Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hawaii Day 4-- Evening on the Big Island

For most of the afternoon we completed the drive from Kona around the island to Hilo. It was a beautiful drive, much like driving the California coast. There were little shops and villages along the way as well as lots of sand. We did get to see some cool birds, including Hawaii's state bird, the nene (Hawaiian goose). We also saw a peacock way out in the middle of nowhere. Though peacocks aren't native to Hawaii (Burma and India if you were wondering), they do have wild peacock colonies on the Big Island. So, yes, we saw wild peacocks. As you near Hilo you come to Volcanoes National Park. There is a visitor center like any other national park, and some drives and hikes that you can do as well. You may have seen in the news that one of the volcanoes in the park has been particularly active lately, so much of the park is off limits. You can still see the ash and smoke rising, and in the evening, the smoke glows orange over the crater. Mostly, there is a huge drive through vast fields of volcanic rock. It's sharp and black and everywhere. The drive takes you all the way down to the ocean, where, at the right times, you can see lava flowing into the water. (Of course, we were there at the wrong time). We enjoyed the park, but got rained on for much of the drive. We felt lucky this was about the only rain we saw in Hawaii.

If we had been here at night, it would have glowed inside the hole over there.
You can see where the lava has spilled down into the ocean behind Natalie.

There was a really cool short hike there called the Thurston Lava Tube in which you hike down the throat of an extinct volcano. You wind your way through the lush rain forest and enter the tube, which is a perfectly round tunnel. The first portion of the tube, which everyone hikes, is lighted. It reminded me of walking through the (very) large intestine of a huge beast. Then, you come to an opening and you can follow the trail out, or pick up a flashlight and venture farther in. Of course, we ventured a little farther in. The flashlights that they provide must have cost at least a dollar each, and the batteries are probably replaced yearly, so by the time we left the light from the opening, we were scrambling through pitch black hoping not to crack our skulls on an overhanging rock. We went as far as we wanted and Natalie took a picture. The flash left me blind in the dark for a full minute as we stumbled back up the tube. It was a really fun hike, and easy enough for anyone to make.
Natalie about to enter the lava tube.

Randy inside the lava tube.

Can you see Randy down at the end of the lava tube?  

After the volcanoes, we reached Kona and checked into our hotel. It was "quaint" to borrow one term, "cheap" to borrow another. (I'd stay in an anthill if it was $3 cheaper, right?) The hotel was nice enough for one night, family owned and operated, and did provide breakfast. The staff there was amazing. They truly treated us like family. When I mentioned we were driving up to Mauna Kea and the observatory, they insisted we take blankets to wrap around us so we wouldn't freeze. They piled several in our arms as we left, and if they hadn't, I'd very likely still be on the mountain top-- a frozen popsicle statue of the former me.

The observatory is really cool. They say it is the premier observatory in the world for visitors, second only to the one in Antarctica (and it's much colder there) for viewing the stars. The drive up Mauna Kea is extremely steep. You start at sea level (of course) and climb 12,000 feet over fewer than 40 miles. But the road is paved, and the scenery is nice. We got a little rain on the drive up and the clouds were thick in the valley, but as we climbed we'd drive right through a cloud bank the way one might drive through a smoky house-- in one door, nearly blind for awhile, and then into the clear sky again. We passed through several of these cloud banks on our way to 12,000 feet. At the top, some volunteers had a bunch of telescopes set up. They do this every night for free. There are experts from the University of Hawaii, and locals who stargaze for the love of it, all volunteers. We looked at several galaxies, some that looked like dust, some like thumb prints, and some like clouds. The telescope trained on the moon was so clear you could easily identify individual craters, and I half expected to see the flag standing next to a moon buggy.  Finally, they turned the telescopes to Saturn, and you could very plainly see a bright little planet with rings coming around it. This amazed me more than anything on the trip and I looked at it through about 20 different telescopes and multiple times through the biggest telescopes. It was as if they had pasted a decal from a book about Saturn on the end of the telescope. We stayed until nearly 11 o'clock, sneaking peeks at the stars and Saturn before starting the long drive back to Hilo. This experience affected me so much, I've been studying the stars since I got home. In addition to Orion and the two dippers which I knew before, I'd now be happy to show you Pleiades, Cygnus, Betelgeuse, Vega, Sirius, Cassiopeia, and Taurus. For me, this was the highlight of the trip. (But not one we could take photos of!)

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