“Do you get the feeling,” my husband hisses in my ear, “that maybe we shouldn’t BE here?”
We are standing in the middle of Kilauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. Steam vents issue super-heated mist that rises, wraithlike, from the barren, lunar-like surface.
Here and there, giant slabs of crust are piled upon one another like asphalt after an earthquake, and deep fissures create jagged scars across the face of the crater.
I cautiously sidle up to the rim of one nasty gash and peer down, half expecting to see a river of red-hot lava, but it’s dark and seemingly bottomless. There are no barriers, no ropes, nothing to keep me from falling in but my own common sense.
Of course, if I had common sense, would I be hiking across a volcanic crater? I’m forced to concede that my husband may have a point.
That’s the Big Island for you. Bewitched by its wild beauty, you find yourself pushing your limits, drawn—quite literally—to life on the edge.
Meet Mr. Big
The largest of the Hawaiian Islands (hence the name), the Big Island covers 4,000 square miles—more than twice Hawaii’s other isles combined. It’s getting bigger everyday, too, as lava from Kilauea (one of five surviving volcanoes) gushes out to greet the Pacific.
Yet the Big Island, also known as Hawaii, isn’t just big. It’s also diverse.
It encompasses approximately 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones, from tropical rainforests to deserts and even snow-capped mountain peaks.
The result is drama aplenty, from plummeting waterfalls to vast lava fields to thunderous surf beating back black sand beaches.
Where there is drama, there is often danger, as I discover while vacationing here with three generations of family.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is perhaps the most obvious example of the island’s mercurial power, and you don’t have to hike into a crater to witness it. Motoring around Crater Rim Drive, we find numerous opportunities to pull off the road and hopscotch among the sulfurous steam vents to the edge of Kilauea Caldera and the smaller Halema’uma’u Crater inside it.
Only my niece, embodying ennui as only a girl her age can, seems to tire of the otherworldly panorama. “Is it another view of that big stinky hole?” she sighs, electing to stay behind in our van as the older (but less wise) among us hop out to crane our necks over oblivion.
Peril at South Point
Don’t assume that you have to pay a park entrance fee to jeopardize your safety on the Big Island. South Point, the southernmost point of the U.S. (sorry, Key West), is located down a bumpy dirt road that slices through green fields where cattle, horses and goats graze contentedly.
At the end of the road, past this scene of bucolic tranquility, rocky cliffs are battered by an ominous ocean. Just when we think we’ve assessed the risks, South Point throws us a curve ball.
Scampering across the jagged lava rubble, we suddenly find ourselves teetering on the edge of a massive hole that plummets through 30 or 40 feet of rock to the ocean below. Further exploration (hey, I already admitted I’m a fool) reveals at least one other such hole, and neither is protected by guardrails.
Coming from the mainland, where you must run a gauntlet of warning signs, barriers and yellow reflective tape just to descend a flight of stairs, I can only assume that just as Hawaii has no snakes, it must not have any personal injury lawyers, either.
We didn’t come to the Big Island to play it safe, however, so soon we’re back on the road and headed for perhaps the most inhospitable spot on the island. Mauna Kea looms nearly 13,800 feet above sea level, and anyone venturing to the top of this dormant volcano risks altitude sickness, which can be fatal.
Those under the age of 16 or who suffer from various health problems, such as high blood pressure, should not go to the summit. If you’ve been scuba diving, you must wait at least 18 hours before ascending higher than 2000 feet (something to keep in mind wherever you go on this mountainous isle). Couple these warnings with the steep, winding roads and the possibility of flipping your vehicle (it happens), and you’ve got a nice little recipe for an anxiety attack.
After acclimating at the visitors center at 9,300 feet for an hour, we direct our four-wheel drive rental car up the final leg of punishing switchbacks until we rise above the clouds and watch the last hardy shrubs disappear below us.
With only smooth red hills silhouetted against piercing blue skies, the landscape is so alien, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mars rover tooling along beside us.
As we step out of the car and into the cold, whistling wind to pose for photographs before the silver domes glinting in the sun, I feel I should be wearing a space suit and planting the American flag.
But the highlight of our trip isn’t touching the sky. It is descending to the depths of the green, tranquil valleys on the northeastern tip of the isle.
Waipi’o Valley showcases a black sand beach bookended by cliffs and a river flanked by a forest that rises from the valley floor like the prickling spine of a wary beast. It is an idyllic scene, but as we’ve come to expect, its beauty masks unseen hazards.
Like much of Hawaii’s fresh water, the river that runs through it may harbour bacteria known as leptospirosis, meaning it is unsafe to drink and could infect open cuts. And since a fatal tsunami struck the coast here in 1946, the threat of rogue waves haunts the unconscious.
The road into the valley is so steep it might take a rocket launcher to power a car up this daunting asphalt incline, and it’s even worse driving down, as several twisted hunks of metal which plunged into the trees below clearly attest.
We tackle the road by foot, with a chipper little black dog leading the way and offering a tongue-lolling grin of encouragement when noodle knees threaten to sideline our descent.
At the bottom, we follow our canine guide left along a dirt road towards a waterfall that plummets, silent at this distance, down a steep valley wall.
Doubling back towards the ocean, we are rewarded by the sight of another waterfall crashing directly into the frothing surf.
It’s a spectacular hike, surpassed only by our foray down a dirt trail into Pololu Valley.
Like Waipi’o, Pololu boasts a lazy river that meanders inland to part verdant hills that unfurl towards infinity. At the coast, the black sand is as silky as talcum powder.
We find ourselves drawn to the forest, which slopes down to the beach. A carpet of bright green, possibly vinca, softens the sound of our footsteps as we thread amongst stands of casuarina trees, their elegant, twisted forms seemingly frozen mid-tango.
Slanting shafts of afternoon sunlight lend the woods an ethereal, enchanted glow, so that when we hear someone else approaching, I half expect to see a hobbit snapping twigs beneath his hairy toes.
Instead, we’re greeted by two dreadlocked hippies, who give us a friendly nod as they head off towards their tent pitched amongst the trees.
We throw down our towels on a patch of clover and gaze at the treetops overhead, absently swatting at tiny red ants. They don’t bite, but as I doze off, I imagine them carting us away to their nest as trophies for their queen.
When I awake, however, we’re still there, sprawled beneath the trees.
I smile and breathe a sigh of relief. It’s our last day on the Big Island, and we have survived.
“Maui: Off The Beach-en Path” http://amylaughinghouse.com/?p=2588