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Across New Lands
A Trek Into Hawaii's Volcanic Expanse
Mark Dhruv

Fountain of Lava on Hawaii
Fountain of Lava on Hawaii

On May 30th in the year 1840, a crimson geyser of molten lava exploded from a crater on the southern flank of one of the world’s most active volcanoes- Mt. Kilauea. Like a tidal current sweeping over a flat beach, the superheated liquid rock engulfed sparse patches of vegetation, flowed over huge expanses of jagged rock and rolled past the few humans that braved the magnificent display of earth’s raw power. The pungent smell of sulfur and the suspiciously benign crackling and snapping of the lava as it met the cooler ground and burned whatever was in its way continued for twenty-six days over an area of seven square miles. 

The striking reddish display of light could be seen from vessels hundreds of miles at sea, and the skies remained illuminated enough to read by for those closer in. During the daylight hours the cacophony of hissing water and billowing white clouds of steam provided another exhibition of nature’s beauty. The island of Hawaii was forming a new coastline, a birth of land whose cries of life thundered across the Pacific.

More eruptions would occur from the eastern rift zone of Kilauea following the 1840 eruption, the most recent ones in the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s, which made a habit of resurfacing a portion of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The decoratively named Pu’u O’o vent further to the east continues to expunge lava today.

My wife and I were interested in exploring the unique landscape of the 1840 volcanic aftermath and opted for the area of the eastern rift zone not currently inundated with painfully fresh molten rock. A small area of land that jutted out into the Pacific known as Apua Point would provide the perfect destination for our foray into the endless expanse of pumice in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s southern end.

Having embraced the vows of marriage just a week earlier, the two of us left the cool summer of Seattle behind and embarked for the Big Island of Hawaii. As per honeymoonal ritual, we spent a few days soaking up the sun, consuming fresh icy pina coladas, and air-conditioned hotel rooms before our masochistic roots forced us to shrug on our over-laden backpacks and head out for a few nights under the stars. After a few hints from an amicable National Park Service ranger on hiking in the hot ambience of a Hawaiian summer, we set off for our chosen destination.

Apua Point is actually part of a kipuka, which is a slight rise in land that forces lava to flow around, thus providing a stronghold for vegetation to take hold. The oasis-like point of land, nestled contentedly on the edge of a small lagoon, supported a variety of thriving vegetation including the lush Pukiawe bush, a robust shrub with thick deep green leaves and little red fruiting bodies, about twelve coconut palms and a healthy population of- thankfully! non-biting ants.

A small sandy beach, buffered from the ocean’s powerful swells by the lagoon, provided an excellent habitat for breeding sea turtles. An endangered marine reptile, the green sea turtle lays its brood yearly at the protected beach, giving marine researchers an opportunity to study and monitor their fragile population. The federal government and an independent research organization studying the turtles betray the only human presence with their unassuming open-air shelter and an NPS provided composting outhouse.

Three hours prior to our exhausted arrival at Apua Point, we had abandoned our trusty little rental car on the pullout opposite the Pu’u Loa petroglyphs just off of Chain of Craters Road. Without a look back we commenced our seemingly harmless seven-mile journey into the volcanic hinterlands with a spring in our step and a smile on our sun-scorched faces. It wasn’t long, though, that and the abusive jarring of hiking over solid rock with forty-pound packs gravitated our grins into pursed lips of determination. Off to our left a rising harsh wind gained momentum, whipping the usually placid Pacific Ocean into a frenzy before barreling across the land, completely unhindered as the furious gusts attempted to drive us to our knees. In the distance we gazed longingly upon our oasis that didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

A little over a third of the way in, when we passed the ruins of the ancient Kealokomo village site, our pace quickened as the sun descended toward a cloudless horizon. The two unique varieties of lava attracted less of our attention and more of our frustration. We appreciated the less disruptive surface of the pahoehoe lava for treading upon, as their pillow and coiled rope-like formations were greatly different from the jagged a’a lava formations. Created of the same rocky material, the pahoehoe lava flowed at hotter temperatures and contained more gases, which caused it to harden in smoother more uniform patterns.

Having reached our destination with more difficulty than we would have thought possible, we spent the night against a rock shelter erected by national park employees and enjoyed a different sort of Hawaii that gave this unique gathering of islands an added dimension of adventure. 

We could only imagine the struggles of the The pillow-like formations of pahoehoe lava park service to maintain an environment that is almost continuously changing as lava unceasingly bursts from various vents and craters and flows toward the ocean, completely ignorant of the roads and buildings erected for humans to observe the destructive action. 

Our campsite at Apua Point
Our campsite at Apua Point

Our fascination at seeing for ourselves the raw, powerful dominance of an eruption and both its beautiful and devastating consequences can only equal that of our desire to learn more about it.

For my wife and I, the introduction to this land that was younger than myself added immensely to our voyage into Hawaii’s lesser-known corners. Free from the humming of a hotel air-conditioner or the noise pollution of late-night partygoers, we slept peacefully- the faint reddish glow of lava from the Pu’u O’o crater providing a natural nightlight.

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Email:  Mark Dhruv

Mark Dhruv  holds a degree in marine biology from Texas A&M. He has tried to take advantage of what he describes as "the adventurous lifestyle of a researcher." From braving 50-foot swells in the Bering Sea to analyzing tiny critters in the depths of the Sea of Cortez, his travels have just begun. An avid backpacker and outdoor enthusiast, he has trekked through India’s northern states on a shoestring budget and floated the maze of rivers in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin.

While living in Arizona, Mark divided his time between carpentry and working as a diver in the Gulf of California. Now he spends his time in the Pacific Northwest, drinking lots of coffee, kayaking the Puget Sound, and exploring Washington and British Columbia’s numerous ski resorts for that perfect run. (More about this writer.)


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