Hawaii bureau chief Doug Oakley made the trek to see volcano
lava up close at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. His report
HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Big Island -- It's hot out here,
2,000 degrees hot, where the lava snakes around in glowing red
rivulets, going anywhere it darn well pleases.
It's been moving along at a crawl for about seven miles, ever
since it came out of a vent on Kilauea Volcano called Puu Oo. Now
it's ready to pour into the sea and die a quick death.
The birth and death of red hot lava at Hawaii Volcanos National
Park does not go unnoticed. Hundreds of people come out each day
and make the grueling trek over old lava fields to see it.
When you finally reach the area after hiking four miles, there
is lava everywhere, oozing along on top of the ground; down in the
cracks of new earth, you can see it moving underneath you. If you
stay in one place for too long, your shoes may begin to melt.
Ever since I moved to Honolulu a year ago, I wanted to see
So with visiting friends in town, we set off for Hilo and Hawaii
Volcanoes National Park.
Hilo has its own airport and is a 45-minute flight from
An hour from Hilo and we were there. We had cameras, two liters
of water each, flashlights, extra batteries, food and
Sometimes the lava is just a stone's throw from the parking area
at the end of the Chain of Craters Road.
"If you write something on this," park ranger Ruth Levin told
me, gesturing to the vast expanse of smoky blackness, "try to
emphasize how incredibly dynamic this place is. We like to say the
volcano goes where she wants to go."
Levin said the lava has been so close to the end of the road
that "we've had wheelchair-accessible lava out here, and sometimes
it's five miles away."
Levin urged people to "talk to a ranger at length about what's
involved before you set out."
Walking out to see lava is no easy task, although plenty of
people were doing it, and the park service does not recommend it,
even though rangers will sell you water and flashlights if you are,
in fact, determined.
The park service has a small shack at the end of the road where
its personnel hand out brochures and warnings.
They will tell you that volcanic fumes containing hydrochloric
acid and sulfur dioxide are a danger, as are steam explosions where
the lava hits the sea water; methane gas explosions where the lava
flows over plants, and unstable land that falls into the sea.
In 1993, one person was killed when the land abutting the ocean
collapsed; 12 others were injured. In 1996, a 27-acre piece of land
tumbled into the ocean; no one was hurt.
The best time to see the lava is at night, which is also the
time when you have the best chance of hurting yourself on the
Two in our party fell and cut themselves. They bled, but they
If you set out a couple of hours before dark you will get there
at sunset, watch the lava for a couple of hours in the dark, then
There is no trail to follow, just the coastline and a giant
steam plume in the distance where the lava meets the water.
In the day, the lava looks like hot, reddish mud. But when it
gets dark, you begin to notice that all around you there are
streaks of red in the cracks under your feet.
A half-hour ago, when it was still light out, you thought you
were on cooled, hard ground. But now that you realize it's flowing
under you, too, you know you're not really on stable ground.
If you are adventurous enough to venture out to the edge of the
cliff in the dark, you can see the red fountains streaming into the
Despite the danger, this is the best place to see lava flowing
into the sea. The meeting of lava and sea is a powerful vision, a
sort of cataclysmic struggle that the sea eventually wins.
It suggested to me that the earth has an intelligence all its
This was one of the best adventures of my life. It ranks right
up there with a ride through the Guatemala countryside on the top
of a school bus, and surviving a surf down the face of a 30-foot
wave on the north shore of Oahu.
After a while, though, standing around next to 2,000-degree lava
gets hot, and it's time to go back to the car -- in the dark.
An unexpected pleasure on the way back -- which was a torture
test in itself because of the uneven terrain and the length of the
walk -- was the stars.
They are so bright they provide their own light despite the
Then we saw it.
I had always heard about the Southern Cross but had never seen
There it was, up there with the Big Dipper and the North
After seeing the lava and the Southern Cross and considering it
all, I stopped, turned off my flashlight and told myself, "This is
For eruption information, call the Hawaii Volcanoes National
Park at (808) 985-6000.
The Web address is www.nps.gov/havo.