Sunset Inferno

Who can resist red hot lava pouring into the ocean? Not me! My photo buddy Mike has been off-island for the last year and couldn't wait to see some lava when he got home.

He's just on the island for a couple weeks, so he asked me to pick him up at Kalani Resort Retreat just down the Red Road from us, and a mere scenic drive away from the lava.

So: flashlights, water, snacks and sandwiches, the heavier tripod, two cameras, extra batteries, solid shoes and a good backpack. I was off to pick up MIke!

We never get tired of seeing lava flow into the ocean -- because it's actually rarer than it seems. In the decade we've lived here, this is only the second time we've been able to walk up and see it, and by far the easiest hike to it we've had.

A couple years ago, when the lava was headed down the hill toward our house, Hawaii County Civil Defense negotiated with landowners and the National Park to cut an emergency escape route through previous lava flows. The lava stopped just short of our only other road, so we never had to use it.

Ironically, the next flow left the main road untouched again, but cut off the emergency route!

We now have a wide, flat, easy walkway out to the flow. Irresistible!

It's a four-mile walk each way, usually warm, dry, and windy. The road is literally cut through a desolate landscape of old lava flows.

I'm not a fast walker, so I plan for an hour and a half from parking to sunset, and work backward from that. We pulled in to park a little after 4:00. Nice timing because you can leave your hat in the car. Sunset was due a little before six, Milky Way up at seven, and moonrise not until 10:30, giving us the perfect setup.

The parking area was filling up. The Big Island is the kind of place you expect pragmatism instead of polish. Friendly and reassuring people to help everybody back their cars in at an angle for quick escapes. Plenty of porta-luas and more friendly advice for the walk. Some big lights for the parking area after dark. And a mixed medley of local vendors: artists, cold bottled water, cheap flashlights, bike rentals, home-baked treats... ...charm over sophistication is our style.

Four miles each way isn't too intimidating. Farther than most people are used to, but not requiring a trained athlete. I've gone out with friends of many abilities, and seen lots of different ages and body types along the way.

Sunset is a popular target. We fully expected to be alone on the walk back, but we had plenty of company heading out.

As we got close, our pace picked up. The sky was starting to color; there was a slight hot tang to the air, and people around us were getting more excited.

There's a spot where the road is interrupted by a lava flow, now crusted. If you squint over the new lava field, you see heat waves rising where the flow is close to the surface. There are probably surface breakouts of lava running free somewhere out there. Last time my wife went out, there was a big one running alongside and then over the road as she walked up!

The terrain is ridiculous: huge plates of lava heaved and broken, deep cracks and bubbles. Times past, we've had to hike over this stuff for miles. Now we just saunter up to about a hundred yards from the overlook on even ground. The last bit is minor climb/walking. Putting a hand out for balance here and there, and choosing my path. The rock surface has a thin, crackly skin on top that crunches as we walk. Broken edges can be sharp and jagged.

We're on National Park land, so there's a reassuringly official white rope strung precariously along the cliff edge. It's our rough guide to where it's safe to stand. I've been out enough times to realize fully that anywhere around us, there could be lava flowing fast and close. I'm not terribly reassured, but I also don't have any desire to hop the rope. The danger is real; it's just the line that's optimistic.

Even with a couple hundred people standing there, the feeling is one of awe and respect. People use hushed tones. They're generous and courteous with space. And overwhelmingly thankful to be here. Danger and glory combining with anticipation bring us all to quiet appreciation.

Accents from all the world coming together and walking out into the wilderness to view this spectacle.

As the fire of sunset fades, so do the crowds. The sky darkens. It's time to settle in for the real show. Last time I was out, I wanted to catch the Milky Way rising behind the lava.

Tonight's target was the dance of the lava itself. Brilliant explosions, loud cracks and fiery billows of steam stretched up the coast into the night. We edged into better positions as people left and stayed transfixed for hours.

Eventually, we tore ourselves away. Walking back slowly, looking at the stars and talking shop, we glanced over to see a moonbow over Pu'u O'o crater.

The moment we saw that, we realized we didn't bring umbrellas -- as we were whipping out our cameras and setting up for the shot. Because we're out here for the pictures.

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  1. Pingback: Hawaii Lava Hike to Kamokuna Ocean Entry - Shoot with Harry

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