I don’t know why I didn’t expect it but upon landing in Hawaii we found ourselves in a tropical island paradise. Hawaii feels so otherworldly that it’s hard to think of it as a state of the US. There is so much I could try and fail to describe but it turns out Mark Twain already did the hard work:
For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can see its garland crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud wrack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the splash of its brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago. – Mark Twain, 1910
We’ve been breathing Hawaii’s balmy airs for a few weeks now and, like those palm trees, have found ourselves becoming drowsy by its shores, gradually adopting a gentler and slower pace of life.
Land of lava
But things weren’t always so peaceful here. The entire archipelago was born out of the sea through many millennia of violent volcanic eruptions. Before life found its way here, the first islands were just barren lava rock. Now they are lush and teeming with life.
While the other islands have drifted away from the volcanic hotspot responsible for their creation and are now being steadily shrunk by erosion, the Big Island of Hawaii is still hovering above the hotspot and, thanks to continuous eruptions, is still growing in landmass. Although the lavish vegetation rapidly tries to cover up the evidence, it becomes immediately clear when you arrive that you’re wandering about on a volcano – you never have to look for long to find a piece of pumice or cooled lava in one of its many forms. Parts of the island are entirely engulfed with freshly cooled, bubbly black flows from the eruptions over recent decades. The lava has claimed roads, fields and whole towns on its way to the sea – and the volcano isn’t done spewing yet.
Thanks to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you can get quite up close and personal with the action.
Ever since we went to Yellowstone National Park in 2009 and experienced driving around inside what is basically a bubbling supervolcano, I’ve found it funny, if disturbing, how humans will see a violent and dangerous geological feature and feel the urge to build a boardwalk right up to it so that we can all get a better view. On the other hand, I’m always grateful for the work the National Parks do to open up wonderful sights to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access them – that is when they are open and not shut down due to political wrangling.
In Volcanoes Park you can learn a lot about how the archipelago of Hawaii was formed as well as the Hawaiian legends surrounding volcanoes but generally everyone’s there for one thing: to see an active volcano at work. The rangers get asked the question so often that there is a big poster outside their station titled “Where can I see lava?” that details the present conditions.
During the time we visited there was no active surface lava, at least none that the rangers wanted to tell us about, but we still got treated to some fascinating sights….
As we’d also seen in Iceland, only a few short months ago, volcanic rock when subjected to erosion by the sea can form unusual black sand beaches. It’s disconcerting to walk on a beach that is completely the opposite colour than that you’d normally expect. Instead of bouncing the sun’s rays back into your eyes, it absorbs them and gets extremely hot underfoot.
Thanks to a tip from our friend Tecate, we visited one of Hawaii’s black sand beaches – that of Punalu’u, where once, according to Hawaiian legend, a mythical turtle called Kauila lived. Kauila had the power to change herself into a human girl and would emerge from her underwater home to play with and watch over the children on the beach. When you arrive at Punalu’u car park, you’ll find a plaque on a stone pillar that tells her story and urges you to respect her kind – the honu or green sea turtle – that can be spotted on most days playing in the water or sunning themselves on the sand.
We arrived late in the afternoon at Punalu’u, worried that we’d missed out on the turtle action for the day. We rushed over to a beachside shack that was serving locally-grown coffee and bore a giant sign saying “ask us about turtles”. They equipped us with some iced coffees and pointed us to the far end of the beach where we could just about make out some grey shapes that we had at first taken for rocks. We hurried through the coarse, hot sand and pretty soon came upon two sea turtles that had hauled themselves up on to the beach and were having a snooze under the late afternoon sun. A third lay closer to the sea, perfectly still and camouflaged amongst the rocks.
We approached carefully but they were either oblivious to or totally unconcerned by our presence. Taking up perches 15 feet away, the minimum required by law, we spent a peaceful half hour sipping our coffees and watching as the turtles slumbered, moving only occasionally to take a deep breath or to turn their faces onto the other cheek. When a group of people started gathering we left to walk back to our car and on our way caught sight of another two turtles who had finished their naps and were slowly and labouriously making their way over the rocks and back into the advancing tide.
It wasn’t our only encounter with the magnificent creatures. We had caught our first tantalising glimpse at Richardson’s beach near Hilo of a little green head that gasped a quick breath of air and was retracted back under the murky water. Excited, we manoeuvred our way over some smooth obsidian-like rocks and into the sea to try and get a better view but in the end only managed to catch some fleeting glimpses while accumulating cuts and bruises from being pushed against the rocks by the surf. We eyed with envy the snorkelers who had had the good sense to approach via a sandy channel and were able to breathe while watching the turtles.
A week later we equipped ourselves with fins, masks and snorkels for another beach excursion, this time at Tunnels beach on the north shore of Kauai.
As we hauled a picnic and our snorkel gear in the heavy heat of midday, feeling our feet getting slow-cooked by the sand, Stacker grumbled extensively about my “half-baked plan.” I had read about Tunnels and wanted to check it out but had no idea how to get there so on the drive down we’d missed the tiny, hidden turnoff and instead ended up at the connecting Ha’ena beach. Stacker asked around for directions in the busy car park and a fellow beachgoer told us to walk east along the beach.
A long sandy beach zipped to sparkling, aquamarine waters, Ha’ena already looks like a picture pulled from the pages of a brochure but a glance up reveals yet more beauty. Rising out of the sand at the western end of the beach and clad in coat of tropical vegetation are the dramatic, fluted flanks of Mount Makana and the whittled ridgelines that abut it. Just a little further along the coast lies Ke’e beach and the start of the famed Na Pali coast – a stretch of beautiful coastline made up of isolated beaches and towering cliffs that often get described as looking like they belong in a prehistoric era.
We would soon be getting a lot more familiar with that coastline but on that day we were determined to go snorkelling and see “something” so we turned our backs on the view and trudged down the beach, leaving the crowds behind the longer we walked and hoping we’d know when we’d finally made it to Tunnels.
In the end we still don’t know if we made it to Tunnels – we still weren’t sure what we were looking for exactly – but when we came across a small half-moon of shallow water surrounded by a reef we knew we’d found our spot – Stacker had spied a group of five or six sea turtles swimming around in the clear water, their little green tails occasionally breaking the surface as they dove and their heads poking out intermittently for a quick breath of air.
I tried to contain my excitement as we pulled on our snorkel gear and attempted to wade slowly into the water so as not to disturb them. Keeping a respectful distance, we started following the turtles around. They didn’t seem all that bothered by us though and happily swam up to and around us, the snake-like skin on their flippers shining in the sun as they moved. As soon as one eluded us, there was always another one to stalk nearby. I was buzzing with the excitement of it all but smiling with a snorkel rammed in my mouth was proving tough.
At one point, as I was standing up to take a break from the strong current, Stacker came up to me and said, “Hey, I saw something else,” before following it up with “Quick, look behind you!”I turned to see a huge dark patch in the water. He’d meant to tell me he’d seen some fish but had then been distracted by the shadow that had snuck up behind me. I thought the shadow was his “something else” so I hesitated before slowly lowering my head underwater, dreading to see what the monster would turn out to be.
Once my eyes had reluctantly followed my head under the water, I came face to face with the biggest turtle I’ve ever seen, and perhaps ever will see. Relief gave way to wonder as I took in the sight of the enormous turtle. Its mottled shell was worn and battered from decades of protecting the wrinkly being inside. I looked at it and it looked right back at me with its wise, liquid black eyes, blinked and then gently turned it’s head to grab a piece of algae that was flying past its mouth – the current was tearing along perpendicular to the shore, bringing vegetation with it.
The turtle serenely waved its fins up and down, seeming to be barely expending any effort to maintain its position. By contrast, I had my hands, feet and elbows buried in the sand desperately fighting against the current so that I could stay where I was and fill my brain with the incredible sight in front of me. Pretty soon the sand underneath me gave way and I was being dragged away, swimming futilely against the flow before having to stand up to escape it by reducing its drag on me. As the currents were clearly no joke we decided not to venture further out to the reef but instead spent as much time as my highly-burnable skin would allow hanging out with the turtles in the sandy shallows.
Eventually we emerged from the water awed and elated, popped a bottle of bubbly and lay down to relax under the shade of a palm tree. Now this is what I call a honeymoon, I thought. Clearly the good mood had penetrated Stacker too and he didn’t even moan about there being sand in the hummous…