Hiking across an active volcano!
Mt Kilauea is Hawaii’s most active volcano. It’s one of five that make up the island of Hawai’i, more commonly known as the Big Island. It last erupted in 2018, and prior to that in 1983. I stayed on the Big Island during a month travelling on the Hawaiian Islands back in 1998. During my time on the Big Island I visited the Hawaii Volcano National Park, and among other things went on a hike across the active lava fields on a guided Kilauea volcano tour. This was an experience I will never forget.
Kilauea is a shield volcano, and it sits on the south-eastern shore of the island. Experts have determined that it is between 210,000 and 280,000 years old. Kilauea rose from the sea about 100,000 years ago. A shield volcano is composed entirely of fluid lava flows. Its low profile makes it resemble a warrior’s shield lying on the ground, hence the name.
Kilauea volcano tour
Was I mad enough to go walking across an active volcano at night? This was the question that had plagued my mind since first arriving at Arnott’s Lodge in Hilo. The thing is, this was exactly the reason I came to Hawaii’s Big Island in the first place. I wanted more than anything to visit the Hawaii volcano national park and see a volcano. Upon arrival at the lodge I had learned about the Kilauea Volcano Tour that takes you on a hike across the lava fields to where the lava was still currently flowing into the sea. We would hike out at sundown and watch the flow at night, then hike back in the dark. Sounds fantastic, I thought.
Signing the Kilauea volcano tour waiver
The next morning however, that excitement and boldness slowly began to wane. A creeping sense of doubt was entering my mind as I stared at the liability waiver form in front of me. Anyone who wanted to go on the Kilauea Tour, had no choice but to sign it.
This was the first time I had come across such a form and, had I known then what I know now, wouldn’t have worried quite so much. These forms are basically designed to protect the company from being sued if anyone gets injured or dies. The waiver literally covers every possible mishap from twisting your ankle to stepping in a pool of lava. It was a very scary document indeed. After much deliberation, I finally decided to face my fear and go for it; after all we would have a professional guide, I hoped.
A potentially volatile mix of gases
The tour was due to start at 2.00 pm. and in my nervousness I had forgotten to eat anything. I ran around to the local shop and got something to take with me. After nearly a month in the Hawaiian Islands it had soon become apparent that in the more remote parts of the islands, local shops hold a very limited selection of produce. From the selection available, I ended up with a bottle of water, a packet of crisps and a couple of egg sandwiches; much to the concern of the others in the group – the van was full and there would be nowhere to run. My biggest worry was that my gases mixed with those of the volcano might prove highly volatile. This was a theory I really wasn’t all that keen to put to the test.
The Kilauea crater
First stop on the tour was at the summit to view the crater. Our tour guide, Suzanne, told us that Mt. Kilauea volcano had erupted back in 1983 and had been active ever since; it still is. Suzanne spoke with a distinct Californian surfer’s accent, and used words like: gnarly and awesome. The fact that a relative of Bill and Ted was about to take us on a night hike across an active volcano, didn’t exactly instil me with confidence.
Madame Pele, the Goddess of Fire
Suzanne explained how the Hawaiians believe Madame Pele, the Goddess of Fire lives in the crater and that quite often the locals come here to pay homage to her. I just hoped that Madame Pele wasn’t suffering from PMT, as it goes without saying that this was not the sort of woman you wanted to piss off at the wrong time of the month.
As we got out of the bus we were overwhelmed with the stench of rotten eggs. I assured the others that I hadn’t yet eaten my egg sandwiches. In actual fact it was sulphur coming from inside the crater. It appears that Madame Pele has a touch of bad breath.
I stood at the edge of the crater and gazed in wonder at the size of it. The many still steaming vents were the only indication that a cauldron of molten lava was bubbling underneath. At any moment it could erupt and spew tons of boiling lava and rocks high up in the air. With that thought in mind, I made a hasty retreat to the van.
Two different types of lava
As we made our way to the starting point for the hike Suzanne explained the two different types of lava flow we would encounter. Pahoehoe is a river of lava that flows smoothly and unbroken. When it hardens, it twists into rope-like coils and swirls as the outer skin cools while the hotter lava underneath continues to move a little. Sort of thing you would want to avoid stepping on, I’m sure.
The other type of lava flow is called Aa. No I haven’t just been hit over the head with a solid object, that’s what it’s called. Aa is rough and jumbled lava that moves so slowly the tip of the flow hardens. Molten lava from behind pushes it to keep it moving. That was my kind of lava, slow moving.
Pahoehoe and Aa are Hawaiian words that are now used worldwide to describe these two types of lava. I expect that Pahoehoe translates as, Oh shit that’s moving a bit fast! And Aa simply means, ah I’ve got time.
I wasn’t sure which would be the most dangerous, Pahoehoe or a complacent attitude towards Aa.
hiking across the lava fields
After a short stop to walk through one of Kilauea’s extinct lava tubes, we went to the starting point for the hiking part of the tour. In the distance we could see the steam plume being created by fresh lava mixing with seawater. Lava had completely overflown the entire coastline, and all around us were warning signs of the dangers that lay ahead.
The starting point for the hike was also where the coastal road had run out. From here on the road was now an immense field of solid black lava. Apparently someone had been lost out there quite recently, and only his torch and hat lay on the edge of a sheer drop into a pool of lava. So it goes without saying what had happened to him. But maybe that wasn’t so? Maybe he had faked his own death? After all, what better way to do it? There would be no body to search for, now would there?
No going back
I made a final system check to be sure I had everything: torch, asthma inhaler, hiking stick, cigarettes, water, egg sandwiches and incontinence pants. With everything ready, I then set off for the incredibly difficult hike. Walking on lava was a lot harder than I had anticipated. Bits break away under your feet and you cross huge cracks caused by seismic activity; a slight cause for concern, I might add. I walked in fear of even the slightest stumble. Fragments of ash and lava covered the ground, resembling tiny shards of glass that were equally sharp. The tall, heavy hiking stick the tour company had given us proved quite cumbersome and was more of a hindrance than a help.
It took about an hour and a half to get to the lava flow. Suzanne stopped just short of this and told us that officially she couldn’t take us any further. Well from where we were, we couldn’t see anything. She said we could go on, but at our own risk. The Kilauea Volcano Tour organisers really do their utmost to relieve themselves of all liability.
Well, I hadn’t come all this way just to see a distant steam plume. I wanted to see hot molten lava flowing into the sea. So, it seemed, did the others. We trotted off down to the edge, liability waivers in hand ready to throw into the sea. Mad I know, but the problem is that you are gripped with fascination and just have to take that chance. My nerves had disappeared and my curiosity took over.
The clash of the Titans
As we reached the edge what awaited us was well worth that risk. The entire beach had been turned into streams of red hot lava running into the sea like rivers of blood. It was magnificent. A bit further on I spotted a group of people standing nearer the smoke plume, so I took the inland route – I had regained some sense – and followed by the rest, went to see what they were looking at.
They were standing right next to a lava flow. It was the most amazing thing. Complete darkness had ensued by this time, and the lava was flowing over the edge of the cliff like a geriatric waterfall. A crust had formed on the surface and the lava was contained within that. The whole area resembled a huge barbecue, when the coals have turned grey and smoulder. You could see the red glow of the lava through the small cracks in the surface crust. I wandered over to the edge and poked it with my stick (at least it came in handy for something), but not too hard mind you, lest it split and molten lava spilled out over my feet. My boots were not lava proof.
Amid the gasps of people around me, I stood and watched in amazement as the lava flow in the distance came into contact with the ocean waves and exploded on contact, throwing red sparks and seawater high in the air. It was like watching nature’s own firework display; a true clash of the mighty Titans of nature, lava and ocean. I could have sat there all night and watched this.
Time to leave
After half an hour a nervous Suzanne ushered us back. Reluctantly we all went. It was pitch black by this time and so we had to put our faith in Suzanne to guide us over the four miles of rocky lava back to the van. We each had a torch, but it wasn’t very powerful and only enabled us to see the ground in front. Mind you, considering the state of the surface, this was a good thing.
All had been going well and we were making good time. Halfway back Suzanne stopped, looked around and then told everyone to wait before wandering off into the darkness. Word came back through the group that she had lost her bearings. Oh great! I thought, it’s pitch black and we are stuck on an active volcano.
A loophole in the waiver form?
The liability waiver form hadn’t said anything about the guide getting lost. In fact, it had told us to place our full trust in her. It also stated that on a moonless and cloudy night they use satellite navigation to get back. Well it was both moonless and cloudy and I had seen no sign that Suzanne was carrying any satellite equipment. In fact she wasn’t carrying anything.
Scanning my surroundings, all I could see was blackness. I could hear nothing but the sound of waves. How close to the edge we were, I had no idea. It was all quite unnerving. Then suddenly a thought popped into my head. Maybe I could sue the company for this. After all there had been no mention of such a problem in that carefully crafted liability waiver form.
Sadly or fortuitously, however you want to look at it, Suzanne reappeared shortly after and guided us to safety and thus the end of the Kilauea Volcano Tour.
Bang goes my chance of a million dollar lawsuit, I thought.
Arnott's Lodge and Adventure Tours
This tour was booked through Arnott’s Lodge and Adventure Tours. When you stay with them you get a special discount on this and other great tours in the Hawaii Volcano National Park.