Posts Tagged With: waterfall

Gorging on Waterfalls

I mentioned yesterday that the Finger Lakes were formed during the last ice age and are thus quite young: a few tens of thousands of years. But they have company, in the form of a number of spectacular narrow gorges. The best known of these is Watkins Glen at the foot of Seneca Lake. It’s an insanely photogenic canyon, 400 ft (120 m) deep and about a mile and a half (2.5 km) long. If you walk the whole length — we did about half — you’ll go up and down something like 890 steps, and you’l see 19 waterfalls.

The geology of the gorges is interesting. They are sedimentary rock, a mix of shale, limestone, and sandstone. These differ a great deal in their hardness and thus their rates of erosion, resulting in a number of natural staircase-like rock formations.

That’s today’s geology lesson, so here are some photos from today’s hike:

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Pretty cool, huh?

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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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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:

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…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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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Aloha! Next stop: Japan in seven months!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Alice vows to return to Akaka Falls via zipline

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Hello, Hilo

Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island (despite a population of less than 50,000)  has something of a rustic and even slightly downscale reputation, probably not helped by the 150″ (3.8 m) of rain that it can get in a particularly wet year (and I witnessed one of those). But I’ve always loved it, for many reasons: for one, I lived here for three years, decades ago, and my first child was born here. But my emotional resonance with the place notwithstanding, Hilo is one of the most authentic places that you can visit in Hawaii, insofar as its daily life and commerce center on its residents rather than on a flow of tourists, which are relatively few compared to Kona or any of the other islands.

Hilo sits in the crook of U-shaped Hilo Bay, a geographical feature whose shape contributed to tragedy. In May of 1960, a tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Chile roared into the bay, whose shape essentially focused the wave onto the downtown waterfront; 61 people died. Today, a seawall extends about halfway across the mouth of Hilo Bay in the hope of diminishing that focusing effect should another tsunami strike someday. The downtown waterfront has long since been rebuilt; it’s only a few blocks long but pleasantly situated directly adjacent to a park and of course looking out over the palm-lined bay itself. Adding to the scene are some pretty good restaurants and a lot of local artisan shops that on average are superior to what you’ll find in Kona, probably because they feature real local artworks instead of an endless selection of plastic leis and coconut-shell bras for your next at-home production of “South Pacific”. (You can find that stuff here too, of course; but in Kona it sometimes seems that that’s most of what you find.)

We got lucky with Hilo’s weather yesterday, it being sunny and beautiful. So after having lunch at a waterside restaurant with some old friends, we walked around Liliuokalani Gardens, a 30-acre waterfront garden and park established by the eponymous queen in about 1900. It’s a serene place to walk, Japanese-themed with arched bridges, pagoda-shaped shrines, and koi ponds, but unmistakably Hawaiian nonetheless, dotted with enormous monkeypod and banyan trees.

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Queen Liliuokalani, by the way, was the last monarch of Hawaii as well as the author of the most well-known piece of Hawaiian music ever created: Aloha Oe. You have heard it a hundred times, but in case the title is unfamiliar to you this should refresh your memory:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjZyZ8IuSzw.  (And if, when you read the words “most well-known piece of Hawaiian music ever created”, your first thought was “Tiny Bubbles” sung by Don Ho, please go back to drinking your mai tai.) Her portrayal in popular culture has been rather “Disney princess-ized” over the decades, depicted as your classic willowy and almost-Caucasian beauty. She was in fact very Polynesian in appearance — dark skin, broad nose — and as an adult somewhat resembled her contemporary, Queen Victoria. She was also very responsive to her subjects, moving by popular will to abrogate the so-called Bayonet Constitution that had essentially been forced upon the islands by the sugar barons. She renounced it in 1891, proposed a more Hawaii-centric alternative, and was promptly invaded and deposed by the U.S. That, gentle reader, is why Hawaii is a state today, and you should not imagine for one moment that there aren’t still people here who are pissed off about it.

About 10 miles north of Hilo is the largest and most impressive tropical botanical garden  on the island, the unimaginatively if accurately named Tropical Botanical Garden in the microscopic town of Papaikou. The parking lot and entry point of the garden is just off the coast highway, on the scenic northeasterly-facing Hamakua coast of the Big Island. But the walkway through the gardens takes you a steep 200′ (60 m) or so down the hillside to the roiling coast, passing waterfalls, palm-shaded gardens of orchids, anthuriums (or is it anthuria?), ginger, and a lot of everything else along the way.

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At the bottom you end up at a dramatic ocean overlook where swimming would be a decidedly bad idea.

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The (literal) downside, of course is that having walked steeply downhill to get here, you get to walk steeply uphill back. And since this is a rain forest, you get to enjoy the 120% humidity while you do so. Still, it was worth it.

The Hamakua coast road was for many years (and the whole time I lived here, ages ago) the best practical way to drive between Kona and Hilo, taking about 2 1/2  hours. There was also the so-called Saddle Road, which cuts straight across the island between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, but it was a grueling drive: a narrow, poorly-maintained road with more twists and turns than a bad soap opera. But that all changed in the 1990’s when the road was regraded, repaved, and straightened, and that more direct route now shaves about a half hour off the trip. It’s an unusual drive, starting in lush, humid Hilo, climbing up to 6600′ (2000 m) elevation where the terrain is all lava fields, the air is dry, and the temperature about 20F (11 C) cooler than sea level, and then descending again to the dry Kona coast. When you make that drive, as we did, you pass through a layer of clouds that gives you a good chance of getting rained on, after which the emerging sun will grace you with a rainbow. The Big Island has a couple of nicknames, the Orchid Isle being one and the Rainbow Isle another, both for very good reason. So here was our rainbow, an impressive double-decker with nearly a full 180 degree arc.

Saddle Road Rainbow-001

At the midpoint of the saddle, if you are above the inversion layer (read: clouds) you get striking clear views of the two 14,000′ (4300 m) peaks that dominate the island: Mauna Kea (“White Mountain”) and Mauna Loa (“Long Mountain”). Mauna Kea is the premier astronomy site in the world and hosts about a dozen major observatories to prove it, a couple of which you can see from the road:

Mauna Kea-001

I have spent approximately 200 nights atop Mauna Kea, using those telescopes. It was an exciting and wonderful time in my life. Plus, the loss of countless brain cells as a result of breathing the thin air for so long at that altitude is a great excuse for my personality, though only for those who didn’t know me before that.

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The Big Splash and the Long Goodbye (Oct 17)

Today was our last full day of the trip and we spent it mostly doing one thing, which was getting very, very wet. We are still at Iguazú Falls and today was our visit to the Argentine side. This would have been a reprise of my own visit here 12 years ago but for one change that happened here in the past year, which is that the walkway that I trod at that time no longer exists, having been wiped out by a flood just last July. That’s a pity: the walkway was a dramatic catwalk that cantilevered way out over the gorge up to the face of the Devil’s Throat, the largest of the 270 cataracts. (We got pretty close to it yesterday from the Brazilian side, fortunately.) But last July’s rains were record-breakers, with water levels reaching unprecedented heights and doing damage to a number of the paths; indeed, we are still experiencing the aftermath of the rains in the form of exceptionally high water volumes over the falls, as I mentioned yesterday.

We arrived at the park in the morning, for the twin reasons of beating the crowds and beating the heat: the temperature hit 102°F today, and let me assure you that it is not a dry heat. It is in fact a sponge-soaking, sweltering, who-stole-all-the-oxygen, oh-my-god-why-am-I-here heat. So better the morning than the afternoon.

“Hand over the table scraps and no one gets hurt.”

There are a couple of ways in which the Argentine side of the park differs from the Brazilian side, one of which being the proliferation of raccoon-like coatimundis (universally called coatis, pronounced co-AH-tees). They’re everywhere, big family groups scampering in the woods, ambling across the walking paths, and wrestling each other on the ground and in the trees. They are about the size of raccoons, somewhat more lithe-looking, and with pointier snouts. (Here’s one at left.)

They’re cute, they’re great marketing material — you got your coati hats and tee shirts in the gift shop — and they’re brazen, hanging around the various snack bars to look for food targets of opportunity. And so of course the inevitable happens, which is that numbskull tourists try and hand-feed them and end up with an impressive collection of souvenir bite marks and lacerations. The park authorities, needless to say, try to discourage this, primarily by means of extremely graphic, medical grade warning signs depicting said bite marks and lacerations.

A suspicious butterfly, signaling his gang

Another attraction that distinguishes the Argentine park is butterflies, lots of them. We saw quite a few yesterday but many, many more today, probably ten varieties if not more. Like the coatis, they’re pretty brazen too, alighting everywhere and on everyone. I am not aware of any serious injuries resulting from butterfly attacks, however. (But I can see how it would happen. You’re crossing one of the metal catwalks across a high gorge with a roaring cataract below. Suddenly a cloud of butterflies comes fluttering out of nowhere, harassing you around the eyes! You swat at them but there are too many, and you’re not watching where you’re going so you bump into a lady in a wheelchair and stumble over the railing, plummeting a hundred feet, screaming and flailing, into the roiling whitecapped cascade below.)

Sorry, I got a little distracted there. What I was thinking of was something that did in fact happen today, which is that a woman in a wheelchair bumped into something whilst on a catwalk and her camera went flying over the edge and into liquid oblivion. No butterflies were involved. At least, none that we know of; they all have alibis. Anyway, here is one of the fearless butterflies, pictured at right.

Lost in all this talk about dangerous creatures are the falls themselves, which are about as spectacular on the Argentine side as in Brazil. So here they are, or more accurately a small part of them:

*Part* of the Argentine falls at Iguazú

Our goal today was a boat ride, in particular a boat ride straight into the bottom of the falls. This is about as insane and fun as it sounds. It’s rather hard to convey — you’ll have to wait till we post the video after we get home — but here’s what it looks like from above, as another boat enters the falls. The boat is that barely visible mist-cloaked triangular shape to the left of the rocks at the right side of the picture.

People paying to get very wet

The boats are open and hold maybe 25 people, all wearing life vests (of course), and all having stored their wallets, cameras, etc., etc., in sealed oilskin bags provided by the operators.

A prelude to getting lots more wet than this

But I am getting ahead of myself. The first thing that happens is that you have to get down to the river from the walkways way up at the tops of the falls. This involves, first, a long gentle traversing pathway that takes you about halfway down the cliffside, followed by a large number of stone steps down to river’s edge, followed by a rocky walkway along the river and about 30 feet above it. There are a number of spectacular viewpoints along the way, such as this one at right.

The problem with walking down all those steps, of course, is that (a) you are doing it in 102° heat, and (b) you are going to have to walk back up those steps later, when you are soaked to the skin. This is the price we pay for adventure tourism.

Once at the boarding point, we are issued life vests, the aforementioned dry bags, and we march aboard and sit down. As we cast off we receive a loud and insistent safety briefing entirely in Spanish, which we assume pretty much says, “Don’t do anything that a drunken 19 year old fraternity pledge would do.”

Blub blub, gurgle gurgle

The current is strong, the cataracts deafening, and the boat’s engine nearly a match for them. We charge up the river, make a few tight turns for the hell of it, then gun the motor and charge straight into the falls. WHHOOOSH!! Instant hurricane, pounding, blinding rain and swirling mist, the falls barely visible, looming directly atop us and thundering down onto us like a swimming pool dropped onto our heads from 100 feet up, which is pretty much what it is. Everybody screams and laughs as the irresistible current pushes us back out of the falls, the water pressure overwhelming the engine thrust. What a rush! I think even my internal organs got wet.

Julio had instructed everyone to chant “Uno mas!” (“One more time!”) over and over again as we came out of the falls to induce the boat driver to give us an encore. Which he did: we went under the falls four times and came out looking like drowned rats. (See my spousal drowned rat at left, partly obscured by drops on our thankfully waterproof camera lens.)

Exhilarated and soaked to the skin as we were, the task before us was to retrace our steps back up the cliffside. The water, of course, was wonderfully refreshing and its gradual evaporation as we hiked back up provided some cooling against the otherwise oppressive heat. By the time we reached the top, we were about 2/3 dry and ready to start sweating and stifling again. So we took a lunch break at the inevitable snack bar at the top (taking care not to feed the coatis lest mutilation ensue), rode the van back to the hotel, and variously showered, napped, and vegged out for the rst of the day.

Which brings us to the end of our adventure. Tomorrow morning we fly back to Buenos Aires, kill most of the day there, and fly home on a red eye via Miami tomorrow (Saturday) night. We’ve got a several-hour layover there, so we’ll walk through the door of our home near dinnertime on Sunday.

We have seen and some so much that it seems like forever ago that we landed in Santiago and struck out for the Atacama desert. Here are several stats for the South America part of the trip:

 Highest temperature  102° today and yesterday at Iguazú Falls
 Lowest temperature  20° at Tatio Geyser Field in the Atacama Desert
 Highest elevation  14,020′ at Tatio Geyser Field
 Lowest elevation  Sea level! (On the Via Australis Zodiacs, of course)
 Strongest wind  56 mph at Torres del Paine National Park
 Northernmost latitude   -25° 41′ at Iguazú Falls
 Southernmost latitude  -55° 59′ at Cape Horn
 Number of hotel rooms  11
 Plane flights  7 (plus 4 more to and from the US)

So we’ve spanned 30° of latitude, 14,020′ of elevation, and 82° of temperature. We saw calving glaciers and flamingoes living in desert salt flats; we walked on the southernmost point of land outside Antarctica; watched penguins; power-boated under a 200′ waterfall; rode a Zodiac through an ice-choked fjord; saw herds of guanáco and llamas roaming desert hillsides; drove across the Argentine pampas; and made an offering to some crazy semi-Catholic idol who isn’t even an official saint.

We took 2850 pictures. It was a great vacation.

 

 

  

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Buenos Aires (Oct 15) and Iguazú Falls (Oct 16): Mucho Agua

Stephen King’s market place in Santelmo

Alice is recovering from a mild to moderate cold (that she caught from me) and so passed on a few of yesterday’s goings-on, starting with an indoor marketplace. A somewhat grungier version of Baltimore’s Lexington Market or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, Buenos Aires’ Santelmo market is housed in a cavernous warehouse space that, but for being too small, might in some other life have been an abandoned railway station. As it is, most of the stalls were closed since we we there on a weekday — weekends are the big market time — which gave the place a somewhat forlorn and slightly spooky aura; you get the idea from the photo at left.

But there were nonetheless a fair number of places open, mostly butchers and produce stalls (with very nice looking produce, I should add), as well as a certain number of hard-to-describe places selling extremely random odds and ends: antique dolls, mismatched china sets, pots and pans, household utensils and tools of uncertain purpose, long-obscure toys (anybody remember Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse puppet from the Ed Sullivan Show? He’s here.), etc., etc.

   

It was an unusual but strangely interesting way to spend an hour or so. So to continue…

Buenos Aires sits on the Rio La Plata, or “silver river”. Why that name? Is it silver-colored? No. In fact, because of an enormous amount of suspended sediment, the whole river and the delta at its mouth are the color of chocolate milk. It is a very odd sight, the broad and tranquil river flowing into a wide delta stretching to the horizon, all the water a pleasant but surreal café au lait brown that makes it feel like someone has Photoshopped your retina by somehow shifting the color scale. In any case it is definitely not silver.

Ah then, perhaps there are some big silver mines along it. Nope, not that either. Turns out that the Argentines are prone to hyperbole and the original settlers were misled by the natives into thinking that somewhere at the headwaters of the river there were major silver deposits. So they optimistically named the river after them and basically got stuck with the name even after the eponymous silver turned out to be mostly nonexistent.

We spent a pleasant sunny morning on a boat out on that earthy-looking water, or rather I did; Alice had that cold and decided to sleep in that day. But the rest of us boarded our van and drove for an hour to the town of Tigre, first passing some of Buenos Aires’ extensive and remarkably constructed shantytowns, as you see here.

No plumbing, no problem — we got cable!

The slum is vast, dense and essentially improvised, with surprisingly sophisticated structures constructed mostly out of scrounged materials, and sustained by bootleg connections to city utilities. They may not all have water, but you better believe they all have TV.

Liquid bus stop

We continued pass the tenements for another half hour or so to the town of Tigre, whose mascot and town logo is exactly what you think it would be. Tigre is a pleasant resort town near the delta of the river whose claim to fame is an entire community that lives on the water. The delta is crisscrossed by river channels — again that chocolate brown water — that are perhaps 50 or 75 yards wide and lined by a mix of residences and vacation houses whose condition ranges from luxurious to caved-in. There is a local “bus” service rather like a water taxi with fixed stops; you can see one at right. Note the color of the water and the elegant wooden structure of the boat itself; a large fraction of boats plying these waters are genteel-looking low-slung dark wooden hulls, most of them dating back 50 or 60 years.

Groceries on the river

Some are are aquatic school buses, ferrying children to a school on the river bank; others, floating hardware and landscape stores selling tools and plants; and still others, floating grocery stores. (We pulled up to one of the latter  and bought some crackers and fruit through a port hole…kinda cool to do.) You can see one of the grocery boats at left; the one we stopped at resembled the dark, low-riding ones. The proprietors were greatly amused at the dozen or so childlike tourists sticking their arms through the window and trying to call out orders in execrable Spanish. But we did get our crackers and fruit.

It was a mostly sunny day with temperatures in the low 70’s, a welcome respite from the literal glacial conditions that we had been trekking around in for the past several days. Indeed, when we pulled back into port we stopped for ice cream — Chileans and Argentines love their ice cream — which made the whole outing feel like some kind of cross between summer vacation and a school class trip.

When I returned to the hotel Alice was up and about and ready to explore the city a bit more, which is to say go shopping. She had her eye on a purse that she had seen briefly in a store window that we had driven past, quite close to our hotel, and when we walked there we were delighted to learn that the store was called “Carpincho”, which is the Spanish word for capybara (the world’s largest rodent…look it up!) and specialized in leather from the that particular beast. This was a wonderful thing because I myself am the longtime proud owner of a capybara leather jacket that I bought here in Buenos Aires about a dozen years ago whilst attending a conference. We have long called it my “rat coat”, and Alice now has a “rat purse” that complements it perfectly. It is a speckled suede-like leather, very beautiful and soft to the touch. We are now fully rodent-accessorized.

Our next goal was a well-known synagogue, Buenos Aires having a large Jewish population and this particular temple supposedly very elaborate and offering guided tours. But not, as it turned out, on Wednesdays. So we pounded on the door and when an Orthodox-looking gentleman answered I tried to talk our way in by playing the “I’m a Jewish tourist” card. He trumped it by playing the “Today is a Jewish holiday” card and said I could come to Sukkot services that evening if I wanted to see the place. Since I am extremely committed to avoiding religious services of any kind, we didn’t get to see the synagogue. So we visited the Teatro de Colón instead, Buenos Aires’ famous opera house and performing venue, hooking up with an English language tour of the building. It is beautiful and elaborate, built about 60 years ago in the style of the palace of Versailles.

This morning we continued our northward march towards the tropics, leaving Buenos Aires for Iguazú Falls (also spelled Iguassu and Iguaçu, in all cases with the accent on the last syllable). We’re now up at 26° latitude, just a few degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn, which is a fancy way of saying that in stark contrast to our glacier visits of just a few days ago it is now 102° F and greater than 70% humidity. Or to put it even more simply, we are in Major Schvitzing Territory now.

I have been hyping the falls to Alice since I visited them on my previous trip here, and they did not disappoint. They are both higher than Niagara Falls (with cataracts ranging up to 280′ high), and with a higher water volume. As it happens, due to recent rainfalls the current volume is far higher than usual, with several million gallons per second thundering over the sides among all 270 cataracts. It is simply stunning, and you get up close and personal on a walkway that takes you right up into the spray of one of the larger cataracts. I will let a few photos do the talking:

See the boats? We will be on one tomorrow, getting very, very wet. But to continue…

…and to get a little more up close…

After completing the walkway up to the falls, we were not sated and so took a helicopter ride, from which vantage point they look like this:

I should mention that the falls are located at the “corner” where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet, and that this all took place on the Brazil side of the border. (We had to change to a Brazilian bus and go through passport control to cross the border; we applied for and received Brazilian visas for this purpose a few months ago.) Tomorrow we will explore the Argentine side, which is to say we will ride on one of those boats right up to the fall, which as I recall from my experience 12 years ago is like having a swimming pool dropped from 200 feet onto your head. Wet fun!

Tomorrow will also be our last night here. On Saturday the journey home begins, with a flight to Buenos Aires in the morning, and an evening red eye home.

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Heading to the Deep South – the REALLY Deep South

We never do things simply.

We never do things simply.

It’s time to hit the road again, and by “road” I mean “about ten different airline flights to get someplace really really far away.” Our destination is Patagonia, the southernmost tip of South America, named after a line of expensive thermal underwear (or possibly vice versa).

Our route is shown in red on the image above, which in case you are disoriented is the southern part of South America, tilted 45 degrees clockwise to fit in the frame. We leave on Sept 27, starting in Santiago, Chile, and our route follows the red line in a sort-of-clockwise way, with the following high points:

  • Santiago
  • Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest in the world
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Our tour includes a tango lesson, which I look forward to not participating in.)
  • Tierra del Fuego
  • Cape Horn
  • 5 days on a boat through the Beagle Passage from Cape Horn to the southern Patagonia ice fields (seasickness alert!)
  • Iguassu Falls (highest volume waterfalls in the Western Hemisphere – about twice the size of Niagara)

Cape Horn, of course, is the southernmost point in the world outside of Antarctica itself. At just shy of 56 degrees south latitude, it is by a wide margin the furthest south we will ever have been. (Our current record is Lake Manipouri, New Zealand, at 45.5 degrees south.)

We return home on October 19.

Packing for this trip is proving to be a challenge for much the same reason that our Australia/New Zealand trip was a year ago: we will be experiencing a ridiculously wide range of climates. The Atacama Desert will by dry with moderate temperatures during the day and chilly at night; Buenos Aires will be warm and humid; Cape Horn and the boat ride will likely be cold, rainy, and very windy; and Iguassu Falls will be a tropical rainforest with temperatures in the 90’s. And so of course we are allowed only one suitcase, which just about holds my camera equipment.

We will be off the grid for at least part of the trip, but when we are blessed with Internet connectivity I will try and keep the blog updated.

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