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By Rick Millikan
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

With fellow nature lovers, we head off to learn about Hawaii's volcanoes and witness Kilauea's fiery caldera at twilight. Investigations begin in north Kona, where Ka'ahumanu highway slices through vast lava flows.

[Photo 1]

"Generally, people flee from volcanic eruptions. Here, we pack picnics and go to watch. And that's what we're doing today!" grins guide Steve. "Do you see Hualalai to the east? It erupted in 1801, producing these lava fields of jagged a'a and smooth pahoehoe. Hawaii's oldest volcano, Kohala lies northward. We're now travelling to the hotspot that created these and Hawaii's three other shield-shaped volcanoes. Millions of years ago this hotspot began creating an archipelago of islands inching northward atop the Pacific Plate."

Patches of golden Egyptian fountain grass dot this black terrain. In Wailea, highland grasses flourish, creating green pastures. Saddle Road takes us up through a desolate valley between two huge dormant volcanoes. Steely observatories sparkle atop snowcapped Mauna Kea. Mauna Loa, we discover, represents the earth's greatest volcanic mass.

On the windward side, abundant rainfall and rich volcanic soil nurture varieties of roadside ferns, cane orchids and bushy ohi'as, polymorphous plants shape-shifting to fit varied environments.

Handing out flashlights at Hilo's Kaumana Caves Park, Steve smiles, "You'll soon see that part of Hawaii's charm lies underground!" A steep stairway leads down to a fern-bordered cave entrance. Scaling rock piles and ducking under crevices, we step gingerly on a rippled old lava flow between smooth black walls. "This cave's part of a 40- kilometer lava tube formed during Mauna Loa's 1881 eruption," Steve notes. "Desperate islanders asked Princess Ruth for help. Arriving from Honolulu, she sat near the approaching lava, praying for fire goddess Pele to spare Hilo. A few days later, the flow stopped."

Atop Kilauea, we discover UNESCO declared Volcanoes National Park a natural heritage site partly due to its being a religious setting. At the Jaggar Museum, we focus terrace telescopes on its steamy caldera.

[Photo 2]

Inside Jaggar, Hawaii's fire goddess dominates two large paintings. Exhibits display Pele's hair, long golden strands of volcanic fiberglass and Pele's tears, droplets of volcanic glass. A posted legend describes how demigod Kamapua'a turned himself into ama'u ferns and surrounded Pele's home to be close to her. The crater's descriptive name: Halema'uma'u means house (hale) of the fern (ama'u).

Observations from early volcano visitors like Mark Twain decorate walls. Pictures and maps identify Kilauea's eruptions, continuous since 1983. One photo shows the new rift across Crater Rim Drive, so large it could swallow a bus!

[Photo 4]

Driving onward, we view steam rising from vents, giant ferns thriving in its rainforest and several small craters. Minutes later, there's a short hike to a volcanic rift. I ask about the green ferns dotting the black landscape. "That one's the legendary ama'u. Its red frond is the scar where Pele burned Kamapua'a." Says Steve grinning. "Those others are Kupukupu. Kupu means wise, so Kupukupu, are doubly wise in finding sheltered niches."

Ambling over crunchy black cinders past lava-encrusted trees, our group beholds the rift. "Don't get too close to the edge," our leader warns. "That porous basalt breaks easily." A fellow traveler tests its weight, effortlessly lifting a big chunk over his head.

[Photo 3]

Noting another form of Ohi'a, prompts another legend, "Pele fancied a handsome Hawaiian called Ohi'a. He turned her down. So she changed him into a tree. Later showing godly compassion toward his truelove Lehua, Pele transformed her into a beautiful red blossom and attached her to Mr. Ohi'a to be forever together."

On the road again, Steve tells another legend. "Kama-pua'a and Pele were initially attracted to one another. Yet they squabbled. Pele tried to burn her demigod admirer. So Kama-pua'a turned himself into a pig and trotted away. Pele then became lava, attacking Kama-pua'a. He turned into ama'u ferns, hiding in crevasses. Ultimately, he morphed into a pigfish, diving into the Pacific and swimming away. Descending switchbacks along the new Chain of Craters Road, Pele's lava can be seen, zigzagging down a steep escarpment, leaving untouched islands of emerald ama'us.

Parking along the ocean cliffs, all walk across a rocky ledge to view a series of sea arches created by the constantly pounding waves. At nearby picnic tables, delicious box suppers are served with supernatural ambience, including a vivid sunset. Scrumptious chocolate volcanoes make apt desserts.

[Photo 5]

Back at the Jaggar, we gaze upon Hale'mau'mau, now spectacularly illuminated by glowing red magma. In the warm evening air, constant crack-crack-crackling can be heard. Is Pele at her stove stirring poi?


Hawaii Forest & Trail- Their Sunset Volcano Tour and others can be investigated at Hawaii Forest & Trail at

PHOTOS by Chris and Rick Millikan

1. Daytime Kilauea Crater

2. Pele at Jaggar Museum

3. Legendary Lehua Ohi'a

4. One of Kilauea's New Rifts

5. Kilauea at Night

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