Laredo and I were invited by Tom Kuali`i and Bruce Omori. These guys go full force into Madame Pele's lava flows to capture that one in a million shot with their cameras! They've captured photographs that one can only begin to imagine. They risk their lives for it. They are Extreme Exposure. We would be led on a surreal hike that we will never forget as long as we breathe this fresh Hawaiian air. I also have to mention that this trip wouldn't even be possible for these two very talented individuals, along with Christopher Wong, who let me borrow his truck for the weekend, and Brian Daniel, who offered his cottage up in Volcano for accommodations. And mahalo to TJaye Ailama Forsythe for helping us conclude this epic trip smoothly by dropping us off at Hilo Airport for our return back to O`ahu.
Once we got to the Big Island at around 8pm, we got the truck and spend the first night at the "Hale La`au", the name of Brian's cottage. Upon arrival, we were mesmerized by the secluded area. The cottage itself had that Big Island feel to it! This was to be our home away from home for the weekend.
1-5-2013: We virtually got no sleep that night. We were super stoked for the hike and we just wanted morning to come by already. And came it did. The time was 2am and our scheduled meetup was at 4am. Despite the lack of sleep, we were fired up! No pun intended. As we got closer to Kalapana, the street lights began to disappear and soon the only light visible were our headlights as it pierced the darkness. We arrived at the lava viewing area and there were some cars parked. I could make out some of the flashlights in the distant black horizon. I looked up at the sky and saw the starry sky like no other.
A short while later, we were met by Tom and Bruce, who would accompany us to the active lava flow. And away we went into the pitch blackness of Madame Pele's stomping grounds. As I've experienced for the first time I was here, sure footing is paramount as the terrain is very uneven. Blackness surrounded us in every direction, the flashlights being our only source of light. Then, off in the distance, a red faint glow appeared in the horizon followed by others a short while later. Then Tom received a report that a magnitude 4 earthquake just struck the Big Island only minutes ago! Hilo felt the brunt but we didn't feel a thing. The funny thing is was that the epic center was right under Kalapana, right underneath our feet! I hope this wasn't a bad omen! We stashed water at two locations prior to the flow to make our packs lighter, but keeping just enough for what was ahead of us.
When we got to the active flow and to the pali leading to the ocean, I was in total awe of what I saw before us: multiple glowing orange fingers heading down the steep cliff into the cold, black ocean! The first time, we only had 2 fingers. This time, I think I've counted 5 or 6, the farthest one being about a mile out. I was about to open my bag to set up my equipment when I noticed Kuali`i and Omori starting to walk directly towards the active flow! "We'll go to the other side of that last finger way out there!" Tom exclaimed. I thought to myself, "Really? We're going to hike over all of this?!" Just before entering the actual active flow, we passed by two tourists with expressions on their faces as we just walked casually towards danger. I was concerned that they may try to follow us but fortunately did not after they saw us disappear behind a small mound of glowing orange. We reached the first area where the heat was the most extreme. I could see orange glowing underneath every crevice and puka. Tom looked back at me and said, "One at a time!" He then proceeded to walk directly on top of lava that was only minutes old! Once he was some 30ft ahead, I followed his path. The heat radiating from the new and crackling ground below me, surged into my shoes and legs. Even with pants on, 600 degrees of thermal madness filled the air between my skin and the pant leg. I charged forward, hoping that cooler ground was nearby. About 30 feet later, the intense heat eased off and I caught up with Tom. We had crossed the first finger. Now, everywhere I looked were botches of red and orange all around us with a massive drop to a raging scalding ocean below. It was unreal to be standing on land was newly created and was still cooling off, like newly forged steel cooling off. Laredo and Bruce made it over and we were on our way to cross the next finger. It was like we were in Mordor, on our way to the volcano to destroy the ring.
This would repeat itself for the next 5 or so crossings. Keep going was all what was in my head. Down in the ocean, I could hear the hissing and an occasional explosion as red hot lava entered the ocean and flashed the seawater into steam. Since we were hiking downwind, we had another problem to deal with: plumes of hydrochloric acid and sulfur dioxide! This stuff is nasty to breathe in and I was starting to cough a bit. "My lungs are probably scarred by now!" yelled Tom, referring to his numerous treks out here. The ground all around us was crackling. I could even see some of the small pebbles popping upward from the ground. We hiked parallel to the sharp drop off into the ocean on our left, choosing the relatively 'safe' path over each active flow. The heat was turning up and the water in our bottles were going down. My intake of water was much higher than what I was used to drinking on other hikes. The heat really dehydrates you quickly. Without adequate water, you'll get into trouble really quickly so bring lots of water! I could feel the extreme heat on my shoes. I just waited for them to catch fire at any moment! "If you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen!" In this case, we were deep within Pele's kitchen!
Active flow after active flow, we pressed on. I felt like a video game character, where if you walk over a hazard area on a level, your life meter begins to drop temporarily, but as soon as you reach safe ground, your meter returns back to normal. Take too long and it's game over. One can only take the heat for so long before it gets too painful. What am I doing here?! I chuckled out loud because this was actually so much fun at the same time! If only I could call my Mom right now! Up ahead was yet another flow. We knew the drill. Shields up and full speed ahead!
Once we cleared the finger, the land ahead of us was pitch black. We had successfully traversed the mile wide active flow in it's entirely. In fact, we were now officially in Volcanoes National Park as we had crossed the border between the Puna District and the national park during the hike through the active flow. This border virtually runs right along the active flow from the ocean all the way to Puʻu ʻŌʻō. This hellish hike turned into a tranquil and serene walk. We were in the middle of nowhere. We stopped and our fearless leader said that this is where we will set up and watch the sunrise. Since the active flow was now to our east, we could photograph the lava as the sun rises. I've never experienced anything so surreal as this in my life. Just wow...
As the sun began to shine her first rays on the barren landscape, we began shooting the last finger that we've crossed. The light was just perfect to capture that perfect photo! And off our cameras went. "Click! Click! Click! Click! Click!"
Once we have shot probably 400 photos each and enjoyed the otherworldly sunrise, it was time to head back. No, not towards the end of Chain of Craters Rd. but back the way we came from. That's right, we had to do everything in reverse. Time to turn up the heat once again! Actually heading back through the active flow wasn't as bad as the first time. It appeared it was starting to lose it's energy somewhat, something that was going to be confirmed by tomorrow. It was, however, much harder to identify which rock harbored molten rock below due to the sunlight. We just had to judge it based on temperature spikes. We passed by a Pāhoehoe flow and a stick was nearby. Bruce suggested that Laredo and I grab the stick, poke the lava, and watch it catch fire. At about the same time, a rainbow formed overhead of us as we hiked along. What a perfect opportunity for an "action shot"!
We cleared the final flow and were back on cool ground for the duration of the hike. We rested up, rehydrated ourselves, and set off on a leisurely pace back to 'new Kalapana'. Since we had our stashed water this morning, we could go back to our "rest stops" and relax. Along the way, Tom told us a story about a lone house off in the trees somewhere that is the only structure that is part of the original Kalapana Village prior to the lava flows! It was said that the owner of that house is a powerful figure and was able to fend off the approaching lava by spirtual means. Three times did the active lava encroach ever so closer to her house and stopped dead in it's tracks at the exact spot! Her home is still standing as of writing this blog entry! Along with that, they explained to us about the cultural aspect of Kalapana and her people. Despite their village is in ruins, they refuse to leave. They will always call Kalapana home.
We made it back to our cars and decided we were going to do this again the following morning and we part ways. After lunch in Hilo, Laredo and I decided to catch up on some much needed sleep back at the cottage. The time was about 5pm. We would ultimately sleep until 1am the following morning.
1-6-2013: At 2am, the alarms blared and it was to be a repeat of day 1. But I've received a call from Tom and told us that they were not going to make it after hearing a report from a lava tour boat that the flows were not flowing very well and that it wasn't worth another hike. Since we were already on our way, we made the decision to go anyway since we had nothing better to do for the day. We said our goodbyes and thanked them for leading us.
We arrived at around 3am. This time, the parking area was filled with cars and people. Not wanting to get attention, we discreetly made our way by and hiked into the night. It was me who took the "ramrod" and led the way back to the lava flow. We felt confident enough that we could get there on our own without any mishaps. We noticed the big group of people following behind us, but by the time we were on open lava fields, that group quickly dropped back behind us and were soon distant faint lights in the horizon. Our pace was much faster this morning than day 1, due to our restful night and me actually eating breakfast before the hike, a habit I need to develop. Yesterday, it took us probably 2 hours to reach the flows. This morning, we were looking westward along the pali with maybe 3 fingers dropping into the ocean about an hour after we started. We decided that since we caught the sunrise from the west side of the flow already, we would try it from this end and photograph the massive pali and her flows. We actually decided to cross one small flow to get to a nice vantage point that overlooks the rest of the pali. Since I was the one up front, I had to navigate us through the hot zone as quickly and as safely possible. It was my very first test to see if I could navigate in hot extreme conditions solo but quickly did we find the other side and back to cooler grounds. Since we got there a bit early, we had to wait an hour or so before the sun started rising. While we waited, I took some practice photos of the ocean entries as Laredo found a level spot on the rugged landscape and drifted off to sleep as the warm heat from below kept the ground just at the right temperature for a soothing experience. It was so inviting that I wanted to take a nap myself, but somebody had to keep an eye out for the sun. I proceeded to take more photos.
As night slowly turned into day, I could make out the dark silhouette of the south shore and woke up Laredo. The sun was about to rise.
The sun was now up and soon we were greeted by another young local guy who showed up from behind us. "Hey, Rustyboar!" he said, referring to my shirt that I was wearing. He then asked how the flows were. I told him that it wasn't as great as last night. We then talked stories for a bit and he proceeded to head back. At the corner of my eye I spotted a small headlamp to the east of us on the other side of the first flow that we crossed. It was the large group that we passed by at the parking lot. We decided we would head west and cross one more finger to get to a nice vantage point above the ocean entries. Heat? What heat?
We felt small vibrations underneath us and agreed that we did not feel safe here anymore so we backed off and decided to call it a day. This entire pali area is very unstable land and has been known to just suddenly collapse into the ocean. Not wanting to be boiled human beings for breakfast, we headed back the way we came, but not before getting this shot!
Once we reached the final flow to be crossed, I pulled out my Wayde's World Hawai`i hat and took a few shots for the owner of said business. As much as I wanted to get closer with it, it was just simply too hot for me and the hat!
The last flow was crossed and we made it safely back to the truck. We were now "certified lava chasers"!
Once again, another huge mahalo nui loa to everyone that helped make this trip possible! Tom and Bruce, it was truly an honor to hike with you guys. You guys are welcome to hike with us anytime! This will go down in history as one of the most memorable hikes to date and it's our first hike of 2013! Imua!
Video coming soon!
DANGER: Do NOT try to cross active flows unless you have a thorough understanding of the terrain. This is not your average hike. Tom and Bruce are professionals who have been doing this for decades and even they have gotten into life threatening situations themselves! Wear shoes (absolutely not steel toe, heat and steel conduct very well) that are rugged in design. My shoes held but the treads took a huge battering from the intense heat. Wear long thick pants to protect your legs from the heat. Bring more water than you normally drink. Dehydration will settle in fast and hard. The ground near the pali is unstable and can break off at any moment. Do NOT try to go on lava benches as these certainly will collapse into the ocean. Also explosions down in the ocean as hot lava flashes into steam can hurl hot lava up to 100ft, fly past you, and land BEHIND you! The hot white misty steam radiating from the ocean entries contains hydrochloric acid and sulfur dioxide. You're practically breathing in car battery acid! Have a GPS in hand for navigation since you are hiking on vast lava fields. Finally, the most important: whatever happens, DO NOT PANIC! If you find yourself stuck, find an area that has the least amount of hazard and move in that direction. Heed all these warnings and you increase your chances of surviving. Failure to heed these warnings can lead to serious injury and/or death. Common sense is apparently NOT enough for this kind of hike. People have died trying to capture that perfect shot.
Please show respect for the residents of Kalapana. These lands are very sacred to them and it is private property. Do not park past the public parking area. The residents use these roads to get in and out of Kalapana and will become extremely agitated if you park on their roads and/or cross into their properties.
For a safe lava viewing experience, I highly suggest you sign up with Kalapana Cultural Tours. They have the best guides available and will still get you within feet of the active lava flows. Happy lava chasing!