Big Island adventures

What struck me most about Hawai’i was the diversity. In a couple of hours you can go from lush rain forests to desert-like climate, from sealevel to 4200 m high volcano peaks and back. You can walk across endless lava fields, over land that’s probably younger than yourself or just relax on one of the picture perfect beaches. The sand comes in all colors: white (obviously), black (well, lava) and green (olivine mineral from the lava). If you picture a beach from a tourist brochure for paradise, it’ll be pretty close.

I spent five nights in Honoka’a, in a beautiful place in the rain forest. Sleeping in a hammock was a challenge the first night, but pure pleasure from there on. Well, at the end of each action-packed, eventful day I could have probably slept anywhere.

Hawai’i is made up of eight islands, with Hawai’i, also called Big Island, being – you guessed it – the biggest. Starting from Hilo, I used the first day to drive around the northern part of it. It was my first encounter with Saddle Road, a windy “highway” traversing the island east to west. It was built during WWII with military use in mind and for many years driving on it was explicitly ruled out in most rental car contracts. Times have changed and large sections of the road have been restructured. It’s mostly a straight, easy to drive multi-lane road now. It’s still impressive to drive and without really noticing it, you gain altitude quite quickly. Saddle Road gives you a first glimpse of the scale of the two big volcanos, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. When you look at your photographs from the island, some seem to have a tilted horizon. That’s not your inability to hold your camera straight, but merely the very long, flat increase of a volcano covering most of the island and towering 4200 vertical meters above sealevel (and reaching another 5000 below). The weather can also change quickly and I was told, that fog is quite common, especially later in the day. I got some of it – for exactly 5 minutes. Looks like I have a streak of good weather.

I drove up to the Mauna Kea visitor center at 2700 meters and thought about going all the way up to the summit. A forest of signs pointed out the absolute necessity of a four wheel drive for the road ahead. I doubt that (I think it would be tough on most 2WD cars, but probably doable), but the chance of getting stuck in a rental car, somewhere between 3000 and 4000 meters high on a volcano on my very first day made me turn around and head to the beach instead. It was obviously not a bad alternative – at all.

After a quick stop in Kona on the western part of the island I chose Waialea beach (Beach 69). It’s close to the more famous … beach, but seemed a bit less crowded and more a place for the locals than the tourist. To be honest I never experienced any larger crowds during my whole trip (in February), so it probably didn’t really matter. The beach was marvellous, nice small waves for a little bodysurfing and unfortunately enough sun for the first sunburn of the year (oh those spots on your back, your hands just can’t reach…).

Back at my guesthouse I met Stephan, a German guy working in China and his Chinese wive. We realised we had similar plans for the next day and they invited me to join them. It turned out to be a great idea. We had lots of fun and interesting conversations, plus they had a 4WD, which would turn out very useful later that day.

First we went to Volcano national park. We started touristy and got a short tour about the unique flora and fauna of Hawai’i. When everyone else turned back to the Visitor Center, we took the chance and did the short, un-touristy hike down to the Kilauea crater. Standing in the crater of an active volcano, with sulphur gases rising in the not so far distance, is a very unique experience. The good thing is, that on Hawai’i even the volcanoes are laid-back. Larger activities usually don’t come without warning.

Next up was, what turned out to be my absolute favourite place of the trip: Papakolea or Green Sand Beach. The guide book describes the road there like this:

If you have 4WD you might be able to drive it. It’s 2 1/4 miles each way on the flat but sometimes deeply rutted, grassy plain. Sometimes even timid 4WDers can make it. Other times, you’ll want to bring along four sumo wrestlers to help you carry you car out of the ruts. – Big Island Revealed

We had a big Jeep and Stephan drove it effortlessly and with a lot of fun through the sand dunes (you can’t call that a road). When I complimented him on his driving, he told me he used to drive rally cars, which made a lot of sense. After about half an hour using a Jeep for what it’s built for, we arrived at a cliff and I eagerly walked down to the beach. Green Sand Beach is just beautiful, the color comes from olivine, a mineral common in the Hawaiian lava. When we arrived it was a bit cloudy and the sand looked more brown than green. When we were just about to leave the sun came out and made it clear just how beautiful (and green) this place really is.

On the way back we stopped at South Point and I took the chance to jump off the southern most tip of the U.S. into the ocean below. The 10 meter plunge was the easy part. After watching two other guys dive in, I didn’t need a lot of time to go for it. The hard part is climbing back up on a small metal ladder, which is swaying with the waves and the wind. It’s quite a good arm work-out. Nevertheless, I had to jump a second time. We also met Wes, a guy running a hostel in Alaska (and planning to start one on Hawai’i too). If you ever go to Homer, Alaska, check out the Sky Hostel. I invited my new friends to dinner to finish an extraordinary day, that’s easily among my top five traveling experiences.

The next day we went to Mauna Kea. Equipped with a 4×4 going up was no big deal (compared to Green Sand Beach this was actually a road). An interesting fact about Summit Road is, that it’s paved at first, then gravel for a few miles and then paved again the last few miles to the top. While this seems weird at first, it makes sense, when you think about it. Dust produced by the cars going up there is not what you want, when looking at the sky with some of the best telescopes in the world. The air is very clean around the mountain top and the location is ideal for observing the sky. It comes to no surprise, that some of the world’s largest observatories were built on both Mauna Kea and neighbouring Mauna Loa, although some of them heavily protested against by the local population.

From the parking on top it’s just a short 10 minute walk to the actual summit and a first glimpse of how my body reacts to 4000 m altitude without any proper acclimatisation process. However, Mauna Kea was just a warm-up for the real challenge, that lay in front of me on the other side of Saddle Road.

Hawai’i was a beautiful trip and a wonderful, albeit short, vacation. Traveling has shown me many wonderful places all around the world, but I always returned knowing, that there’s no better place than home. More than any other place so far, Hawai’i challenged that idea.