Posts Tagged With: lava

Aurora, Sorta

Big news, kinda! We saw the aurora last night! And I write this with exclamation points in order to obscure the fact that in reality, it kinda sucked!

So, yes, we did in fact see the aurora. However, we saw it through a thick cloud haze that utterly obscured the majesty of the thing. What we actually saw was a vague, ever so slightly green, barely visible and poorly defined curtain of light that waxed and waned and changed shape over the course of a few minutes. It occupied a band covering a good 60° of the sky, though only sections were visible at a time, and barely visible at that. It was thrilling in concept only — box checked! — and did not remotely compare to the jaw-dropping display that I beheld in Alaska over 20 years ago. But we have another shot at it: they (the aurora mavens) are forecasting with near certainty that there will be a display tonight. (Yes, there is such a thing as an aurora forecast.) It has been cloudy and drizzly all day but the weather forecast calls for some clearing around midnight. So we will try again; this may be our last good shot at it because the aurora forecast projects the likelihood of a display to drop off significantly for the remainder of our stay.

Before I relate today’s travels I first want to revisit one of yesterday’s stops: the “pseudocraters” dotting Lake Mývatn. I didn’t have enough battery power in my controller to fly the drone yesterday, but remedied that oversight today. An aerial view conveys a much clearer picture of the collapsed cones and their setting on the lake.

Iceland Myvatn Pseudocraters Drone-02-Edit

Nice, huh? (I love my drone.)

Breakfast this morning was an excellent buffet with an, um, unusual view. Remember that this is a “farm resort”, and if we had somehow had any doubts about this, they were dispelled when we sat down at our table, adjacent to a large picture window looking into the cow pen where the cows were all hooked up to milking machines. I was thinking about this whilst pouring milk over my cereal, as I felt the urge to tap on the window and thank them. It is not a vista that one frequently encounters when eating breakfast in the Washington DC area.

Our original plan was to go whale watching today, but we jettisoned that idea when it became clear that the overcast, intermittently drizzly weather would make that an uncomfortable experience at best. Moreover, we are really past the end of the season; the whales hang out here in summer, so we’d be unlikely to see more than one or two this late in the year. We’ll wait for our return to Hawaii in February if we start jonesing for whales.

The whale tours leave from the town of Húsavík, near the very northern end of the island. Despite having abandoned the idea of whale watching, we decided to head there anyway, in part because it was said to have a somewhat quaint and scenic port, but mostly we wanted to get as far north as we could. Iceland does not quite reach the Arctic Circle, but we wanted to get as far as we could in order to garner some bragging rights. So we actually drove on for about 25 km past Húsavík, until we reached a peninsula that is close to the northernmost point in Iceland. (There is another peninsula that juts a few kilometers farther north, but it was inconveniently distant.) So here we are, intrepid explorers all, at the northernmost point of our journey after finally getting a bit of use out of our four wheel drive:

Iceland Husavik 2018-025-GPS

If you can read the GPS display in the image, you can see that we are at 66° 12.256′ latitude, about 40 km (25 miles) shy of the Arctic Circle. Guess we’re going to have to go to Scandinavia to cross that line, but this’ll do for now. Unsurprisingly, it is not an especially hospitable place, a desolate rocky coast littered with coarse pink and orange seaweed (!) washed by a low surf. This is a pretty representative view.

Iceland Husavik 2018-012-Edit

You will be unsurprised to learn that the wind was pretty strong and the weather conditions raw. We only lingered long enough to high five each other, take a bunch of photos, and clamber down the rocks to the surf so that we could dip our hands into the sea and tell our friends that we had touched the Arctic Ocean. We now consider ourselves to be officially awesome.

That mission accomplished, we headed back into Húsavík to have lunch and nose around. It doesn’t have a whole lot to offer other than the whale tours, a whaling museum (which we did not visit), and this locally well-known church that shows up in every picture of the town.

Iceland Husavik 2018-035

The church was built in 1907 with wood imported from Norway, and the interior sports a nice nautical blue ceiling as befits its locale. The ceiling beams resemble an inverted boat hull.

The harbor was of course occupied almost entirely by the whale watching boats, which ranged from oversized high-powered Zodiacs to this queen of the fleet, designed to resemble a 19th century whaling vessel.

Iceland Husavik 2018-043-Edit

We left Húsavík after a late lunch (and a very expensive one, like just about everything here) and headed back to Mývatn. The weather remained overcast with an on-and-off (mostly off) light drizzle, so we stopped at a couple of the prominent geothermal attractions on the way back to the farm. The first of these was Dimmuborgir, the so-called Dark Castle, which is basically — no, not basically, entirely — a collection of lava slag heaps threaded by a walking trail. If that sounds unromantic, look at this picture and tell me I’m wrong.

Iceland Myvatn 2018-045-Edit

It looked sufficiently unexciting that we contented ourselves with taking some obligatory photos from this viewpoint, using the bathrooms, and moving to our next stop, which was a lot more impressive.

That would be the Hverfjall cinder cone, a truly monumental formation that reminded me of a lava version of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia. Black, 150 meters (500 feet) high and a kilometer across, it’s about the most ominous-looking thing you can imagine, and it took a drone flight to do it justice. So here is what it looks like from 300 meters (1000′) in the air and 800 meters (half a mile) away.

Iceland Myvatn Cinder Cone Drone-002-Edit

There’s a trail, walkable in about 15 minutes, that follows the least-steep side from the parking lot up to the crater rim. Janet and Tim made the hike; Alice napped in the car while I flew the drone.

And that was today… so far. We ate sandwiches in our rooms for dinner as we await the predicted improvement in the weather, anticipating a much hoped-for view of the aurora after midnight. I’ve already dialed in my camera settings in a display of faux optimism, or perhaps a dose of sympathetic magic. I’ll let you know tomorrow if we got lucky.

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No, NOT the One With the Green Handle

OK, I want to be clear here. In the United States, the petrol pump with the green handle is always diesel. Always! Am I right, or am I right? I thought so. And so my error was not only forgivable, but unavoidable. Unavoidable, I say! But I am getting ahead of myself.

We left Reykjavik at about 10 AM today, en route to the north, to the area around Borganes, a small town on one of the western fjords of the country. Our specific destinations were a lava cave and a couple of well-known waterfalls in the vicinity. But first we needed to fill the tank of our thirsty 4WD behemoth, a double-cab Isuzu pickup truck with an enclosed bed for our luggage.

There was a gas station just around the corner from the flat, a brand called Olío. (Notice the accent over the letter i, which gives it a long i sound.) Our vehicle requires diesel fuel, which I noticed that all the pumps offered. So I drove up to the first pump, inserted my credit card, and engaged the pump with the green handle since that is OBVIOUSLY DIESEL FUEL. I pumped about 40 liters — costing approximately 12 million dollars US — as Tim and I congratulated each other on our manly ability to pump gas in a foreign country. (By the way, for the record, petrol actually costs roughly US $9 per gallon here.) But as I hung the pump back in its cradle, my eye was drawn to an adjacent pump handle — stealthy black in color — with a tag on it that, in ominous Icelandic, read “Díesl”. By virtue of my highly advanced linguistic skills, I immediately realized that, in NASA parlance, I had screwed the proverbial pooch. In particular, I had just put about 40 liters of 95-octane petrol into a diesel vehicle. The only saving grace of the situation was that I had noticed this before we had set out on our drive and inevitably broken down in the middle of some godforsaken windswept glacial tundra, which is where it surely would have happened.

But since we were still at the petrol station, the potential catastrophe had been reduced to what Alice and I refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem.” I went to the counter of the service station, where the friendly attendant called a local guy who handles this sort of thing. Said local guy, a creased, windburnt, businesslike 60-something in coveralls, showed up about 20 minutes later, siphoned out the contaminated fuel, and — because we had called him from home on a weekend — somewhat apologetically charged me an amount of money that was shockingly much even by Icelandic standards. Like I said, an MSP.

We refueled the vehicle — another 18 million dollars of “Díesl” this time — and, this particular misadventure behind us, set out on our away again. Our route to the lava cave first brought us past Borganes and its adjacent fjord, bordering a scrubby green and yellow steppe at the foot of a line of steep volcanic mountains. Despite the bleakness — it was an overcast, windy day with a smattering of rain — there was a certain stark idyllic quality to the setting, as you can see from scenes like this.

Iceland Borganes 2018-004-Edit

The fjord itself is broad and still, and at the time we were there the tide was out, revealing a maze of low muddy shoals. Fortunately both the wind and rain died down for long enough to allow a drone flight, during which I captured these panoramas from the air:

Iceland Borganes Drone 2018-030-EditIceland Borganes Drone 2018-017-Edit

The bridge at lower left leads directly into Borganes. But although we are sleeping there tonight, our lava cave of interest lay about a 45 minute drive beyond it. The cave — actually a lava tube — is called Víðgelmir, which like many Icelandic place names is best pronounced whilst eating a marshmallow. It sits in the middle of a lava field at the foot of the Langjökull  glacier, which you can see here.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-010

The cave is more than 30 meters underground with assorted ledges and overhangs, so we were first equipped with helmets with mounted flashlights. As you can see from this photo we were ready for some volcanic spelunking.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-009

The entrance to the cave is suitably maw-like, and we picked our way along the, um, unadventurous wooden stairs and boardwalk, following our guide and listening to his lecture about the geology of the place.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-019Iceland Lava Cave 2018-023

We are not unfamiliar with lava tubes because of our time in Hawaii, but Víðgelmir is particularly impressive. It’s nearly a mile long and sports a variety of lava formations much more typical of a “conventional” limestone cave, e.g., stalactites and stalagmites, albeit very small ones. But its most (to me) unexpected feature is a consequence of its temperature, which hovers at just about freezing. Consequently there are a large number of crystalline stalagmite-like ice formations like these.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-037

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-033

I found them particularly otherwordly. And indeed, if you get too close they break open and this thing that looks like a horseshoe crab jumps out and grabs your face, and you just know what’s gonna happen after that.

The cave tour lasted about an hour and a half, and we set out to our next destination, the Barnafoss and Hraunfossar waterfalls, adjacent to each other along a short looping walking path. They’re beautiful and would have made a great venue for a drone flight except that by this time the rain had started in earnest.  Hraunfossar — the name means “lava falls” — has an unusual property: its water seems to come out of nowhere. What actually happens is that the glacial melt percolates through the surrounding lava field and emerges as a line of cataracts along the river; indeed, you can actually see the water coming out of the rock. Take a look:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-006

Barnafoss, only about 200 meters away, means “Child Falls”, named after a rather dreary local legend about them. The story goes that one day two boys, home alone while their parents went to church, got bored and decide to follow.  (The assertion that two young boys spontaneously decided to go to church on their own tells you immediately that this is a myth.)  Anyway, the legend tells that they tried to take a shortcut over a natural stone bridge that crossed the falls, but fell off the bridge and drowned. The mother of the boys then cursed the bridge, and shortly afterward it was destroyed by an earthquake. This is about as cheerful as Icelandic legends get. It must be the weather. In any case, here’s Barnafoss:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-013

You can tell from the photos how gray the sky had gotten, and in fact it was pretty much pouring by this time. So we gawked until satisfied, then retreated to the car and returned to Borganes. Our lodgings are an AirBnb, a very pleasant two-bedroom cottage overlooking the fjord. Borganes has a population of only about 3,000 but I am happy to report that we were able to satisfy Janet’s craving for pizza: there are at least two pizzerias in town, and the one we chose was excellent.

Tomorrow: further into the frozen north!











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Hapuna a me ka Lapakahi

…which is not as complicated as it looks. It simply means “Hapuna and Lapakahi” in Hawaii, those being the names of two places on the Big Island that we visited yesterday.

Hapuna Beach is one of the best known beaches on the island, an achingly photogenic stretch of dun-colored sand caressed by a gentle turquoise surf, and framed by two jagged lava promontories at either end. Here’s a panorama from the drone, taken during yesterday’s visit:

Hapuna Beach drone-001

Besides the obvious beach and surf, there are two other features of note: Kohala mountain bulging gently above the horizon at left, and the luxurious Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel at far left, regally overlooking the scene. The hotel is enormous and beautiful; several years ago we had the privilege of staying there for four or five days on someone else’s dime while attending a boondoggle conference. The mountain is also enormous: a mile-high, 200 square mile (500 square km) extinct volcano that essentially is the entire northwest corner of the Big Island.

Conditions are not always this idyllic at Hapuna. The surf can be rough, although the bottom is sandy — unlike the other, rockier beaches on the island — and so a rough surf is far less dangerous than elsewhere. And if the wind is high you can get sandblasted whilst attempting to enjoy yourself. But these are the exceptions. Most frequently the place looks like a postcard and it is a popular destination for sunning and body surfing. Here’s a 2-minute drone flyover video to give you a sense of the place:

(As you can tell, I’ve gotten heavily into flying my drone on this trip. But I dare you to tell me that this is not seriously cool.)

Neither Alice nor I are sunbather types. For one thing, when I am in strong sunlight my mottled pasty complexion moves the state of my skin almost instantly from “Anemic Vampire” to “Crimson Crispy”. In the words of Woody Allen, “I don’t tan, I stroke.” And Alice grew up in Oregon, where one’s best opportunity to get a tan requires dodging the raindrops. So we hung out for 45 or minutes or so with our visiting friends, then moved on.

Our next stop, further up the coast in Kohala, was a little more cerebral: Lapakahi State Historical Park. It’s the ruins of an ancient coastal village, about 600 years old. The name means “single ridge” and it is an array of ruins and reconstructed structures spread out along a rough lava coast and threaded by a mile-long interpretive trail. Like so many archaelogical sites it seems to make the most sense when viewed from above, so here are a couple of aerial shots:

Lapakahi drone-002Lapakahi drone-001

In addition to the ruins, the offshore area is a Marine Life Conservation District. The interpretive path takes you past a variety of structures in various stages of deterioration or, in some cases, reconstruction. There are dwellings, canoe storage houses, salt-making pans, and a couple of kōnane games, the latter being a lot like Chinese checkers. It’s played on a lava “board” with a grid of hollowed out pits, with alternating black and white stones placed in the pits and variously moved around per the rules.

The aerial views give you a sense of the layout of the place, but, truth to tell, when you are following the path it mostly feels like you are walking among a random collection of low lava walls of uncertain purpose. Which, I suppose, is why I am not an archaeologist. Nonetheless, the place has an enjoyably eldritch feel to it, the susurration of the surf and the dark rough lava walls invoking a real sense of mystery and age. Or to put it another way, it feels just a bit like being inside the beautiful old computer game Myst. Here’s a video that I took by flying along the coast, so that you can see how large and spread out it is.

The surf has been high and the weather on the windward (eastern) side of the island rainy for the past few days, so we have confined our roamings to the Kona coast and the western side of Kohala to escape it. But things look better for the next few days. Tomorrow we will try and make it to the 13,802′ (4205 m) summit of Mauna Kea where the conditions are expected to be clear, provided one is willing to tolerate sub-freezing temperatures and 20 mph winds. They’ve had a lot of snow up there this winter, so if we are lucky then I will have some “snow in Hawaii” photos to post.



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Waipio? Wai not?

The oldest part of the Big Island is its northwestern corner, a 15 mile (25 km) long, 10 mile (16 km) wide peninsula called Kohala. It is, in fact, a single giant extinct volcano, the first part of the island that formed. That makes it about a million years old, and it last erupted about 120,000 years ago. So it’s old; eroded and overgrown, it’s now cattle grazing country, a huge grassy hill dotted with overgrown volcanic cinder cones and commanding a view down the coast.

When the clouds are not in the way — which they are, more often than not — you can see Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as well.  Today we had — what is for this part of the island — uncharacteristically beautiful weather; the day was clear and warm, though distant clouds kept Mauna Kea out of view most of the time.

At the southeastern end of the peninsula, on the windward side where Kohala joins the rest of the island, is one of the Big Island’s most paradisaical  locales: Waipi’o Valley. A 1000-foot deep, half-mile wide slash in the lava-stone coastline, Waipi’o’s striking appearance is matched by its comparable inaccessibility. It was the home of ancient Hawaiian chiefs and is still considered a “cultural seedbank”, dotted with taro fields and threaded by a shallow river that flows down to a black sand beach. The nearly vertical green walls are punctuated by waterfalls, giving the place a serene Edenic feel. I wrote about it a year ago in this blog post.

It’s tough to get down to the bottom: you need a good four-wheel drive or really strong thighs and cardiovascular system to tackle the intimidating 25% grade. We did it for fun when I lived here, 35 years ago; today I sent a drone in my place.

The cranky “Resource Ranger” (that’s what it said on his name tag) wouldn’t let me launch the drone from the lookout point and admonished that I must not fly into the valley at all. So I walked a few hundred yards back down the approach road and launched from there instead, being careful to stay out over the water and above the rim of the valley. Here’s what it looked like from my airborne proxy, nearly 500 meters above the beach.

If you’d like a greater sense of immediacy about the place, here’s the video from the same drone flight:

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Kayaking at the End of the World

That’s “End of the World” as in that part of the Kona coastline, not the apocalypse sort. And we weren’t the ones doing the kayaking. And…oh never mind, you’ll see in a moment.

We are enjoying a brief visit from our friends Laura and Brian, who live in Honolulu and whom we usually stay with for a few days during our sojourns here. This time they came to us on the Big Island. Laura is one of my oldest friends, dating back a terrifying 46 years or so, a nice Jewish girl from Massachusetts who fulfilled the lifetime dream of all nice Jewish girls by marrying a Hawaiian. (For the record, poi is kosher, Kahlua pig isn’t. Not that she cares either way.)

We took them down to End of the World this morning to be appropriately awed by the  gigantic crashing waves there, only to find a disappointingly calm sea. However, those ocean conditions were a lot better received by a large group of kayakers, college students from Georgia who are here on some kind of Outward Bound-type of program. I know this because I felt obliged to buzz them with the drone, which prompted an unexpected visit from their tour leader: he walked over to us from the top of the cliff overlooking the kayakers to gawk at the drone, explain who they were and — to my surprise and delight — ask if he could purchase my drone photos and video footage for their publicity material. Being a nice guy and an idiot, I gave them to him for free. Here are a couple of the shots.

Having acquired that smidgen of good karma, we moved on to our next destination: Naalehu, at 19.07° latitude the southernmost town in the U.S.  It’s a sleepy little place where every single business establishment correctly if rather repetitively advertises itself as the Southernmost ______ In The United States; you can fill in the blank with restaurant, barber shop, gas station, funeral home, or whatever. Our particular target was the Punalu’u bakery, which is the southernmost et cetera et cetera.  I wrote about Naalehu and Punaluu in this blog post two years ago, so you can read it and brush up on the details. (Clicking the link will open the post in a new browser tab so you won’t lose your place here.) Punalu’s big attraction is their malasadas, a jelly-donut-like confection of Portuguese origin that will transport you to heaven both figuratively (because of the taste) and literally (because of the calories and cholesterol).

Having pushed our LDL numbers into a blissfully unhealthy range, we moved on to South Point, the actual physical southernmost point in the U.S. at latitude 18.91°. It’s a windswept volcanic coast of lava cliffs overlooking crystal cerulean waters where you can see the coral reefs all the way to the bottom. The actual location is signified by a navigation marker, as you can see here.

The “windswept” part gave me pause, since my drone gets unhappy when the winds reach about 20 mph (32 kph) and I was a little nervous about the thing blowing out to sea. But it handled the conditions without much difficulty, affording me the shot of the navigation marker and this view of the coastline.

One of the bizarrely popular activities on those cliffs is cliff diving, a sport in which I have no desire to participate. There are several metal ladders drilled into the lava at the top of the cliffs near where the cars are parked, so that those daredevils who do take the plunge — invariably testosterone-besotted young males — can climb back up in safety rather than, um, die.

You can tell from the photos that outside of the cliffs themselves the terrain is rolling grassland. Indeed, as you navigate the one-and-a-half lane road south from Naalehu for 12 miles to reach South Point, you pass a number of cattle farms that look like they’d be right at home in the higher elevation cattle ranches on the northern part of the island, or for that matter in Wyoming.

The wind is pretty constant, the trade winds rounding the point as they blow from the northeast. And so it is not at all surprising that the region takes advantage of that with a wind farm, dramatically situated on a ridge as though commanding the seas whilst harnessing the breeze.

 It was about an hour trip home from South Point, where we crashed for a few hours before continuing in the sacred tradition of Eating Too Much While On Vacation. Dinner was at Annie’s, a cheery low-key place overlooking the ocean and billing itself as proffering the best hamburgers on the island. Make a note of that if you come here: they make a pretty strong case for the claim.



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Crashing Waves

The Big Island is built out of three active volcanoes (Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai), one dormant one (Mauna Kea), and one extinct one (Kohala). The Kona coast lies in the shadow of two of the active ones: Mauna Loa and Hualalai. Most of the Kona district, in fact, sits on the slope of Hualalai, which last erupted 200 years ago and is waiting patiently to play serious havoc with the local real estate market at some time in the indefinite future.

So as you would imagine, lava rock is not exactly a scarce commodity around here; as you’ve seen from my previous photos, most of the coastline is lava rock in various degrees of pulverization. One of the most dramatic illustrations of that feature is a locale called “End of the World”, a line of lava cliffs pummeled by high surf that puts one to mind of what the beaches might look like in Mordor. Here are a couple of photos to give you the idea. (The first is from the drone, directly offshore, and the second is taken from a hillside a few hundred meters down the coast.)

End of the World aerial-003End of the World Canon-003

Not your ideal swimming locale, a rather obvious fact that does not prevent the occasional idiot from going mano a mano again Darwin and losing. (Two years ago, just around the time we moved into the house, one of these benighted daredevils jumped into the water from the top of the cliffs and — surprise! — was unable to figure out a way back up.  A helicopter was dispatched but was too late to save him.)

So although I am not even remotely tempted to perform that particular stunt, it is an ideal venue to snag some dramatic aerial footage via drone, so here is a short video of our visit yesterday. (Stick around till the end of it: there was a sightseeing boat about a mile offshore that I was able to catch up to and play peekaboo with.)

We went back again today. The surf was far calmer than yesterday, but we don’t need the drama to have a nice end to the day here: a Hawaiian sunset will do nicely. So here it is:End of the World Canon-002

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“Da Drone, Boss, Da Drone!”

We arrived on the Big Island yesterday afternoon, about 30 hours ago as I type this, and though we are still coping with East Coast-to-Hawaii jet lag — I woke up at 4 AM today — we have nonetheless settled right in to our tropical home away from home. And it feels like that, too, i.e., the home part: this place is real easy to get used to, doubly so since this is our third winter here. Our goal has now become convincing all of our family and friends to move here so we can stay for good.

We have spent the day variously basking on the lanai (known as a patio just about anywhere else) and running various errands, the latter mostly in the form of grocery shopping or buying items that we forgot to bring. Those missing items included hats (I would not recognize Alice without her floppy garden hat) and the wall charger for my camera batteries.

But I did manage to execute a couple of short drone flights so that I can give you a bit of a feel for the environs.  I am still very much learning the fine points of getting good photo and video results from the thing — you know, niceties like steering and camera settings — but nonetheless here is today’s result:

You will notice the ubiquity of lava rock, e.g., the rather uninviting jagged ebon expanse adjacent to the swimming pool at about the one-minute mark in the video. That’s what the whole complex would look like were it not for the intervention of developers. In fact, in significant measure that’s what this whole side of the island would look like.

You’ll note similarly that the shoreline — about 250 meters from our house as the drone flies — is quite rough-looking. It’s that lava again, pretty much up and down the coast. But there are a number of nice beaches, mostly of the black sand variety where the lava has eroded. There’s quite an attractive one just another couple of hundred meters up the coast, just beyond where the video ends. (I started getting some radio interference and so brought the drone home earlier than planned rather than risk losing control.) You can also see that the water is quite clear, with coral reefs visible in the shallows. The snorkeling around here is superb.

About 45 minutes up the coast from here is an enormous, picturesque, and very popular white sand beach called Hapuna. I confess to being puzzled by its geology. Black sand I get; it’s just broken down lava. But where did the white sand come from? Some research is required, but not tonight.

My drone expedition was cut short when the property manager — a cheerful mustachioed man — tootled over in a small vehicle and rather apologetically asked me to knock it off. It’s not forbidden to fly drones in the complex, he allowed, but a couple of the residents were freaking out so would I please stop? So I did. I had in fact canvassed a couple of the neighbors in advance to make sure they were OK with it (they were) but I obviously couldn’t poll everyone and apparently missed the paranoid ones. Jeez, you’d think that they had all received some kind of false alarm on their cell phones about incoming missiles…..


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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:


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


Ornate Butterflyfish (Kikakapu)


Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish (Lau Hau)


Black Surgeonfish (Pualu)


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


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


A school of yellow tangs (Lau’i Pau)


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:


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:


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:


(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:


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.





Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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.



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:


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:


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.


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:



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.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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