Andrea and I had seen the big volcano and the lava fields, and the volcano itself was an item on my bucket list that had now been checked off. It was a good month for bucket list items — I’d gotten married for love, we were in Hawaii, seen a volcano, it was all good. But day 4 was a chance to check off the volcano again, combined with another bucket list item — go for a ride in a helicopter!
Blue Hawaiian had the best configuration for us, and had flights out of the Hilo airport rather than the big one back by Kona. We got set up the day before, I think, and went out to the airport for a mid-afternoon flight. I was pretty excited, and a bit nervous. Lots of stories flooded the guidebooks about people going on the flights and not being able to sit together, or the flight not going at all because of weight distribution (i.e. they didn’t have enough paying passengers to cover the fuel cost). But there were two couples, ourselves and a younger Asian couple. I think they were honeymooners too, can’t remember if they were the same date as us or not. They sat in the front, Andrea and I in the back on opposite sides but we could still hold hands. Excitement eroded the nervousness, and we took off. The full video taken by the helicopter of our flight, including some in-cabin shots, is linked at the end. But in the meantime, let’s look at some photos. First up? Our helicopter awaits!
Rising up, we could see the ocean to the east of the airport.
The big town of Hilo, which is where we stayed on the east side of the island.
In the next two shots, you can see some very squared fields, with barriers around for soil and wind erosion. These were macadamia nut farms, one of the big exports from the island.
First stop on the tour was the main active volcano of course. Mind you, you can’t get that close to it given the thermal updrafts and the sulfuric gas, but it was cool to see.
Running all the way from the crater to the sea is a line of vents where steam has worked its way to the surface. The steam vents follow the magma that flows under the surface.
Another, closer shot of the volcano.
And turning around, a shot from the crater all the way to the sea where the magma is hitting the ocean.
A lava “delta”, which is not the technical term I’m sure, but it does look like a delta bed from a river, except it was a river of molten rock rather than water.
The lava bed that runs just above the entry point into the sea.
It’s hard to see, but you can see a small white square at the seven o’clock position. Can you guess what it is? Don’t worry, we have better shots of it.
It’s a house. That somehow, some way, survived a lava flow. It’s relatively intact.
It’s impossible to see at this resolution, but at the 1:30 position, you can see a hint of the magma hitting the open air, and dropping into the sea.
Fortunately, in this shot, no magnification or searching is needed — bucket list item confirmed x 2 — helicopter ride AND active volcano! Check!
A little farther out to sea, you could see the size of the immediate lava field. The old one is way far to the right and the one we were hiking on the day before is a couple of miles to the left. Later, we’ll see shots of the plumes of steam below at night, from a position about half a mile or so to the right.
More lava, as seen from above.
Okay, this next image needs a small explanation. Look at the 9:00 o’clock position, just to the left of centre. Do you see a nice orange spot? That’s a vent. You can see it better in the second image below. These are holes in the crust, often where it gave way or a bit of magma kept splashing up and making a hole. In the second image, you can see the orange glow of the active magma flowing below. It is hot, it is identifiable, and you know what else? It’s a magnet for morons. I swear to god there are people who hike across that old crust to try and peer down into the vents. Maybe not directly down, but pretty close. If it collapses? You go for a magma swim. No one knows how thick the crust is, or what’s going on underneath that little cavern. The experts send little robots or dangle cameras on poles from 50 feet away while wearing full asbestos gear (which might protect them for a second if they are just scrambling on cracked rocks, not directly in magma). But some of the tourists go right up and look down. Future Darwin award winners, no doubt.
The helicopter tour then left the volcano area and took us on a tour around Hilo. These are the Rainbow falls, I think. Might have been the Akaka falls, but seems too close to Hilo to me.
This is a shot of the Hilo harbour, with our crescent-shaped hotel a little off-centre to the 4:00 position.
Or a full shot of it on the left.
After the helicopter tour, we headed off to the lava field for a night display. We didn’t know quite what to expect, and to be honest, we thought of not going. We had heard about it, but we’d seen it from the fields already (little to see from a distance) and we’d seen it pretty well from the helicopter. But the helicopter pilot recommended it, said it was worth a go. The cost was minimal, and we had nothing else booked for the night, so off we went. It was a bit hard to find, and we were potentially lost more than once, but ended up where we needed to be. Not a lot of signage, but we got there. When we went to park, it felt like I was at a country fair or exhibition back home. People parking in fields, some young people out directing parkers where to go. But note that we were parking partly on old lava field. It was a rental, but I was still a bit nervous about punctured tires.
Once you get out of your car, you have about 3/4 of a mile to walk to the viewing area. No problem, right? Welllll, that’s not exactly the whole story. First, yes, there is a path. Over rocks, lava, trees, between brush, over brush, over a creek, etc. In daylight, this isn’t a big deal. Coming back in the dark? Not so fun. Second, if you fall, you’re skinning yourself on lava rock. My shin took a beating. But the trip was worth it. Check out the sky and the colour of the steam plumes from the lava below. But as much as I was worried about the hiking, bear in mind that Andrea and I planned ahead and we had actual MEC hikers. There were people “hiking” on this trail in flip flops. FLIP FLOPS! On lava that shreds rubber! Eep!
That was worth the price of admission, just for the colours of the sunset.
Now, here’s the attraction, and what you don’t see during the day. The magma is not gently pouring into the sea. It’s a violent, raging, burst of hot molten rock. It explodes. It erupts. It hisses. It flashes. It sparks. Even in dusk it was impressive.
As the sky darkened, the colour of the magma brightened.
By nightfall, it was the only light. Taking pics with a handheld point-and-shoot camera was extremely challenging. Videos were almost impossible. Lots of more knowledgeable and/or more prepared people with full SLRs and tripods. We made do with what we had. Eeringly quiet despite some 200 people being around our little area trying to look over shoulders, get a bit higher on the magma near us. You could have gone closer to the sea, bypassed the fence and walked closer. No real security to stop you, but fortunately we didn’t have any stupid people with us that night. I’d love to be able to do that scene again with my DSLR. We got some good shots, but a better zoom would have been awesome too.
I’m going to close with five videos. First, I promised a copy of the full helicopter video (broken into three videos). It’s great, but I warn you, the trip is almost an hour long. Probably not something you’re going to plow into unless you’re really dedicated.
The fourth video is from the night lava, and shows a lot of the plumes.
The fifth video is the money video…it shows fireworks going off by the magma, which was mother nature’s contribution to the night. They’re not actual fireworks, it’s just the magma sparking.
Another awesome day in Hawaii, and our last night in Hilo. Sigh. I know that we went to Kona next, but Hilo was our introduction to Hawaii, and despite the amazing scenery to come, Hilo will always remain a bit special in my heart. On to day 5…