Posts Tagged With: road

Down in the Valley, Big Island Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Back on Top

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

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

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

Maunakea 2019-025

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

Maunakea 2019-020

I spent some 200 nights inside that dome.

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

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Maunakea 2019-008-Edit

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

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…and here are some icy stalactites hanging off another:

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

Maunakea 2019-021

As I said, we could not linger.

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

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

About Those Sheep…

A few people were understandably intrigued about yesterday’s rather cryptic blog snippet, “men in truck with sheep (dowry)”. So here is the story.

The road between Casablanca (on the coast) and Chefchouen (to the north, in the Rif mountains) is pretty cleanly bisected by the town of Souk el Arba, which, were it relocated about 5000 miles to the west, would be called “Tijuana”. Indeed, the two towns are nearly indistinguishable: wide dusty streets lined with sketchy-looking pharmacies and auto repair garages, thronged with tourists and pushcart vendors and lined with trash; open air restaurants on every corner; and the din of every vehicle known to man, from tour buses to donkey carts. (The third photo from the bottom in the last blog post is a donkey cart on the middle of the intersection.)

Oh, and on the subject of its Tijuana-ness, I should also mention that this part of the country has a heavy Spanish influence. Remember my description of the female hajji wearing a djellaba and what seemed to be a sombrero? That was a sombrero: they are a thing here. (In fact, if you wear a djellaba and a sombrero whilst wearing Dutch wooden shoes and eating your food with chopsticks, you will achieve Peak Multiculturalism.)

Anyway, amidst these lively and seedy surroundings we had an excellent meal consisting of the local fresh oven-warm flatbread — somewhat like pita but airier and with a crunchier crust — been kebabs cooked over an open air charcoal grill, and vegetable tagine, a Moroccan specialty that is sort of a stew.

We left Souk el Arba, driving past wilted fields and salt evaporation ponds, and drove for about another hour before taking a break at a pleasant café. By this point the terrain was starting to change, as we approached the mountains. The road became uphill and windier and the surroundings greener. It was still punctuated by low villages full of seemingly unfinished houses with rebar sticking out everywhere, pods of young men milling around among farmers in horse and donkey carts. Every such village is overlooked by an Andalusian-style mosque (meaning that the minaret is square instead of round) that is always the tallest structure. The minarets are usually painted in soothing Mediterranean colors such as white and aqua.

It was shortly after we left the café that Steve asked the van driver to back up: he had spotted (and heard) a flatbed truck full of musicians and wanted to get some photos. And indeed, we thus found ourselves among the preliminaries of a wedding:  a flatbed trailer being towed by a farm tractor, the tractor occupied by a driver, a two other men, one of whom was a dour-looking 30-ish man in a Western suit, pretty clear the groom and not obviously happy about it. (“But Mom, she can’t cook and she’s only got one leg!” “Shut up Ahmed! You’re 30 years old and you’re lucky she has *any* legs!”)

The groom may not have been altogether on board, but the musicians on the flatbed were having a grand old time. They were lounging on the flatbed along with two sheep, which we assume were the dowry. (At least, we hope they were the dowry.) They were laughing and blaring away for all they were worth on some shrill oboe-like instruments, and were more than happy for us to take their pictures (hence the close up photo of the guy blowing his instrument right at me). I even climbed up onto the tailgate to get the shot of the guys with the sheep. Everyone was having a grand time until Grumpy Groom climbed down off the tractor to yell at us and clearly indicate that we were not to take pictures. So we left, and raucous party faded into the distance.

And that is the story of our encounter with the dowry sheep and the musicians. Go to bed now, children.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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