Category Archives: The Big Island

Meeting Pele, goddess of volcanoes

One of the most dramatic spirits of the Hawaiian pantheon … Pele, goddess of volcanoes … capable of sudden fury and great violence (Herbert K. Kane)

On Friday, day three of our Hawaiian adventure, we drove north from Waikoloa on Hawai’i Island’s west coast to the base of the Kohala Mountains. Turning east, we climbed 2500 feet up and across the mountain ridges into a lush landscape, especially compared to the black volcanic fields near Waikoloa. As we drove towards the east coast we had beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean, with many inlets bringing water into gullies of giant ferns and waterfalls.

At the coast we turned south towards Hilo, Hawai’i Island’s major centre of business and government. We didn’t stop for photos because it was misty and rainy up in the mountains and we needed to concentrate on staying on the correct side of the road (opposite to Australia, so surprisingly effortful) and navigating.


From Hilo we turned south west towards the world’s largest volcano, Mauna Loa, and the world’s most active volcano, Kīlauea, both within the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Although Manua Loa is the most massive mountain on Earth, taller than Mount Everest (from ocean floor to summit it stands 17,000 metres, more than 8,000 metres taller than Mount Everest), people mostly come to see the steaming and roaring Kīlaueau Caldera and the lava flows of its East Rift Zone.


The National Park is a huge, living, drive through museum. In the National Park brochure we received, we read:

Volcanoes are monuments to Earth’s origins, evidence that primordial forces are still at work.

You can drive around the caldera on Crater Rim Drive (at least until a section where the road has been closed due to dangerous volcanic activity) and you can drive down through the outpourings in the East Rift Zone on Chain of Craters Drive. We arrived around 5pm after 3 hours of driving from the east coast and first stopped at the Visitor Centre. Here we found helpful suggestions for three main things to see and do over a couple of hours: (1) “breathe the sacred breath of Pele” from steam vents, (2) view Kīlauea’s erupting summit from the lookout at the Thomas Jaggar Museum, and (3) “explore a cave where a river of lava flowed 550 years ago”.

First to the lava vents! Just off Crater Rim Drive we saw plumes of steam rising from cracks that have opened in the ground, venting from the volcano far below. As you can see from Oliver’s red face in the photo below the steam was very hot and wet. If it was Pele’s breath, according to Louisa, she smells sweet like pancakes. Oliver and Louisa threw coins into the vents. Their pennies joined many coins and other offerings, supposedly to appease Pele and quieten her fiery rumbles.
Next we drove to the Thomas Jagger Museum, which overlooks the Kīlauea Caldera. We could see a plume of volcanic gas rising from the caldera, apparently from molten rock in a lava lake on the summit (which we could not see). We also could hear rumbles from the volcano. Similar to, but deeper and louder than thunder.
A caldera is:

… a large, usually circular depression at the summit of a volcano formed when magma is withdrawn or erupted from a shallow underground magma reservoir. The removal of large volumes of magma may result in loss of structural support for the overlying rock, thereby leading to collapse of the ground and formation of a large depression. Calderas are different from craters, which are smaller, circular depressions created primarily by explosive excavation of rock during eruptions. (From

The Thomas Jagger Museum is excellent and well worth a long visit. It provides lots of information about the science of volcanoes and the science of studying them. Kīlauea’s current eruption started in 1983 — over 30 years ago — and has been shaping the surrounding landscape in major ways ever since (as well as long before)!
Next we visited the Thurston Lava Tube, named for Lorrin Thurston who helped Dr Thomas Jagger (more on him below) to establish the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and preserve this important and unique environment. To reach the Lava Tube first we hiked through rainforest around the rim of the Kīlauea Iki Crater. It was foggy over the rim so we couldn’t see the bottom clearly except to know it was a long way down. Then we walked into a valley of giant ferns until we reached the mouth of the Lava Tube. Over 500 years ago a subterranean river of lava ran through here. When it drained away it left this amazing tunnel that looks like a man made railway tunnel. But it was carved by molten rock and left as a walk in museum exhibit to the forces of nature!
Finally in gathering darkness and increasing rain we returned to the lookout next to the Museum. The glow of the lava lake within the caldera lit the sky an eerie orange colour. It was an impressive sight! Perhaps the inspiration for the fires of Mordor? Here’s a link to a 24/7 webcam of the Kīlauea Caldera so you can see what we saw (unfortunately without the impressive rumbling).

Although the drive to meet Pele and return was long and exhausting (and somewhat terrifying on the way back to our resort in the dark, on unfamiliar roads, in torrential rain and on the wrong side of the road), it was a trip worth making. The Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park looked like a place where dinosaurs and other ancient creatures might be at home. A fierce, primordial landscape. Although forbidding, Kīlauea actually is one of the most studied and best understood volcanoes on the planet. Scientists have been studying Kīlauea at least since 1921 when Dr Thomas Jaggar, a Professor of Geology at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (on the spot we visited) and pioneered many of the techniques of volcanology.

We loved exploring how these volcanoes had shaped the birth of the Hawaiian Islands as well as the birth of an entirely new science necessary to understand the secrets of Pele and her fiery ways!

Our next stop: The fabled North Shore of O’ahu!



A big (Hawaiian) island of contrasts

Last Wednesday, 8 April, we flew into Honolulu from Sydney, then on to Hawai’i Island, the largest and youngest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. Oliver and Louisa were thrilled to learn that we arrived about five hours before we left Sydney, as though we had travelled back in time in some kind of time machine (no, we just crossed the international dateline and gained a day).

Kona Airport, on the west coast of Hawai’i Island, is a very small open air airport, with a series of modest thatched huts serving as gates, security, shops etc; very much in the tropical theme we expected. But when we collected our rental car and drove north from the airport towards our hotel we were struck by a truly alien landscape. We expected blue waters and palm trees. Occasionally we could see those in the distance along the west coast as we travelled north to Waikoloa Beach Resort. But mostly we could just see black lava flow fields undulating and stretching away from the roadside. We could see giant cracks as well as holes and caves where the ground had buckled and risen.


Soon we turned off the blackened highway into Waikoloa Beach Resort, an oasis of green built around the sandy beach of ‘Anaeho’omalu Bay. I had chosen the Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort as our first stop. The resort was built in 1986 and is showing its age a little. But it is amazing the way that the 62 acre ocean-front property has been carved from the black of a 150 year old lava field. Below you can see a photo from the resort’s website of the early days of construction. And then you can see photos we took of the stark lines between the verdant green of man-made resort, black volcanic rocks and then ocean. It certainly made for a dramatic landscape!


It was a beautiful location with lots of fun things for Oliver and Louisa to do, such as swimming in pools …


… snorkelling in the man-made lagoon with turtles …

… meeting Australian parrots (“g’day mate”, the bird said to Louisa; “g’day mate” Louisa said to the bird, both pleased to share being six years old and from Australia) …
… and having lunch while watching dolphins at play right behind us (we’re swimming with dolphins on the last day of our trip, next Friday).
Then as dark fell, we were treated to the most glorious sunsets.
On Thursday we drove for 3.5 hours to the other side of Hawai’i Island and encountered a completely different face of this beautiful island: lush, green rainforests stretching from the east coast inland and then up along the craters of huge volcanoes.
I’ll write more about our visit to the World Heritage listed Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park in my next post. Although our visit to The Big Island was very short, we saw enough to know that this is a majestic and dynamic landscape. As we read in a brochure from the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum (in the National Park), the ever changing landscape:
… shows the results of 70 million years of volcanism, migration, and evolution in the Hawaiian Island-Emperor Seamount chain. These processes first thrust a bare land from the sea and then clothed it with complex, unique ecosystems and a distinct human culture.
Unlike Australia, Hawai’i Island is small enough that you can drive around its circumference in a day and coast to coast in two or three hours (compared to maybe two or three weeks coast to coast in Australia). So it’s comparatively easy to see many different ecosystems: rainforest, ranch lands, alpine heights, sandy beaches, and black, barren desert.


Our next stop is Oah’u. But first, I’ll tell you about our day trip to the rumbling, steaming goddess, Pele!














By wind, water or wing to Hawaii

In less than 24 hours, Peter, Oliver, Louisa and I will board our plane for Hawaii and 10 days exploring what some people argue are the world’s most remote inhabited islands. This notion of remoteness is interesting because it doesn’t seem to me to be that far from here to there. Flying time from Sydney to Honolulu (the capital of Hawaii on the island of Oahu) is about 10.5 hours. So door to door we’re looking at just over 18 hours, including a 30 minute taxi ride from our home in Sydney, 3 hour check-in at the airport, 10.5 hour flight to Honolulu, 3 hour lay over in Honolulu, 45 minute flight to Kona and finally a 30 minute drive to our hotel. Long, yes, but not nearly so long as my 32 hour door-to-door marathon returning from New York last year. The distance to Hawaii seems quite attractive! Even Oliver said today that it didn’t seem too bad, which surprised me since he was a bit traumatised by our long flights to and from Europe in 2013.

Hawaii relative to Sydney and mainland USA (from

Hawaii relative to Sydney and mainland USA (from

What will Hawaii look like?

David Quammen, in my favourite science book The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, aims to explain Earth’s biological richness (and, importantly, its catastrophic loss of richness) by exploring the particular and often peculiar patterns of species distribution on islands: this is the island biogeography of the title. He discusses old versus young islands, big versus small islands, and continental versus oceanic islands.

The Hawaiian Islands is a relatively large archipelago, with islands ranging in age from an estimated 65 million years old to less than 1/2 a million years old; so some are relatively old and others are relatively young, at least in geological time!

Importantly, Hawaii is made up of oceanic islands. Quammen writes:

An oceanic island is one that never has been and never will be connected to a mainland. It comes into existence as a rising welt off the deep ocean floor, elevated into daylight by some geological process — most commonly, volcanic eruption (Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, Random House, 1996, page 53).

I saw evidence of volcanic and other (long ago as well as current) landscape defining forces a few weeks ago on another set of islands: New Zealand. On the South Island of New Zealand I visited majestic Mackenzie Country where I saw huge valleys, rich plains, braided rivers and glacial lakes, all carved by retreating glaciers over the past 250,000 years. And I visited Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, which continues to grow each year as the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates collide along New Zealand’s western coastline, buckling and lifting along the Southern Alps mountain range. These landscapes are breathtaking.

Mackenzie Country, South Island, New Zealand

Mackenzie Country, South Island, New Zealand

Aoraki/Mount Cook, South Island, New Zealand

Aoraki/Mount Cook, South Island, New Zealand

Hawaii is similar to New Zealand in that both have been shaped by the movement of tectonic plates, fault lines in the Earth, and especially volcanic activity. We plan to visit Hawaii’s dormant and active volcanoes on The Big Island in our first few days.

Again like New Zealand, Hawaii also has been subject to the rise and fall of oceans over millennia, acting as a lifeboat for its fabulous and often unique flora and fauna (more on this in a moment). But Hawaii is different to New Zealand in that it has never been connected to a mainland, as noted above. New Zealand used to be part of Gondwana, the ancient supercontinent that also included Africa, Antarctica, Australia, India, Madagascar and South America before it started to break apart about 120 million years ago. New Zealand parted ways with Australia and Antarctica about 80 million years ago (separated by the Tasman Sea) and began to sink, leaving a scattering of islands that acted as a “Moa’s ark” for New Zealand’s birds and reptiles (you can read more about the geology of New Zealand and this notion of a Moa’s ark here).

In contrast, Hawaii always has been, and remains, isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hawaii’s isolation — remoteness — has consequences for what we will see there.

What will we find in Hawaii?

On safari in Africa last year we saw lions, cheetahs, giraffes, rhinos, baboons and so many other amazing mammals and other animals. In comparison, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii have almost no large mammals native to each country.

At least in the case of Hawaii this is because every plant, animal or other creature (or at least its ancestor) could only reach the islands by wind, water or wing. Far too far for a large animal to swim from the closest mainland! Returning to David Quammen, he writes:

… every oceanic island comes up from below, like a gasping whale. It starts its terrestrial existence, therefore, completely devoid of territorial forms of life. This is the most fundamental distinction between the oceanic and continental categories. Every terrestrial animal on an oceanic island, and every plant, is descended from an animal or plant that arrived there by cross-water dispersal after the island was formed (Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, Random House, 1996, page 53).

Because everything that got there had to get there from somewhere else, dispersed across vast ocean distances by wind, water or wing, Hawaii has a quite different “roster” of animals, birds, plants and insects compared to other countries. Hawaiian writer and blogger, Dennis Hollier calls Hawaii “genetically remote”. He writes:

Hawaii’s isolation has made it the world capital of endemism. For its size, Hawaii has the highest percentage of species that exist nowhere else on Earth (from

In fact, 80% of the species found on Hawaii are found nowhere else in the world. Of course, humans have introduced a variety of non-native species as well as accelerated the loss of many native species. Nevertheless, I imagine that Hawaii will be a different world for us, both in terms of its landscape and wildlife. Writing of this biological richness, Quammen concludes:

Charles Darwin never saw the Hawaiian Islands. If he had, the Galápagos might have paled by comparison (Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, Random House, 1996, page 53)

We are looking forward to our “voyage” to Hawaii tomorrow and the exotic world that awaits us. We will share our discoveries with you in the coming days.


Charles Darwin in the Natural History Museum, London

Charles Darwin in the Natural History Museum, London


Hawaii bound!

When I was a child my brothers and sister and I watched endless re-runs of the Brady Bunch. Apart from the episode where Marcia gets hit in the nose by a football or the episode where Davy Jones from the Monkees turns up, my next favourite episode was “Hawaii bound”, the episode where the whole family accompanies dad, Mike, to Hawaii on a business trip (because it’s pretty likely that his company is going to pay airfares and accommodation for a wife, six kids, and Alice the housekeeper; yeah, right!)brady bunch

Over the Easter holidays, Peter, Oliver, Louisa and I plan to follow in the footsteps of Mike, Carol, Greg, Marcia, Peter et al. and fly off to Hawaii for 10 days. Peter will be on his way to a conference in California. So we are helping him break the journey. He’ll fly on at the end of our holiday and I will bring the kids home … alone!


Hawaii! So excited!





We are flying into Honolulu, the state capital of Hawaii, which is on the island of Oahu. The Hawaiian archipelago includes hundreds of islands spread across approximately 2,500 kms, but there are eight main islands. We’ll be visiting two of them: Oahu and Hawaii (the Big Island). We fly from Sydney to Honolulu then immediately fly from Honolulu to the Big Island. We’ll be staying there for a few days to explore its many extinct, dormant, and active volcanoes! Then we return to Oahu and stay at Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore. Here Louisa will be able to ride horses and Oliver will be able to visit the beach to their hearts’ content. Finally, we move to downtown Waikiki for a few days of sightseeing and shopping.

The Hawaiian archipelago

The Hawaiian archipelago

I’m excited to see the geology and diversity of flora and fauna. Hawaii features heavily in one of my favourite books: The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen. dodoBecause it is so isolated from other major land masses and because it arose steaming from under the ocean (formed in the distant past and still being formed by volcanic activity), Hawaii boasts many species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world (it also, unfortunately, has lost many species to extinction).

Louisa is excited to find out what kinds of animals live on Hawaii. I suspect they will be quite different to what she saw in Africa. Oliver is looking forward to the beach and Peter is looking forward to some relaxation!

So we will post what we learn about Hawaii as we prepare for our trip and we look forward to reading your suggestions about places to visit and things to do. Please post them in the comments below.

Aloha oukou!