Magmanamous Meanderings on the Big Island of Hawaii

LAVAMAN, BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII Photo: (c) Russell Johnson

We are walking across the a’a looking for a nene. a’a is Hawaiian for chunky lava.pahoehoe is the smooth swirly stuff. It is almost as if mother nature had stumbled and dropped a giant Bavarian chocolate cake on the big island of Hawaii. The nene is the state bird, kind of a silly goose, supposedly descended from a Canada goose that went far astray. It has claws instead of webbed feet. The nene lives on the slopes of the Kiluhaea volcano. There are signs warning us not to feed them. But I can’t even find one. If you feed them they wander the roads begging for food and consequently become flattened by passing cars.

The nene is an endangered species.perhaps because it isn’t too bright.


Humans have, however, wreaked environmental havoc on the Hawaiian islands. On the other side of the Big Island, a hotel developer brought in a menagerie of non-native animals lavasm— flamingoes and such — to create a Disneyland-style paradise. A friend of mine, who lives on the islands, described it using the call of the Hawaiian barred dove: hellufalot, hellofalot. Long before the hotels and timeshares, settlers brought pigs and cats, and mongooses, or mongeese (I looked it can say it either way). The mongeese were supposed to have killed the rats. But rats go out at night and mongeese are day trippers, so they missed the rats and ate birds instead.

Hawaiian Jungle

Still, 90 percent of Hawaii’s native flora and fauna is to be found nowhere else on earth. A lot of it is to be found here on the slope of one of the island’s five volcanoes, luxuriating in the rich volcanic soil.

“I have seen Vesuvius since, but it was a mere toy, a child’s volcano, a soup kettle, compared to this…. Here was a yawning pit upon whose floor the armies of Russia could camp, and have room to spare.”
Mark Twain – Roughing It, 1872

Volcanic Caldera, Big Island of HawaiiThere is a bit of hissing and moaning where the lava meets the ocean but no hot lava is to be seen. Some people told me that last night there was quite a glow.and the US Geological Survey says there are a couple of new volcanic vents. Climbing around these lava mounds at the end of the Chain of Craters road is a bit dangerous. They can collapse at any moment. You can get scalded by hot water. You can breathe sickening vapors. There is little likelihood of that, however, if you play by the rules and stick to the paths. There is a bit of excitement in the danger, this smoldering vision of hell brought to you by the National Park Service. It is also, it a stark sort of a way, quite stunning.

Ferns, Big Island of Hawaii

There is no danger, however, bin sloshing through a lava tube. The Thurston Lava Tube, a tunnel that once squeezed hot magma like toothpaste is now a cool stroll underneath a fern forest.

I am constantly amazed as to the number of people who like to live around volcanoes. Volcanoes can eruptwith little warning. I wouldn’t be too worried, however, as these volcanoes are the most studied and watched in the world. There are quite a number of places to stay here, going for up to almost $400 a night. My wife and I won one of the expensive suites in a charity auction. It was decent, but not worth $400 a night. They really don’t know how to do luxury here and that is just fine. I would have easily settled for something more rustic. There are accommodations here for $45 and up.

The grinds, however, can be superb. “Grinds” is Hawaiian pidgin for food. The atmosphere at Surts, in Volcano Village, isn’t what you would call romantic. It is sort of like a mom and pop diner with the kind of panels on the walls that you buy in 4×8 sheets at building supply stores. Cars that pull up in the parking lot shine their lights on the diners.

We were expecting the worst.but we found the best. We tried a couple of Hawaiian fish dishes, opakapaka and opah, both were spiced and marinated with such as delights as thai basal and crab curry butter sauce. Yum. The founding chef was a saucier at a 5 star restaurant. The service was eager-to-please, down home Hawaiian.

What is the tallest mountain in the world? It is not Everest, not by a long shot. Mauna Kea is 56,000 high, if you measure it from the sea floor. That is more than 27,000 higher than Everest. Consequently the air is very clear and very thin. Mauna Kea has the world’s largest collection of big telescopes. It is possible to drive up to near the summit but don’t do it unless you are in good health and don’t go too fast. It is possible to get a horrible headache from the altitude.
Flower, Big Island of HawaiiIn the space of an hour or so you can drive through a number of climates: from snowy mountaintops in the winter, to tropical rainforests, where the rain and mists are constant, to dry cowboy country, the home of the Paniolo, the Hawaiian cowboy. Here, tough guys wear leis. Parker Ranch is the largest privately owned spread in the U.S. It stretches over 225,000-acres. The company has a museum in Waimea and stages a celebration of the cowboy each Friday.
Put your ear to the ground, however, however and you will hear the thundering hooves of tourists and dot commers. The fancy hotels are here. Some of the island’s prime real estate is in here in cowboy country. Refugees from places like New York and Silicon Valley are moving in. We met a lawyer who gave up his practice to raise bees. In the 90s, ranch land was subdivided and million dollar homes started to spring up. But Hawaii’s economy tanked with the Japanese yen, developers went broke, and even now some properties are going for a fraction of their original price. Developers are talking more golf courses and condos and locals, even recent immigrants, are upset. It is still a gorgeous place, however, with 50 mile vistas and some of the best beaches around.