The legend of Pele, goddess of fire and all volcanoes, seems to live on in Hawaii. We see fiery sunsets almost every night, when the sky turns orange and the sun glows red as it sinks into the sea. I almost expect the ocean to begin boiling!
We also found a gelato flavor, Pele's kiss. Of course, I had to try it: dark chocolate with cinnamon and a hint of hot peppers. Actually, it has more than a hint of pepper, and it's quite the hot and spicy gelato, exactly as a kiss from a volcano goddess might be.
Then there are the volcanic cliffs that make up the shoreline around our part of the island. Very few beaches, just dramatic black rocky cliffs towering over the ocean, with sheer drops into the water. Very powerful and severe looking, especially with the waves crashing against the cliffs.
Being surrounded by Pele, Richard and I decided we needed to explore the volcanoes and lava flows from another perspective. So we signed up for a helicopter tour named "The Circle of Fire."
Now, before I get to the trip - I have to mention why this is a rather momentous occasion. I have vertigo problems. When I'm above the ground and things below are moving, or appear to be moving, I get dizzy and feel like I'm falling. Just some inner ear weirdness or something. Richard, on the other hand, isn't with great heights, and tends toward motion sickness at times. So, well, for us to go on a helicopter tour is a major decision. And possibly a major ordeal.
But we decided we'd tough it out. We wanted to see the lava that's oozing out and dripping into the ocean. One option is to hike out and watch from the cliffs, a dizzying thought. And prone to whiffs of the sulphur dioxide gasses rising from the flow. Another option is the go out on a boat tour, which isn't recommended since there are fissures in the lava delta that has built up. This was even in the newspaper, warning people that both hiking and boating in the area could be dangerous, since that lava delta is expected to collapse soon. So that left us with the helicopter tour.
Yeah, we'll just tough it out.
The helicopter company leaves from Hilo, on the other side of the island, because it's closer to the volcano and the rift. So we got up early and drove across the island, to Hilo. (Star with an H on the map) The highway is also named the Saddle Road, because it crosses the saddle, the high flat valley, that is between Mauna Kea to the north, and Mauna Loa to the south. The road reaches an elevation of 6,632 feet (2,021 m) above sea level, so our ears were popping as we drove up one side, crossed the saddle, and drove down the other. (Star #5 on the map, below.)
But it was a beautiful clear morning and we had fabulous views of Mauna Loa, all 13,000+ feet of her.
We drove through farmland, scrubland scattered with volcanic boulders, and basically lava flow deserts, where very little grows. We've been told that there are nineteen micro-climates on this island, due to the vast differences in altitude as well as orientation to the wind. I believe it - Mauna Loa creates a barrier that stops the clouds, so that much of the Kona coast is in a rain shadow and much drier than the east side of the island.
Anyway, we had a nice drive and made it to the airport in time. We went with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters - here's their website: http://www.bluehawaiian.com/
They do an orientation, which includes telling us how to put on the harness and seatbelt, as well as the headset. Then they proceed to tell us to allow the ground crew to do all of this for us. Yeah, it was kind of funny, you climb into the helicopter and someone comes up and snugs you in as if you're a little kid.
We had to leave hats and purses in the airport, so Dad's hat didn't get to go on the tour with us.
The pilot comes over the headphones, and we all have to check in verbally. Then lift off!
We had a bit of wobble, but it was incredibly smooth! So much smoother than my first and, before this, only helicopter ride. If this helicopter was like a dragonfly, the first one I rode in over St. Thomas was like a baby mosquito. Which swooped and bounced and spun around like an insane carnival ride. This was mostly smooth, like a little plane with picture windows, even though we were in the back.
We flew south over several lava flows that recently wiped out several towns, burning down buildings and covering the roads. This is all from the Pu'u O'o vent, which is part of the Kilauea volcano, but on the more southern banks, along the East Rift Zone. Pu'u O'o is a crater that opened up about thirty-four years ago and has been wreaking destruction since then. On the other hand, the lava flows have added over 300 acres of new land to the island.
Then we headed over to the coast, where the lava is flowing down into the ocean! (Star #6 on the map) We didn't really see the lava flowing over land, because what happens is that the lava flows, then the surface cools and solidifies. More flows continue underneath, forming what is basically a tube of lava flowing beneath the surface. This is what reached the coast in May of this year, and has been dripping slowly into the ocean.
We could see the steam rising from a distance. It isn't just steam from the hot lava hitting the water, but also sulphur dioxide gasses that the lava emits. Not good to breathe, but okay to fly around. As we circled, we could see little streaks of orange, the molten lava dripping down! Amazing! Way cool! And so exciting!
Then we flew over the Pu'u O'o crater, which is also steaming and has streaks of orange lava when we could peer into the crater at the right angle. (Star #7 on the map) All that sulphurous steam leaves light streaks on the side of the crater and some of the volcanic rock on the outside of the crater, so it really looks like some artist's version of Hell on earth.
Richard and I somehow thought we'd also fly over the Kilauea crater and see the lava lake from the air, but we didn't. I think it may have been too far, or they save that for a different trip. We did see many of the different areas affected by lava flows over recent years - even Mauna Loa has had lava flows that decimated communities within the last forty or so years.
Our pilot was very funny. As it neared noon, he chatted about how he always gets hungry flying over the volcanoes. The craters look like nacho cheese dip to him. And the volcano flows look like brownies, with that shiny dark brown crust that is uneven, covering yummy chocolate brownie underneath. He had us all laughing as we flew around.
Then on the way back to Hilo, we viewed a number of waterfalls. I don't know that I've ever seen a waterfall from the air, and I have absolutely no idea how tall or wide any of these are. I'm sure they're impressive from the ground. But no roads go anywhere near most of these beautiful waterfalls, people would need to hike in for quite a while and most likely camp out. Which does sound quite nice.
The coastline is quite rocky, with the dramatic volcanic rock cliffs similar to what we have near our hotel. But, from the air, they look less high and steep, and more gentle.
And that was pretty much it. We flew back to the airport, and over to the terminal, hovering a bit over our landing circle. We had a comfortable landing, the doors popped open, and the ground crew took us out of our car seats. Oh, sorry, our harnesses. We had a final photo with our blue helicopter, waved goodbye, and picked up our stuff inside. There was an optional CD we could purchase, but we passed on that.
So lunch, then the drive back over the saddle and between the volcanoes, who were visible from 6,600-ish feet above sea level, but hidden in the clouds so unseen from both coasts.
And that was it. Our exciting helicopter adventure! Sometimes it seems appropriate to face fears and defy death and all that jazz. Not that we exactly laughed in the face of our own demise, but this is definitely one of those riskier kinds of adventures. Totally worth it, though!