February 12, 2012
On Saturday afternoon (February 4th) when Randall and I went to the Kona International Airport to meet Jere and Nancy on their flight from Honolulu, we knew that we were about to begin an energetic week. In Gainesville, Florida, they run The Adventure Club with almost limitless enthusiasm for outdoor activities and in recent years Nancy has been competing in sprint-triathlons and training for a half marathon. They had never been to Hawai‘i before but had just spent a day and a half on O‘ahu where their friend had given them the grand-tour around the whole island, so we knew that they would be hungry to do as much as possible on the Big Island.
We eased into the activities fairly slowly on Sunday. After a leisurely walk around the harbor and through the south end of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, we drove south through Kailua Kona to Kahalu‘u Beach Park. It was very crowded but I because I was not snorkeling (keeping my stitches dry) I was able to stay in the car until a space was vacated in the small parking-lot while the others laid claim to a small patch of unoccupied sand. Despite waves that would have made snorkeling at “our” harbor beach rather uncomfortable, the conditions at Kahalu‘u were ideal because the bay was protected by a line of rocks at the outer edge of the shallow reef.
By the end of the day, after Jere and Randall had watched the Super Bowl at the Bite-Me Restaurant and after much debate about what activities to organize, we had a plan for the first part of the campaign. The only potential spanner-in-the-works was the mid-week forecast for large northwesterly swells. This would not only preclude comfortable boating and snorkeling but given the surges that would be affecting the outer harbor, it made us a bit nervous about leaving Tregoning unattended. Thus, while conditions were still fairly calm on Monday and after I had shown Nancy a running loop up to the highway and back through the Kaloko-Honokohau Park, we piled in the car and drove over Saddle Road to Hilo. After a quick lunch at Ken’s House of Pancakes, Randall and Jere dropped Nancy and I at the airport where we were going on a Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tour. Nancy was very generously sponsoring this “Circle of fire plus waterfalls” tour for herself and another person, and Jere (who had had his fill of helicopters in Vietnam) kindly allowed me to be the lucky partner. The seating for the six passengers was pre-assigned (based on weight distribution) so I felt rather guilty when I got the window seat and Nancy was in a mid-seat next to me. However, she assured afterwards that this worked out well because she left me the responsibility of taking photos for both of us while she could focus on enjoying the dramatic scenery and not feeling motion-sick. It was the first significant helicopter trip that she had made so she was very excited as we swooped forward on becoming airborne. I love being in the air, and looking down on places that were familiar from the ground was particularly thrilling.
The 50 minute flight took us south of Hilo over the eastern point of the island to the eastern edge of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park where we circled several times over the glowing and steaming vent of Pu‘u O‘o, the most active area on the eastern flank of Kilauea, which has been erupting since 1983. We learned from our very informative pilot, Zach, that the intensity of the eruption varied almost daily and while there were sometimes dramatic “lava fountains” or rivers of glowing, molten lava flowing down to enter the sea with explosive clouds of steam, most of the time the process of land creation was quieter and more gradual. We day that we had chosen had the latter conditions but we were lucky that the few clouds were high and the gases from the Pu‘u O‘o vent were such that we could swing low over the cinder cone and briefly peer into the open vent.
We then flew seaward from the vent and although we could not see red flows, Zach pointed out the hot, shiny, grey pahoehoe lava with occasional steam plumes under which was an extensive lava tube from the end of which magma was gradually extruding. We saw trees at the edge of the lava that showed signs of recent fire damage and we were shown the remnants of the Royal Gardens subdivision where a few patches of woods, sections of road, and a single house survive defiantly in a frozen river of grey lava that cascades around them and over the gradual curve of the overrun pali. The owner of the remaining house used a cross-country motor-bike to reach his property and for a while had even run it as a unique, extreme, guest-house with visitors and supplies brought in and out by helicopter.
Since 1983, the Pu‘u O‘o eruption has produced over 2 billion cubic yards of lava (1.53 billion cubic meters). This have created more than 300 acres of new land (121 ha), destroyed 200 houses, resurfaced at least 7 miles of roads (11 km), and buried both ancient Hawaiian archaeological sites and a National Park visitor center.
At the coast, famous black sand beaches have been covered and due to an unfortunate left-hand turn of a branch of the lava flow, the community of Kalapana was smothered. Not only would there be no insurance coverage for volcanic activity in these areas but depending upon estimated threat, most home-builders in potentially susceptible areas would not be able to get loans or mortgages. So it was with some surprise that we saw roads ground out of the new lava and several houses that had been boldly erected amid the sea of black. Apparently some of the people who owned land in the resurfaced area could afford to rebuild and were not going to let their stark, tenuous surroundings put them off living there. Their attachment to almost valueless land must be more resolute than I think that I could muster.
Once we started to fly back inland, I expected that our “circle of fire” tour would also take us over the main Kilauea Caldera but instead we headed due north to the inland side of Hilo. In retrospect, I do not remember seeing helicopters flying low over Kilauea so perhaps the area is off-limits to commercial flights. Instead we flew over the Hawai‘i Falls on the Wailuku River, part of the water-supply for Hilo. Since the Big Island was suffering from a winter drought (the governor had recently declared parts of the state disaster areas), there was not much water in the streams and pools between the diminished falls. While this part of the tour was a bit anti-climactic, there was a special treat awaiting us in the final approach to the airport over Hilo Bay.
Zach had no sooner suggested that we look for whales, than cries went up from either side of the cabin as two groups of humpbacks were spotted just below the water surface. We had to stay up high as we tightly circled in each direction so as not to disturb the whales. This made it difficult to get good photos but we had some marvelous views of adults and calves surfacing to breathe and diving deep. In the clear blue ocean outside the bay’s breakwater, the long, white pectoral fins of the adult whales could be clearly seen. It was an extended and magical end to our thrilling flight and Nancy and I were abuzz with our tales when Randall and Jere picked us up for ice-creams and the drive back to Honokohau.
We decided to drive back around the northern end of the island, stopping on the way at Akaka Falls State Park and the Waipi‘o Valley Lookout. Although the drought must have reduced flow, the 442 feet high (135 m) Akaka Falls were still impressive as they dropped from the lush green lip over the cliff straight down into the dark pool of the Kolekole Stream. There was another tall waterfall downstream in the park, Kahuna Falls, but in addition being more distant and partly obscured by vegetation it was not quite as dramatic being a cascading- rather than free-falling waterfall. Akaka Falls are twice the height of Niagara Falls but the latter are obviously much more impressive when it comes to overall volume of water. According to a park sign, the world’s highest free-falling waterfall is Angel Falls in Venezuela with a height of 3,212 ft (979 m).
The highest waterfall in the USA (and one of the highest in the world) is the Waihilau Falls with a sheer drop of 2,600 feet (792 m) into the Waimanu Valley on the eastern flank of the Big Island’s Kohala Volcano. Although we were not very far away from this valley when we stopped at the Waipi‘o Valley Lookout it is not obvious that the whole fall could be visible from any trails and it might require a helicopter tour to see this dramatic feature in the area that is considered to be the spiritual heartland of ancient Hawai‘i. Ancient Hawaiian villages thrived in the Waipi‘o Valley until they were destroyed and the agricultural fields and ponds were contaminated by salt during the two large tsunamis in the early and mid-20th century. We declined the opportunity to take a guided tour in a four-wheel drive vehicle down the steep roads into the privately owned valley.
The Waipi‘o Valley is at the south end of the 12 to 13 mile wide (19 – 21 km) scar where the massive Pololu Landslide 250,000 years ago sent debris 80 miles (130 km) into the ocean. The following day, Nancy and I drove to the north end of the area to hike down to the beach at Pololu Valley. The steep zig-zag path and beach were surprisingly busy but it was another gloriously sunny day with the blue ocean and receding series of cliffs shown-off to dramatic effect. The southwesterly wind picked-up during the morning and after it threated to snatch away the sandwiches that we were eating at an out-door café in Hawi, we started to view it with some concern on the drive back to Honokohau.
Particularly where the wind was whistling into the Waimea valley, between Kohala and Muana Kea, the sea appeared to be whipped into a white-streaked frenzy which made us a bit anxious about the comfort of Randall and Jere who had chosen that morning to go out on a commercial sport-fishing boat before the swells became too high. As it happened, we returned to Honokohau just as their “Bite-Me” charter boat had pulled-up to the dock and started to unload their catch.
Randall and Jere had been all excited about this expedition (neither Nancy nor I had much interest and I could do little with my bandaged thumb) and they had sensibly both taken anti-sea-sickness pills so were in good spirits despite the rough conditions. There had been six passengers on the charter (three other men and one woman), a captain (Chad), and deck-hand (the captain’s dad). There were five numbered reels and every half-hour the passengers rotated who was responsible for which reel and who had a period off. By this method it was complete chance as to who got to reel-in any fish.
Randall and Jere were keen to learn all about the charter business and local fishing techniques so the first three of the four-hours of the charter passed fairly quickly. Fishing primarily for blue marlin, they trolled their lines about 4 miles (7 km) off-shore where the water depth was 6,000 ft (1,830 m). After seeing little activity other than the other milling charter boats, they eventually spotted some seabirds and dolphins which are often indicators of schools of feeding tuna. Almost immediately two reels started to scream and although the bite on one was only temporary, the other was a good hook-up and Bernie was called to be strapped into the fighting chair. It took him about 20 minutes to reel-in in the fish and once the heavy-duty leader was at the boat’s stern, Chad and his dad both gaffed it and hauled the large yellow-fin tuna aboard.
Although Jere was initially disappointed that only one person had been able to work the reel, once it became apparent that Bernie was willing to share the catch and they could easily have returned with no bites at all, he soon cheered up. By the time Nancy and I arrived, the fish had been hung up at the Bite-Me Restaurant and it weighed at a respectable 117 lbs (53 kg). Numerous photos were taken of the fish and charter participants and we then got to request how much fish we wanted. Since there were four of us and we were not staying in a hotel, we asked for the most, 10 lbs (4.5 kg) which was available in two full zip-loc bags an hour later. Because Bernie could not take the fish home, he was having the restaurant cook up his share into a meal and what the passengers did not take was added to the restaurant’s menu or was sold in their fish-shop. With ahi selling there for $19 per lb, we were very satisfied with our share and we ate delicious raw and cooked tuna for most of the rest of the week. It was a real treat and even though the pepper-encrusted, pan seared tuna steaks that Jere cooked the first night were so peppery that the rest of us had to evacuate the cabin due to the choking fumes from the frying pan, they tasted spectacular not only for dinner but sliced on salad for lunch the next day.
As predicted the swell was quite impressive by Wednesday with surf crashing ashore on “our” beach and occasional waves almost breaking all the way across the narrow harbor entrance. Although the harbor was not closed-out (as happens when swells are big enough to break all the way in or might ground a boat between crests) only a few hardy dive-boats left that day and virtually no fishing boats. The US Army Corps of Engineers apparently constructed the harbor entrance fairly well because the waves did not directly pass the double right-angle bends into the inner harbor. Some surge did penetrate the first bend to reach us in the outer harbor so using the jib-sheet winches we hauled Tregoning back away from the dock towards the stern mooring-ball. We had also attached to our bow the chains and heavy dock lines that Lurline had left onshore and these were heavy enough to smooth out much of the surging motion.
Despite these precautions, Randall decided to stay onboard while the rest of us went to explore some local sights. Nancy was keen to tour a coffee plantation but irritatingly the first place that we visited in the town of Captain Cook was not offering tours despite their online advertising. Instead, we did a bit of shopping in Kailua Kona and Nancy soon found herself deep in conversation with a couple of salespeople about the Kona Ironman, a brutal triathlon that is held in mid-October. Although Nancy had no aspirations about completing an Ironman (the Kona is: 2.4 miles swim – 3.86 km; 112 miles bicycling – 180 km; 26.2 miles marathon run – 42.2 km) she was fascinated by the event and quickly formulated a new goal for her bucket-list (things to do before you die) to swim, cycle, and run on parts of the Kona Ironman course. Jere then discovered that we could rent an out-rigger canoe and be taken on an historical tour of Kailua Kona Bay and our plans for Friday were soon formulated.
We returned to Tregoning for lunch, just in time to see that while she was all right the chain had broken connecting the mooring lines to the stern ball of the neighboring cruising yacht, Seatime. Randall heard the crew of the nearby diving boat exclaim when they saw the yacht’s stern suddenly swing towards the large motor cruiser on the other side from Tregoning. The divers were very conscientious and in addition to holding Seatime off its neighbor, they figured out what had happened and with one person in the water they rigged up some new mooring lines to attach to the ball. It was very encouraging to see fellow harbor-users quickly taking care of an unoccupied boat.
Meanwhile someone had called Peter and Margarita, the German owners of Seatime, and they arrived back from town on their bicycles just as the divers had finished. They were very grateful and spent the rest of the afternoon checking and retying lines. Compared to ours, their slip was poorly maintained on shore and their boat had to jerk around in the surge without the benefit of the chained lines that we had at our bow. Still, it was not very reassuring that part of the mooring chain broke so we were very glad that Randall had been willing to stay on Tregoning during the worst of the surging.
Once this excitement was over, Jere, Nancy, and I drove inland, up the flanks of Hualalai Volcano, to the Mountain Thunder coffee plantation at 3,200 ft (975 m). Here we watched a series of videos (including an episode from the TV show “Dirty Jobs”) about the coffee plantation and then went on a complimentary tour which was pretty interesting even for a non-coffee drinker like me. We learned about: the organic fertilization; hand-picking techniques used in Kona; sorting of the cherries (name for the red, ripe fruit); seed extraction (usually two seeds per fruit but if there is only one they are called “peas” and are sought for more concentrated flavor); seed drying in the sun; removal of the “paper” skin surrounding the seeds; grading the seeds on vibrating, gravity-based sorting-boards; and finally roasting the seeds to perfection. All the employees we saw had bulging biceps from hauling the sacks of beans and our otherwise slender guide was no exception. She was also drinking black coffee (adding milk or cream is considered sacrilegious) and her highly animated state with, as Jere learned, little tolerance for interruption of her discourse by questions, was perhaps a good illustration of the effects of caffeine. Actually, Kona coffee is supposed to have only half the amount of caffeine that is found in other coffees, at least assuming it is 100% Kona coffee. Blends with at least 10% Kona beans can be marketed as Kona coffee (although the percentage must be noted) but our guide was suitably disparaging of the quality of such impostors.
Needless to say, the tour ended in the gift shop and Jere did his duty by buying some expensive organic coffee and some chocolate-covered coffee beans. By odd coincidence, while we were waiting for our tour to begin a private tour was ending and I noticed that the participants were wearing name-badges for the Weed Science Society of America conference which was taking place at the Hilton Waikoloa Village Hotel. Not only did Randall and I occasionally to go to these conferences but for three years I was on the society’s board of directors. Initially I did not recognize anyone on this particular field-trip but just before they left I saw an old friend from Europe on their bus. I decided not to complicate matters by trying to catch Marija’s eye but it was a bit surreal to see someone from my professional past during a chance path-crossing at a coffee plantation in the middle of the Pacific.
By Thursday the swell and surges had diminished sufficiently that Randall felt comfortable joining us for a day at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. We were treated to splendid weather and although it was fairly cool at 4,078 feet (1,243 m) we all enjoyed views of the steaming Kilauea Caldera, the Jagger Museum, the main Visitor Center, and Jere, Nancy and I had a good stroll along the Steaming Bluff. After a quick lunch in Volcano Village we drove down the Chain of Craters Road to the Holei Sea Arch and lava-covered end of the road. We stopped to peer into a couple of craters on the return drive as well join the parade through the popular Thurston lava tunnel. The “natural” park experience was somewhat modified by the presence of machines laying new road surfaces at several locations but the work has to be done sometime and the delays, noise, and dust were kept to a minimum. We were glad at the end of the 100 mile (160 km) return drive around the south end of the island to find that the swell had further decreased and all was well with Tregoning and Seatime.
While most people would have felt fairly worn-out by this busy schedule, Jere and particularly Nancy were full of vigor on Friday morning with the prospect of paddling an out-rigger canoe and swimming on part of the Kona Ironman course. Randall joined the paddling team while I got to ride along with my right hand strapped in a plastic glove. Our canoe and organizing team were ready and waiting for us by the King Kamehmeha Hotel at 9 am but our guide, the 80-year old Jesse, thought that we were going out at 10 am. After a rather late start, however, he cheerfully greeted us and steered us around the bay, pausing at regular intervals to talk about the history of the island and local community. With Jesse at the stern it was not always easy for Jere and I in the front two seats to hear him, especially when we floated near a noisy blowhole on the rocky shoreline. But as if to compensate for this problem, we were almost immediately distracted by humpback whales (an adult and a calf) that spent half an hour or so surfacing and diving just a few hundred yards off-shore. Some paddle-boarders were taking photos nearby and many people were enjoying the view from the town dock so there was something particularly tender about all of us focusing so passively on these massive mammals.
The sea and wind that had been so uninviting when we had booked the tour on Wednesday, had calmed down beautifully and Kailua Kona with its Hulihe‘e Palace and early missionary church looked particularly attractive from the sea. While the others had to concentrate on their paddling, I was able to gaze overboard at the reef-fish and coral clearly visible beneath us. At the end of our tour when we returned to the small Ahu‘ena Heiau on the point of land just in front of the King Kamehameha Hotel, Jesse explained that he was a direct descendant of the King. We felt privileged to have been paddling with someone who had such close connections to the history of this area, where the King had once lived.
While I watched their bags, the other three set off to swim varying distances along the Ironman course. There were a just few other people swimming and snorkeling in the marked area, off the small beach just south of the town dock, so it was difficult to imagine the chaos that must accompany the start of the Kona Ironman when about 1,800 competitors try to take-off all at once. Not only do life-guards watch from the surface to check that no one gets into trouble but scuba-divers sit at the bottom during the start to make sure that no one is knocked-out or pushed-under by the mob.
On Saturday morning, to complete her personal homage to the Ironman, Nancy and I cycled for half an hour and then ran for half an hour from the harbor and out onto the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway, along which both the cycling and marathon courses pass. This accomplished, Nancy then joined Jere and Randall for a final snorkel at “our” beach. This completed their action-packed week in Kona and after lunch at the Harbor House Restaurant we dropped them off at the airport for their return flights to Honolulu and then on to Gainesville. It had been a fun week and Jere and Nancy were almost delirious about all the things that they had accomplished including several items from their bucket-lists. Their generosity and enthusiasm had also encouraged us to do some things that we would not have otherwise undertaken so we felt rewarded…and not a little exhausted. We did not do much for the rest of Saturday and were very thankful on Sunday when Steve and Cheryl invited us over for the afternoon and dinner at the mansion where they were house-sitting. In addition to spending an enjoyably relaxing time with them, we ran several loads of laundry, sparing me a long trip to the Laundromat. Ah, the simple pleasures of life on land.