Out here the clouds are low, the sky is overcast and the next light shower is just around the corner. The windows of our tour bus are all fogged up from the surrounding mist, which is caused by the high level of sulphur in the air. That in turn is caused by magma rising up from the earth’s mantle. Setting foot outside the bus means being greeted by that most distinctive of smells – the classic rotten egg. But acrid aromas are all part of the experience.
Here at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Mt Kilauea and Mauna Loa – are still erupting, continuously adding new land to the chain of islands that is Hawaii. This tourist spot truly is red hot.
I’m just visiting Hawaii’s Big Island for the day – having flown the short distance from Honolulu to the town of Hilo, on a trip with local operator Roberts Hawaii.
The national park takes up a good chunk of the island, but we’re just visiting the area around Mt Kilauea. It’s one of three active volcanoes in Hawaii and has been erupting continuously since 1983. In fact, it currently produces between 230,000 and 600,000 cubic metres of lava per day, enough to resurface a 32km long, two-lane road every 24 hours.
The other two active volcanoes are Mauna Loa, which is also located in the national park and last erupted in 1984, and Loihi, which is located underwater off the southern coast of the Big Island.
This is a truly spiritual place. And, as our guide Rob informs us, there are a many local legends surrounding Mt Kilauea. They’re to do with Pele – the goddess of Mt Kilauea in Hawaiian mythology. Her home is believed to be Halemauma Crater, the summit of Mt Kilauea.
“There are a lot of myths and stories about Hawaii, and our scientists at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are really looking at our legends and our folklore,” Rob tells us, as we drive past kilometres of old lava flows and dense rainforest, which owes its verdant appearance to the fertile volcanic soil.
The stories of Pele and her sister Hiaka are actually giving scientists clues as to what was happening volcanically at the time, he informs us. Volcanic materials have even been named after the goddess, such as Pele’s Tears (the droplets of lava that form during an eruption) and Pele’s Hair (thin strands of volcanic glass).
We drive past a vent where steam is rising from the ground, and get out for a closer look. “One thing about sulphur and hydrogen sulphide is that whenever there’s a heat source, more steam is created,” Rob says. Wise words from someone who understands science a lot better than I do. However, I unexpectedly learn another lesson – about not standing too close to a steam vent. It’s like suddenly being thrown into a sauna, except you’re also breathing in sulphur. The smell is so strong, it’s as if someone has lit a match right under my nose.
We then pause at a viewing spot for the massive Kilauea Caldera, where steam is rising from Halemaumau Crater. The crater was once filled with a lake of lava, which eventually drained away.
At our next stop, I discover that a lava tube can be large enough to actually walk through. As we stroll through the cave-like Thurston Lava Tube I notice green crystals glittering on the walls. Rob informs us that each lava flow is made from different chemicals so the crystals in each lava tube are different colours.
As the sun begins to descend on the horizon, we head to an area called Kalapana to walk on an old black lava flow formed between 1986 and 1990. Armed with thick gloves, bright yellow vests and torches, we brave the rocky terrain, our sights set on a vantage point near the ocean.
As we get closer, we are met by a stunning sight. A freshly made torrent of lava is spewing out into the sea, red-hot and glowing, accompanied by plumes of smoke. It’s quite mesmerising – the kind of moment where you forget about everything around you and simply watch the unfolding scene.
While I may not be a follower of the goddess Pele, it’s hard not to believe in a higher power out here, as earth, water and fire converge and the sun sets in a golden haze, bringing the day to a close.