looked like the Wizard of Oz. So Schäffer went straight to Kaumuali’i, who promptly conned him. Kaumuali’i convinced Schäffer that if the Russians would build a fort, they could seize the entire island chain from Kamehameha. Schäffer promised the Tsar’s support, and had the fort built.  Then things went predictably sideways: (1) upon learning of all this the Tsar said, “WTF?”; and (2) what Kaumuali’i was really planning, of course, was to take the islands for himself (“We don’ need no steenkin’ Russians!”). So the whole endeavor collapsed, Kamehameha’s supporters took over the fort, and after a halfhearted attempt to retake it several years later, Kaumuali’i’s guys threw in the towel. The place was abandoned in 1853 after decades of proudly defending Kauai against, well, nothing. Today it’s a rock wall about shoulder-high (about 1/4 of its original height), tracing out a rough octagon a few hundred feet across. We were positively rapt for about 3 seconds.

I never did learn what was on those cargo ships, but in the interest of adding some irony to the whole bizarre tale I like to imagine that it turned out to be something of absolutely no use to the Hawaiians. Fur-lined mittens and frostbite ointment, say. You can think of your own.

Today was our last day on Kauai. The weather was beautiful, and so we made the precarious hike down to Queen’s Bath on the coast. I’ll post some photos of that in a few days. But for now, on to Honolulu.

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Kauai from the Skai…er…Sky

Yesterday was Helicopter Day for us, that means of transportation being far and away the best way to get a real sense of the geography and vegetation of Kauai.

We woke up with the chickens. I do not mean by this that we woke up early; I mean we literally woke up with the chickens. There are *&%^$# chickens — that is pronounced “frickin’ chickens” — absolutely everywhere on Kauai: on the roads, on the sidewalks, on the golf courses, underfoot. Today we had lunch at an outdoor food court where, for very good reason, there was a sign posted that said “Please Do Not Feed The Chickens”. I have no idea why, but the island is plain crawling with chickens. (Hmm. Somehow “crawling” doesn’t seem like the right word when discussing chickens. But “scratching with chickens” doesn’t sound right.) The consequence of all this is that there are three constant sounds that form the backdrop of life on Kauai: the surf crashing (dramatic!), the suserration of the wind in the palm trees (soothing!), and the ubiquitous roosters crowing (um…).

We made the 50 minute drive to Lihue airport, received a safety briefing, and entered a helo with four other passengers. The bird had bulbous windows in order to accommodate photography and a more panoramic view, at the expense of all sorts of inconvenient reflections and glare. (Fifteen years ago we took a similar helo tour in a ‘copter with no doors, which affords a spectacularly ideal view for the non-nervous.)

We made a clockwise circuit of the island, passing over the coastal plains; hovering next to stratospherically-high thread-thin waterfalls; banking through green valleys and Waimea Canyon (about which more shortly); and surveying the dramatic Na Pali coast. (Na Pali simply means “the cliffs”, by the way.) Here are some shots:

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Eastern coastal plain, looking west towards the interior

 

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One of six zillion waterfalls

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Na Pali, Kauai’s signature vista

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Looking east towards fabled Hanalei Bay. Our B&B is on the north shore (leftmost point) of the peninsula.

The flight took a little under an hour. The sights along the way included some of the venues where “Jurassic Park” was filmed.

After leaving the airport we continued on our own clockwise tour of the island, the first stop being Waimea Canyon, Kauai’s second most well-known geological feature. It is in the interior, accessible by a very winding 18 mile (30 km) road to a lookout point. The canyon itself is about 10 miles (16 km) long and 3000 ft (900 m) deep, strikingly reminiscent of a scale model of the Grand Canyon, thus:

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Though very much younger than the Grand Canyon, it was formed by a similar erosive process. In the Grand Canyon’s case, that would be the Colorado River; Waimea Canyon was formed by rain runoff from 5000′ Mt. Waialeale, the second-highest peak on the island and purportedly the rainiest spot on the planet. Mt. Waialeale averages roughly 14″ (35 cm) of rain per day. You do not want to plan a picnic on Mt. Waialeale.

For our demographic there is little to do here except gawk at the declivity from the lookout point and take a bunch of pictures. It is true that there are bicycle tours that zoom down the side of the canyon, which is also threaded by hiking trails. I could plausibly claim that 35 years ago these are activities that we might have ambitiously undertaken. But I visited here 35 years ago and didn’t want to do it then either, so just enjoy the view. (Which, by the way, nicely illustrates the characteristic colors of Kauai: the iron-rich orange soil and red sedimentary stripes on the formations, dotted with emerald green vegetation.)

We snaked back down the mountain and continued our clockwise course until the road petered out altogether near Polihale State Park, at the westernmost point of the island. The beach there is spectacular: an endlessly long, broad, and flat expanse of coarse pale orange sand, terminating at the Na Pali cliffs a few miles to the north. On calm days, the water is so clear that you can see the sand being sucked up off the bottom by gentle waves as the rollers come close to shore. But that is not a sight for winter, when the surf is ceaselessly punishing.

The main problem with Polihale is getting there, since the last 4 miles of the road isn’t a road at all, but rather a spine-jangling washboard surface of packed dirt and small craters. You are not allowed to take rental cars there, and certainly not our rented Nissan Versa, which appears to be made out of aluminum foil. So I would like to state for the record that we were transported by a giant eagle, like Gandalf in “The Hobbit”.

Since this is the westernmost point of Kauai, it affords the best vantage point to glimpse the last major island in the Hawaiian chain: the “forbidden island” of Niihau, 17 miles (28 km) away. If the nickname sounds a tad melodramatic to you, here is what it looked like yesterday:

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Yep, looks forbidden to me all right.

But the reason Niihau is called “forbidden” is not because the ancient gods will smite you if you land there, the above photo notwithstanding. No, you will be smitten by the lawyers from the Robinson family, a venerable clan of major Kauai landowners who own Niihau outright and maintain it as a preserve of Hawaiian culture. The residents are of native Hawaiian blood — among the very few left — and the primary language of the island is Hawaiian. Tourism is by and large forbidden, though there are a small number of special permits issued. The Robinsons also have an arrangement with the Navy, which maintains a small unmanned facility there which they occasionally use for training exercises.

How did this come about? The answer, simply enough, is that in 1864 a wealthy woman named Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair flat-out bought the island from Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold. It passed down through the family and in 1915 her grandson Aubrey Robinson closed it off to visitors. Aubrey’s grandsons own the island today, along with significant swaths of Kauai itself.

I’ve mentioned Na Pali a number of times on this leg of the trip, not unreasonably because it is a genuinely extraordinary sight. We have so far seen it on foot during our hike two days ago, and yesterday by air. We were supposed to have completed the trifecta by taking a boat trip to it earlier this afternoon, but the excursion was canceled because we were the only people who signed up. We have rebooked it for Saturday, so stay tuned for yet more pictures of the place.

 

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Kauai? Because I Said So, That’s Kauai!

(Stop groaning. If our flight here had been canceled then the title of this post would have been “Kauai? Kauai Not!”)

Hawaii is on the move, as you may know. The entire chain sits on a continental plate that is sliding in a northwesterly direction over a “hot spot”, a magma plume in the Earth’s mantle, racing towards Japan at the breakneck speed of about 3″ (8 cm) per year.  (I would suggest that the entire archipelago is fleeing the results of the presidential election, but it has actually been going on for a lot longer than that.) The underlying magma plume is actually the very source of the islands, each in its turn having been born as a volcano over the hot spot. And indeed, the next island in the chain has already been spotted in its expected location, southeast of the Big Island, still in the form of an underwater volcano. It even has a name — Loihi — so if you’re a canny real estate investor you want to get in on the ground floor of some great beachfront property in half a million years or so.

The major Hawaiian islands average roughly 80 miles (130 km) apart. Moving at 3″ a year over the hot spot, do the math and you’d expect each island to be roughly a million and half years older than its neighbor to the southeast. And you’d be right: the Big Island is about a million years old; Kauai, which is four islands and 315 miles (500 km) away, about 5 million.

I mention all this geology because it explains the important differences in appearance between Kauai and the Big Island, i.e. the islands appear to be eroding “in reverse”. Back on the mainland, young mountain ranges like the Rockies are all sharp and craggy; as they age they are eroded down into more gentle slopes like the Appalachians. But the Hawaiian Islands are different: unlike the granite Rockies or Alps, they are made of comparatively soft basaltic lava. Since lava is more or less liquid, the young Hawaiian islands, e.g. the Big Island are smooth with gentle slopes; the wind, rain, and sea gradually chip away at the lava like aeolian parrotfish gnawing on coral, sculpting it into rough craggy shapes. So where the Big Island has the smooth slopes of Mauna Kea, Kauai has the angular, crenelated Na Pali Coast:

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…and vistas like this:

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That’s taro growing in the foreground, by the way, the stuff from which poi, that famous Hawaiian staple, is made. It looks and tastes like library paste. If you visit the islands, eating poi is an experience that is definitely to be missed. And no, I did not unintentionally leave out the word “not” in that last sentence.

For similar reasons, the very sand and soil of Kauai differ markedly from the Big Island. On the Big Island they are basically crushed lava, black and granular. On Kauai the elements and plant life have had more time to do their work: sand and soil are finer, and rather orange in color from the high iron content. And very, very fertile: Kauai is nothing if not green.

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We arrived early yesterday afternoon and will be here for a week. However, I confess that we made something of a tactical error in choosing where to stay. Kauai is small and oval in shape, about 33 miles (53 km) wide by 25 miles (40 km) from north to south. There’s basically only a single main road, one or two lanes in each direction,  encircling the island… except that it doesn’t actually encircle it. There’s a chunk missing in the northwest corner where the Na Pali coast is in the way, so if you’re staying on the north side of the island and you need to get somewhere in the southwest, you basically have to drive 3/4 of the way around. This is happening to us.

The southern and southeastern parts of the island is — with the exception of the Na Pali coast itself — where a large fraction of the island’s activities take place: snorkeling, sailing, and such. That is especially so in the winter, since the surf on the northern shores is especially rough at this time of year. The other times that I have been here have always involved staying near the town of Poipu in the southeast; Alice and I decided to do something different this time and stay up north, near the town of Princeville, a rather more lush and wild area that is closer to Na Pali and home to a lot of the island’s very upscale resorts (i.e., places that are too rich for our taste and bank account). But precisely because the north shore is so rough in winter, a lot of our planned activities are going to involve 1-2 drives. Oh well.

The north does enjoy the most beautiful beaches on the island — pity that we’ll die if we actually use them, since their surf these days is up to nearly 20 ft, which is a damn big wave. At least we can look at them before driving an hour if we want to go snorkeling. One of the most beautiful beaches is at Hanalei Bay, fronted by a tiny town of the same name that consists of 500 residents and a couple of locally-themed strip malls with restaurants and souvenir shops.  A lot of movies have been filmed at Hanalei because of the spectacular beach, and it is a popular legend that the name of the town was the inspiration for “a land called Honalee” in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”. There is alas no actual evidence for this whatever. (Feel free to pass it on as an “alternative fact”, though.)

As you can tell from the above photos, the weather today was mostly overcast, though we did get sun in the afternoon. As you might expect on a small tropical islands, conditions can change dramatically with very little notice, though only up to a point: the north shore is relaiably rough in the winter, and the sailing and diving tour operators shut down their operations on this part of the island during the winter months. But the Na Pali coast is still accessible on foot and can be viewed from the sea; we hiked about a half mile into it (and up it) this afternoon to get the topmost photo and this one:

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The white surf in that image tells you everything you need to know about the desirability of going into the water. The hike up to this point was real work, a steep and treacherous stone, mud, and tangled-root path whose reward was these vistas and a gale-force wind at the top. How windy was it? While I was taking these photos the wind blew every hair clip out of Alice’s hair. That’s how windy it was. Oh, and here are the signs at the trailhead welcoming you to this particular undertaking. “Have fun! You’re going to die!”

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Roads on this part of the island are scenic and a little too exciting, being narrow and frequently punctuated with hairpin turns overlooking green cliffs. (This is especially fun at night, there being no street lights or towns to provide even a ghost of illumination.) There are a number of one-lane bridges over small rivers; the local convention, when there is a line of traffic in both directions, is for about a half dozen cars from one side to go, then switch to the other. I accidentally transgressed this tradition at a somewhat confusing juncture that had two consecutive bridges separated by a tight turn: two consecutive drivers coming from the oncoming direction informed me of my error in terms that very definitely lacked the Aloha Spirit.

But what northern Kauai lacks in infrastructure it makes up in local charm in a glorious setting, e.g, this farmer’s market where we bought local fruit, nuts, and other goodies:

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Our B&B certainly has its own share of atmosphere. It is called “Asia House”, a rather incongruous pagoda-like residence in the midst of a spectacularly-manicured upscale golf resort community. It is the residence of a cheery unconventional couple who I’d guess to be in their 60’s: short and portly Coral, an artist who makes jewelry, and her husband Ian, a tall and lanky Scot who designed the place. They have quarters for two sets of guests but most of the house is their residence. I’ll post some photos of the place later if I get a chance.

We are hoping that the changeable weather is not too changeable, since we are scheduled for a helicopter tour of the island tomorrow afternoon. If that comes off, you’ll see the pictures here.

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Something Fishy This Way Swims

Not much to report today other than an afternoon snorkeling session at Kahalu’u Beach Park here on the Big Island, a few miles south of downtown Kailua and less than a mile from our house. But first a word about beaches…

Say the words “Hawaiian beach” to someone and their immediate mental image is in all likelihood a vast expanse of white sand, lined with palm trees. And it is true that there are a few beaches like that in the islands, most notably Waikiki in Honolulu, though at that particular locale there are probably as many hotels as palm trees. There’s one like that on the Big Island as well, called Hapuna, located a good half hour north of Kona. But remember that these islands are volcanic, which means that most of the beaches are made of coarse black sand, usually punctuated with some ropy hardened pahoehoe lava. (The palm tree part of the mental picture is still accurate, though.) None of this means that you can’t lay out a blanket and pick up a nice case of skin cancer as well as on any white sand beach, but at least now you have the right picture in your head.

Kahalu’u Beach Park is a typical black sand beach in this regard, especially well suited for a beach outing because it fronts on shallow Kahalu’u Bay, protected from the not-always-pacific Pacific by a coral reef a few hundred yards offshore. The bay is in most places less than 7′ (2.2 m) deep and studded with coral outcroppings, making it an excellent snorkeling venue. Its only difficulty is occasional strong currents as the tide goes in and out. But from where we stay, it’s hard to beat both for convenience and for the variety of sea life it supports (notably a colony of green sea turtles, known in Hawaiian as honu). So here are some photos from today’s outing:

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Honu. Some of the turtles in Kahaluu have tracking devices on their backs, courtesy of NOAA researchers

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Ornate Butterflyfish (Kikakapu)

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Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish (Lau Hau)

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Black Surgeonfish (Pualu)

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Left: Threadfin Butterflyfish (Kikakapu). Right: Yellow Tang (Lau’i Pau)

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Left: Yellow Tang (Lau’i Pau). Right: Parrotfish (Uhu)

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A school of yellow tangs (Lau’i Pau)

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Clown Wrasse (Can’t find the Hawaiian name!)

There are many other colorful species that live in the bay, notably a healthy number of reef triggerfish. The reef triggerfish is the state fish of Hawaii and sports one of the best native names of any creature anywhere, ever: humuhumunukunukuapua’a. I once got a discount on a tee shirt by pronouncing this correctly.

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Snow on the Mountain

One of the many amazing things about the Big Island is its climate diversity. Worldwide, ecologists recognize 14 distinct climate zones; I won’t bore you with all their names but they include things like “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate”, “Hot Semi-Desert”, etc. The point is, that ten of the 14 are found on the Big Island, making it the most climatologically-diverse place on the planet. And so it came to pass that as we drove north and east from Kona to the higher elevations of Kohala, we left behind some of the coastal clouds and most of the tropical vegetation in favor of cloudless windswept grasslands and a stunning view of 14,000 ft Mauna Kea, recently crowned by a snowfall:

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This is about a 90 degree panorama; a similar one taken facing in the opposite direction would show Mauna Loa (which, unexpectedly, does not have any snow on it despite being the same height). The bulbous cinder cone at left — the gentle remnant of some ancient lava vent — is a few hundred feet high and is in the foreground; Mauna Kea’s snow-capped peak is 18 miles away in this picture. Here’s a better (and more artistic!) view of the mountain:

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Zoom in a little to the left of the summit and you’ll see what brought me to the Big Island in the first place:

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(Actually, that’s not technically true. The telescopes that you can see in this image had not yet been built when I was here over 30 years ago, working at a different observatory that is not visible in this photo.) The two identical white domes are the twin telescopes of the Keck Observatory, each 10 m/33 ft (!) in diameter and acting in concert to combine their signals to achieve enormous detail and sensitivity. To the right of the two domes you can make out the gray cylinder of the Subaru Telescope, yet another behemoth whose mirror is 8.2 m/27 ft across. (To give you an idea of how far we’ve come, the telescope I worked at had a 3.8 m/12.5 ft mirror, which was one of the largest in the world at the time.)

Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Why did they name a big telescope after a Japanese car?” Well, it is a Japanese observatory but cars do not enter into it. “Subaru” is the Japanese word for the Pleiades constellation, and both the car and the telescope are named after them. This very likely answers a question that you never thought to ask. (And now that I’ve got your attention, “Mitsubishi” means “three diamonds” — take a look at the car logo. You’re welcome.)

Where was I? Ah, right. Snow. Mauna Kea does not get snow every winter, but when it does the snowfall can range from a dusting to a downright blizzard that can drop a couple of feet of the white stuff with disturbingly little warning. Indeed, the winter before I arrived, two astronomers got caught out by a storm and were stranded in one of the observatories for a few days, burning furniture for warmth and eating an emergency supply of canned goods. (I know them and trust me, they are still dining out on that story.)

Because of the occasional snow, the Big Island advertises itself as the only tropical island in the world where you can ski. This is quite true, but take my word for it: I’m a skier and do not recommend the experience. There is no recreation infrastructure whatsoever: no lifts, no trails, no nothing. You drive to the summit in your four wheel drive, step into your skis, and head downhill in whatever direction seems to have the most snow whilst praying to the Almighty that you do not wipe out and cut yourself to bloody ribbons on the underlying lava rock. Then at the end of your couple hundred yard run, which takes about 30 seconds if you’re lucky, you take off your skis, sling them over your shoulder, and trudge back to the summit on foot. Then you die of a heart attack because nobody in his right mind would schlep up a steep lava-strewn mountainside at 14,000′ altitude while wearing ski boots.

Back to climate zones. As you can see in the photos, the sky was nearly cloudless, the terrain like a prairie. What you cannot see in the photo was the 30 mph wind that made it nearly impossible to point the camera. And so we continued on, and within five minutes were in yet another climate zone, the “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate” that I mentioned earlier, in the town of Waimea at 2500′ elevation. What that meant in practice was a chilly, misting fog and intermittent light drizzle, a rather dramatic contrast to where we had been literally five minutes earlier. The Big island is like this.

Our first destination was lunch and malasadas — especially malasadas — at the locally famous Tex Drive In, which I wrote about in this space a year ago. I am happy to report that the good people there have not lost their touch. Then we moved on to Waipio Valley, a destination that we failed to reach last year because it was closed off due to an outbreak of dengue fever. That particular danger has since abated, and so we drove to the valley’s striking lookout point, the mist and drizzle notwithstanding:

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The valley has a sacred history, supposedly the place where Kamehameha met with the war god Kukailimoku in 1780 to be informed of his destiny to unite the islands. At the time it hosted a population of several thousand. Today only about 50 people live there full time, variously farming taro, raising marijuana, or hiding from civilization in general. It’s a stunning setting for any of those activities, bounded by 2000 ft cliffs and dotted with waterfalls, site of many a skinny-dipping party in my salad days. The black sand beach is gorgeous though it can be treacherous with currents.

(One of my beloved activities in those days was to fly a small plane out to the head of the valley, sideslip down to a few hundred feet above the valley floor, and then zoom out to the ocean at treetop level. This was illegal, dangerous, and wonderful. I always wondered whether any of the pakololo (marijuana) growers would shoot at me, but I never found any bullet holes in the fuselage afterwards, so I guess not. Or they were too wasted to aim accurately.)

The only way down into the valley is via a very steep (25% grade), very winding, and very poorly-maintained road. Your choices are walking or four wheel drive, period. As it happens, our rental car on this trip is a Jeep Grand Cherokee that enjoys about 27 different 4WD settings on a control panel slightly less complicated than the Large Hadron Collider. The car’s user manual is — and I swear this is true — 745 pages long. But we all know that no one reads user manuals, so I pressed the 4WD button that said “Auto” and basically drove off the cliff. Amazingly, we got to the bottom in one piece, and drove around for a bit along the mud path that parallels the river. We made for the black sand beach but were eventually stymied by a puddle the size and depth of Lake Champlain that looked too daunting even for our Testosterone-Mobile. There were two young Canadian women hiking past the obstacle at that moment, about to commence the long trudge uphill, so we turned around, picked them up, and drove back up the hillside as they thanked us repeatedly. (As well they might. On the way down we passed a few Japanese families with a small children in tow, heading down into the valley. I can only imagine the scene as they tried to cajole those kids back up the cliffside afterwards. They’re probably still down there, praying for a kindly stranger with a large Jeep.)

We drove home afterwards, back through the fog, back across the windy prairie, overseen by the two giant mountains, back across to our familiar beach and hot weather. So I’ll close with a final view of Waipio, and today’s serene sunset as viewed from our lanai.

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sunset-001

 

 

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Aloha, Dammit

Having realized a year ago that winter in Hawaii is nicer than winter in Maryland — a shocker, I know — we have rented the same Kona house as last year and are currently enduring the rigors of the Big Island.

I can feel your skepticism. But there are rigors, or at least there were last weekend, as getting here was a first class pain in the okole (as the Hawaiians say, referring to a body part that is not “neck”). In brief, our journey here involved:

  • A canceled flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles;
  • A rebooked flight that left two hours late;
  • A fire alarm in our hotel in LA, resulting in a hotel evacuation; and
  • A canceled flight from LA to Honolulu.

There was more, but I’ll spare you the details since, being on vacation in Hawaii and all, I am not expecting an outrigger-canoe-load of sympathy. Anyway, we are here for nearly a month, accompanied for our first week by my BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie (she’s still evil, but since I’m retired she’s not my assistant anymore) and her (and our) friend Diana.

Remarkably, despite our tribulations we arrived in Kona only 90 minutes later than originally planned. The island is little changed from a year ago, with two notable exceptions: (1) there has been a lot more rain the past year than in the year before, meaning that many areas are much greener than a year ago, and there is much less haze in the air; and (2) the volcano is in eruption. More on both in a moment.

Our first stop was one of our favorite venues in town, the Kona Farmer’s Market. We even recognized some of the same vendors, and the assortment of tropical fruits and tourist tchotchkes was reassuringly familiar.

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Both we and our friends were anxious to see the volcano, and so we headed there straightaway on Day Two, pausing only in the town of Naalehu — the southernmost town in the US, at latitude 19°N — to gorge on malasadas, the beignet-like treat that is a Big Island specialty. (I wrote about both the town and the baked good in this post a year ago.)

We arrived at the 4000 ft summit of Kilauea in late afternoon, our plan being to stay until dark so that we could see the glow of the lava lake in Halema’uma’u crater. The summit was clear, much less hazy than a year ago, and so the view out over the caldera was striking:

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That’s Halema’uma’u in the middle of the scene. For reference, it’s about 1000 ft across and about a half mile away. The steam rising off it is from the lava lake below the rim; it is low at the moment, well below the crater rim and thus not directly in sight. But its glow illuminates the steam at night.

We spent a few hours exploring the park with our friends, walking around on the lava fields and, as ever, marveling at the tenacity with which plant life re-establishes itself after an eruption, like this:

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In addition to the lava fields there are a number of fumaroles around the park, and since it was late in the day we were able to enjoy the sight of the afternoon sunlight streaming through the outputs of the steam vents.

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By 6:30 PM the sky was darkening, and we were in full darkness by the time we returned to the caldera overlook, to be greeted by these scenes out of Dante:

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On Kilauea’s southern flank, about ten miles south of the summit, is the Pu’u O eruption site. This particular site became active 34 years ago and is gradually adding to the Big Island’s surface area: when it is in eruption, its lava stream flows miles downhill to the sea, where it makes a dramatic and steamy entrance. It is possible to get to that site and see the lava flow, but it isn’t easy: you either have to hike 8 miles (roundtrip) over lava, or pay big bucks to hire a boat or a helicopter. Neither seemed practical, so we contented ourselves with the entertainingly hellish view of Halema’uma’u and called it a day.

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Hawaii Photos: Complete “Best of” Set

After three weeks at home I finally got my act together and collected my “best of” Hawaii photos, sorted by location, into our website. Here’s the link: http://www.isaacman.net/hawaii/hawaii.htm

Time to start thinking about Japan….

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Zipline-y Doo Dah….

Ziplines have become quite the fad in the last 15 years or so, which postdates the era that I lived on the Big Island. But the local tourism industry has caught up, of course, so Hawaii ziplining is now a thing. Which I suppose is good, since (a) it’s relatively eco-friendly and (b) heaven knows there are enough scenic venues here that are worth looking at whilst suspended on a steel cable. We became zipline aficionados a number of years ago in Costa Rica — which is where the whole thing started — and so of course we were not about to miss out here.

Our choice of zipline operator was Skyline Eco-Adventures, whom I can highly recommend. (Just click on their name to get their website.) Their big selling point was the fact that they operate near Akaka Falls, a tremendously scenic venue that I wrote about in an earlier post. Their outing takes you down seven ziplines of increasing length and height. You know the drill. First you get all suited up in a harness and helmet and pulleys and such, like Alice here:

Zipline Akaka-010

…and then they have you run off a ramp into the waiting jungle canopy. Here’s Alice again, sliding off into the distance, and waving cheerily to avoid looking down.

Zipline Akaka-011

This all leads up to the grand finale, which is a 3350 ft (1 km) cable that crosses the Kolekole river over Akaka Iki Falls — Akaka Falls’ little brother, a 250 ft (76 m) cataract — at a height of 250 ft (still 76 m) above the top of the cascade. For those of you keeping score, that’s 500 ft (152 m) above the riverbed. And here is what that looks like:

Zipline Akaka-014

The yellow-clad optimist at upper left is our friend Cindi, who with her husband John visited us for five days last week as our sojourn here began to wind down. What you cannot tell from the above photo is that she is moving at close to 40 mph (55 kph). You can also not hear her screaming. I promise you that this particular experience was every bit the adrenaline rush that you would expect it to be.

At the end of the line (literally) our refreshments consisted of apple bananas — the little tiny super-flavorful ones that grow here — plus fresh cut sugar cane. You can’t eat raw cane (it’s got the consistency of wet bamboo), so you chew it. This is a surprisingly refreshing thing to do: crushing the cane stalk with your molars releases the sugar-laden liquid, sweet and wonderful in your mouth.

We drove away from the experience chattering like lunatics as our adrenaline levels slowly retreated to normal, then drove back to Akaka Falls itself, which Cindi and John had not yet seen. The path was a lot more crowded than the last time we were here, a week or so ago. One reason for that is that weather was better this time; another was the presence of a bus full of schoolkids visiting from Oahu.

Akaka Falls-009

They were all wearing the blue teeshirts that you see in the photo, which show a silhouette of the battleship Arizona and the words “Always Remember the 7th of December 1941”. I have no idea what the children actually know about that particular event, nor why they were wearing those teeshirts in March; more interestingly, I also have no idea what the many Japanese tourists on the footpath thought about it.

It was still early enough in the afternoon for us to make one more stop on the Hamakua coastline as we headed back to Kona, so went to Laupahoehoe Beach Park. Laupahoehoe is known for one important thing besides being difficult to pronounce by tourists, and that is a particularly tragic tsunami.

The town sat right on the coast, and the wave hit on April 1, 1946. Many buildings were destroyed, but the one that was hit hardest and suffered the largest loss of life was, of all things, a schoolhouse. 24 people were killed, most of them children, and this sad memorial marks the spot. As you can see from the list of names, whole families of siblings were obliterated.

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People still come and decorate it with flowers, seashells, and memorabilia.

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The town itself is no longer on the coast, having relocated to higher ground up the steep hillside above the highway. The coastal area is now a popular beach park where people come to camp, fish, and goggle at the wild surf. Even without a tsunami, the waves and lava rocks at this place are violent and stunning to behold.

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Hmmm. Seems like a bit of a downer to end this post on, especially as it is likely to be the last on this trip until we get home and post a link to the collected photos and videos in a couple of weeks; we overnight in Honolulu tomorrow, then head back to the mainland and home the day after. We’ve been gone for 5 1/2 weeks, our longest trip yet, and this stay has been such a success that we are planning on returning next year to the same house. As motivation to do so, the Big Island continues to taunt us with spectacular sunsets that we can watch every night from our lanai, the open patio at the back of our rented house. I’ll close with one from ten miles up the coast, taken a few days ago.

Kohala sunset-001

Aloha! Next stop: Japan in seven months!

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The Tallest Mountain on Earth

…is not Mount Everest. Though it is a bit of a cheat: Mount Everest, at 29,029 ft (8848 m) is indeed the highest mountain on Earth above sea level, but it sits on a plateau that is itself at an elevation of a  good 15,000 ft (4500 m) or. So measured from its base to its summit, Mount Everest is a surprisingly second-rate 14,000′ (4300 m) tall. That statistic, of course, is rather cold comfort — emphasis on the “cold” — if you are actually standing atop Mount Everest trying to breathe.

No, the tallest mountain on the planet, as measured from its base to its summit, is Mauna Kea here on the Big Island. Again, you’ve got to be a little flexible with your definitions, because the base of Mauna Kea is the ocean floor itself, a good 15,000 ft (4600 m) below my feet as I type this. Mauna Kea’s summit is at an altitude of 13,796 ft (4205 m), which means that measured from base to summit it is roughly 29,000 ft (8800 m) tall.

Mauna Kea also has the more personal distinction of being the most important geographical feature in my life because of the many observatories at its summit and the many nights (~200) I spent using them early in my career. At that time, in the early 1980’s, there were four major observatories plus a couple of much smaller telescopes. Today, there are a dozen major observatories and a whole lot of controversy about whether building any more constitutes a desecration of the summit, which has Hawaiian religious significance. But the current controversy aside, the mountain holds a lot of history and emotional resonance for me, and so it was important that we make the pilgrimage to the top.

Getting to the summit is a lot easier than it was 30+ years ago because more (though not all) of the summit access road is paved. Even so, at that altitude you’re breathing only about 60% of the oxygen that you’ve got at sea level, so you’ve got to be very careful. Most of the car rental companies on the island forbid you from taking their vehicles to the top, a restriction that is frequently ignored by tourists, often without consequence, but sometimes to their extreme detriment when either their oxygen-starved engine conks out or their wheels lose traction on the unpaved lava gravel. (I should add that at that altitude your oxygen-starved brain and cardiopulmonary systems also lose traction; many people feel woozy and headachy and have difficulty concentrating; a few experience much more serious health consequences.)

You first ascend via paved road to Hale Pohaku, the mid-level facility that serves as a visitor center and dormitory for the observatory engineers and astronomers. Hale Pohaku sits at 9000 ft (2700 m) which, given the weather patterns of the island, is typically where the cloud layer lives that traps the island’s heat and moisture below. It’s cold and dry above that point, which is why the site is the best astronomy observing locale in the world. But that also means that you drive up through the clouds to get there.

Mauna Kea Summit-016

That makes for a nasty and dangerous drive, especially on the unpaved portion of the road, but also serves up a (literally) breathtaking panorama when you break through the clouds at the top and find yourself on a sunlit Martian dessert. As you approach the very summit the road is paved again; this is to prevent vehicles from kicking up dust that could get onto the telescope mirrors. (Which, needless to say, are exquisitely precise.)

Mauna Kea Summit-018That’s Mauna Loa sticking out of the clouds at the center of the frame. It’s the same height as Mauna Kea, about 25 miles ( 40 km) to the south. It does not host any telescopes for the very sensible reason that it is an active volcano. The dome at the right side of the frame is the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), where I worked for three years. It houses a 3.8 m diameter telescope.

I’ll close with a few more scenes from our visit to the summit.

Mauna Kea Summit-002 Mauna Kea Summit-020 Mauna Kea Summit-017 Mauna Kea Summit-001

The white dome at left in bottom picture is the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), one of the older observatories on the mountain. The silver dome is the more recent Gemini telescope, so named because it has an identical twin sibling on an Andean mountaintop in Chile.

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Petroglyphs, Rain Forests, and Waterfalls

The first humans to reach Hawaii originated in the Marquesas Islands in about 300 AD, though the major wave of settlement didn’t happen until about a thousand years later, in 1200-1300 with settlers from Tahiti. Both of those groups of extreme canoeists paddled here across more than 2500 miles (4000 km) of open water, navigating via the stars, winds, and patterns of seabird flights, not only without stopping at a 7-11 to ask directions, but with the additional handicap of having only inferred that their destination even existed. It is a virtually incomprehensible feat.

It is said — and the evidence is indirect at best — that the original settlers first made landfall at South Point here on the Big Island. They then got down to the serious business of not dying, and taking an occasional break to carve drawings into the unforgiving lava rock. Which brings us to the petroglyphs. The Big Island is dotted with fields of carvings that look like this.

Puako Petroglyph Preserve-001 Puako Petroglyph Preserve-008

Now, this would normally be my cue to launch into a discourse about the history and meaning of the carvings, but I will spare you this for the simple reason that these things are an utter mystery: nobody knows what they mean nor even when they were carved. The particular petroglyph field that we visited yesterday — the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve on the western coast of Kohala — is one of the larger and better studied groups, but even there the official signage is reduced to saying things like “We don’t know what these things are. What do you think?”  It is believed — for what it’s worth — that the carvings were made some time between the years 1000 and 1800, which is about as unhelpful a range of dates as you can imagine. (Imagine how well it would go over on a high school history test when you pointed out that a particular event took place somewhere between the Norman Conquest and the French Revolution.)

One of the few things that one can state with confidence is that most — but not all — of the drawings are human figures. (And no, they do not look like aliens.) It’s all a little bit spooky.

At the Puako petroglyph preserve, the spookiness is amplified by the setting, which is on a lava flow that one emerges onto after a short hike through what feels like some kind of haunted forest, along a rough path through groves of stunted and twisted trees.

Puako Petroglyph Preserve-003 Puako Petroglyph Preserve-005

At the end of the wooded path is the petroglyph field, a lava flow about the size of a couple of tennis courts, limned with burnt-looking trees. Virtually every square foot of it has a carving. You can see a couple of them clearly in the photo below, but in fact there are hundreds if not thousands.

Puako Petroglyph Preserve-007

It makes for an interesting if head-scratching outing. It’s hard not to wonder what these things are all about.

We had had a more conventional sightseeing experience a couple of days earlier on an outing to the Hamakua coast, the northeastern coast of the island that stretches between Hilo and the Kohala peninsula. It was a rainy day on that part of the island but we made the best of it, starting with a pilgrimage to the deservedly best-known purveyor of malasadas on the island, the Tex Drive In. Simply put, if you have not eaten malasadas from Tex, you have not truly visited the Big Island.

Tex Drive In-001 Tex Drive In-002

When I lived here in the early 1980’s, Tex Drive In was a little shack by the side of the road in the town of Honokaa. They sold malasadas and nothing else, and it is trite but true to say that people came from miles around to buy them. They prospered, and I was simultaneously pleased and disconcerted on this trip to discover that they are no longer in a little shack, though they are still by the side of the road in Honokaa. But the little shack has morphed into a grown-up building complete with a lunch menu and a gift shop. It feels a little like lost innocence but the good news is that the malasadas are still absolutely killer and cost only $1.10 each. So it’s hard to begrudge then their success.

Our touring ambitions were tempered by the downpour but we did make it to Akaka Falls, a 442 ft (135 m) cataract that is one of the highest and most beautiful on the island.

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You reach it after traversing an easy paved walk along a rainforest trail — and on this particular day the emphasis was on the “rain” — whose ferns and banyans set the stage for your eventual view of the falls.

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It’s always been one of my favorite sights on the island; back when I lived here, one of my favorite things to do was rent a small plane and fly out to the falls, just flying tight circles above it so I could admire them from above. Now you can do that at really close range: there’s some kind of zipline tour that takes you quite close to them, and Alice is agitating to do exactly that some time in the next week or so if we can find a day when it is not raining there.

Akaka Falls-008

Alice vows to return to Akaka Falls via zipline

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