Hello Hawaii! We arrived in the dark, so this morning was our first real view of our surroundings here on the Big Island. Our guesthouse is in a lush green yard with exotic plants alive with birdsong and surrounded by thick tropical forest, immediately adjacent to Lava Tree State Park. The peace, seclusion and privacy in addition to the warm climate gave us an immediate feel of laid back island life. So it was with great surprise, we learned about its near-miss in the 2018 volcano lava flow.
Our hosts, Kent and Melanie, welcomed us with open arms and Melanie immediately brought me into their home to show me aerial photos taken just four days after the eruption. The juxtaposition of green and black painted a stark picture of the devastation. Just 1/8 mile away the lava advanced inexorably, crossing roads, changing the landscape forever. In order to see it for ourselves, Melanie gave us directions for a driving loop which we quickly followed.
We took the main road away from Pahoa, which Google labels with “End of the Road” just a short distance away. It is literally covered by lava beyond that point. Taking the other fork toward the coast, the road has been rebuilt right through the lava. Roadside views quickly transition from homes and greenery to solid lava lining both sides of the road. It is easy to see the lava’s path, what trees and structures were spared and where it all lies buried beneath the black devastation. A stark reality.
As we neared the end of the lava flow, the road took a sharp left turn and an equally sharp transformation. Government Beach Road had major portions covered in lava, but was laboriously rebuilt in 2019 despite challenges including encountering still-hot surface temperatures. The narrow road travels through a green canopy of tropical trees and plants, lending it seclusion as well as serenity with its 15 mph speed limit and the need for pull-outs to allow cars to pass. When it reached the ocean, gigantic waves crashed against the shoreline. We spent a long time watching the force of nature pounding against those rocky lava cliffs.
For the afternoon, I chose to drive down to the southern shore of Puna. Prior to 2018 it would have been a short drive, but the road closure forced me into a round about approach. However that took me along another narrow drive, paralleling the shore this time in closer proximity to the water. There I was able to witness the impacts of both new and old lava.
The initial part of the drive was lush and green, as the tropical forest found footholds in old lava flows and reclaimed its dominance. In some spots, pillars of lava poked up through the plantings, a reminder of the part it played in this geography. Continuing on, the path of the 2018 lava was evident once again. The road passes through one section, re-emerges then eventually ends at Isaac Hale Park. There the lava created the island’s newest black sand beach, which I explored. Smooth fine sand mixed with harsh larger chunks of lava made for tricky walking, but didn’t stop sunbathers from stretching out their towels. The picnic areas of the park had walkways that wound through flowering plants but often ended abruptly at lava walls. And the altered layout of the park hindered my search for the warm springs that supposedly were there. It gave me an eerie sense of life as a path interrupted.
I found myself fascinated by the co-existence of life and volcanoes. When they choose to erupt, there is no stopping the flow, which follows no rules. It reshapes the land, changes travel patterns, saves some areas and devastates others. I can’t wait to explore more of Hawaii’s Big Island over the next two weeks. I’m sure I will learn many more lava lessons.