In our latest blog post, we were heading back from the Green Sand Beach to our Airbnb host’s apartment. We stopped for some delicious local coffee and headed back to the Hilo area as we had planned to head up to the top of Mauna Kea.
Mauna Kea is the largest volcano on the Island of Hawaii (I think it might be the tallest volcano in all of the Hawaiian Islands). I had read, and been told by my friend Mike, that there is some awesome stargazing up there.
Thanks to its height and its distance from any large, light-emitting, air-polluting metropolitan area, there is a minimum amount of human junk in the air polluting the view of the stars.
Again, thanks to Mike, I had recently watched the show Cosmos which talks about the sky, the stars, and all the plausible universes. If you haven’t yet watched it, I highly recommend you do. Anyway, this piqued my interest, so I HAD to check out what is deemed the most amazing view of the stars in the world.
Driving up the volcano
We started our drive and our ascent from sea level in Hilo up to the Visitor Center at about 9,200 feet (2,800 meters). I drove. Ceci gave directions. Ceci got us a little lost. I saved the day. I promise that’s exactly how the story went.
Aside from Ceci getting us lost, the crazy thing about the drive was that we started at about 85°F (29°C) and, in a drive that took us about an hour, were at 51°F when we arrived at the Visitor Center! We watched the digital thermometer on the rental car drop a degree every few minutes!
As we reached about the half way point, it got really foggy. We slowed down because we’re not maniacs. But this was discouraging as we thought that it would be impossible to see the sky on a cloudy night.
Arriving at the Visitor Center
When we arrived, things did not look promising. We asked one of the staff members if they expected things to clear up. They said yes very confidently. And sure enough, at about 8pm, the sky cleared up, and we were treated to one of the most amazing things we’ve ever seen. There were dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of stars and planets visible on a moonless night. Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were all visible with the naked eye. And when I say visible, I mean VISIBLE! They were incredibly bright!
Wonderful as that was, it was cold. By the time we left, the temperature had dropped to 43°F (6°C). Ceci was cold. Given that we were going to Southeast Asia and did not expect to need any warm clothes, we were poorly prepared.
But we did our best. We brought long pants, socks (though the Keens had unwanted ventilation), our very very light sweaters, and our towels.
Pause for commercial break (Mini rant about one of our super cool supplies)
Our towels: WOW! These things are great. Ceci found them on a blog which highly recommended these towels. Many others recommended micro-fiber, but I’m glad Ceci found these. They are extremely light, are a huge (37″x70″, 94 cm x 178 cm), but fold up small, they’re absorbent as can be, and they double as beach towel, blanket, and scarf. They were surprisingly warm up atop the volcano, and we couldn’t be happier about bringing them with us.
We now resume our normal programming
Even with our best efforts, we were still cold. We hung out inside the warm Visitors Center as much as possible while the cloud cover subsided, and we had a couple of Cup-a-Noddles. Ceci said she would never have one of those, but boy did she enjoy the warm soup!
Once the cloud cover did go away, we bit the bullet and went out into the cold. They put on a great star tour using a high-energy laser to point out the different stars, planets, and constellations in a way that you probably won’t see anywhere else in the world. At least not with the naked eye.
After a few hours of staring in awe at the thousands of galactic bodies in the sky, it was time to head back.
I tried taking a picture, but I quickly learned it’s incredibly difficult to get a good picture. Given the needed exposure time, the stars move much too quickly for a nice shot.
Here’s the best that I could do, which might give you an idea of what we could see:
Here’s what a proper photograph from Mauna Kea looks like:
Kaumana Caves: Lava Tunnels
Our last adventure on the Hilo side of the Big Island was at the Kaumana Caves. Similar to the lava tunnel that we mentioned in a previous post, two tunnels formed here by rushing molten lava from Mauna Loa in the 1880’s.
However, unlike the Lava Tunnel in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, these tunnels had zero light. So armed with our trusty headlight, we braved the unknown and began our walk through the 100% pitch dark tunnels.
Walking through these tunnels was unreal. Many pieces of rock from the wall had cracked and fallen, leaving tons of boulders to climb over. Step by step, we slowly made our way through these amazing natural formations.
After about thirty minutes of walking we found light. It was an incredible feeling to be inside a real lava tunnel with absolutely no light. Naturally, the moment we saw the light was what I imagine it feels like to be born.
We climbed up through the opening to see what it looked like out there. Many had warned on TripAdvisor and other websites that, once you reach this point, you should turn back and again walk through the tunnel.
Through the jungle
Being the super brave and adventurous guy that I am, I chose to walk back through the jungle. Ceci suggested we follow the recommendations. But I thought “no way. Those people were just being boring.”
I learned the hard way that all those people were right. After about 20 steps, I realized we had made a mistake, but I had faith that things would get better so I continued. They did not get better. Ceci followed me, reminding me what all those folks said on TripAdvisor. I should probably listen to Ceci more often.
The trail through the jungle was rarely used and barely visible. The trees, ferns, and other plants were thick and uninviting. Every step was a little more painful than the last as we were both wearing shorts. The brush and branches kept scraping and scratching our bare legs, and we had no end in sight.
We walked through the jungle for what seemed like an eternity until we started hearing cars, signaling that the road was near. From this point on, we walked for one more eternity before finally reaching our car.
It was tough, fun, and highly rewarding. Ceci disagreed. At least, with having walked through the jungle. She agreed that the tunnels were something not quite like anything we’d ever seen or walked through.
After this little adventure, it was time to leave the Hilo side and head over to see what the Kona side of the Island of Hawaii had in store for us.
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