Sunday, February 3

There she glows

My last post about our trip to Siding Springs in 2005 brought back memories of a second expedition Garry and I made a month later to the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island.  Manua Kea is considered one of the world’s best sites for astronomical observation thanks to altitude, dry air and stable airflows.  It also enjoys an average of 325 clear nights per year.  As a result, since 1964, a total of thirteen telescopes have been erected on its summit, funded by at least separate 11 nations.

In April 2005, while visiting the Big Island, Garry and I booked a tour up to the summit, more 4,200 metres above the Pacific.  Like every other soaring mountain, Mauna Kea’s peak is a chilly, uncomfortable location. The tropical heat of Hawaii’s coastal regions never reaches such giddy heights.  In fact, it seems that only tourists are foolish enough to venture this high.  Even the astronomers avoid the place.  They sensibly operate their observatories remotely from warmer, more accommodating locations. 

Our tour was timed to coincide with sunset. This meant we were treated to spectacular skies, along with a chance to see the giant observing instruments quietly spring into life.  Perhaps one of the most astonishing sights is that of the mountain’s shadow just before sunset.  A soft grey triangle stretches out across the surrounding cloud tops creating the illusion of a twin peak rising in the distance.  If you time your arrival just so, you can stand on the shadow’s rim, wave your arms and witness your movements on the shadow’s edge.  Very cool!

We spent less than an hour at the summit.  Our guides were constantly on the watch for the symptoms of attitude sickness. The risk is real.  Years later in Peru Garry and I witness how debilitating this illness can be when members of our tour party suffered above 4,000 metres.  The tour operator tries to reduce this risk by making a compulsory stop halfway up the mountain at the Visitor’s Information Centre. 
This small building sits about 2,800 metres above sea level, just below the cloud base that regularly shrouds the peak. The smooth, paved highway also ends at this point.  From here, the road turns to gravel and winds its way precariously up the mountain’s desolate rusty volcanic rock flank.  Incredibly, Mauna Kea is only considered a dormant volcano.  It last erupted 4, 600 years ago. 

The Big Island does boast at least one active volcano, nearby Kilauea.  Garry and I trekked out to the site of this volcano’s active lava flow to witness its glowing, viscous lava slowly ooze towards the sea.  Reaching the lava flows involved a three kilometer trek across rough, uneven piles of old lava.  The rock is deadly to footwear. It’s sharp, glassy edges simple tear shoe leather to shreds.

We trekked out from the end of the road late afternoon. Dusk is considered the best time to view the lava as its ominous glow is far more spectacular in the fading light.  This certainly proved to be true.  As the sky darkened we soon realized there were giant streams of hot lava cascading down distant slopes we’d barely glanced at earlier in the day.
The lava is safe to view.  While it’s extraordinarily hot, it moves at a slow pace.  This meant we could move from location to location without fear of our route being blocked, or our observation point being suddenly engulfed.  However, as we retraced our steps, we discovered our route had taken us across active lava flowing several feet below our feet.  In our efforts to reach visible surface flows, we’d inadvertently cross a “bridge” of cooled lava. 

It was quite a shock to discover lava glowing deep down in the odd crack.  Earlier in the day, this faint glow had been completely invisible. It was timely reminder that nature remains the master of its own domain.  We meekly reassured ourselves that we were probably never in any real danger given how many other people had made the same trek through the day.  We decided the ever present National Park Rangers would have closed off the area had the risk had been significant.

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